As a radio reporter, I had to record my phone interviews. When I started print reporting, I tried just taking notes, and then went back to recording. Ultimately, I found that recording phone interviews helps me:
• get quotes exactly right
• focus on the interview
• ignore note-taking mechanics, and
• avoid those awkward moments when interviewees notice my typing or, worse, that I haven’t taken notes on something they think is important.
So now I record every interview even if I’m sure I’m not going to use it for a radio piece or a podcast.
Essential to my phone-recording practices:
Obey the law. The law (2018 update — as of 2014, this website is no longer being updated, but the information within it, including references to state legal codes, is still useful) varies by state and country, but in the United States you are pretty much in the clear if everyone knows you are recording. Consent has its limits, of course, so I read The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press guide anytime I have a question. If that guide doesn’t answer my question, then it’s time for an attorney. I also always tell interviewees I don’t do “gotcha journalism” and explain that a significant pause to think about an answer is perfectly acceptable. Finally, when I start the recording, I ask the interviewee to introduce him/herself and to state that they know they are being recorded so I have a recording of the interviewee’s consent.
Record it Yourself. There are a number of online services that offer to record your phone interviews for you. Some of these services require all parties to dial the same number. Others require that you have three-way calling capacity and so you briefly put your interviewee on hold while you dial the service number. Still others allow you to record every conversation to/from your phone number(s) without even requiring you to do anything but register. All of these services may be extremely useful, but read the small print: I have yet to find a service that will guarantee the recording is made and intelligible. That’s why I always record it myself.
Listen through your recorder. The only way to be sure you’re getting the recording is if you are listening to the recording through the recorder itself. This means having headphones plugged in to the headphone jack of your recorder, whether it’s a handheld device or computer. An in-ear gadget like the Olympus TP-8 allows you to capture both sides of a phone conversation, but it does not let you hear what the recorder is recording because it is plugged into the microphone jack. Only by plugging in headphones into the headphone jack can you hear what the recorder is actually capturing. I use Sony MDR-7506 earphones whenever I can, but smaller, in-ear noise-isolating headphones such as the Etymotic hf5 are great, too.
Save as you go. Whatever recording setup you use, always save as you record. Devices or software that save once you stop recording are useless if, say, a power outage happens mid-interview. Minidisc devices did this, and when they became obsolete, I celebrated by giving mine away and buying a “flash-media” based recorder (a Sony ICD-SX700, no longer available, but there are many such recorders on the market). Still, today many computers and software programs are like those old Minidisc recorders (i.e., recording to a spinning disc, such as a hard drive), useless in terms of saving your recording if there is a mid-interview power interruption or crash. So, if you record via Skype with a plug-in software program, then you can still be sure to save as you go by attaching a handheld flash-media recorder to your computer. In the end, you may have two recordings, but if the power goes out mid-interview, at least you’ll have one up until the power went out. You can always delete the duplicate.
Know your equipment. Whichever recording setup you choose, read the manual(s). I like to experiment and play with equipment, but I always read the manual after doing so. That’s because a few painful experiences have taught me that without a thorough knowledge of my equipment I might conclude an interview without a recording or capture one that is completely useless. As of the time of this writing, my 5-year-old Sony ICD-SX700 still records about 90 minutes on the radio-quality setting (44.1KHz, 16-bit), but I know that changing it to the highest compression setting (for a non-radio interview) is meaningless without a spare set of batteries: it will record in a mp3 format for dozens of hours longer than the batteries last.
If it works, stick with it. There’s always a new recording gadget, software program, and app coming on the market, with plenty of marketing dollars spent on convincing you that you have to have it. I’m constantly tempted and often succumb, buying back-ups to my back-ups. But I’ve returned a lot of it and still go with much of the same equipment I’ve used for years:
- any phone: Olympus TP-8 (backup)
- land-line: THAT-2 (radio quality), Mini Recorder Control (backup — 2018 update: no longer available)
- mobile phone: Cell Tap (radio quality with sufficient signal)
- preferred: Skype/Call Recorder (radio quality with sufficient bandwidth)
- flash-based handheld for phone recordings: Sony ICD-SX700 (2018 update: no longer available, see below for new backup device that is also mobile)
In this preference for the tried-and-true, it appears I’m not alone: the radio people who run Transom and the Media Bistro folks who oversee the 10,000 Words (2018 update — blog post no longer available) blog haven’t updated their how-tos for telephone recording since 2009. Having had a peek at the initial results from our 2013 recording survey (2018 update — link no longer available, but see below for a summary of the results) the only post-2009 equipment that has much popular support is the LiveScribe (2018 — updated link to latest “Amazon Choice”) pen and PearNote software (for Mac), but neither of those are made for recording from the phone (there are work-arounds, but they are a bit complicated). Sure, I’d much rather conduct my interviews in person. But with more and more of my work done remotely, recording my phone interviews and sticking with what works gives me the peace of mind to focus on the interview rather than on the equipment.
*-*-*-*-*Summary of the 2013 recording survey (from a post by Sarah Webb no longer available as of 2018):
“Just under 70 percent of you record phone interviews. Twenty-three percent of you use recording apps on your smartphones or computers. The rest use some sort of recording gadget plugged into a recorder and some type of phone.”
“More than 40 percent of you still use landlines. Roughly 30 percent use Skype or VOIP on computers, followed by 20 percent who use their cell phones.”
“And the most important tip for recording? Whatever tech you’re using, make sure you have enough power and that you turn the recorder on.”
*-*-*-*-*2015 update (posted 2018 and taken from a 2015 reply to a question in the comments from the original post)
1) I’ve upgraded to CellTap 4C — by JK Audio. It separates left-right channels (you/caller) and so enables better recording from a mobile phone (or any phone with a similar mini-jack).
2) I’ve also stopped relying on Call Recorder by Ecamm and now instead use Hindenburg Journalist Pro, which integrates with Skype (Update, 2018: Hindenburg keeps a list of Skype workarounds, too) and allows you to record yourself and the caller in different channels. At first blush, it’s too expensive for the non-audio producer, but well worth it for me as I basically got rid of three programs (an audio editor, a mixing editor, and Call Recorder) and got a full solution for doing everything I need to do with audio — saving me a lot of time with every project. My latest project, for example, relies exclusively on Hindenburg Journalist Pro to produce the audio files: http://www.TheConjectural.com.
All that said, I still listen through the recorder and always have an external recorder going (never relying just on the computer).
First, some housekeeping. I have checked or updated links to original post, all of which are still relevant except for one: if you use a land-line phone jack, this gadget from RadioShack (a little different from the “Mini Recorder Control,” which no longer appears to be available) is likely still to be a good backup if you don’t want to get a THAT-2.
For my flash-based handheld for phone recordings, I now primarily use… another phone. I got an iPhone SE partly for the purpose of doing photos, video, and recordings. The power of it as a small, lightweight mobile studio is sufficient for my purposes, and applications like Filmic Pro (for video) and the field recording version of Hindenburg Pro lets you start mobile and refine on the laptop/desktop. So yes, I record straight to the Hindenburg Journalist Pro application on my computer, but I also record a backup — listening through the iPhone — straight into to the field recording app (which I use as well for actual field recording, too). Apple has since (very recently) discontinued the iPhoneSE, and the gadget (made by IK Multimedia) I use to get analog sound into a modern iPhone/iPad is no longer available either. But IK Multimedia has upgraded it to this one, iRig Pro I/O, which takes a variety of inputs and converts it digitally straight into the iPhone’s proprietary plug (or to USB!), so you can use this gadget with most any computer, any iPad or modern iPhone, too (and yes, you can use the field-recording version of Hindenburg Pro on a iPad — and I have, too).
Lastly, I’ve recently invested in a 2nd generation Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 as a kind of replacement for my Blue Yeti Pro (USB only version) that died after nearly a decade of use. This box-shaped USB-powered device enables me to use my non-USB (and generally higher-quality) microphones with any USB-ported computer, making it possible to do high-quality phone interviews (and capturing my side in near studio-quality) most anywhere I am, but without the impracticality of having to lug along an awkwardly shaped, single-purpose, fragile, USB-only mic.