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March 3, 2008

Filed under: journalism»communication

Record Time

Here's one of the things they don't tell you when you go to buy a cell phone: how easy it is to record calls. But for a journalist, that's really important. Not in a sinister sense, obviously. For interviews, you want a record for your notes, or sometimes to transcribe at least partially. I've been able to do a pretty good job in the past with just a pencil and paper in the past, but it requires a lot of concentration. Recording frees an interviewer up to pay more attention and work on followup.

A few weeks ago I bought a RAZR on eBay. I wanted a phone with a camera and Bluetooth, in case I saw something while I was out and didn't have my real digital camera. The phone has some good points, and some annoying features--its frustratingly terrible battery meter comes to mind. Still, I didn't think--until the other day, when I scheduled an interview for Ars--about how I was going to hook it into a recorder.

The RAZR doesn't have any kind of physical connection for a headset. It's all meant to be over Bluetooth, which is great for wearing one of those little earpieces that makes you look like a schizophrenic, but doesn't do me much good. In fact, it turns out, it's a total disaster.

Now the way I normally record phone calls is by using a $20 gadget that I bought from Radio Shack, which goes between the handset and the main unit. I always thought this was one of those things where I was just playing it by ear until I got to CQ and saw that everyone had exactly the same Radio Shack phone tap on their desks--if we're doing it wrong, we're all doing it wrong together. You can get something similar for cell phones, but they've got to have an earphone jack, which again, the RAZR doesn't.

So the interim solution was going to be to pair the laptop with the phone as a Bluetooth headset, then talk through the laptop using one of those cheap voicechat headsets, piggybacking on the soundcard to get my recording. Messy, laggy, and not incredibly confidence-inducing the way a hunk of wire would be, but I tested it at home and eventually got it to work.

Went to do the interview tonight, got everything paired, and: the sound would not go from my headset to the phone. I could hear everything, and the Windows mixer was seeing input. But it wasn't making it across the Bluetooth connection. Luckily, I was testing it with my voicemail instead of during the call, but since I really want to write this piece up as a transcript (or at least use extensive quotes), I had to call the interviewee and reschedule for a Skype session tomorrow night. I've recorded those in the past, and know that I can get it to work properly. Still, it's embarrassing and unprofessional to have to go there in the first place--not a high mark for my interview technique.

I don't know what you can learn from this, except A) Bluetooth continues to drive me crazy, B) always test your interviewing setup relentlessly, and C) sometimes there's just no replacement for a landline. But it is an educational experience: when I work on setting up multimedia opportunities for other reporters at CQ, I guarantee I'll be keeping this in mind. Is my solution reliable? Does it require a lot of setup or know-how? If not, I'll find some other way. It's easy to complain about luddite journalists, forgetting that they need to be able to capture moments with only a moment's thought in order to do their job.

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