Life and Times of a Chase Producer

I just started doing some freelancing again, pitching story by story. Who I am working with will be revealed in due course once the first new story is published. (Promise! I’ll post it here).

As I wait for phone calls from potential people to interview, I am thinking back to my chase producing experiences at the CBC. I always try to go back to the methods I developed while I was there to keep my productivity up as a freelancer. It was a time when the expectations were high, and the pace somewhat crazy. The things I learned at CBC have helped me support my growth as a journalist. Here’s what I did and what I learned in that intense time.

The example I am using here is from the time when I was chase producing for a regional current affairs program, similar to the local shows you’d hear from your local CBC stations in the morning, at noon or the 4-6 slot. Those shows are a mix of interviews, music, news and weather reports. Most of the interviews were 6-7 minutes long and we usually had 4 interviews in the course of an hour.

Here is the way my day would unfold:

8:30 – story meeting with the producer, the program host and the researchers and associate producers – 5 new story pitches were expected each day from each of us. So I constantly had to be on the lookout for good stories. Usually two or three of those five were chosen as topics to ‘chase’ (hence the term ‘chase producer’). They wouldn’t all have to be for the next day’s show — the producer would designate which ones he wanted for which days. Sometimes they were for the next day. And, if there is a very time sensitive story, it might even have to go in today’s show two hours later. And, sometimes the stories just didn’t pan out. C’est la vie. If I stick to this plan, my success record was pretty good.

9:00 – 3:00 The chase begins. My time was mostly spent doing research to determine the most suitable guests, including phone numbers. Potential guests would be phoned to check out their suitability and availability to appear on the show. Lots of waiting around for phone calls to be returned. If the potential guests didn’t call back, I’d call the next suitable person on the list.

In between waiting for phone calls, I developed story ideas and did research for new ideas to be presented at the next day’s story meeting. The show was mostly comprised of single interviews, so I was generally looking for one guest per story.

So I phoned. And emailed. And phoned and emailed. Rinse and repeat. Some days were easier than others. Vacation time, like March break and Christmas, made it harder to book guests. If it looked like a story I’d been assigned wasn’t going to come in for the next day’s show, I talked to my producer to let him know we needed to change course. If a story wasn’t coming together by 3:00, I usually quit chasing it and focused on something that looked more likely.

Generally, it was expected that at least one story I was working on for the next day would pan out. Many days I had two stories ready to go (which, if we already had enough for the next day’s show, the extra one could usually be scheduled for the day-after-tomorrow show). If the stories were fairly easy, I could do three a day. But that didn’t happen too often. On days when I was working on subjects that were more complex, I only did one.

The bottom line was — an occasional day when a producer didn’t have a story for the next day was generally acceptable. But it better not happen too often. That’s why was always a good idea to have extra stories my back pocket almost ready to go. (I remember one memorable days when somebody else’s guest bailed fifteen minutes to air time. The producer dropped a 15 minute interview on my desk on a reel of tape and told me to find a good 5 minutes and have it ready in 20 minutes to go to air. I did it. I’m proud of that.)

3:00 – With my guests confirmed for the next day, the last part of the day was spent preparing background notes, scripts and questions for the host. Do you ever wonder how a program host is able to know so much about so many things and sound so relaxed with all the people they’re interviewing? Most of the time, the research staff has prepared the materials for them. The host uses the materials prepared by the production crew as the roadmap for the interview. The background notes gives the host the larger context so they can make the interview their own. If, for example, the host gets caught in traffic and show up late, they’ll still sound totally in control of the materials as though they did the whole story themselves.

5:00 And then I went home, still looking for story ideas all the way home. And the next day it started all over again.

And now, in my freelance practice, I try to keep the same flow. The key is to be working on several things at once. Keeping new ideas flowing, trying to stick to deadlines, but understanding that things don’t always pan out. But, always having another story in the wings so everything doesn’t come to a grinding halt.

This was from a time before there was social media. My rhythms are slightly different now but basically the same. The secret to success is having more ideas than I can use in various stages of readiness. And that way, I stay on top of things without panicking about the prospect of dead air.


Do Ideas Have Seasons?

Spring still feels like a ways away at my home about 3 hours north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The snow is still piled up outside, though there is less of it than in previous years. My icy driveway reduces my urge to go anywhere — nice though the thought is, the thought of spinning my tires on the ice while my car says “not going anywhere” increases my inertia.

So it still looks like winter still has me in its grip. And yet …

When I go out for a walk now, I hear the birds getting livelier. The sound of the melting snow and ice dripping down the side of the house catches my ear with a tonal palette of rhythms and textures (time to get out my audio recorder … there is good music there). And my mind wanders to the story ideas I’ve put on my internal bookshelf and thinks of new ones.

There aren’t a lot of ideas yet. Like the eavestroughs dripping, my ideas drip out slowly …. but constantly nonetheless, I have to remind myself.

As I wander around outside, carefully and slowly so I don’t slip on the ever-present and treacherous ice, I think of the seasons of my creativity. I tend to get anxious when ideas don’t come in a steady stream. Is this it? I ask myself all too frequently. Have the ideas stopped?

It takes a fair bit of presence and focused attention on my own thought process to remind myself that this is the way it has always been. Creativity and receptiveness have seasons, just like the earth does.

It doesn’t take much imagination to hear my tulips and daffodils gathering the energy in their bulbs to begin their slow launch of their first shoots. They’re getting ready.

And so am I. And I hope, so are you.

Save the Date – Word Out! Media Skills for Writers and Creatives – March 25, 2023

I am delighted to announce that Word UP, a writers organization in Barrie, Ontario, has asked me to do a workshop for them on March 25, 2023, via Zoom from 10 am – 3 pm.

Learn Critical Media Skills that help you manage:

  1. Social media – define your social media goals so you focus your message to your ideal audience. We’ll discuss which platforms to choose and how writers and creatives are using social media in innovative ways
  2. Creating an online press kit – We’ll talk about the role of websites in a social media dominated era and how planning a social media content schedule that tracks your accounts can help you.  
  3. Legacy media – Why is print, radio and TV still important? What traditional media organizations are covering literary and art information?  How the gate keeping process works in traditional media organizations, how to get your info to the right people.
  4. Writing a press release – Get attention that works to your agenda. Samples from Word Up and others shared as examples.
  5. Podcasts, blogs and influencers – Why they are an important part of your marketing plan, how to connect with them to guest on their platforms. How and why to choose these platforms to grow your list.
  6. Tools of the trade – Discover what microphones, apps and equipment you need and may already have, to get started.

The First 9 to Register have the opportunity at first choice to have voice work critiqued. Registration is only $10, thanks to funding received by Word Up!

To register, go to the Word Up! website here

Do You Need a Transcript?

I have had many lively discussions with audio and video producers about how much text to write as an accompaniment to their productions.

On the two ends of the spectrum are: a) people who believe it’s totally superfluous at best, and at worst, their audience won’t watch or listen if they can get the same info by reading. And b) those people who believe a word for word transcript is necessary.

My own philosophy is somewhere in the middle. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue:

The case for transcripts – I agree with the “B” camp people because I believe that one of the strengths of the internet is that we can get the story in different formats, so why not reversion the content so that people can experience your content in the format that is best suited to their situation? There are also very good reasons to do this to make the content as accessible as possible to the greatest number of people. If, for example, you’re doing a podcast, it wouldn’t be available to people with a hearing disability, so the transcript is necessary for them to experience your content.

The other reason is that a transcript online will make your content more discoverable. Video and audio is not searchable, at least not yet. A written transcript increases the chance that a person who is randomly searching on a particular topic will find your content.

And on a very pragmatic level, not everybody wants to use up valuable bandwidth watching a video or listening to audio. In Canada, the place where I live, data plans on phones are expensive compared to the rest of the world. And in a rural area, also where I live, internet can be slow and expensive even if you’re watching or listening on your computer. There are many times when I go to a news site, see a story and don’t want to invest the time or use bandwidth to watch. So a text summary is really important in that circumstance.

The case against transcripts – I have some empathy with the people in the “A”camp. I have a friend who occasionally receives messages from people telling him they love his stories. When he writes them back, he often asks them if they’ve heard the podcast, and they haven’t. This particular friend is a highly accomplished audio storyteller who would much rather have people listen than read. I’m the same way — when I do a sound production, it’s not just about the words. It’s about intonation. It’s about intentionally crafted sound design. Video producers are the same — the images and sounds are an integral part of the process. So by only reading the content, a lot of the impact is lost. We are proud of our work and want people to enjoy the totally of the experience.

And, writing a transcript is a lot of work. There are some good transcription programs out there to do a lot of the work automagically, but even so, they require a lot of editing.

My compromise – I do see the value in transcribing a production for the reasons I’ve outlined above. I’ll probably start doing that more often now that the transcription tools are out there so I don’t have to do it by hand every time. Generally, though, my compromise position is a short summary which accompanies each production. It’s more than a headline but less than a full verbatim recap of the content. What I aim for is a summary between 250 and 500 words which tells the story in an abbreviated fashion.

That way, the casual browser who only wants to get the essence of the story will have all the necessary info. And hopefully, it will entice them to listen or watch the entire program. Because, like my friend I wrote about above, I want them to enjoy the whole experience that goes beyond the literal text.

Our new logo!

HSS LOGO colour testBig thanks to Kate Romain for our new House of Sound and Story logo!

She captured the mood beautifully. What I wanted was a relaxed little cottage where books are read and also connecting with listeners.

I know it’s the age of the internet and there are ways to connect other than radio transmitters. I am very sentimental about radio, because of all the radio studios I’ve worked in over the years doing stories for the airwaves. Hence the transmitter.

Airwaves, fibre optic or through your cell phone, whatever it takes to get the story from my imagination to your ears! (And I still do radio!)

Podcast Listenership Is Up Drastically!

This is music to my ears.  This news comes from a whole bunch of different sources, including the esteemed Edison Podcast Consumer Report, which they’ve done yearly since way before most people didn’t know what podcasting was.  At first, it was only Edison reporting on who was listening, but now it’s the same news from many different sources.  So we know.  Podcasting is a thing.

I started my first podcast back in 2005, way before there was Itunes or even an Iphone.  In those early days, I had to explain constantly what a podcast was.  Trying to download a podcast was really tricky because there wasn’t much development yet on the delivery side of things.  I am so glad that podcasting is now something that isn’t unusual.  And that it’s easy to listen. Even my 85 year old mother knows what a podcast is. Progress.

Today’s bit of reassurance that indeed podcasting is growing comes from a relatively new online magazine called Podcast Business Journal.  When I first found that this publication exists, it was a sign that yes, indeed, podcasting is growing.  We can now say that podcasting is a real business. Unlike in the early days when it was a hobby.  Now it can be a hobby, a business or a combination of the two.

The article is called Podcasting Listening Up Drastically!  Yay!

Radio drama for fun!

For a long time I’ve thought “wouldn’t it be fun to do radio dramas?”

So I’m organizing a meetup. We’ll read through a couple of old time radio scripts, drink coffee or beer and have a good time.

Location: TLC Bistro, 41 Maple Ave, Barrie Ontario
Date and Time: Saturday January 20th, 3:00 – 5:00 pm

No registration fee. This is just for fun. But bring money for snacks or drinks.

You don’t have to be a performer. You can be part of the audience.

If you want to be a participant, contact me and I’ll let you know what scripts we’re using so you can print them out. And practise if you want.


Seeing Sound – Creating Soundtracks for Video

I’ve been working on a project for the past year or so called Seeing Sound. I’ve been creating innovative soundscapes now for a long time.  My pieces are featured in sound art festivals, on the radio and various places on the internet.

EPSON DSC picture

I’ve been thinking about all the film festivals out there.  I’ve watched the growth of Youtube. And I’ve been wondering how to get my productions into art galleries.  And I am always surprised when people say that they’re uncomfortable just listening to something for 5-10 minutes and having nothing to focus on visually. What I realized that I needed to do was work out a way to add images to my sound pieces.

The challenge is that I need to find images that support the sound I’ve created.  For me, the sound composition comes first.  It’s the opposite with a lot of video producers I know. They start with the picture and add the sound afterwards.  I also want a balance between the visuals and the sound so that no element dominates (oh alright .. I admit it. I want them to walk out saying “Wow. That sound was amazing.”)  I want them to like the images but I want them to love the sound story.

So my challenge is, how to create a visual element in a way that the pictures support the sound. The images can’t dominate, but they need to be striking, compelling and the kind that people remember.  And strong from a technical perspective.

Fortunately, I have an excellent video artist and photographer working with me.  Stefan Rose, I’m so glad you’re with me on this journey.  And thanks to the Ontario Arts Council  Media Arts Section for providing the funding for this project.

Here is the first of the three pieces I am working with — it’s called No Time for Silence, composed for CBC Radio in 2001. It’s about the contrast between the natural rhythms of life, and the forced un-natural rhythms we march to in so much of our daily life.

I’ve been recording conversations with Stefan and I about the process of marrying images with sound.  I’ll share those in upcoming weeks too, along with the two other pieces we’re working with.

Image: Barry Rueger. 2003.


Music Use and Podcasting


I work with a lot of podcast and video producers who ask me the same question:  “Can I use music in my production?”

Simple answer:  Yes.  More complicated answer:  it depends on the music you want to use.

Generally speaking, you can’t just take a CD from your collection and choose a track.  (I come from a radio background.  We could do it there because radio stations have complex agreements that have been negotiated with the rights holders of most music which is commercially available.  It was heaven.)

Podcasters and video producers do not have those blanket agreements.  So what you’d have to do is go to each publisher and each record label to get the rights for every track you want to use.

How feasible is this?  Short answer – not.   It’s likely going to be expensive and convoluted.  You are going to miss your deadline.

Unless … the music you want to use if from a small independently released CD.  The response time is usually much quicker, and they’re usually much more accommodating.

What I usually do is keep a library of independent music by musicians and publishers I know.  I never have any trouble getting the rights.  I usually offer to pay them a bit and they’re even happier.  (I am also fortunate to have an in-house music department — my partner Edward St. Moritz can usually be persuaded to play some music for me on guitar.  And you can hire him for a reasonable fee if you want – he’d be happy to talk to you.)

Other solutions — there are nice people out there who will let you use their music for free because they’re unselfish people who like to share.  Or don’t have to recoup their artistic investment because they already have a well paying job.  Google “Podsafe Music” to find who they are.  You will often see the words “Creative Commons” after their name. This spells out what you can and can’t use their music for. (Some are specific that you can use their music for commercial purposes, others say non commercial only. And other criteria which they spell out in the license.)

And, you can also google “Public Domain” for music and recordings that are not covered by copyright. That’s a whole other subject.  A good one though. But it’s also a bit complicated.  A subject for another post, it is.

If you want to know more, I found a really good (and every entertaining) article about podcasting and copyright here.   It’s by a legal firm in the States named David Lizerbram and Associates. It refers frequently to banging one’s head against your desk.  Music copyright is like that.

Note to Canadian podcasters:  Do not follow the advice on fair use/fair dealing.  It’s accurate for Americans, but this is Canada.  Fair use is different up here.

I’m off to bang my head against a wall some more now while I pick some new theme music.

Microphones for Video – Your Built in Camera Microphone

soccer-floodlight-768482_960_720Okay – I’ll bet you’re wondering.  If we’re talking about microphones, why do I have a picture of a bunch of dudes playing soccer under a floodlight?

One thing you’ll notice about me is that I love analogies.

Look at the floodlight. Your built in microphone on your camera is like that floodlight.  The light illuminates the field, but no particular element in particular.  You can see the people but they’re small.

Your camera’s built in microphone is equivalent to a floodlight.  It picks up everything.  Just like you can’t see the details of any of the guy’s jackets, your microphone won’t pick up what any of them are saying.

Omni directional microphones are good for ambient sound. Like for example, if you’re at a game and want the roaring of the crowd.  Although, just like you will see things better which are closer to the source of the beam, you will also hear things closer to your microphone too.  That loudmouth guy right in front of you?  You’ll hear him really well.

A lot of people use their built in microphones to record speeches and panel discussions.  That doesn’t work so well, unless you’re really, really close to the person who’s speaking (like, a foot away, which isn’t usually how you want to frame the picture).  The further you are from the person who is speaking, the fuzzier and softer the voice will get.

And, that person sitting right beside you who has a nasty cough?  Forget trying to hear the person on the podium.  All you’ll hear is the cough.  And, if you hand him a cough drop, you’ll get the sound of the candy being unwrapped. Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle.

But don’t get discouraged.  There are lots of different kinds of microphones you CAN use.

Coming up in our next episode — The Unidirectional Microphone.