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April 28 2011

16:30

Your handiest reporting tool may be the smartphone in your pocket

iPhone Voice Memos

Every journalist has found herself in some version of this situation: Bianca Vazquez Toness, a reporter for Boston’s WBUR public radio, drove about 40 minutes north of her office Tuesday to interview the controversial mayor of Lawrence, Mass. Only when she arrived did she realize she had forgotten her audio kit — recorder, microphone, cables, headphones, everything. Gah.

What she had brought with her, though, was her iPhone. She had no choice but to try using that to record or risk losing a big interview.

When I heard the piece that turned out on WBUR’s air the next morning, I had no idea — nor would I have believed — that a cellphone had captured the sound coming through my radio. Sure, I knew a phone could record sound, but not broadcast-quality sound.

Toness (a friend and former colleague) had ended up using a $30 app called Report-IT Live, which includes advanced tools for live broadcasting and phone interviews. Any software, including Apple’s free Voice Memos app, works just as well, however. To maximize the sound quality, she advised, don’t use the crummy mike built into the phone’s Apple-supplied earbuds, just the phone itself, and hold it close (very, very close) to the person talking.

During her interviews Tuesday, Toness was a professional using, essentially, amateur equipment. But it’s not hard to imagine an amateur journalist using the same equipment in the same way. The web turned everyone into writers; inexpensive SLRs and point-and-shoot digicams turned everyone into photographers. The smartphone “could be the technology that turns everyone into a radio reporter,” Toness told me. “All my colleagues now — they heard it, and they’re like, ‘Why do we carry these huge kits around?’”

Public radio people can be pretty snobby about audio quality — I can say that, having worked in public radio for five years — but, given the alternatives proliferating in the market, it’s getting harder to justify the expense and bulk of pro kits for field work. Judge the audio quality of Toness’ piece for yourself. And remember, as you close your eyes and turn up the volume in your noise-canceling headphones, that most listeners hear radio stories over a cheap FM set while making breakfast, getting the kids dressed, or driving to work. News producers may be snobby about sound quality, but consumers, generally, are anything but.

Toness is by no means the first reporter to experiment with smartphone-based reporting. A year ago, WTOP reporter Neal Augenstein packed away all of his equipment — laptop, recorder, cameras, and all — to become “the first major-market radio reporter to do all his field reporting on an iPhone.” Augenstein recently reported on his iPhone-only experience for PBS MediaShift (an account, for all you nerds, that’s chock full of equipment details):

A year in, iPhone-only reporting isn’t perfect. While audio editing works great, with the phone’s built-in microphone I’d estimate the sound quality of my field reports is 92% as good as when I use bulky broadcast equipment. Getting better audio for my video is a real challenge. And if I ever have to cover a story from a subway tunnel or location where there’s no WiFi or cell coverage, I won’t be able to file until I resurface.

Media Bistro’s 10,000 Words recently published its own guide to the art of iPhone reporting. There are some good tips — switch on Airplane Mode to avoid interruptions, buy an adapter to plug in a real microphone — but the best advice is this: “Look like a legit journalist.”

Jerome Hubbard, a UC Berkeley journalism student, took the legitimacy question to the street — using his iPhone to record the video, of course. Can a reporter armed only with a smartphone be taken seriously? Hubbard’s unscientific finding was “yes.”

Said one man on the street:

I would take you seriously, Jerome, because you approached me very professionally. You’re very polite, you’re very kind. You asked my permission. You look like the journalist type. And you’re using modern technology.

So maybe professionalism is derived from old-fashioned manners, not the gear you’re slinging. (What’s that saying, the best camera is the one that’s with you?) And, besides, freedom from bulky gadgets may actually make for a better interview. All that equipment can be a hindrance, especially among sources who aren’t used to being sources.

“I actually feel like people were less intimidated or distracted by it,” Toness said of her makeshift recording kit. “Also, I don’t look quite as conspicuous on the street, which I like.”

There is an intriguing possibility that the entire production process can be executed on the road. At WBUR, reporters typically bring their sound back to professional engineers, who mix finished pieces. Even that can be done on a phone now. A $10 app called Monle is a four-track, non-linear audio editor for iPhone. And as Josh noted last month, the iPad can also be an all-in-one field kit with Apple’s GarageBand. That $5 app includes a fast, dead-simple, eight-track editor. A reporter in the field could conceivably record her interviews and voice tracks, mix a piece and send it back home, shoot photos and video, and, perhaps with the aid of a Bluetooth keyboard, type and file a script — all on one device that weighs less than two pounds.

Toness used her personal phone for the interview, an iPhone 4, since WBUR supplies its employees with BlackBerry devices. And now that they’ve heard her Lawrence story, she says, her co-workers are a little envious. “My colleagues said, ‘OK, when are we getting iPhones?’”

April 04 2011

17:30

How One Radio Reporter Ditched His Equipment for an iPhone 4

It's been more than a year since I packed away my laptop computer, digital recorders, microphones, cables and cameras, and began covering Washington, D.C. with only my iPhone.



When I first came to the top-rated all-news WTOP in 1997, the bag phone I carried weighed as much as a bowling ball. Reel-to-reel tape recorders (ask your parents) were the newsroom staple, but early versions of Cool Edit audio editing software signaled that the times, they were a-changin'.



key accessories.JPG

As cell phones became smaller, and laptops more prevalent, radio reporters could finally produce studio-quality reports in the field, and email them to the newsroom. But that involved schlepping, booting, connecting, dubbing, and a lot of waiting.


Now, with the Apple iPhone 4 and several apps, I can produce intricate audio and video reports, broadcast live, take and edit photos, write web content and distribute it through social media from a single device.

How It's Done

With the VC Audio Pro app from VeriCorder, I can quickly pull cuts, edit and assemble audio wraps, and adjust volumes on a three-track screen similar to the popular Adobe Audition used in many newsrooms. The amount of time saved by not having to boot up the laptop and transfer audio has been my single greatest workflow improvement. The finished report that used to take 30 minutes to produce and transmit can now be done in 10. Here's a rundown of all the key ways I use my iPhone:

Audio capture

When I started my iPhone-only reporting on a 3Gs, I was pleased with the Blue Microphone Mikey. The small microphone connects to the charging port of the iPhone and iPod. Mikey provided nice bass response, but when Apple iPhone 4 was introduced, Mikey was no longer compatible. I tested several compact microphones, but all sounded thin and hissy. Currently I'm using the built-in microphone of the iPhone and am satisfied with the sound quality. The iPhone is very susceptible to wind.

Video capture

For video, VC 1stVideo has many of the same features as its audio cousin. It provides two HD video tracks and two audio tracks. The iPhone's built-in microphone points away from the subject being interviewed. I've experimented with the JK Audio BlueDriver-F3. It's a Bluetooth unit that allows a broadcast microphone to pair with the iPhone. It's expensive (more than $200), and while it does allow the mic to transmit to the phone, it doesn't mute the iPhone's built-in microphone. So, currently the only way to get good audio with video is to use an XLR adapter cable.

Photography

With photos, the ability to quickly snap, edit and transmit photos to wtop.com from the same device is causing me to rethink my newsgathering workflow. In years past my first priority at a breaking news scene was to gather audio. Now, I find myself taking a few pictures first. While dozens of photo apps are available, I use the iPhone 4's built-in camera. For editing, I select the photo from Camera Roll, re-frame, then take a screenshot of the cropped image by simultaneously touching the sleep/wake button on the top of the phone and the Home button. It's then ready to be emailed.

Mobile VoIP

For live reports, I've experimented with two mobile voice-over-IP (VoIP) apps -- Report-IT Live and Media5-fone. Each requires a receiver in the newsroom that costs several thousand dollars. I haven't been satisfied with the stability of either, and have decided it's too risky to use for a live report, so will usually pre-feed a pre-recorded spot. Skype -- especially in a WiFi hotspot -- provides a free live alternative that often sounds as good as the pricy apps.

Twitter

Twitter is complementing and redefining my on-air and website reporting. I'll often break stories on Twitter, and follow-up with audio and website reports. Tweeting pictures and video has a faster upload time than emailing, so often the website will capture tweeted elements for inclusion on wtop.com. I'm very happy with the free version from Twitter Inc. My backup is TwitVid.

iPad + accessories


These days I also carry an iPad to take notes, while my iPhone is on a podium during a news conference. Before that, I liked the Apple Wireless Keyboard, which paired easily with the phone.

mic clip iphone.JPG

In attempting to reduce my load, I carry a few accessories. Because nobody makes a microphone clip for the iPhone, I jury-rigged one by super-gluing thin foam to a standard clip, which holds the phone snugly while preventing scratching. I also just purchased the Joby Gorilla for iPhone 4, which can be wrapped around other microphones on a podium.

Conclusion

So is it worth it? A year in, iPhone-only reporting isn't perfect. While audio editing works great, with the phone's built-in microphone I'd estimate the sound quality of my field reports is 92% as good as when I use bulky broadcast equipment. Getting better audio for my video is a real challenge. And if I ever have to cover a story from a subway tunnel or location where there's no WiFi or cell coverage, I won't be able to file until I resurface.


As digital equipment continues to morph I'm sure my tools will be substantially different within a few years. Every day, new applications open new opportunities for a reporter who's willing to work around the limitations of iPhone-only reporting while maximizing the benefits.

For the past 14 years, Neal Augenstein has been an award-winning reporter with WTOP-FM and wtop.com in Washington, D.C. He's the first major-market radio reporter to do all his field reporting on an iPhone. Neal is a frequent contributor to CBS News Radio. Born in Connecticut, he graduated from American University in Washington, with a degree in broadcast journalism. On Twitter, follow @NealAugenstein and @wtop.

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