Question of the Week: Technical Horror Stories
This week's question for PBBC authors: What is your note-taking/transcription horror story, when something went wrong with your audio recorder or a file disappeared or you couldn’t write fast enough to keep up or you missed the key thing that was said?
My very first interview for The Cup of Coffee Club was with Jon Ratliff, and was roughly 90 minutes long. I was using new audio recording software on my computer, and as I tried to save the file following our interview, it crashed.
I couldn’t find the saved file anywhere. I’d finally started interviews for my project after months of preparation, and was so distraught that for about 15 minutes I considered abandoning the book altogether. I would be too embarrassed to ask Ratliff to re-record with me.
When I reached out to the software developers, however, they walked me through the process to recover the file. Once I had it, it gave me such a feeling of relief that I gained positive momentum for the rest of the project. I was off to the races on the book.
It was February 1980, in Sudbury, Ontario, north of Toronto, while working for the National Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I was doing a phone interview with a federal cabinet minister named Judy Erola, using a big, round, taping machine. I did the interview only to find out after hanging up that the tape was blank. So I had to call her back and do the interview again. She was sympathetic.
I'm one of those people who always carries around lots of AAA batteries, having been warned of the doomsday scenario of your tape recorder dying mid-interview. Since I relied so heavily on taping during The Wax Pack (I had my recorder out while walking the zoo with Don Carman, critiquing Warhol paintings with Jaime Cocanower, etc.), a dead recorder was my worst nightmare. To back up my recordings I would also take handwritten notes. On the first day of the road trip, after interviewing Rance Mulliniks in Visalia, I made the mistake of bringing my notebook with me to the bar when Jesse, The Kid and I hit the town to blow off some steam. (I wisely left my recorder at the motel.) My notes got progressively sloppier as the mai tais piled up, and by closing I was so drunk I couldn't grip a pencil. Somehow, I wandered off in the completely wrong direction, and before my infamous nap in some ice plant by the side of the freeway (which I detailed in the book), I hopped a fence — and in the process, my notebook went flying into the darkness. A whole day's worth of notes. Thankfully I still had the recordings back at the motel.
My best worst story of such a thing actually involves my being on the other side, as the interviewee. This past April I was contacted by an endearing, quirky woman from a wire service. She wanted to write a story about myself and my friend and fellow baseball artist, Graig Kreindler. She apologetically informed me that she was actually a photographer, not a writer, but that she felt compelled to try her hand at submitting a story. I was delighted to help.
What I wasn't quite prepared for was that she wasn't quite prepared. She told me she'd be transcribing our interview in real time, typing as I responded, so if I could please speak slowly, she'd appreciate it. I spoke about as slowly as I could speak while keeping my train of thought from chugging down the tracks without me. Unfortunately, it was not slow enough. This poor woman would ask me a question, then stop me four words into my response until her fingers could catch up. When she read back what she'd written, it was almost always incorrect. This process moved so slowly that we had to break the interview into two 75-minute sessions. Even after I insisted on recording the second call for her, she couldn't quite break her transcribing-while-interviewing habit. The best part of this adventure was that, because I was walking outdoors for exercise during these interviews, the neighborhood birds were audible through my phone, and this woman happened to be an avid bird watcher. Mid-sentence, be it mine or hers, she would enthusiastically spout, "Yellow-bellied warbler!" or "ROBIN!"
Despite everything, she pulled it off. The story ran in The New York Times, the Washington Post — everywhere! Of course, it was riddled with misquotes and mistakes, which were thankfully corrected in most publications.
What she lacked in experience (or willingness to use modern technology) she made up for in determination. It was a bit grueling, but I'm ever grateful to her for providing me with such great ink during the worst possible time to be a newly published first-time author. Plus, I learned a lot about the local birds.
As I was writing The Baseball Codes back in the mid-2000s, I went on the road with my family. The plan was to work on my laptop, but shortly into the trip the computer’s power source failed. Wouldn’t boot up at all. It was under warranty, so I called tech support and sent it in as instructed. Because I had a bunch of information stored on the hard drive, I left notes taped all over the computer: “Do not erase hard drive.” I put them on the outside, on the screen, along the keyboard. I didn’t figure it be an issue since the hard drive wasn’t the problem. They wouldn’t even need to touch it.
We all know how this story ends. When I got the computer back, the storage was wiped clean. I was livid. And distraught. I remember laying on the floor for about an hour, just staring at the ceiling, unable to move. To that point I’d emailed copies of my writing and most of my notes to myself, and was eventually able to access most of it over the coming days. The one thing I could not find, however, because it did not exist elsewhere, was an all-timer interview with then-Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher. Man, Butcher was great. He told stories, he gave details, he informed me about stuff like few people I’d spoken to until that point. And now it was gone without a trace.
Suffice it to say that I learned an important lesson about backing things up. Now, I do all my work on a thumb drive, which I regularly copy to the hard drive of whatever computer I’m working on. In fact, as soon as I finish typing this sentence, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
For the life of me, I cannot remember a single incident. Yes, I hated having to keep checking that the little wheel in my cassette tape recorder was turning. And having to stop the interview so I could turn the cassette to side 2. But there was never a time when my recorder did not work, or I lost a file, or any of that. Guess that tells you how anal I can be. My two sons bought me a digital recorder when I started my first book in 2010, and that was a tremendous improvement. There were a couple of times when something appeared to be lost, but I rebooted the recorder and it was fine.
The one time I remember something like this involved another writer. This was early in my career when I worked at the desk at the Washington Star. Steve Hershey, our Washington Bullets writer, was late with his copy on a big trade on deadline, and Steve — a veteran beat man and a real pro — was never, ever late. So I called to check in and he was seething. Seems someone on press row had walked past him and tripped over the wire to his machine. (This was circa 1980, and I can't even remember what kind of machine it was.) His entire story was lost, just completely wiped out, and he had to start over again from scratch. Steve was a very calm person, and he kept his head and pounded out a story — we had to go with the wire report for the first edition — but you could tell he wanted to strangle the person who tripped over his power cord.