Episodes: Friday mailbag (March 24)

I have been sick, sick, sick this week, so writing newsletters has escaped my grasp. But here I am, with answers to a few of your questions!

Leah has a follow-up question to my last newsletter, about interviewing people:

I recently had the opportunity to interview someone (it never got to the point of arranging it), and after the initial excitement, a low level of panic set in. I've never interviewed someone before, so I don't know how to record an interview. I have Skype an a basic headset, but what equipment do you need to record an interview with someone over the phone or Skype?

A lot of this depends on the phone/computer you have. If you have an iPhone or a Mac, you are somewhat limited in what you can use, and almost everything reliable is going to cost you money. Granted: It's well worth it, in my experience. These programs are more stable than their Android/PC counterpoints (which are prone to crash), but they will run you a few bucks. (I think the Skype recorder I use on my Mac was $30 all told.) There are free call recorders for iPhones, but they are a little sketchier than the ones you can just pay money for. So why not buy one for $5?

If you have an Android and PC, then your options are far more varied. There are free recorders -- though I have white-knuckled many an interview having to continually refresh a constantly crashing program while also trying to conduct said interview (better hope you're good at taking notes!) -- but there are also cheaper paid options, which, again, are more stable. In general, the more money you spend, the less you are going to have to worry about the program crashing, though I wouldn't spend too much.

By far the best option for recording an interview is to get a landline and then connect a digital (or tape!) recorder to it via a really cheap connector that runs from the phone to your recorder (usually via its headphone port). Simply hit record when the call begins, and you're golden. (Options like this exist for cell phones, too, but are more expensive.)

Finally, there are always the options that are cheapest of all: simply using your speaker phone and recording it using a recorder and/or microphone, or taking really thorough notes. The latter will get you in trouble if you're not a fast typist and if the source disputes they said something. The former can be hard to understand when transcribing. But they exist!

A note: As a rule of thumb, just tell people you're going to be recording them and make sure they say, "Yeah" or "sure" or something. You should find out the law in your state to be sure of what level of awareness you need to make the person you're recording aware of (and if this is for a Q&A, they'll be expecting it anyway). But in some states, it's technically illegal to record someone without their consent. Better safe than sorry.

Sarah asks:

As the lines between TV, pop culture, and news become more blurred on the internet/social media, are there specific things that you wish that college students were being taught about media consumption?

I think people are generally savvier than you might expect. They know when something's a joke, and when something's serious, and when something's a mixture of both. In Our Age of the Bubble, the real danger is in one side interpreting something as a joke, while the other side takes it quite seriously, and nobody's quite sure where anybody stands.

But if there were one thing I wish I could teach everybody, it's how to grasp when something you're reading issues from a place that has some degree of editorial process, versus how to grasp when it's just something somebody is saying. This is not to say that "something somebody is saying" can't be the most vital piece of writing ever, nor that something that issues from a place with editors can't be dead wrong. You can probably think of many examples of both.

But as most of our information shifts online, there is a real difficulty in discerning reliable sources from bullshit ones among media consumers. And I don't just mean the dreaded "fake news." I mean the idea that some publications might have agendas, but also have pretty rock solid principles in place to make sure they're presenting the best versions of their agendas and some sites just... don't.

As a journalist who came of age in the era of blogs, I have a deep suspicion of "objectivity," since I think it's sort of impossible to achieve. I think journalists should strive to be fair -- in that they should take seriously points of view they disagree with and try to understand them as best they can, in order to present them in the best light possible -- but I don't think that any journalist turns off their opinions when they sit down to write. And if you try to pretend that you do, you're probably more susceptible to those biases than someone who readily admits their point of view.

But especially as my generation starts to take over the industry, there's a growing sense that there's not a difference between, say, Vox (where we have layers of editorial checks and balances, and if we fuck something up, it means multiple people screwed up somewhere) and, say, this newsletter, where I just read it over and send it out. That doesn't mean I can't say good stuff in this newsletter; it means you shouldn't take this as more authoritative than just a bunch of stuff I think at the moment I write it.

But the public has always had a dim idea of how the media "works," and if I could change anything, it would be to give everybody a better sense of how sausage is made, how stories are followed up on, etc., etc., etc. I don't think tossing the media blanket trust is a great idea. Skepticism is valuable. But I also think the opposite default -- "The media lies all the time!" -- is unhelpful. Then again, I would.

Kim has a question raised by a recent episode of Scandal:

There was a brief cameo by a dude who (avoiding spoilers) was in a car with one of the main characters. The actor was listed in the credits as playing "Hot Hookup Guy," and that bothered me because in the episode, not only do they state that he's a bartender (iirc, it's pretty common for extras with known careers to be credited as, say, "Bartender"), they actually give the character's name, which is Kevin! So, it's kind of shitty that the show gave him the end credit of "Hot Hookup Guy" when his character was a bartender, named Kevin, who even had a line or two, right?

This stems from the way scripts are written. On a show like Scandal, you essentially have hot keys for every major character -- Olivia, Fitz, etc., etc. If the show is written using Final Draft (it probably is), then when Shonda Rhimes types "O" in the "character" section, the program is going to suggest "Olivia." Great. That's what Shonda wants!

But here's the thing: On most shows, it also means that naming other characters with "O" is going to be a headache. Shonda wants to type "O" and get "Olivia"! She doesn't want to type "O" and get "Olivia" and "Orthodontist" and "Oglethorpe" and "Oviraptor." Indeed, go through almost all of your favorite shows (except the ones like Game of Thrones, which have dozens of characters) and check out how few of the regular cast members have names that start with the same letter.

Consider, for instance, why The Magicians changed a character named Janet in the books to one named Margot on the show. There's already a Julia, and she's the female lead. Thus, Janet's name needed to change. (This also helps script readers, who are trying to read as quickly as possible. Characters with names that start with the same letter might blend together.)

All of this is interesting, I suppose, but it doesn't really answer Kim's question, which is why Hot Hookup Guy wasn't called Kevin. The truth here is that the Scandal writers are sending a message to casting: Find a good actor to play this part, sure, but what's most important is that he's Hot. You get that from the name!

But we also get from this that the character is ultimately not that important. If he had a name, he would be a much more important guest star (probably, on Scandal, a client of the week). Thus, the search for that week's guest stars would zero in much more on the named guest stars, over the guest stars with the descriptive name. And the adjective gives a quick sense of the physical type the showrunner needs -- Fat Policeman, or Nerdy Teacher, or Short Dentist. Thus, "Bartender" is too non-descriptive to really carry things.

This shorthand can also help showrunners by, say, making sure a character who has only a few lines but needs to stand out (maybe they're key to the mystery that week) is cast with a strong enough actor to stand out. Naming someone "Kevin" instead of "Hot Hookup Guy" would thusly make sure that Shonda had just the right actor to stand in as the character who's secretly plotting the president's death, even if he only has two lines. You'll better remember him. But since "Hot Hookup Guy" is defined entirely by his physical appearance (hey, at least he gets to be hot), we know we're just looking for generic beefcake.

And then the character onscreen is credited in the closing credits as the character in the script. I don't know why this is, but it's presumably some union regulation.

Most television, but especially network television, is produced extremely rapidly. Thus, as much as possible has to be done in shorthand. The casting director on Scandal maybe didn't even get to read the script for the episode featuring Hot Hookup Guy, but as soon as they saw that name, they knew two things: He wasn't a majorly important character, and he was hot. Thus, they knew they could focus on casting other guest stars first, then have an assistant troll headshots looking for some good looking dude. And thus the sausage is made.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.