A guide for gathering vox for NPR — and doing it quickly

This is a printable and shareable guide to vox-gathering for NPR. You can use it as your own tip sheet or send it out to a producer who has been assigned to get vox.

What do I ask?

One uniform question — or series of questions. The vox question should be made clear in your assignment. The goal is to hear multiple people reflect on the same specific topic. (E.g. Should the U.S. go to war in Iraq? Why or why not?) Make sure you’re asking more than a yes or no question; get people to explain their thinking and engage in “whys” or “hows.”

Where do I go?

Somewhere that you’ll find people with something to say! Sometimes, it’s a place relevant to your story. Is the vox question about politics? Stand outside the state capitol or the city council building.  Is the question about food?  Head to the grocery. About war? Take your pick. Just find somewhere that you can collect tape from a diverse group – diverse in age, race and income level.

 What sound do I gather and send?

  • Find eight to ten people with interesting, different answers to the vox question.  Please make sure you record them saying their full names and where they live on tape. *PLEASE NOTE: NPR can not air tape from unidentified people. And we need both first and last names. And for web purposes, ask people to spell their names. Don’t assume Alison is spelled with one “l” or Brian is spelled with an “i.”
  • Help people respond to you in full sentences, as in, “I think private Social Security accounts are a good idea because they let me control my investments …” as opposed to, “They’re a bad idea.” No unclear pronouns! You might have to ask interviewees to back up and start over in a full sentence. Or – consider using the “rule of 3”: Ask three questions at once, and your interviewees will likely respond in full sentences (e.g. What is your name and what did you see and how do you think the police handled that situation?). And feel free to ask follow-up questions to get a complete story.
  • Record at least two minute of background sound (“ambience” or “nat sound”) for each location. It’s a good idea to record yourself at the top of your ambi saying where you are, so that the NPR producer can identify the proper ambi for each cut and gather location details that might be written into copy. (E.g. “This is the street corner outside City Hall where I talked with Lou, Susie and John. Lots of traffic passing by. It’s lunchtime so there are tons of people around.”)
  • If relevant, try to gather two or three distinctive sounds that place us (bus, elevator bell, car door slams and kids, people greeting each other).

And don’t forget these best practices for audio recording!
– Use your headphones so you know you are recording clean, clear, problem-free audio.
– Keep the mic close to your subject. Five inches, near the chin, is a wonderful starting point.
– Use a shock mount and pistol grip if available to prevent mic handling noise.
– If you are outside, use a windscreen to avoid wind buffeting. This will help prevent plosives (p-pops), too!
– Record at a level you are comfortable with to avoid distortion.

What do I do with the tape?

Don’t internally edit the tape – We’re not paying you enough money! Pick your best respondents, take a few minutes to organize that tape and the related ambience, and send it in raw form – in one file – to NPR. The best tape will have the following:

  • Actualities lined up in easily-scannable form (put silent spaces between each)
  • Ambi heads and tails on the actualities
  • Clearly identified voices articulating complete thoughts
  • Large amounts of ambi (at least two minutes for each location)

How do I file the tape?

Follow the directions you are given by your assignment editor or NPR producer. This will generally involve giving your file a clearly-designated name and FTP’ing it to NPR. (.WAV format is preferable).

And let us know when you’re filing. At that point, please email your assigning producer/editor the exact location where you recorded audio (at a bus stop in downtown Cleveland). And — if time allows — include a list of the people you talked with in their order on the tape.

Last but not least!

Make sure your assigning desk editor has your payment information — name, address, and social security number.

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.