Neal Augenstein has been a radio reporter at WTOP for 14 years, and a smart phone mojo for 10 months. An average day for him in Washington, D.C., may include anything from breaking news to lifestyle features and, since February, he has covered those stories using little more than his iPhone.
I asked Augenstein about his transition from traditional radio gear and the challenges and benefits that involves. He explains his new smart phone-centric approach to the job in this edited e-mail interview.
Damon Kiesow: Before you switched over to an iPhone, what gear did you carry, and what was a typical work flow?
Neal Augenstein: [I carried] a laptop with Adobe Audition, a Comrex Access unit, a Marantz PMD620 and a Shure SM63. With a strong FM signal, online and mobile listeners, at WTOP we have a mandate to get the best-sounding audio on the air, as soon as possible. A phone-quality voicer is only acceptable in a breaking news situation.
Before the iPhone, if I finished a field interview 15 minutes before air, it would be challenging to produce a wrap and feed it to the newsroom in time, because of how long it takes to boot up the laptop.
I try to avoid relying on an Access [an Internet-based audio transmitter] for live reports, because of the delay and risk of drop-out. But using the Access was often the best quality attainable for that first deadline. After that, I’d have enough time to do fully-produced wraps on the laptop.
How has the iPhone 4 changed things?
Augenstein: My laptop is still in the trunk of my car, but I haven’t used it since February. Without the delay of booting up a laptop, I can now pull cuts, voice, edit, and transmit a basic two cut wrap to the newsroom within 10 minutes. The iPhone allows me to quickly send photos and video to the website, to complement the audio reports.
We embraced the “we are they” synergy between WTOP radio and wtop.com a decade ago (probably before the term “multi-platform” was coined). We’re trying to maximize the engagement with mobile users, so I’ll break stories on Twitter and Facebook to help drive them to wtop.com. And, I’ll either write or provide enough information to the Web desk for a four or five paragraph story.
What apps are you using on the phone?
Augenstein: My main app for audio production is VeriCorder’s VC Audio Pro. Pulling cuts and e-mailing them are a snap. It allows three-track, multi-track recording and mixing. Finished reports can be emailed as m4a or wav files. There is a bit of a learning curve.
I’m also impressed with the Monle audio editing app. It’s a bit more intuitive than VeriCorder’s product, and is four-track.
For live broadcasting, the Media5fone VoIP allows me to broadcast live to the Access unit. The Report-IT app is compatible with Hotline units [a phone line to digital audio converter]. I’ve experimented with both and am enthusiastic about their possibilities, but the need for a strong 3G signal makes them less reliable than a pre-fed report.
What accessories do you carry?
Augenstein: Not many. I really liked the quality of the Blue Mikey microphone when I was using the 3Gs, but it’s not compatible with iPhone4 or iPad. So, for now I’m using the built-in microphones. There are several inexpensive mics, but of the ones I’ve tried the sound quality is tinny or hissy.
Mounting the iPhone on a podium for a news conference was a challenge, since nobody makes a clip for a standard mic stand. I superglued some thin foam inside a regular clip, which allows it to hold the iPhone snugly without scratching it. There are some bluetooth mic transmitters which allow a broadcast mic to be recorded on an iPhone, as well as some cables to plug a mic into the phone.
Before I carried an iPad, I carried the Apple Wireless Keyboard under my car seat for the times I wanted to write a story on the iPhone.
What are the disadvantages of using the iPhone for radio work?
Augenstein: I still hate typing on the iPhone and iPad. The biggest disadvantage is its fussiness. Wind is a potential big problem. Even a moderate breeze can distort a recording. Nobody seems to make a windscreen for iPhone yet, but sticking the phone into any standard windscreen that fits will help. I’m reliant on having a suitable AT&T signal or Wi-Fi. There have only been a couple of times I was in a remote mountain area, which made it impossible to use.
Are there some cases where a smart phone just is not suitable?
Augenstein: Probably the biggest challenge was covering a hurricane this summer. With the wind distortion problem, and the possibility of losing the AT&T cell signal if towers went down, I carried my Verizon-based Access unit and laptop with broadband card as a backup, but didn’t need to use them. If I’m in the newsroom, it’s easier to use the desktop computer.
Any recommendations for others planning to use a smart phone as their primary reporting tool?
Augenstein: There are some limitations to using an iPhone as your main device, but the challenge is to work around the limitations in creative ways, while maximizing the ways it makes work easier. Accept the fact that news gathering is changing, and that you’re helping pave the way for future mobile journalists. Take some risks, and break some ground.