How to mic a senator

It’s the year 2006. You are working on Capitol Hill as a production assistant for a niche web publication which has recently launched a Web-based video platform. You are struggling to convert your college mastery of Final Cut Pro into a passable understanding of Avid Adrenaline. Your thoughts frequently meander through futile comparisons of the two programs in a vain attempt to comprehend the outwardly archaic Avid system.

Then, the anchor announces that the senator has arrived, and all previous thoughts go out the window. Now you are faced with, to an outsider, a rather daunting task: firmly affixing a microphone to a senator’s left lapel.

It is an intimate task, perhaps one of the most intimate in all of journalism.

Have you showered that day? It doesn’t matter. You are part Italian, you grew up with District of Columbia summers and you work as a studio hand. If there’s one thing you excel at, it’s sweating. Besides, you’ve done this countless times before. The senator’s armpits usually are just as smelly as yours. “The senator is just gonna have to deal with it”, you think to yourself.

You follow the anchor and the producer into the lobby where the producer introduces herself and her staff to the senator and his staff. From there, you follow the producer, the anchor and the senator into the studio.

The anchor sits down at the ovular-yet-triangular studio table. Her microphone is already on her seat, placed there by your hands earlier in the day during studio prep, and she quietly affixes her mic and IFB earpiece to herself.

The senator does a similar routine, except there is no microphone awaiting him on his seat. You are holding that mic in your hands. If you’ve positioned yourself correctly you are now standing behind the senator as he takes his seat. Usually he will remark with surprise that the studio chairs don’t have wheels. There is a reason for this: wheeled chairs and jittery guests make a cameraman’s job more difficult than it needs to be. The anchor usually explains that part. You remain silent.

Upon taking his seat, the senator, if he’s good, will lean forward on the table, exposing his backside to you, while at the same time unbuttoning his jacket. You reach down and grab the back of his jacket to expose his belt. If he’s skinny, you can easily slide the mic onto his belt and proceed to step two. If he is fat, you have to go fishing under his spare tire with your fingers to find the belt before the mic pack can be slid into place.

Now you are holding a small lapel mic tethered by thin wire to the belt of an important person. Your next task is to run the cord to his lapel in such a manner that the wire will not become visible during taping.  Amateurs will simply run the wire around the side of the senator, between his jacket and shirt, to the ventral face of his torso before clipping it to the lapel. This, as mentioned, is amateur. Mic cords are long, and in this manner a lot of cord is left dangling at the side of the senator. This leaves the senator in a position where simple conversational hand gestures could betray the presence of the cord.

A professional studio hand knows to run the microphone cord from the mic pack, up the back of the senator (and in between his jacket and his shirt), over his shoulder and down his chest to his lapel. In this manner, the jacket firmly holds the wire in place while leaving any slack in the wire hanging harmlessly behind the senator, relatively protected from dislodging and discovery.

To do this, you must again grab hold of the senators jacket and lift it up enough to reach your left hand upward between his jacket and shirt to the top of the left shoulder. Your right hand waits there, next to the senator’s ear, for the left to emerge from his collar with mic in hand. There, your other hand grabs the lapel mic as you dislodge your hand from underneath the senators jacket. You position yourself now to the left side of the senator.

You tug on the wire from the front to gain enough slack to reach his left lapel. Why his left lapel? Simple: the anchor sits to the left of the senator, and all of his vocalizations will be sent in this direction. Your microphone should sit between the senator and the anchor to most effectively record his voice. Once enough, but not too much, slack is obtained, you grab the senator’s left lapel and turn it outward to clip the microphone to his jacket.

Once clipped, you return the senator’s jacket to its previous unruffled form. Your last task is to position yourself back behind the senator to take up any remaining slack in the wire.

The entire time, if he’s good, the senator will act like nothing is happening. It’s just part of his job. What is not part of his job is putting on his own microphone. That is your job, and you are very comfortable with that, as is the senator.

After all, the last thing a politician wants to do is to take away your job.

Later in your struggling career you might have a weighty interview coming up. The lead up to these interviews, and certain contentious public meetings, produce in you an anxiety not unlike that felt before delivering a speech to a large crowd. Your experiences invading the personal spaces of powerful and important people while occupying the lowest rung of the newsroom ladder as if it was just another task to be completed helps you to deal with that anxiety. The audio recorder starts going, or that first click of the camera shutter, or the opening bang of the gavel is all that is needed to snap you out of the anxiety and into the present moment where you can do your job.

Back then your job was simply to observe, record and edit. Now you observe, record and report.

It is your job. You are good at it.

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