How to interview experts

What's the best way to get a source to open up? Easy. Follow them on their turf and act (!) like you don't know anything. People like to be experts, and if those people happen to be actual experts so much the better. I was reminded of this on a recent ride along with Mike Osborn, Supervisory Inspector for U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Torrance office. Walter Mike Osborn, Supervisory Inspector, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a federal agency that polices the nation's wildlife trade. Those live tetra fish you bought at Walmart? They probably came from Brazil in a big wooden crate in the belly of an airplane. The guys and gals who work for Osborn make sure the importation permits are in order, that the animals are safely handled, and that no protected species find their way into those water-filled plastic bags.

Michael Brown, USFW inspector, looking at a legal shipment of fish that came through LAX. These fish came from Australia, presumably for a gap year in the States.

I'm doing a story about the illegal wildlife trade in LA, and USFW was kind enough to invite me along for two days of inspections. I spent one day at LAX, and one at a warehouse for ocean freight coming through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The cargo entering and leaving from these hubs, along with Southern California's year-round temperate climate, makes this the busiest wildlife trading corridor in the country.

Ever wonder how they ship live spiders?

Oh. Okay. So those salsa containers are modified to keep the spiders securely inside?

No sir. They are not.

Over two days I got about eight hours of tape, most of it captured in peripatetic conversation with Mike Osborn, a fascinating guy who's more than happy to roll up his sleeve to help the investigators he oversees.

Shipment of drums

Osborn gave me tons of insight into the world of wildlife importing and smuggling. Eight hours is a transcription nightmare, but I'm now in the middle of that arduous task and I've been struck by the meaty level of our conversations. Usually interviews ebb and flow, with lots of blind alleys and fruitless questions preceding those unexpected gems that get a source talking and opening up in brilliant ways.

But with my recorder tucked in an outside pocket of my snazzy reporter's bag, and with tape rolling from the second I got out of the car, I captured tons of great material just by following this guy while he worked, letting him take me into his world instead of trying to break into that world through an hour of calculated questioning.  It was a nice reminder that interviews don't have to take place in a fluorescent-lit room, and in the future I'm planning to make more of an effort to have sources lead me around whenever possible.

TIP: I have two recorders that I can work blindfolded (sort of like a trained assassin can field strip a glock). Nothing is scarier to me than the prospect of missing a great, technically convoluted conversation (maybe loose spiders running amok under a plane). Make sure you know your equipment, and have a backup at the ready.

In this case it also helped to know what kind of interference I would get with the recorder in my pocket, in a bag, or in my hand.  A good way to test out your rig is to spy on your significant other. Extra points for using the raw tape to splice together a lascivious message. "Greg ... your ... package ... makes me ... hot ... hot ... hot" - Nina Anthony, wife.