Sound Advice

12Apr11

We’ve all heard the expression “political echo chamber,” but until the recent debates who knew that the term referred to Wakefield‘s own Galvin Middle School Auditorium?
Wakefield Daily Item
I don’t know what it sounded like to the live audience of a dozen people who packed the hall, but for those of us on stage there was more reverb than Phil Spector‘s recording studio.

In both the Selectmen and School Committee debates the candidates seemed to be having trouble understanding the reporters sitting 10 feet away from them. Candidates had to ask for questions to be repeated multiple times. The problem wasn’t volume – it was echo.

The press and candidates’ tables were close enough to be able to hear each other’s unamplified voices. But those same voices going through the PA system and ricocheting off the walls of the nearly empty auditorium created an echo second only to the Grand Canyon.

In the end, the toughest question posed all night may have been “Could you repeat the question?”

Anyone who has attended Town Meeting knows that the GMS auditorium isn’t exactly Symphony Hall when it comes to acoustics. But Town Meeting typically attracts a hundred or so attendees – enough bodies to absorb at least some of the echo.

After the apparently predestined Galvin School override passes, my only request is that it includes an auditorium that doesn’t sound like the inside of an empty oil tank.

Doing double debate duty – serving on the press panel and reporting too – presents its share challenges. It’s tough to pay attention to every word and take good notes when you’re part of the show and you have to be thinking ahead to your next question.

That’s why I brought my trusty Olympus tape recorder. It works great for any meetings I cover at Town Hall. Fortunately, I learned a long time ago never to depend on the recording, so I still took notes as best I could at Monday’s debates. Good thing, too. The following is a complete transcript of the debates based on my recording:

“[unintelligible]” The end.

I suppose there might be some reason to hold debates for larger regional races like State Rep in the Galvin auditorium. But the days of a few hundred people showing up for a pre-Town Election League of Women Voters candidates’ forum are over. Ironically, that ended in the mid-80s, when cable TV came to town. Why strain to hear a debate in person when you can sit in the comfort of your own living room and strain to hear it? At least at home you can crank the volume (or change the channel).

There must be better options than the GMS auditorium for holding local debates. A few years ago, a debate held in the training room at the Public Safety Building attracted just enough people to make that small space look like a full house.

And what’s wrong with holding debates at the WCAT studio? I suspect that a small audience could be squeezed into the studio if they really wanted to, but unless you’re planning to allow the audience to question the candidates, why bother? In the past, family, friends and supporters who arrived with the candidates for studio debates have watched the proceedings from the comfort of the WCAT lobby or conference room.

WCAT deserves credit for producing the debates. Back in the Dark Ages of local cable TV, I produced and directed my share of televised candidates’ debates. I know from personal experience that it’s a tedious, thankless job.

So why not make it easier for everyone involved and do it under the best conditions available?

And no, I will not repeat the question.

[This column originally appeared in the April 7, 2010 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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