The Mystery of the Missing Interview Tapes

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“Um … where is the car?”

I could feel panic rising when I asked this question to my Times colleague Rachel Quester. I clicked the lock and unlock buttons on the key of our Kia rental car, but the street in Milwaukee remained quiet.

It was a Wednesday in late October, and Rachel and I were in Wisconsin working on an episode of “The Daily,” pegged to the 2022 midterm elections, about the future of democracy. As producers of the show, we may edit and cut studio interviews with Times reporters about breaking news or venture out in the world to do our own on-the-ground reporting.

We had just stopped in Milwaukee for dinner after a day of reporting, the highlight being an interview with a voter who had candidly shared her doubts about the election process. We wanted our episode to explore the evolution of election doubt in the state, and we knew that our interview would bring an essential, personal dimension to that story.

Then Rachel and I exited the restaurant. And we saw that our rental car was gone.

We ticked through the possibilities. Stolen? Towed? We returned to the restaurant to ask for security footage.

The restaurant host informed us that Kias had been getting stolen left and right in Milwaukee. Rachel and I later learned that some pre-2021 Kias (and Hyundais) have such leaky security that you can boost them with little more than a USB cable. In 2021, 66 percent of vehicle thefts in the city involved Kias and Hyundais.

Suddenly, we were facing a sea of logistical headaches: filing a police report, dealing with the rental car company and figuring out how to get back to our hotels. But one challenge loomed largest of all: The audio files from that slam-dunk day of reporting were in the trunk.

We had just a little over a week until our publish date — Nov. 8, Election Day. As we traveled back home with heavy hearts — Rachel to New York, and I to Illinois — we knew we didn’t have much time to mourn the lost files. We contacted our source to see if she’d be able to redo the interview. Thankfully, she agreed to meet us again the following Monday.

But we knew this was not an ideal solution. A new interview would not be as candid as the first. We wanted that original tape back.

I called the rental company to see if it could use GPS trackers to find the car for us. I emailed the police department about the security footage. Nothing seemed to change the simple fact that we had to wait.

Then, on Friday afternoon, I learned that law enforcement had recovered the car. But with good news also came bad: The rental company wanted to recover and repair the car before I could retrieve our things.

What followed was a weekend packed with more calls: with the rental car company, to try to find a more sympathetic agent; with the deputy sheriff who recovered the vehicle, to see if he could persuade the rental agency to let me in the trunk. No luck.

Then Monday rolled around. As Rachel flew back to Wisconsin, I decided that I would plead my case to the sheriff’s department one final time before our rescheduled interview. On my drive up to Milwaukee, the deputy called with some good news: The rental agency would finally let us into the trunk.

When the deputy and I arrived at the impound lot, I saw what had happened. The back passenger window of our car had been smashed in. The steering wheel column had been ripped open. And our bags in the trunk had been rifled through.

Rachel and I had used two audio recorders, one to record our questions and the other to capture the interviewee’s responses. We could live without the first — but if we didn’t get the interviewee’s side of the conversation, we’d have to re-interview her.

After sifting through the trunk, I saw only one of the recorders. I popped out the memory card and put it into my laptop, and I heard exactly what I wanted to hear — the voter’s voice.

Eight days later, we published the episode.

Audio producers wear many hats — from pitching stories and writing scripts to building episodes with archival footage and music. But at a more basic level, the job is making sure that the episode doesn’t fall apart. That can include backing up recordings, triple-checking the wording in a script and plotting out production schedules to meet deadlines. Now I’m adding “be careful about your rental car” to the list.

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