Based on a presentation by Neal Conan, host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” at the National Conference on Public Radio Talk Shows held April, 2002 at The Poynter Institute. This summary of highlights was edited by Public Radio Programmers Association President Marcia Alvar.
Index of Topics:
– Keeper of the Civic Square
– Warrior Against Boredom
– Lifelong Learner
The most important preparation I’ve found is to read all the time. We need to be information sharks; either we’re moving and feeding, or we’re dying. So just keep doing it all the time. Whenever you read or watch something or listen to the radio, think about what you’re hearing. Think about how to apply it. It’s just stuff that sticks in there that you haul out at the last minute and turns out to be useful.
It matters less what you read than that you are reading — that you are ingesting something. There was a moment one or two nights after the 11th of September when we got a phone call from a guy who was in the Air Force in Arizona. He talked about his concerns and his worries. Then he said he had to go back to his base. I said, “Which base is that?” and he said “Holliman.” I was able to say “Oh, that’s where the stealth fighters are based.” Now where did that piece of information lodge in my brain? It was just as likely a Tom Clancy novel as it was from Aviation Week and Space Technology. I read both but from one of them, that little fact stuck in there and turned out to be very useful.
The novel that you read 20 years ago informs your question. The experiences you had with your kids inform your questions. I don’t want that to be misconstrued. I don’t mean that having two kids makes you an expert on child rearing, so that your opinion is as valid as your experts. That’s not the case. Your experience is as valid as anybody else’s experience, but it doesn’t make you an expert. It’s important to remember that there are people who study these things who know more about it than you do. That does not change the fact that if you tell a story about one of your kids, that’s a perfectly telling point. Your observation is just as valid as a caller who tells a story about their kid, as long as you don’t try to present it as something that’s provable beyond what happened to you.
We rarely get the time in terms of absolute preparation for a specific program. We rarely get the time to read everything we possibly can. With books, it’s simply that you do what you can. If you only have time to read the introduction and the first 10 pages, you read the introduction and the first 10 pages. Skip ahead to the end to see how it comes out. One of the things I constantly do in preparation is underline. In a way, what I’m doing is just slowing down my reading. I almost never go back and look at my underlined stuff. But it helps me remember my underlined stuff for the day and a half that I have to remember it. I also find it interesting to haul up book reviews. Those are extremely helpful for pointing out people’s strengths and weaknesses.
Terry Gross, who I look on as a model in many respects, has a rule about doing book interviews. It’s the same rule that we have throughout National Public Radio. It’s that you have to read the book. If you think about the number of books that Terry does every week, you begin to realize, there’s no machine on the planet that can actually read all of those books, every single page. Terry has a very interesting rule, which is, “The eye must fall on every page.” Not quite the same as reading. But you do have to make an effort to try and read the whole thing, if it’s somebody coming in solo to do a book interview
Keep your questions short. Do not lard your questions ahead of time with facts. Most of us learned to do interviews when we were reporters and our questions rarely, if ever, made it on the air: “Mr. Mayor, considering the fact that councilman blah blah blah says blah blah blah and the other councilman says blah blah blah and you lost the vote blah blah blah….” Those kinds of questions never made it on the air. If you go back to your tape cuts you’ll figure out that the questions that did make it on the air are questions like, “No!” “Go on!” “You’re kidding!” These are not exactly models of articulate Socratic dialogue, but they keep the conversation moving. And that is the critical point of what we’re trying to do in interviews, so keep those questions short.
Ask only one question at a time. I do this all the time and it drives me crazy; I say, “Why did you do it, and what do you think is going to happen next?” That gives the guest the option of answering neither or either. If they’re any good at all at avoiding questions, by the time they’ve finished their answer, you’ve forgotten the other question.
Do you have prewritten questions? Absolutely you have prewritten questions. The more questions you have written down however, the less you generally use them. It’s a little like underlining. The more questions I have for the interview, the fewer I use. The ones I do tend to use are questions one and two, as I’m trying to get everything stabilized in front of me in the chaos that is call-in radio. There is a psychological comfort, of course, seeing a long list of questions there, in case you go empty.
Quotes are very handy things to pull out during an interview. “You said something interesting on that subject in your book, and here it is.” The worst kind of guest, I think, is somebody’s who’s written a fabulous book filled with wonderful anecdotes, and you lead the horse to water and they won’t drink. They won’t tell their own stories. Those are awful. For those of us who work live (and this is particularly apt to me, because I tend to be a little coy and a little cute sometimes) just be a little more obvious and not quite so subtle. If you’re approaching something and you really want them to tell the river anecdote, say, “There was a great story about that in your book. Will you tell us the river anecdote?”
Have an example tucked in your back pocket so you can say, “Well what about that program over on the West Side?” The fact of the matter is, most professional interviewers know the answer to the question before they ask it. You should. So if you’re asking for examples, you should probably know one.
Another good question when people start talking in the abstract, is “Give me a for instance.” Concrete examples. These help the listeners establish what was an abstract idea as concrete.
You’ve got to be able to ask those difficult and awkward questions. For example, if any of us have Stephen Ambrose on a show right now, you can’t ask him anything about his new book until he talks about plagiarism. You simply can’t. That’s the expectation of yourself, your audience, everybody else. It’s his expectation too. He knows he’s not going to get away with not talking about it. That has to be a subject. It has to be broached, and you just have to be open and honest about it.
Think as much as you can about the interview that you’re going to do. This sounds elementary, but as you’re coming to work, as you’re driving, as you’re eating breakfast and drinking coffee in the morning, think about how you want to write the intro, about the structure of the interview, and how you’re going to get to that. The fact of the matter is that’s extremely helpful. It’s also helpful to then have a producer who takes another look at more or less the same set of information and may have a different approach. At that point you may get some interesting ideas moving along
Try to anticipate how to navigate from one idea to the next. This is often difficult. We tend to write down 15 questions and they aren’t necessarily in a narrative order. The thing we have to remember about our programs and the thing we have to remember about our interviews is that they are narratives. We are trying to tell stories. They have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There should be a structure there. Thought A leads to thought B leads to thought C. Now there are reasons why you don’t do these things in chronological order sometimes, but my rule of thumb for structuring any kind of a story has always been that you can depart from chronological order, but have a reason.
Chronological order is the most fundamental human storytelling form. The fundamental question of the story is, “And then?” It’s our job to keep that tension going, so people will want to find out what happened next.
Cause and effect is another obvious way to structure, and it’s another function of chronology. I can’t over-emphasize this idea, and it’s such an easy concept for the listener to grasp; this happened, then that happened. Was that cause and effect?
One of the critical reasons you structure your show is that it lets you say “We’re doing this in the first segment of the program and then this in the second part of the program.” However, once you’ve done a segment, don’t go back. It’ll screw up your narrative flow. You’re picking up listeners and losing listeners throughout the program and people are joining and didn’t hear the first part of the discussion. So you get three references that they don’t get all of a sudden, and they’re going to tune away because they don’t understand what’s going on.
In terms of how you run the phone calls, the interesting conundrum is that you constantly have callers on your screen who want to talk about what you were talking about 10 minutes ago, because that’s when they called and got screened and got through. And what we’re finding is that we have to go back through the screens, and just flush people and flush people, because you don’t want caller lag. You want callers to talk about what you’re talking about now.
A good way to do that is to not keep you show’s structure a secret: “When we come back from a break we’re going to be talking about Afghanistan.” Forward promotion within the program is incredibly important, because the biggest dialing times are our breaks. You really want to make sure that the people calling know what you’re going to be talking about when you come back, so that you can have relevant phone calls.
You’ve got to find new ways to frame questions to the listener. Putting the question to the listener is a critical aspect of every call in show, and we don’t spend enough time at this. We are spending more and more time every day trying to figure out how we frame subjects for the listener so they have something to contribute. “Tell us what happened to you…Your experience.” These are wonderful questions because listener’s experiences are perfectly valid and those stories communicate extremely well with other people. One person’s story is of course unique, but it may not be atypical of a segment of your audience.
If at all possible, find some way to put obvious questions in a listener’s mouth. We try to send messages to tell our listeners the kinds of questions we want. “Our subject today is homework. How much is too much? Does homework instill discipline in your kids?” For that show I also came up with an email challenge to send us the best excuse for not doing your homework and that was sort of fun.
I would encourage you to use emails as much as possible, particularly in terms of generating emails before the show, so people send questions in before you even go on the air. Email questions tend to be shorter, and even if they’re not, you can edit them, and guess what? They don’t have any follow-ups! They’re extremely useful devices to find another way to get more listener content in.
Sometimes you get situations where you get organized caller campaigns and you do have to worry about it. On Middle East shows, there are organized groups out there from both sides who find out you’re doing a show on the Middle East, and they email each other and make sure the first 800 calls you get are from them. There’s no way around this other than brutal screening. If you’re not screening, don’t do shows on the Middle East. The same thing can happen with the environment, abortion, and capital punishment.
You also have to worry – and we’ve had this problem a few times – about sandbaggers. These are people who call up and say, “I want to ask about X.” And then they get on the air, and they’re not asking about X, they’re off on a rant. I made a mistake, early on, when we got somebody who sandbagged me. I was furious. I ended up hanging up on the guy after five minutes of full rant, and it was the wrong thing to do. I did know what his question was, and it wasn’t a bad question, that’s why I pushed the button. I should have said, “You had a question early on. Do you still have that question?” I should have put him on the spot and made him ask the question that he called up to ask. Hanging up on people, on the air, you just don’t do. I hope I learned my lesson. I think people are still yelling at me about it on the website.
The regular callers are also a problem, even on a national show, but much more on a local level. I don’t know how to deal with them except to tell them, “You were on last week, thanks very much, wait six months and call back.” This is a hard thing to do if nobody else is calling, but you don’t want to make it people’s private soapbox. I don’t think you can have those kinds of regular callers and make it seem fair to the listeners. It’s going to be their (the regulars) show at that point, and not your show, and you do have to keep control of it
Very broadly, there are two kinds of guests and the rules are different for them both. There are people who are accustomed to being interviewed and those who are not. The first group is well practiced at not answering questions and you have to try to be aggressive. There’s a subset within this group of people who are used to being interviewed that I would describe as messengers. They are there to deliver a message and they’re not going to be useful guests to you until they have blurted it out, whatever it is. In general, you’re having them on to react to something, and that’s their message anyway, so that works out pretty well.
There are people who are not used to being interviewed with whom you have to be a good deal more gentle. This would include callers, who are by definition not used to being interviewed. One of the most important lessons is to try to set these people at ease and get over their nervousness as soon as possible. The important thing, especially with those guests not in the studio with you, is to listen carefully and respond to what they say.
People you talk with about emotional kinds of stories tend to be people who are not used to being interviewed; the witness to the fire, whatever it is. If somebody’s got an emotional story, make sure they don’t spill it during the pre-interview. You have to tell these people who are doing the pre-interviews, don’t let them have catharsis with you! I want them to have catharsis on the radio. They’re only going to tell this story well once. I want the audience to hear it. Try to keep those reactions as fresh as you possibly can.
Every single caller who comes on your show is an interview too. You’re interviewing them as well, so listen incredibly carefully. One of the things I’ve found enormously useful is you hear a dog in the background, the baby’s crying, something’s going on, make a reference to it. Beyond listening to the ambience of whatever is behind a caller, or behind a guest on the show, listen to what they are saying. Listen and they will tell you what the next question is. Your guest will tell you what the next question is, unless you’ve got some specific area to go to. One trick that I use, basically, a lot of your questions are just like that, “Go on! You’re kidding! Tell me more.” One good technique to bring that out is listen to their last answer, and just pick out the most interesting word that they had to say. Whatever it was. “Inevitably?” And they will respond and it’ll move right along.
Keeper of the Civic Square
I don’t like listening to arguments, particularly screaming arguments, on the radio, and I don’t think our audience likes listening to screaming arguments on the radio. Civility and politeness have to be insisted upon. It’s like our living room. And if you invite a guest into your living room, you don’t abide your other guests being rude to them. That is not the same as saying we cannot have vigorous discussions. We need to have vigorous discussions. But there is a difference between saying, “Your idea is stupid,” and “You are stupid.” Big difference. All of us have to be careful about invective and screaming.
Warrior Against Boredom
You can get trapped in opinion programs. We do it all the time. So and so thinks A, so and so thinks B. If a listener calls with a question, you’ve to put it to A and B. It’s the debate response throughout the program. If you ask listeners what they think about Venezuela, or the Middle East, or capital punishment, you’re going to get a bunch of very firm, solid opinions, all of which we’ve heard, and none of which are going to make much of an impact on people who have their minds made up. That’s the fundamental problem with “What do you think of this?” Opinions trap you into boring situations.
Debates are inevitable in our business, but whenever possible, try to bring fresh voices to the issues. In those kinds of programs, my experience has been three is too many. It’s hard for the listeners to keep straight who’s who. Also, if you’ve got three people, all of whom need to say something about everything, how many questions are you going to get through? It’s just not going to happen. So be very careful about how many people you have on the show at the same time.
The most corrosive thing that you have to worry about in terms of both callers and guests, is boredom. It’s a little like broadcasting a baseball game that’s twelve to nothing in the third inning. At that point, there’s not a lot of tension about who’s going to win. At those moments, you have to become more and more of the program. The first thing to do is pick up the pace. Short, sharp questions: Why? How? Anytime you think that the pace is wrong, it’s always too slow. It’s never too fast. So try to physically pick up the pace. If you’ve been having callers on and it’s been boring question, boring answer, boring follow-up, boring answer, just keep it moving. No follow-ups. Try to punch people in quicker. Pick up the speed if nothing else.
If a guest is boring, start asking them more personal questions. “How’d you get into this business?” If it’s down to anecdotes from the host that are going to keep this amusing, confess your sins. Tell bad stuff about yourself. People love that! The fundamental fact to remember is that boredom will kill your show.
You do have to be willing to adapt and change. A lot of the discussions we have after our show is to say, “You know, we should have dumped that last guest.” You have to be willing to abandon your plans and go in a new direction at the drop of a hat. These are decisions, often, that the host has to make without reference to the producer and you do have to make some of those decisions on the fly. Dump a boring guest. The chart may say they’re there until the 40, but if they’ve said everything you think they’re going to say at the 30, get rid of them.
We have a policy that we do not do open phones. You can do sort of a directed open phones. Every once in a while for example, we’ll have Dan Schorr on and that’s almost the same as open phones, but not quite. And it’s very rare. I’m not trying to tell people who do different programs for different audiences how to do their shows, but I think doing open phones is a failure of imagination.
I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but the reason I was interested in moving from reporting to hosting Talk of the Nation is that I got bored producing pieces. I didn’t think I had much left to learn about the form since I couldn’t think of a form that I hadn’t done many times. I was not challenging myself. I think that was reflected in my work. I was sounding bored. Live radio is incredibly difficult. That’s what the challenge is. It’s incredibly difficult to step off that cliff every day at 2:06:30, and it never fails; my palms get sweaty, I have a tiny little constriction in my throat, and that’s when I know I’m alive. It’s the sheer mechanical difficulty at the same time as the intellectual difficulty — those kinds of challenges.
The fact of the matter is, we have good days and we have not-so-good days. We have technique for those moments when you can’t think of anything else. Technique is what we fall back on when we are out of ideas. And technique will get you through a lot of programs. Technique is what you need to have when you’ve asked your guest the waist-high fastball question, and then you’ve got the producer yammering in one ear and you’re trying to read the emails with one eye and the caller screen with the other eye, and all of a sudden you realize they’ve stopped talking. And you don’t have a clue as to what in the world they said. They might have answered questions one through six. Where do you go now?
The way to learn how to do this is to listen to and learn from the technique of very skilled interviewers. In my life I’ve had the good fortune to work with people of the quality of Susan Stamberg and Terry Gross. Listen for the content and the manner in which they ask their questions. This is extremely instructive. Listen, in short, to their technique. Do they back into it? Do they confront it? Do they have a little preamble? It’s very interesting to listen to how they do what they do. Siegel is another one who is very, very good. This is a person who is obviously very smart, but his best questions are very, very short questions.
The answer to the conundrum about what you do when the person is talking and has stopped talking and you don’t have a clue as to what they said, the fallback question in those circumstances is almost a motto for a business. The fallback question is, “That’s fascinating. Tell me more.” That will never fail to get a response.