KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT: What Working in Radio Has Taught Me About Interviewing

When it comes to reporting, I’ve worked in pretty much every medium out there… TV, newspaper, magazine, online, radio. Having a journalism background allowed me to hone my skills as an interviewer and that’s helped me in the copywriting world too. It helps me draw out the visions of my corporate clients, getting their ideas down on paper in ways they could never fully express.

I recently got back into radio, with a part-time gig that keeps me plugged in to the business without having to devote my life to it. I’ll admit I’m still a little rusty, having been away from the mic for nearly five years, but it’s a nice little side project.

Gathering sound and filing reports over the past few weeks reminded me about some of the skills that lead to a good interview, so I wanted to take a moment to share them.

A good interviewer needs to know more than just what type of questions to ask. He or she also needs to know how to ask them and when to …

Shut Up and Listen.

When they’re on deadline, reporters often go into an interview with a preconceived notion of what they want to write about, having already formed what they think is a good angle for the story. That’s okay to some extent, but it can lead to lazy interviewing. Sometimes reporters will ask questions they know will solicit a response tailored to the story they’re trying to write.

Quiet when the little red light is on.

Radio doesn’t let you do that. Radio forces you to ask questions and listen to what your subject has to say. If you try to prod, encourage, or draw more out of them, it can ruin the recording.

That’s what happened during my first interview after getting back into radio. I questioned several people for a story, returning to the station with nearly 30 minutes of sound. How much of it was usable you ask? About 40 seconds worth. The recording was chock full of me saying “uh-huh,” “oh really?” and “wow, you don’t say” during the middle of their answers. I was trying to draw longer responses out of them, but I couldn’t shut my fat mouth long enough to let them finish their initial thoughts.

Ask Open Ended Questions.

Another reason much of the sound was unusable was because I was asking questions my interviewees could answer in one word. Radio forces you to ask open ended questions. It’s not like newspaper where you can piece together a bunch of different quotes to form fully coherent ideas. It’s just sound. And one word answers don’t make good radio.

If you ask someone, “Are you enjoying this sunny day?” They’ll likely say “Yes” in response. Don’t let them off the hook that easily. Ask something open ended like, “what are your plans for enjoying this nice sunny day?”

That forces them to answer your question with a complete sentence, which makes for a much more interesting (and usable) sound bite.

These techniques are simple but they take a little bit of practice. They certainly help you ask better questions. Plus, they might open up new angles to a story you hadn’t thought about. By listening to the subject’s answers you’re following up with questions relating to what they actually said, not what you expected them to say or what you wanted to hear.

Shameless plug alert!! If you’d like to hear me stumble through a radio broadcast, you can listen to my reports on random Saturday mornings from 6 a.m. – 11 a.m. Streaming live at wibc.com.

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2 Responses to KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT: What Working in Radio Has Taught Me About Interviewing

  1. Anna says:

    I saw your post on Twitter, great suggestions and insight! It’s hard not to say the “yeahs” and “ohs” to encourage someone along, but when you give your interviewee total silence, you get a lot more out of them. Nice thoughts.

  2. Anna,

    You point out something that’s pretty good advice for life in general. It’s often a good idea to sit back, keep your mouth shut and just listen for a while. That’s usually when we get some of the best insight and feedback.

    Thanks for reading and taking a moment to leave a comment.