The art of the (student radio) interview

Written by Theo Davies-Lewis, an undergraduate studying Archaeology and Anthropology at St Hugh’s College.

Theo Davies-Lewis with Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum

To many people, an interview is simply about asking the questions and shooting down the responses.

It perhaps seems like that, too, especially with the confrontational and combative interviewing techniques of some of British journalism’s stalwarts, such as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys.

But I’ve learned over several months of interviewing a wide range of people — historians, politicians, campaigners, students (and journalists themselves!) — that interviewing is indeed a form of “art”.

One can think of interviewing like the process of completing a drawing or painting: you research and find your title and subject, sketch out some ideas, develop it more with some advice and help from others, and then put the ideas into practice.

It is an imperfect analogy, and one which has been used before, but captures my own experience of interviewing guests on a weekly basis on my radio show, Oxford Today, on the University’s only student radio station, Oxide Radio.

Firstly, however, Oxford’s strange relationship with radio is worth noting.

BBC presenter Nick Robinson tried (and failed) to set a student radio station up at the end of the 1980s, and while the University has had some sort of station since the end of the 1990s, its history is colourful to say the least: from winning BBC Radio 1 student radio awards, to a no platform incident involving Nick Griffin, Oxide was not only broadcasting the news but the subject of it.

With the BBC’s Nick Robinson

Thankfully, the station relaunched after a period of inactivity in October 2017 — giving Oxford students a platform to broadcast live and pre-recorded political, comedy, news, entertainment, general interest and music shows for thousands of students.

I had some extensive experience of interviewing before I started Oxford Today, but one-on-one recorded conversations seems to have a far more intimate aspect to it.

The idea of the show came to me during the summer of last year, as I felt like not many student radio stations had serious in-depth series interviewing programmes, and since Oxford has some of the most prominent figures in various fields, there would plenty of avenues and topics to explore throughout the year.

I was, after all, dubbed the George Clooney of Oxford by Lord Patten in my first interview

However, to prepare, organise and broadcast an interview every week up to an hour long was something that needed a strong team as well as keen and often overconfident interview. I’m very lucky to have had two skilled student producers, Mark Rapaport and Kitty Hatchley, dedicated to the show and its objectives good and informative journalism from the start.

Working with producers has also showed me that interviewing is not solely about the interviewer and the interviewee.

Mark and Kitty work alongside me to prepare briefing notes for every interview, which ensures that every appropriate topic is covered. Most people are surprised that we seem to take ourselves that seriously, but without that preparation and skeleton outline for an interview, you are essentially walking into it blind.

I don’t always follow these notes exactly as they are structured; otherwise it’s too robotic not natural enough for an in-depth profile or discussion with a guest.

As someone who is still learning the trade, so to speak, I’ve made it a rule never to imitate the mannerisms of any of the great presenters on British radio and television. That’s not what students tend to like. They like authenticity — whatever that is — and a natural style that shows that you are conducting the interview because you want to, and because you have important and relevant questions to ask the guests.

Fortunately, I don’t usually have the problem of getting an answer out of them. Whether that’s down to my interviewing style (I was, after all, dubbed the George Clooney of Oxford by Lord Patten in my first interview), or the calibre of the guests, is up for debate.

I have enjoyed debating and discussing with some of the most interesting people in the University community. These include the Bishop of Oxford, who reflected on the debates within the Church of England about same-sex marriage; former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who shared some insights into his new academic work being carried out at Oxford; and Pamela Roberts, author of “Black Oxford”, who passionately advocated decolonizing our University and improving awareness of black scholars at British universities.

With the author Pamela Roberts

Moreover, the most fundamental lessons that one can learn from student radio interviewing is the wide range of human interest stories that there are out there.

The most enjoyable, the most fascinating interviews are from those Oxonians who have a story to tell. Titles are great to show-off on the Oxide website, but it is those people, like sepsis survivor and Egyptologist Liz Frood, that have the most profound effect on you as an interviewer.

Difficult, almost intimate emotional encounters, are experienced in our studio on Worcester Street. While this experience of interviewing is often challenging, emotionally and psychologically, it is the most rewarding feeling of my week in Oxford.

Theo Davies-Lewis is the Station Manager of Oxide Radio and presenter of Oxford Today. Follow him on twitter @TDaviesLewis.

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