SKILLS FOR CITIZEN JOURNALISTS…
23. Doing radio interviews
Radio brings an immediacy missing in print media interviews. To use it successfully as interviewer or interviewee, there are a few things we can keep in mind.
WAY BACK, I worked in radio news and current affairs and learned how important it is for interviewees to be able to get their message across in a few succinct seconds. This is a critical skill because it gets the message across to listeners without a lot of waffle in which the key information could be lost. If the interview is recorded it also avoids the editor spending time getting your sound file ready for broadcast.
Doing this depends to some extent on the questions the interviewer asks. It pays to do a little research on the interviewee and the topic you will talk with them about, and thinking about the types of questions you would ask before the interview, however be prepared to diverge if the interviewee reveals some previously unknown or interesting information that would be newsworthy to your listeners. An example of not doing this occurred during the years of the Hawke government in Australia when prime minister Hawke deliberately revealed something but the radio interviewer, intent on the questions they wanted to ask, let it go, foregoing the announcement of important policy news.
One thing it is important for an interviewer to avoid is waffling on and making a speech of their question. Questions should be sort and sharp. I have heard interviewers rambling on for far too long when it is the interviewee who should be doing the bulk of the talking.
Answering with pithy replies to an interviewers questions was a skill I found useful when I was doing communications for community organisations and an international development NGO for which I was the development educator. Program producers would phone to arrange radio interviews later in the day. The interviews would be only a few minutes at most, other than one which was an hour with a late-night ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) program where I talked with the host and responded to listeners’ phone calls. Most were direct-to-air. Being able to get my message over concisely was also useful when speaking to print media journalists. They appreciate straight-to-the-point answers as much as radio journalists do.
Radio interviews will be either live — direct-to-air — or recorded for later broadcast. It is useful to listen to those broadcast later to think about how you responded to questions.
Interviews usually happen via phone. Prepare by finding a quiet location to do the interview and have a good knowledge of your topic.
Responding to journalists
Other than for specialist programs, the questions journalists ask are designed to elicit basic information for a general audience most of whom probably know nothing of the topic. This is worth remembering when you respond to their questions. Most listeners will not understand complicated answers that use technical language.
Here’s a few points about responding to radio interviews.
Be prepared to repeatedly answer the same questions
The last time I did a radio interview the journalist asked the same questions I had been asked numerous times before. They were basic questions for people who knew little about the topic. My response had to be in terms and concepts the listeners would understand.
If you do communications for an organisation and are asked the same questions repeatedly:
- make a list of commonly-asked questions
- prepare succinct, accurate and informative talking points beforehand so you can reuse them
- on air, word your answers in ways that suit the style of radio program and its audience, if you know that; in responding to questions from ABC radio journalists and program hosts, I knew the audience was mostly middle-class, well-educated people; I responded using language that appealed to the values commonly held by that demographic, using words they would understand and avoiding technical terms.
If you are interviewed by radio or TV, whether the interview is live-to-air or is recorded for later playback, remember that interviewers like short, to-the-point grabs rather than lengthy answers that they have to spend time editing to shorter form.
Radio and television is the land of the brief comment and you will be lucky to get more than a few minutes of radio airtime, especially on commercial radio.
The contested interview
In contested interview, where a program, print or online media feature interviewees for and against a topic, the important thing is not to lose your cool but to respond calmly to what is said, always giving the impression of being the ‘reasonable person’.
Sometimes, an interview will bring together two people who are in agreement around a topic. This sidesteps the back-and-forth of contested dialog to explore a topic in greater detail. An interview I did on ABC Radio National illustrates the point. A woman in Perth provided the incident the interview was based on, her’s being the case study. The interviewer went back and forth between us, the Perth woman providing the detail and me providing contexting comment about policy, local government and other cases.
The devil’s advocate
Some interviewers might use devil’s advocate questioning. These are questions that get the person being interviewed to justify something. They do not indicate hostility by the interviewer, but are an attempt to dig a little deeper than some more-easy-going interviews do.
Devil’s advocate questions might focus on known or hypothetical issues. For example, a devil’s advocate question might go like this: “Why should council give an area of the park for the exclusive use of a particular group?”. The context here is the alienation of public land. The question stimulates a reasoned response that brings up precedents and opportunities and that justifies the action.
It can be useful for spokespeople to devise their own hypothetical devil’s advocate questions so as to have ready answers.
Before an interview with any type of media it’s a good idea to sit down and scribble out the main points you would like to get across if the opportunity comes up, especially those about the commonly-asked questions. You might not get the opportunity to raise all of them, so list three as key messages. They can often be segued into answers to an interviewer’s questions.
This is a useful technique for live-to-air interviews as, although the interviewer will have a set of prepared questions, they may be flexible and allow the conversation a degree of freedom in where it goes within time and topic limits. They will pull the interviewee back to their prepared questions when necessary.
On radio or TV, answer questions conversationally. Never read from notes you have made (they are aides to thinking and preparing, not scripts) because you will sound stilted rather than conversational.
Another idea for interview preparation is to write down any website or email addresses and any numbers to do with answering questions you might be asked. You are best to memorise these so as to easily use them in your responses. You don’t want to break the flow of conversation by stopping mid-sentence to glance at your notes. That would make you look like you don’t know your topic.
In TV and video interviews look at the interviewer rather than the camera.
For some radio and TV programs you will first be called by a producer, the person who arranges and schedules interviews. It is from that conversation that they get a gist of the topic area and develop the questions the interviewer will ask. They will usually ask you for your website URL or other means of contact as these are sometimes mentioned at the conclusion of an interview. Some radio programs add them to their program’s website.
Answering provocative questions
They are unlikely to happen with uncontroversial topics, however be prepared to respond to difficult questions.
Answering in the wrong verbal tone or language works against you and your organisation. Retain a calm voice and calm manner of speech so that you come across as reasonable. It is best to come across as solutions-oriented, rather than becoming bogged down in details of a disagreement about which you might not be well informed. Answering in terms of principles rather than prescriptions might work. Make it clear that you are not familiar with the details of the case, if true.
I probably don’t have to say not to lie. If you don’t know something, say so. If you are uncertain as to details, say so.
Being a spokesperson
To be a spokesperson for a community organisation you need to be available. That means nighttime as well as daytime.
Set up an email for your role as spokesperson. Do not use your personal email because it will be on your organisation’s website or social media.
You will need to keep your mobile phone on, at least during what passes for normal working hours between 9am and 6pm. Producers will often prepare the afternoon’s program in the morning and will call at that time of day to arrange a time for a later interview.
Check email regularly, especially if is the only point of contact listed on your organisation’s website. Print and online journalists work to deadlines and will need to establish contact as early as possible. They will often email to ask for a phone number on which to make contact. If they want to record a phone interview they should ask you if that is okay. Doing that helps get the quotes you make more accurate and allows the journalist to go back over the recording to make sure they have something that you have said correct. Some print or online journalists will conduct an interview via email.
If you are a spokesperson for an organisation, have a clear, sharply-focused head-and-shoulders photograph of yourself at a larger resolution that you can email to a publication of they ask for one.
It’s nothing complicated
Being a spokesperson is not a complicated thing. So long as you avoid being argumentative and sound reasonable, so long as you come across as relaxed, honest and approachable and speak clearly and slowly, you will create a good impression. People often form their impression in the first few minutes of a conversation, and they do so through the emotions they experience.
Why not practice with others of your group? Someone plays the interviewer, sometimes with easy questions but also with inquiring, difficult questions, while others listen in and feed back their impressions. Keep doing this until you are happy with their responses and with your own performance.
The Citizen Journalism Manual…
- Citizen journalism: A few definitions