I didn’t book any of these people who appeared on the Talking Feds panel at the Texas Tribune festival in Austin, Texas in 2019. Harry Litman, the host, did that hard work. Pro tip: Always make the person with the best rolodex do all the booking. Also wow, Ellen Weintraub, FEC Commissioner, is looking right AT me.

How to book a guest

Jennie Josephson
The Mechanics of Producing

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Wow, do I dread the booking process.

There are lots of reasons why I dread performing this foundational act of journalism, but it all comes down to the fact that I hate to bother people. Yet I’ve had to keep booking guests in one media format or another for the last twenty plus years, so I’m going to pass on some information. I’ve got three big picture thoughts and then some process tips.

1. There are three types of bookings

There are obviously more than three. Book authors, celebrities and presidents are a whole other drama with specific rules of engagement. Booking for television news has its own complicated set of rules, technical logistics and distributed work process. (Clearly a future article.) It also has many more things that can go wrong and many, many more people who feel they have the right to scream at you — but that’s more about the process of making television than booking. So to simplify, I’m going to say that there are three types of bookings:

Ultra competitive bookings: I still get the shudders when I think about the rare times I’ve been swept up in ultra-competitive bookings for morning news TV shows. Every morning show except yours sends their best murder-bot super booker to a small town because something terrible has happened. I would be there, in all my unqualified glory, because I naively thought I was just sent to get tape for the Evening News. I found these types of bookings upsetting, because they involved a level of psychological manipulation with which I was deeply uncomfortable. We had space to fill on television and we were filling it with other people’s trauma. And I had to convince people it was worth getting up at 3:30 in the morning (Pacific Standard Time) to stand in the frigid desert air in front of a noisy satellite truck and share their pain and loss with the world — but only on our own third-place morning news show.

Less competitive bookings: This is the glorious long tail of less competitive guests. These guests are the basic building blocks of understanding and explanation in television and radio news pieces, and I’m so grateful for the time and personal kindness that most of them have shown me. Most of my examples here are from radio and podcasts, because that’s the most recent booking experience in my memory. But I spent a lot of time at the same people’s offices and homes when I was an associate producer in television, and they were always wonderful at sharing their time and explaining complex topics simply.

Anyway, I’m not trying to say that your less competitive guests aren’t busy people, or that their brush with the news of the day doesn’t create demand with other, similar news, educational or entertainment programs. But no one is playing games with their time or your mind. They may have an agent or publicist or PIO, but that person is usually not horrible.

Accidental joy: Ah yes, the accidental joy of discovering a less well known human who can express both emotion and intellect in equal measure, and, despite their busy day, agrees to take part in a perfect interview with your host, and nothing fouls up their audio. When everything goes right, you feel like a genius for one whole day.

I did, however, manage to get all these legal superstars to an Austin, Texas restaurant to eat breakfast and talk law for Feds n’ Tacos. Talk about accidental joy. And the audio wasn’t even terrible!

Booking a guest is neither art nor science. It is a discipline.

Booking is a repeatable process with infinite choices and outcomes. For members of the Overthinkers of America Club, this is a deeply perilous assignment. To my fellow agonizers, I can only say: Think less, write more emails. Like any other skill, the more guests you book, the better you will be at booking guests.

Limit your journalism-centric imposter syndrome

We’re focused on the pure process of booking here. Too much thinking about “how to journalism” is an unhelpful process blocker. I used to put myself down all the time because I wasn’t an investigative reporter. But it took me a long time to realize that 99.9 percent of the time, I didn’t need an anonymous source. I needed a smart professor who could put words together in a sentence for a television piece that’s headed directly out into space.

Ok, now on the practical stuff.

The who, what, where, when, why, how, and WTF of booking guests

WHO (SHOULD I BOOK?)

A producer is often responsible for putting together a segment on a specific topic. You need a guest or expert for your host to interview. But who is that? Start with these questions:

Who is an expert in the topic? A lot of smart people.

Who can put a complete thought about that topic into a reasonably short and interesting statement? Fewer people than you’d think.

Who is available? This is the true reality of booking. For day-of-air bookings, you do not always get the perfect guest — you get the guest who is available at the exact moment your busy correspondent is also available.

Depending on your news organization, there can be other considerations. Do you need someone from a non-partisan organization? If they are from a left- or right-leaning organization, you will need to have your host add this fact to their intro.

Pro-tip: Before you call a potential guest, put their name in to a search engine and add the word “problematic.” If you get a lot of hits on that search from reputable sources? Don’t call them until you can do further diligence. This isn’t foolproof, but it can really limit day-of-air oopsies.

WHAT (AM I TRYING TO DO?)

This is a short way of asking: What is my purpose with this interview? Is it to “break news” or is it to “educate” — you might book the mayor for one and a professor for the other.

What information am I trying to convey to the audience? Facts only? Analysis? Pure opinion? There may be multiple speakers in a news spot, how do you balance out the experts in a complementary way? It helps to talk this over with your host or senior producer before you start booking. Sometimes your purpose is to have a just goofy, entertaining interview with a fun person. This is not a bad thing. Information comes in all packages.

Know your purpose. It helps!

WHERE (DO I FIND GUESTS?)

Where does one find guests and experts who can speak succinctly, accurately and hopefully with a little pith?

Easiest way: Your host says, “Go get Stan Collender, The Budget Guy.” You can stop worrying now.

Easy online way: Wide range, some perils, but whew, the booking life is easier in 2021 than it was in 2002. If you search “Nevada” and “politics” and “reporter” you are going to find Jon Ralston. Embrace specificity in search terms. Beware algorithms that feed you SEO-juiced “experts” — Have they ever been quoted in a newspaper? Hey, why not just search the best newspapers in the state? You get my point.

Collaborative & efficient way: Stick your head out of your cubicle (2019) or type in Slack (2020). “Who do we usually get to talk about racial inequity in the law?” And someone yells, or types, “If you can’t get Daria Roithmayr at USC, try x, y or z” and boom, that’s done. It’s not a sign of weakness to seek collective knowledge, it’s a sign of confidence.

Better representation mean better interviews: Speaking of inequality, the media is getting a little better at diversifying their expert base, but institutionally, there is always an urge to “go with who you know.” And, shitty but true, the media has always put way more white experts on air than anyone else. So take a few minutes to go a little deeper and look for a professor, policy expert, or city official who represents a different part of the American experience. Many organizations now put out lists that make this easier, and you can also start your own.

Develop new talent: If you have a week of lead time, why not develop an up and coming voice? You don’t always have to settle for a guest who already has access to media. You could give someone a chance who might need a little more practice, but really has something to say. Who gave that quote in a local newspaper that impressed you so much you saved it in bookmarks? Find them and see if they want to do TV. It’s also good to bring your personal experience and preferences into booking, as long as the person you book is qualified and not your friend. (If they are, please tell someone this and let them decide.) You can even put your favorite independent musician on the air if the topic is right.

Pro-tip: If someone is untested in your medium, you don’t have to commit to booking them in the email. You can say: “We’re looking for someone to talk with about x topic. Would you have ten minutes to hop on the phone and do a quick pre-interview?” This gets you off the hook if they can’t put a sentence together, or if the perfect expert finally calls you back. (It happens.)

Pro-tip 2: If it’s urgent, pick up the phone and call them.

WHEN (CAN WE TAPE? AND ALSO WHERE)

Ah yes, the logistics.

What time is your host available, and what time is the guest available?

Are your host and guest in the same time zone? If not, use multiple time zones in your email.

“Hi Marian, thanks so much for writing me back! Would you be available to talk with my host tomorrow, Monday the 19th, at 11:30am PST / 10:30am AKST? There’s a public radio station in Wasilla, Alaska that should be able to record your end of the conversation.”

Do you understand the concept of Mountain time? People in the Mountain time are proud of their time zone and use it often.

Is Central time just the hardest math to do? Yes. Don’t ask me why.

Are you dealing with standard or daylight time? This is important with international bookings because clocks roll forward and back at different times in different countries.

Would it help to use UTC? Universal coordinated time, which used to be known in colonial times as Greenwich Mean Time.

Is your guest using the 24 hour clock? (Subtract 12 from any time after 12 noon.)

Are you dealing with booking satellite time? TRIPLE CHECK YOUR WORK. Satellite time is very expensive.

Pro-tip: Use caution when a guest is in Arizona or certain parts of the midwest as time zones can get interesting. This time zone convertor is my best booking friend.

Location: Would the interview benefit from being in person (2019 rules) or can we do a remote interview (2020 mandatory). If, (someday) in person, does my guest know exactly when and how to get to the studio? Do they know where to park their car? Do they need a car sent for them (this happens more in TV). Do they require any mobility accommodations? The more you think about these things in advance, the better the experience for the guest. They will likely want coffee or water, and always, always, pay for their parking.

WHY (PRE-INTERVIEW)

Once you have found your person, if they are new to you, please pre-interview them. If you’ve had them on the show a few times, this process can happen over email. A pre-interview can take ten minutes or less, but you have to know what you’re getting your host into. And you will get a lot of useful information to help you write the prep, the questions, and the blog post.

A pre-interview with a fascinating expert does not always equal that person’s ability to compress their brilliance into a soundbite. The pre-interview is the audition. You have to say, “That’s fascinating. How would you say that in soundbite form?” or “Interesting. Is it possible to get all of that in shorter answers?”

If they can’t do this, you are not obligated to book them!

Thank them for their time, say you’ll get right back to them and hang up the phone. Then in twenty minutes, email them and say that you are going in another direction, but you appreciate their taking the time to explain so much about the topic. (Please don’t do this to the same person twice.)

If they press you on why, it’s OK to say, “We only have three minutes for the segment, and you deserve more time to explain this topic in full.” I have had university professors get a little snippy about this approach. This is when I ask them if there is a media relations person at their university who can help them get their vast store of knowledge into soundbite form. That usually ends the conversation.

Pro-tip: Even if they’re brilliant, don’t book someone that you know is going to be a torturous conversation. If they are haughty, pedantic, enamored of run-on sentences that turn into an endless stream of dependent clauses that will be insanely difficult to edit, don’t do it. HOWEVER: Do not rule someone out because they speak in accented English. Do not rule someone out because someone in the office thinks they have vocal fry. Do not rule someone out because they pause to actually think — sometimes the pauses are part of the story. Even if they aren’t, you can always edit for time.

HOW (TO SAVE TIME)

Make lots of email templates! (I’ll put some of mine up somewhere for you when I can). But the email should include:

A salutation and a proper form of address.

Your name, your host’s name and program name.

A request to have them appear on your program. This pairs nicely with a complement about the thing you like about them, their book, a documentary appearance, whatever.

The general time and date you’re looking to talk with them. (This will likely involve some email back and forth)

A boilerplate paragraph about your program, including your standard messaging about audience numbers, influence or relevance. If your show is less well known, include names of previous guests as validation that you’re doing good work. This is all especially important if a publicist is involved. They want to know they aren’t wasting their client’s time.

A time-based call to action: “We’d like to tape this segment Thursday, so please let me know as soon as possible if this is something you’re interested in doing.”

A thank you, and a signature that includes all your contact info, including your email even if that seems redundant.

There are levels upon levels of how to write a booking email depending on the person you’re writing to, but we’ll stop here for now and level up later.

WTF (AM I DOING?)

Sometimes SHIT JUST GOES WRONG.

Like, hilariously, awfully wrong. Remind me to tell you a funny awful story that involving a competitive booking, Jay Leno and a spaceship.

Sometimes things go wrong in a way that is not so funny. I have blocked so many details of my life as an unwilling TV booker from my mind, but this one fragmented visual sliver remains so powerful that I’m going to share it anyway.

I was maybe 27 or 28, working out of the CBS News LA Bureau as an associate producer. I was sent to a small California town to cover a horrific murder or kidnapping. I’ve forgotten exactly which town, but in my muddled memory it has become a blend of high desert Lancaster and Central Valley Fresno, the kind of small Western town with a neatly planned grid of streets superimposed onto hard packed dirt and tumbleweeds. The kind of town in which people live their whole lives without admitting the depth of evil that lurks next door.

I was there to interview family members and go to press conferences. This is a job you can do in daylight hours. I had a camera and sound team and a maybe a satellite truck, but no one else from my news organization was there. There was however, a booking producer in New York headquarters, who was desperately trying to book a family member to appear on morning television. But you cannot book a competitive guest from long distance. You need someone to sit in their living room and mourn with them and extract promises to appear only on your network. You need to make a human connection in order to seal the deal.

In this case, the booker in New York headquarters, whoever she was, had already lost the booking game. The guest, a young woman, was not at her home and not at her mother’s house. I’d last seen her at a press conference, but now she was nowhere to be found. That meant she was either stashed in a motel, or on a plane to New York. And the next time I would likely see her was on The Today Show or GMA at 7:35am EST. This represented a failure on my part, a failure for the booker in New York, and an eventual reckoning from cascading hierarchies of screaming senior and executive producers in New York, who were themselves in thrall to their bosses.

So the New York booker, feeling the pressure from her screamers, kept pushing me to “FIND OUR GUEST. FIND HER. DO IT. DON’T GIVE UP.” This guest had never really been ours to begin with, and never would be. And yet there I was, driving a rental car around the empty streets of a small town at 1am, driving from motel to motel looking for signs of…something. The New York booker was calling me every five minutes so that I would “NEVER GIVE UP”, after a full day of doing my part for the network. Her job was so miserable that she needed to prove, at every level, that she had pushed that producer on location to do everything in her power to find the “guest.”

The utter loneliness I felt driving around that town, trying to stay awake, hoping to find that guest, but also hoping NOT to find her, because then I would have to stay up all night to actually get her on TV, so that something, anything could move us one point up in the ratings. I could not fix this. I could not solve this. I had lost the game. And to so many people in the chain it was a game. The fact that the young woman in question had lost family, was never the point. I eventually gave up and went home, cried my eyes out, wondered why I was doing the job at all, got three hours of sleep and woke up to start the news cycle again.

So I guess the moral of this story is control what you can, fix what you can, but don’t let anyone bully you past . At the end of the day, you must believe that sometimes, the gods just like to hurl thunderbolts while you slog through the booking swamps of despair, and if you dodge most of them, that’s good enough.

Also, this is why I prefer booking for radio.

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P.S. Ask me questions if you’ve got ’em, and if you actually like to book guests, let me know, so you I can book you to write about it.

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