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Broadcast Interview Scruples

The relationship between a broadcaster and an interview subject has triggered my curiosity. Let me tell you why. About 6 days before the Canadian election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reached out to the radio station I work with and made himself available for an interview. He rarely talks to media and it was certainly topical and timely, but the host had hesitations. There were conditions.

Jon McComb didn’t want to be shill for the Prime Minister and had no intention of turning a valuable segment of his show into a seven-minute infomercial. To make matters worse the Prime Minister’s handlers wouldn’t confirm if it was going to happen, when it was going to happen or where.

Jon was ready to walk from it.

I suggested that just because the conditions are laid out it doesn’t make them law. I advised Jon to do the following:

  • Ask one question each about the economy and housing. Any question. They wanted the whole interview about these topics, but editorial we weren’t willing to give up control. Economy and housing are big issues that we would have addressed anyway so there wasn’t much of a “give” there. But we were also interested in legalization of marijuana and other issues.
  • Do not worry about the seven minute time constraint. Keep asking questions until you get the interview you want. If they cut you off that is another story to share.
  • I also suggested complete transparency to the audience. I urged Jon to tell the whole story; his feelings, misgivings, observations, how he was treated, and what conditions we agreed to.

20151009-stephen-harper-023-2He did all of the above (listen here) and it turned what could have been a boring, seven minute political campaign interview into an hour of great radio which fueled conversation for a day. It also created news for other outlets: Vancouver News and Huffington Post.

The question at the heart of this particular interview is that there were conditions put forth and we didn’t go running through hills in opposition. We calmly considered the situation and looked for a way to make an interview with the leader of Canada a reality.

Some journalists are critical of what we did and see it as an affront to democracy and free media. I applaud their integrity and principles as journalists. But Jon isn’t a journalist. Jon is a talk host. He has an honest relationship with his audience and is obligated to inform and entertain every day. He did that with tremendous effect in this case. That being said, I would not have put a news reporter in the same position.

From a big picture perspective, talk shows negotiate conditions of interviews all the time.

  • What time?
  • Where?
  • How long?
  • About what?
  • Live or recorded?
  • How much $$$? Some organizations pay for newsmakers, I have only paid regular contributors in my career (ie. Columnists, athletes, beat reporters for other organizations)
  • What can I promote? Web addresses, products, events. We all agree to interviews with worthwhile spokespeople so we get access to them and they get their message out.

Some things are not negotiable. After all, I do have some scruples. I say no every time when a guest insists on using pre-agreed questions, wants to review the interview before it airs, have any say over edits or control over how it is presented on air.

The truth, which might be hard for some to swallow, is whether it be movie stars, authors, experts, politicians, celebrities or everyday people at the heart of every interview there is an unspoken quid pro quo. In all cases the radio station is attempting to get information, personal stories or access and in return the interviewee is receiving a platform, fame, access to our listeners, association with our brands or positioning as an expert. We don’t sell it that way and we don’t discuss it out loud, but deep down, buried in the unconscious recess of their existence, people who agree to an interview with the media are doing so because they get something from it.

So about those conditions. Is it better to take a pious position and reject all conditions out right or or be forthcoming and transparent and develop great content for the radio?

I am really interested in hearing how you view the topic. Please add comments by clicking the link at the top of the page.

  1. October 25, 2015 at 8:15 PM

    Interesting post and topic.

    As a longtime morning radio host, I have interviewed local and regional politicians, presidential candidates, Hollywood celebrities, and prominent sports figures.

    I can recall only one or two circumstances in 30+ years in which questions and topics were pre-approved. Once with (then) Senator Hillary Clinton and another time with an NFL general manager.

    In each case I agreed in advance to the conditions, but both times took liberties when we went live in order to achieve memorable content.

    When Hillary called us at the appointed time, her voice was a bit hoarse, so I told her she sounded like Marge Simpson. She liked it so much, she used the line at a fundraiser in town later that day, drawing a big laugh from the audience, and crediting our show by name.

    The interview proceeded according to our mutual agreement, but we had gotten our “moment.”

    I think if you’re good at being a conversationalist, you can find a creative way to serve the interests of the interview subject who has an agenda, while still “making your mark” with the audience.

    • October 26, 2015 at 8:34 PM

      Dave, thanks for sharing your experiences. How great she used your line AND credited your show. Excellent.

  2. Arnie Celsie
    October 26, 2015 at 8:28 PM

    Great post Larry, one for the manual… Thanks.

  1. December 21, 2015 at 9:15 PM

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