The Third Degree
March 4, 2011
There's a highly controversial figure out there. You manage to book that person for an interview, even though you're a little -- or a lot -- repulsed by the prospect. Do you do the interview? And if you do, how do you handle it -- with deference, with decorum, with skepticism, or with fire?
So you have the opportunity to book Charlie Sheen or Shirley Phelps or Moammar Gadhafi. What do you do first?
First, there was my rule as a programmer, with due credit to Walter Sabo, who hammered this point home every time a host was tempted to just book a guest because one was available and there was a segment to fill: No interviews. None... all right, maybe on occasion, but if you MUST do them, have a reason to do it besides filling time, and don't be afraid to ask tough questions.
The latter point is, I believe, the key to radio interviews. A host is, after all, the representative of the listeners. If you're conducting an interview, you need to ask the questions your listeners want you to ask. It's your job to get the answers your audience wants to hear. Your job is not to become friends with the interviewee, it's to entertain, and kissing up to someone isn't entertaining. It's not that you have to be hostile, but you shouldn't be totally deferential, either.
All right, then, you're repulsed by the person you have to interview. You have two choices: You can just not book the interview, or you can approach it as a chance to tell the subject what you think and ask the tough questions you think he or she deserves. If you can't bring yourself to do the latter, or you don't want to "give them the publicity they're craving," don't book the interview. That's not a difficult concept. It turns out that you don't have to do an interview if you don't want to do it (and that goes for the ones you think you have to take in order to get the ones you really want -- that's never worth it and it just allows a publicist to decide what your show is going to be, which is unfair to your listeners). You think it's exploitative to put the crazed actor whose sanity is in question on the radio? Don't book him. You think that allowing someone who pickets military funerals to speak on the air is just giving her time to spout ideas you find sick? Don't book her. There's no law requiring you to do an interview.
But when the entire world is hungry for more Charlie Sheen, or the hot topic on your station is the Supreme Court ruling on the funeral pickets, and you have the chance to get the people at the center of those topics on the air, it's hard to pass that up. But if you're going to toss softball questions, you might as well pass. I heard a lot of the Charlie Sheen interviews, and, yes, it was entertaining in a "look at that car wreck" way to hear the "winning" and "tiger blood" stuff. But it was frustrating not to hear a lot of challenges to the things he was saying. Everyone was... polite. Even deferential. Maybe frightened of him, which is understandable, but this is a guy who's said and done things that ought to draw some tough questions. So maybe he'd hang up or get angry and never call you again. That's a problem? Or maybe, just maybe, he'd accept the challenge and answer your questions. Either way, you gotta ask what your listeners would ask if they were in your position. You represent them. You don't have to be nasty -- you CAN be polite -- but outrageous allegations shouldn't go unchallenged, and uncomfortable topics should be addressed.
If you're a talk radio show host, that IS your job.
Besides way too much about the Vatican Assassin, what else is available at Talk Topics, the show prep column at AllAccess.com, this week? Tons, like something that even a Vegas Strip casino thinks is too garish, the end of free pretzels in coach on Continental, why you're paying even if you bring only carry-ons aboard your flight, a car that has a special attraction to spiders, Americans' poor sleep habits, a study that claims conservative politicians are better-looking than liberals, another case where a dog chews off a guy's toes and he doesn't notice it, the big jump in gas prices this week, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz' new son Carlos and his other son Carlos, the iPad 2, dirty shopping carts, the most toxic city in America, whether class size matters, the World's Hairiest Girl, how the government wastes billions, the Great Interstate Whoopie Pie Dispute, and Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo. And there's much more, so go here whenever you're preparing your show, or just to see what else people are up to. After that, take a look at "10 Questions With..." Michael Smerconish, the syndicated Dial Global and WPHT/Philadelphia host, who talks about his political independence, his work on the 9/11 memorial in Pennsylvania, and a lot more, and then go read the rest of All Access with all the news and features and ratings and job listings you can handle, updated all day every day, and all free.
And, hey, while you have some free time, why not see what's up at my other non-radio writing venues? You'll find my observations on the dregs of pop culture and sports past, with video and pictures and other stuff, at pmsimon.com; my general musings on life, sports, and pizza at twitter.com/pmsimon; and I'm editing, and writing for, Chris Hardwick's Nerdist.com, a celebration of nerd culture from sci-fi to comedy to indie rock and more. Come on by.
I'm aware that this makes two weeks in a row that the topic for this column has involved Charlie Sheen. I'm also aware that there are other things going on in the world and I should be focusing on those things. So next week, I promise to write something about more important issues. How does Kim Kardashian sound?
Perry Michael Simon
All Access News-Talk-Sports