Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

When Someone You’ve Interviewed Dies

leave a comment »

Microphone and Ribbon

Robert LeVoy Finicum died on Highway 395 late yesterday afternoon, somewhere between the towns of Burns and John Day, Oregon.  Mr. Finicum was the spokesperson for the occupiers at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.  Eight others were arrested.  As of yet, law enforcement has not given any details about what transpired on that highway.

This post was inspired by OPBs host of it’s midday news program, “Think Outloud”.  Dave Miller talked with Mr. Finicum twice in the last week about the standoff at the refuge.   This isn’t about the developments at the refuge.  Readers can find that in a number of other places, especially at the OPB website.

This is about when someone you’ve interviewed dies.  And of course, I can’t speak to what Mr. Miller may or may not be feeling in the wake of Mr. Finicum’s death.  But I can talk about my own experience and it has only happened to me once.  In 1980, I was stationed at Ft. Devens, MA, which was about 35 miles west of Boston via Route 2A.  I was a new Army Broadcaster and my first job was to operate the post’s closed circuit radio station, WFDB.  But I wasn’t content with playing the impressive collection of albums and 45s.  And when I found a 1976 Billboard Talent Directory, I knew what I was going to do.

I started calling promoters and agents of stars who were performing in Boston.  I told them I represented a military audience of several thousand (the number of active duty at Ft. Devens) and it worked.  In my year there, I interviewed A-listers of the day; Harry Chapin, Kenny Rogers, Bob James, Gladys Knight and Kool and the Gang.  Kool was a phone interview.  I talked to Mr. Rogers as part of a press pool in Manchester, N.H.  Mr. James and Ms. Knight and the Pips performed at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston.  I talked with Mr. Chapin on May 31, 1981.  He was performing at Chateau DeVille in Framingham.

Mr. Chapin, I remember, was clearly stoned.  But he was funny and warm and genuine.  Coming and going to the interview, I was singing every song of his in my head that I knew; Cats in the Cradle, Taxi, She’s Always Seventeen, W.O.L.D. and others.  I was thrilled to talk with him.  And I rushed back to edit and play our conversation on the cable radio station.  About eight years later, I loaned the tape to a co-worker at one of my broadcasting assignments and absent-mindedly forgot to get it back before I left the service.

Anyway, about six weeks later, on July 17, 1981, I heard that Harry Chapin had been killed when his little car pulled in front of a fast moving semi-tractor trailer on the Long Island Expressway.  I was stunned.  I’d grown up with his music.  Cats in the Cradle, especially, had a big effect on me and my Dad.  I think it’s a song many sons and fathers have in their minds whenever life changes their relationship.

Hearing about his death, it felt weird.  An interview is like a speed date.  It’s not like somebody you pass on the street or see everyday on the bus.  But it’s not like you’re exactly good friends either.  It’s somewhere in the middle.  You get to know people deeply and intimately, but quickly.  And just as quickly, you may never see them again.  It’s kind of a shock to think that you were just laughing at this person’s jokes, admiring (or being intimidated by) their work ethic, or noticing a tell or some personal mannerism that makes them uniquely them … something other people might not have noticed.

And then, they’re gone.

Mr. Chapin’s death changed how I looked at life.  I could die like that.  I could die at any time.  Everything I plan could go unfinished.  I might not die in my sleep or surrounded by loved ones or saving someone else’s life.   It made me ask harder questions like what should I be doing and how much shit will I put up with from others in my own life?

And his death changed how I would do interviews in the future.  I would not ask pedantic questions because every second with someone with a story to tell is a gift and every question needed to answer somebody’s else’s question.  I would tell them how much I admired whatever they excelled at but not gush because they get enough of that and they have to be somewhere else soon enough.  I would research the hell out of them so they knew I did my homework and could feel respected by the effort on my part.  And I would always try to remember to show my appreciation by saying “thank you” for their time.

Someone like Terry Gross or Charlie Rose has probably figured a way to ease themselves through the loss of someone they’ve come to know through a good, long talk.  Like I said, it’s only happened to me once.  I don’t know how many times it’s happened to Mr. Miller.

But every brutal goodbye is a rough one.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: