Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Audience

Non-Traditional

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As I read up on the innards of public radio while working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I’ve found something interesting.  It has been said that it’s important that public radio continue to focus on the audience it has; a 25% or so slice of the total listening audience (described as Innovators and Thinkers) while pursuing other segments of the audience not based on their skin color but on their interests and values.  That assumes the audience members in that sought after segment make no connection between the color of their own skin and their interests and values.

It reminds me of why non-traditional casting, as a rule, doesn’t work in the theater community.  I sat on the board of an African-American theater non-profit for a year and a half.  Audiences are comfortable seeing black actors playing in productions like “Porgy and Bess”, “Ain’t Misbehavin”, “Jitney” and a number of other productions written with the black experience in mind.  They are OK with the ocassional, high star power substitution.

But a black actor in a traditionally white role is a very uncomfortable experience for many non-black audience members.  This 1998 NYT Letter to the Editor makes that argument.  Nearly 15 years later, no less than the director of the London’s Stratford Shakespere Festival is still defending its validity.  Not much has changed.

To me, it’s an example of how even if the story is a human story, skin color is the lens that determines who sits in the audience to see it.  So making the assumption that doesn’t also work in the other direction, i.e., non-whites will consume public radio on the assumption they themselves don’t view culture through the lens of their own skin color, that is incorrect no matter what any data set says.

 

When Elephants Fight

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“When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” – African Proverb

In the course of working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I stumbled upon a conversation between two leaders in the public radio realm. Adam Davidson, who has been a content producer for NPR and APM with a particular interest in economics, and John Sutton, a long time radio researcher and fundraising consultant who has been following audience behaviour for decades.

Mr. Sutton responded to a conversation Mr. Davidson posted about the future of audio content and how public radio in general is facing an existential threat from new, long-form journalism from podcasts like “Serial”. Mr. Sutton responded that people don’t use podcasts the way they use radio as it currently exists and even with the technological changes that have rocked public radio, their effect in the long term will be smoothed out.  As time went on, their conversation got a lot livelier and their critiques of each other’s point of view, much more, … um … pointed.

Fortunately, what I’m working on isn’t specifically about program production, audience behaviour or technological innovation as it affects public radio. There are people are much smarter about those things than I will ever be. But it reveals the problem with experts. What is the public to do when standing between two people who have the credentials to clearly and cogently defend opposite points of view?

Pubcasters do everything they can to keep the public happy and in a giving mood and that means drawing as little attention as possible to such conversations. But in the deep underbelly of public radio, they ultimately direct bigger conversations. Like, for example, those over the success of Jarl Mohn, NPR’s new CEO who wants to bring more high value donors into NPR. It’s a strategy that drew justifiable skepticism from the host of OPB’s daily flagship radio news program in 2014.

Maybe the extra cash will help public radio rely less on pledge drives, give producers more freedom to produce higher quality programming and help it avoid future bloodbaths like the one that rocked the network in 2014. ICYMI, NPR made deep cuts in staff and programming in a cost saving move.

In their August 2015 conversation, both men do agree on one thing – the key to public radio’s success is producing programs the audience will listen to and pay for. Their discussion, found here, is probably only one of many such fights between such elephants deep within the public radio milieu.

Written by Interviewer

March 12, 2016 at 08:59

Answers about Questions

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This is a quickie.

As I labor through a project I’m currently working on, the question of questions came to mind.  Specifically, the questions a reporter should be asking in interviews while doing their reporting.  I am thinking of two types of questions to ask and two types of questions to not ask;

To Ask:
Questions you think the audience would ask if they could
Questions that compel the interviewee to reveal something you or they didn’t expect

To Not Ask
Questions that sound like you’re reading them
Questions that you think make you sound smart

Written by Interviewer

December 21, 2015 at 12:19

There’s a Book in There Somewhere

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Fund Drive

I was at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Washington DC for two and a half of four days last week but had to leave for a family emergency. I was there to get information and contacts for my book about the public radio fund drive.  I’ve had people tell me nobody would read a book on fund drives while others have said they would be the first to read it.  I’ve heard people say the audience isn’t really interested in whether stations make their fund drive goals while, unknown to audiences, staff that don’t make those goals feel demoralized (though, they’re told, if they want to keep their jobs, they better not show it).  That the data being crunched at the national level on fund drives is overwhelmingly abundant, detailed and focused, and at the same time, there are local stations essentially doing their own thing with regards to fund drives for which there is absolutely no data.

Two focus groups I ran before going there said people do want to know how much programs cost, including how much do stations pay to join NPR, how does that affect the shows they hear, and why are fund drives so boring.  Meanwhile, stations seem to be in a stranglehold of costs v revenue, staff v the ability to dive deep on administration and storytelling (hence the heavy reliance on volunteers), and autonomy v the long shadow of NPR, CPB and PBS.

At the conference, I noticed an obsession with language and how, rather than incite or insult, to infer the right (contributing) attitudes amongst listeners … although the inferences seem to change as rapidly as the language so as not to infer wrong attitudes.   More than once, I’ve heard someone (as in someone on the front line of a station somewhere) say, “Public radio doesn’t want to deal with this, talk about that, address this”, which makes me wonder if there is there a disconnect between the snappy promos moving downstream and something else going on regarding relationships at all levels,  And all of this orbits “you” (not “you all”); the donor, giver, sustainer, contributor, member, listener, audience. I have learned the fund drive is a relentless effort by stations to continue to spiral up in a deathly fear of themselves spiraling down.

Another friend in radio called the entire industry of public radio fundraising, “dastardly”.

Fund drives are about money, and public radio must be torn.  How do you use language that is both unambiguous and painfully transparent to raise huge sums of money from a public that wants high quality news, information and entertainment but not be overly annoyed by the ask?  How do you retire programs that should”ve been gone long ago except for big, loyal and financially powerful bases protecting them?  How do you reconcile with reeling stations and pissed off fans over cancelled programs that probably never should’ve been cancelled but for the fact that their base didn’t or couldn’t rally because they just didn’t have the numbers.

Fund drives are about business and business is about money.  “This model works”, pitchers say over and over.  But does it?

This is part of the state of the public radio fund drive.

Sounds like there’s a book in there somewhere.

Written by Interviewer

July 19, 2015 at 23:51

The Thin Black Line

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Thin Black Line

Today, I did a story about protestors marching on a library at Portland State University.  They were representing the “Don’t Shoot” PDX movement (PDX is the nickname Portlanders use for themselves in many cases.  PDX is the designation the FAA gives Portland’s international airport).  While capturing natural sound of the protestors, now inside the library, talking about why they were part of the march, one young white student named Ryan Miller said he is marching because he is afraid that eventually, the police will treat him in the same way as some say they have already unjustly treated people of color.

It was one of those moments of pure honesty that people say they seek, yet are still hard to hear.  As a journalist, for me it was pure gold.  And as a storyteller, I assembled the story and sent it off for airing.  But for a moment, I almost slipped into what I consider to be a bad place journalistically.

Listening to Ryan talk about his fears of being targeted by the police, it was clear to me that he was afraid that the privileged status of being white might one day not be enough to protect even him from police abuse.  And that reminded me of the poem, “First They Came” by 20th century pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

According to Wikipedia, “Niemöller was an anti-communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. His poem, is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy.”  The labels may be different as they apply to Niemoller’s day, but the context seems sadly timeless.

Listening to Ryan, I had the brilliant idea of using Niemoller’s poem in the story.  And I did.  But it suddenly hit me that the poem would be equating the Portland Police to Nazis.  And although there may be many people who feel that way, I realized it is not my job to editorialize.  So I undid what I did and then I sent it for air.

The police often talk about how they represent a thin blue line that officers say is the barrier between ordered society and chaos.  I think it’s also the line cops try to not cross, lest they become the thing they say they are fighting against.  I think in journalism, there is a thin black line, which might symbolically represent the ink.  This side is as credible and balanced as is humanly possible according to the highest and best ethical standards.  And that side is soapboxing, muck-racking, yellow journalism and all of the worst aspects of the quill.  Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the change of fortunes from Dan Rather to Peter Jennings, the self-serving slide from one side to the other can be almost imperceptible.

I don’t like what’s been happening across the country for my own reasons.  But I don’t think it’s my job to turn my stories into weapons.  By contrast, the listeners will hear them, judge me, my story, the events I describe and make their own decisions.  That is how it should be.

Stump the Chump

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I sometimes talk about the “dark art” aspects of journalism and interviewing.  This one is firmly rooted in the “How To’s” of discrediting an interviewee and making yourself sound smarter or more of an authority than you are.  Stump the Chump means asking questions, or pursuing lines of questioning that, on some occasions, are rhetorical and on other occasions, esoteric.  But both are intended to throw the interviewee way off their game.

How?  I have conducted interviews with people about to start a new job.  Since these people have worked very hard for this job, a listener might assume that they must have done all of their due diligence to learn about every aspect of it.  I mean, that is what the idea of “hitting the ground running” is all about.  An employer or a constituency wants to be confident that the person they have just put in this important position knows as much about it as the person about to leave it so there can be as little disruption as possible.

Journalists and interviewers can exploit this assumption to the extreme however by asking the interviewee questions purposely engineered to be outside of their knowledge.  For example, let’s say the interviewee will be part of a department that is responsible for an interactive system that updates the public on something or other.  If there have been changes to that system, or if it has been down for maintenance, a Stump the Chump question might be, “So, what can you tell me about XYZ system, and why has it been down so long?”  It’s possible that the interviewee will know about XYZ system, but it is much more likely that they don’t because they have been overly occupied in learning the broader aspects of the job; the direct responsibilities of their soon to be predecessor, the politics of the position, the specific day to day requirements, organizational structure and so forth.

But a question that seems to be germane to their duties that they have difficulty answering can make them sound unsure at best and incompetent at worst.

A good interviewer spends at least hours, and probably days plotting a course through the interviewee’s experience with a list of questions.  With that kind of birds-eye view of the interviewee, a general knowledge of the job and an overall understanding of the culture as it relates to both, interviewers can cogently test an interviewee’s knowledge in a way the listener can relate to and evaluate.

But although journalists and interviewers are intelligent and savvy enough to discover and formulate legitimate questions that the interviewee considers expertly posed, they are not the experts they are interviewing.  Journalist and interviewers with the intention to embarrass interviewees can find themselves on thin ice if they pursue this tact.  And those experts can fight back against Stump the Chump questions.

The simplest way is to simply ask them to “explain” what they mean.  Unless the interviewer has relatively deep knowledge of the inner workings of the issue, they may find themselves stuck and unable to further explain their question.  A variation of this is if the interviewee reasks the interviewer’s question “for the purposes of clarity” in an equally complex way but from a different technical direction.  Since the interviewer may have only investigated one aspect of the problem, an interviewee that forces them to repose the question from another direction can shut down that line of questioning.

Another way the interviewee can avoid being cornered is to say something along the lines of “I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I would be glad to get back to you or one of your staff with an answer/solution before the end of the day”.  This is a good come back because it shows that although they don’t know,  they promise to find out.  This can give them credibility with listeners.

Most interviewers are professional, meaning, their intention is to not think for the listeners.  That can mean not trying to funnel or filter audience thinking through their own by way of questions that emphasize one aspect of the interviewee or denigrating others aspects.  A professional interviewer asks open, honest, straightforward questions with no subtext on the assumption that the audience is intelligent and can come to their own opinions about the interviewee, their experience and qualifications for the position.  Stump the Chump questions are asked by amateurs who lack confidence or so-called professionals with an agenda.

Written by Interviewer

January 21, 2014 at 06:57

A Rough and Rowdy Time

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I just read “Long Night at Today” by the New York Magazine’s Joe Hagan.  Excellent play-by-play of the meltdown on the set and in the boardrooms of NBC’s flagship morning talk show property.  Since Dave Garroway and Joe Garagiola and Jane Pauley, the Today Show has been where millions of people go to have their hands held as they meet the new day.  But as Mr. Hagan so pointedly explained, if the network makes their audience love its hosts, it shouldn’t be surprised when they react to what they perceive as a stink from 30 Rock Studio 1A.

See, the thing about that strategy, and make no mistake, it is a strategy; it’s always a doubled edged sword.  You want viewers to fall in love with the people they “invite into their homes” to coin an ancient broadcasting cliché.  But, because the broadcasting business is so full of brutality, you have to decide if throwing somebody out of a window after they have outlived their usefulness will cost you more than you expect to make in the long run from the slow, painful but expected recovery.  So it’s a psychological calculus marinated in the economics of cost benefit analysis. It’s got little to do with viewers because if it did, networks would save the money they waste on set changes and tweaks to theme music and repeated attempts to force the tired back down their audience’s throats.  

At the end of his piece, Mr. Hagan quotes several principals who say they don’t know whether the departed anchor was innocent or purposeful in her refusal to help the show repair its image by playing nicer with sitting hosts.  But that reminded me of a quote by Malcolm X., upon learning that the 1964 Civil Rights Act had become law.  On an airport tarmac, he said (paraphrasing) “Why should I thank somebody who sticks a knife six inches in my back and pulls it out three?” 

I once worked for an organization for which I had lost my love.  But I had taken dozens of photos in the course of my time with it because, in happier days, I intended to create something that I thought would help me memorialize its legacy in a positive way.  When it became known that I had taken these personal photos with my personal camera, I was asked by a nemesis for the photos because no other such record existed and I would be seen as a “team player.”

In that moment, I practically vomited the photos from my posession, mostly because the idea that this person, representing this Delilah of an organization, would speak to me about “team” with the sincerity that a Cuttlefish tries to hypnotize it’s prey before striking, was uproariously revolting.  And since I wanted nothing that connected us, they and the photos were jettisoned, as if by peristalsis, and forgotten.

On some TV studio sets, as well as in countless other organizations I’m sure, the concept of cutting ties by not trying to help them out of a tough spot may not be so foreign.  As a former intelligence analyst said of policy failures during the Bush administration, “We might be willing to take a bullet, but we’re not going to take a whole clip of bullets.”

Written by Interviewer

March 26, 2013 at 09:36