What it takes to make great radio interviews
RTE Radio One’s weekend interviews with Clive James and Broadsheet’s John Ryan show what it takes to create radio gold
The mark of a great interview is when you stop what you’re doing and actually listen to what’s going on. On any given day, the average radio listener will hear countless interviews. Most of them, though, just go over your head because you’re concentrating on or doing something else. I’m writing this with Morning Ireland on in the background and I’ve kind of tuned out because there are a lot of soundbites coming from both interviewee and interviewer which we’ve heard a zillion times before. Occasionally, a raised voice or an odd line will stick out and make you pay attention but, for the most part, the interviews which draw you in are few and far between.
Trying to keep the listener away from those distractions is just one problem. Thhose of us who interview people for a living know that there’s an infinite amount of boxes to tick when it comes to getting a great interview from someone. At a time when most interviewees are probably doing countless interviews on any given day or promotional cycle, it takes a lot of prep work, research and probably good luck to come up with something new and unexpected. All the possible questions have been asked before, all the possible angles have been covered before and all the possible cliches have been dusted off before. As we noted when we wrote about Lynn Barber a while back, great interviewers need many qualities, some which you’d naturally expect and some totally unexpected.
You also need the interviewee to be willing to actually talk. You’d think that the fact that they’ve agreed to do the interview in the first place would be proof of this. But no, there are times when interviews go completely off the wall and veer into areas which no interviewer wants to visit and that’s usually down to the unwillingness of the interviewee to stick to the general script that they talk and answer questions. At Banter at Other Voices back in February, we spoke to The Guardian’s Michael Hann about what it takes to get a great interview out of someone (podcast here). The impetus for that discussion was Hann’s public Q&A with Ginger Baker, an encounter which became a bit of a horror show.
Add in the specific demands of radio – especially live radio – to all of the above and it’s a bit of a wonder that you actually get some fantastic moments on the wireless to begin with. Last Saturday, RTE Radio One carried two great interviews which made you actually pay close attention to what was going on and made you salute the skill of the interviewer.
The first was publisher John Ryan on The Business. We know Ryan these days as the man behind Broadsheet’s output of daily news, opinion, stolen bicycle bulletins, photos of sunrises and sunsets and readers’ comments which everyone says they ignore but actually read at great length. He’s a publisher with a colourful past pre-Broadsheet, which The Business presenter Richard Curran explored and poked at great length. Because it was a business-ish interview, it was all about Ryan’s experience with such titles as VIP, Stars On Sunday, GI and especially New York Dog, rather than his equally eventful time at The Sunday Independent or Sunday Times (that’s for the next interviewer to tap).
Ryan spoke candidly about his ups and downs as a publisher at those titles, about what went wrong, about the crazy times when he was the Big Apple’s canine kingpin (and what happened to his own dog) and a bunch of other stuff which he’s probably tried to forget over the years. Curran and his team had done their research, knew what buttons to push and kept the interview trucking along. Though you knew the rough outline of what had happened, you’d rarely heard Ryan talk about these matters before so you kept listening. Sometimes, you don’t have to go after the fish that everyone else is going after to get great interviews (listen to the interview here)
If Ryan’s interview kept you from your Saturday morning errands, The Book Show’s encounter with Clive James kept you from making the dinner. The erudite Australian writer, sharp critic, entertaining broadcaster and well-regarded poet is terminally ill, having being diagnosed with leukaemia and emphysema in 2010, so any interview with him comes coloured with that patina.
But from the moment presenter Sinead Gleeson arrived at his Cambridge house, you got a different sense of James. This was a brave, candid, thoughful, warm encounter. James may be ailing and the voice does not carry the same strength or power as before, but the mind is still sharp and in overdrive. He talked about his parents, the writing which has sustained and enriched him over the years, the power of memory, his writing career and especially poetry. Aside from his own work, including the beautiful Japanese Maple (the tree of the title outside his window, he now notes, now thinks it’s Lindsay Lohan thanks to the recent flurry of fame), he also spoke about and recited Louis MacNeice.
When the interview ended, you wanted to hear it again. James has always provided great copy and insights over the years and, of course, there are the emotions which come into play when you know the final curtain is nigh. But this was an interview which went beyond the usual structure of the form. You knew too that others had stopped in their tracks, put down what they were doing and paid close attention to the words coming from the wirless.