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Get engaging interviews

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BY DAN SMALL
Unless you have a scintillating personality, can wax eloquently on a wide range of topics, or know more about a particular subject than just about anyone, the best way to ensure your radio show will attract and hold listeners is to choose good guests and get them to share their expertise, secrets and amazing stories.

To accomplish this, some outdoor radio hosts choose celebrity guests — pro football players who also hunt, country music stars who are bass-fishing nuts, or NASCAR drivers who do just about anything. This is not a bad idea, but lining up these high demand guests takes a lot of work, and you run the risk of a celebrity backing out at the last minute because his agent got him a bigger gig. I’ve found you can create good radio with local and regional talent. With a little research, you can find folks who are every bit as knowledgeable, funny and fascinating as the celebs. A guy who trains dogs to find shed antlers and recover wounded deer will strike a chord with anyone who has an interest in antlers or who has ever lost a deer. A small-town police officer who coaches the statechampion scholastic pistol team will keep listeners glued to their radio, especially when they learn more than half of his star shooters are girls. The author of a series of whodunits with titles like “The Nail Knot,” “The Clinch Knot” and “The Blood Knot” will intrigue mystery fans and trout anglers alike.


Not every dog trainer, shooting coach, novelist or even celebrity, will give you a good interview. Here’s a few ways you can help your guest make your show look (and sound) good. Try to qualify a guest before you schedule him or her. Talking with someone in person is the best way, but you can get a pretty good idea in a brief phone conversation whether a potential guest has what it takes for a lively interview. If you can’t talk to the guest beforehand, look for an online video or ask someone who knows the person.


Once you have a guest scheduled, do the same kind of background research you would for a magazine or newspaper feature. Where did he grow up, how did she learn the skills in question, how does this guest’s approach differ from that of other trainers, coaches, authors? The five basic journalistic questions (who, what, when, where, how) are a good place to start, but don’t overlook the why, as well. And for goodness sake, read the guy’s book, visit her website and run an online search for more information.


Let your guest know in advance if the interview will be live or recorded and how long you expect the segment to run. If your show is recorded, tell your guest you resist stop-and-restart interviews, which almost always turn out worse than a live interview, but that you can tweak a little if you have to.


In an hour-long interview, you can delve into the guest’s background and elicit a few anecdotes. In a ten-minute interview, there is still time for at least one story, which is often the best part of the interview. So always ask questions like, “What’s the craziest — or most unexpected, funniest, most embarrassing, etc. — thing that happened to you in the course of your work?” or “What do you hope listeners will take away from this interview?” or “What is the most important piece of gear you forgot to take on your three-week canoe trip?”


Make a list of questions for your guest, but be prepared to ditch it if the interview goes off in a more interesting direction than the one you planned. Listen to your guest’s answers and ask follow-up questions when the guest says something you didn’t expect or had not heard before. Show genuine interest in what your guest is saying – the guest and your listeners can tell if you are engaged in the conversation or just moving down a list of humdrum questions. Offer anecdotes from your own life only if they add to the interview, but avoid the temptation to share a story just because the guest’s comments made you think of it. Unless your show’s format is confrontational, you’ll get better interviews by empathizing with a guest’s position, but don’t be afraid to challenge someone to support a point of view with hard facts.


When time permits, I like to ask a guest if there’s anything I forgot to cover. Sometimes this elicits an unexpected gem that is the highlight of the interview.

On rare occasions, a 10-minute interview will be rolling along so well that I’ll want to keep it going. In that case, I’ll find a stopping point and announce a break, then continue recording the interview and either run the second half right after the break or say something like, “We’ll hear more from [Dazzling Guest] next week.” This might mean shuffling another scheduled guest to a different time slot or a later show altogether, but it’s usually worth the trouble. Use run-on interviews sparingly, however. I’ve found it’s best to leave listeners wanting more than to give them a longer interview than they are prepared to stay with.

When you find yourself mired in an interview that’s going nowhere or with a guest who is too nervous, dull, inarticulate or otherwise terrible, thank the guest, cut the interview short and fill the time with a news item or story of your own. It’s your show, after all, and ultimately you are the one responsible for making it interesting to listeners. ♦

Dan Small is host/producer of Outdoors Radio, which airs on 16 stations throughout Wisconsin and about a dozen podcasts. Since 2007, Small and his on-air partner, Jeff Kelm, have won a total of 86 first, second and third place awards in OWAA’s Excellence in Craft contests in radio/podcast categories.
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