By Michael W. Dean
The Freedom Feens
Michael Dean after Dark
Genesis Communications Network
Talk Show Host
The most common confusing e-mail I get is people writing me and saying “I want to do an interview with you.”
The confusing thing about that is that I get interviewed a lot. I also interview people a lot. So when people write to me and say “I want to do an interview with you”, I have no idea if they want to interview me or if the want me to interview them.
So my first advice when dealing with guests is this: write your requests clearly. Because a lot of people are interviewed, and also interview others.
Also be sure to specify a time zone when giving someone a time to pre-game or be interviewed. I usually give them the time in Central Time, even though that’s not my time zone. I once had someone not show up for an interview because she thought it was three hours later. I didn’t specify a time zone and said “1:00 pm your time,” thinking she lived in Atlanta, because she has a show on a station there. But she actually lives in Los Angeles and does the show via Comrex.
You Can be the Talent and the Audience
My equal comfort with interviewing people and with being interviewed goes back to my punk rock days. In early 80s punk rock, it was not unusual to go to a show where five bands played, and each band played about a half-hour. Our band would get up and play. And the other four bands and their friends would watch. We’d take turns, everybody got to be both audience and performer. True democracy.
And as much as some punk rockers didn’t like it, there was also true capitalism at play. The market would speak. The bands who were really good would gain a larger audience, and eventually go on tour. And when we did, in each town, the local promoter would still book the local bands to open up. So again, democracy; larger audiences would get to see the new bands who were still cutting their teeth.
A lot of people in bands also wrote for fanzines, xeroxed hand-stapled magazines put together by the fans about the bands. I did that as well as playing and singing in bands. So I interviewed people as well as being interviewed.
The punk rock thing taught me that almost everyone has something to say, at least enough to say it once for a lot of people. This plays into how I book interview guests as well as rotating co-hosts.
The punk rock thing taught me how to approach radio, too. We used to book our own shows back then, even for nationwide and international tours. And we made our own T-shirts and other merchandise. We sold it right out of the van. That attitude is great training for the competitive world of radio. What it has taught me is this: you can’t wait for “someone else to do it for you,” and you have to wear a lot of hats. You have to be willing to do a lot of the work yourself, in any capacity that might come up.
The Pre-Game Interview
I always try to do a pre-game interview with someone before having them on as a guest or co-host. I don’t like to have someone on if I haven’t talked to them ahead of time. Talking to them ahead of time tends to minimize unpleasant surprises for both parties. In a pre-game you can do several things:
- See how punctual they are
- Do a basic sound check, and recommend things if their sound isn’t good.
- Get their general “vibe” and organically work out a little bit of chemistry before you go on the air.
- Decide what will work better, a straightforward interview, or more of a conversational approach.
Working with Interviewees and Guest Co-Hosts
First, establish ahead of time if your approach is doing an interview, or having a conversation. Both can make for compelling radio. My approach is usually having a conversation. But most people expect just an interview. If you decide on a conversation, you can explain to them that it will be more conversational than a normal interview. Many guests (and listeners) actually enjoy this more than an interview. But if a guest is not expecting it, it can be off-putting when you reply with something longer than a single-line follow-up question without them expecting it.
The Cuss-Dump 3000
Make sure guests know it’s radio radio, not internet radio. The term “radio” is used so often these days for things that aren’t terrestrial AM/FM FCC-controlled broadcasting, that some people don’t know the difference. Many people who are interviewed a lot these days do more podcast and streaming interviews than terrestrial broadcast interviews. I was actually listening live when a morning zoo crew program was interviewing a musician and I heard the cuss dump get used. The hosts actually broke the forth wall and mentioned it. The musician was embarrassed and said “Oh sorry, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to swear. I thought this just on the internet.”
Explain to your hosts that it’s radio radio and they can’t cuss. A lot of people will be slightly shocked and say “I would NEVER do that,” to which I’ll reply, “I have to say that to everyone.” Others will say “Oh good, I’m glad you reminded me.” Those are the ones that will make you glad you mentioned it.
For that matter, never put anyone except yourself and your regular hosts on the air until you’ve built the full cuss-dump. (Usually 20 seconds after the music is out, if someone hits “build” as soon as the music is out.) That goes for interviewees, guest co-hosts and callers. A lot of hosts never touch the dump, and rely on an engineer at the station, or a board-op at the network to take care of it. I personally need to have complete control over that. I have a copy of the interface open on my computer during a show. The board op does too on the network end. The more hands available to hit “Dump” if the need comes up, the better.
I also have the caller interface open on my end. The board-op screens the calls and types in who’s calling, from where and about what, but I like to actually take the calls (and be able to hang up) myself.
Some hosts don’t want to touch any of this stuff themselves, they just want to talk. And I can understand that. But I feel personally that the more control you can have, if it’s permitted in the parameters of your show, then the more it’s “your show” and you’ll have more of an investment in it.
Tell Guests about Ad Breaks
People who’ve never been interviewed on radio before often assume that a half-hour interview is a half-hour of them talking. They don’t realize it’s a lot less than that when you account for the ads. I tell guests about the ad breaks, and ask if they want a PDF of the program clock ahead of time. You’ll get better radio out of someone who knows there will be ad breaks than someone who’s surprised and feels cut off each time an ad break comes up. Even people who regularly listen to talk radio, or even to your show, may not picture that they will be sitting on the line during ad breaks. They just don’t picture it from the guest’s end when they’re listening at home.
Also, always explain briefly on the air if a guest has some expertise on something, i.e. give their specific qualifications, not just what they’re known for, or what their college degrees are. If they’re explaining war and they were in combat in the military, say that. Otherwise, to the average listener, they’re just some random person with an opinion, not someone they should listen to. If you are talking about bike messengers, explain if the guest was a bike messenger, when and for how long, to give some weight to what they’re saying.
Listeners will stay with a show longer if the audio is good. This is very important. Even if listeners don’t consciously know what good audio is, they’ll want to listen longer if it sounds good. Good audio, even with guests, means more retention, which means more ad money for your show. One bad sounding interview probably won’t make a difference in your bottom line. But many of them over many months’ time will. And improving the overall audio of your show, including the audio of guests, will improve the monetary value of your show because people will listen longer.
Guests generally sound horrible over a phone, especially over a mobile phone. A guest over Skype with a good inexpensive mic sounds much better than a guest over a cell phone. If they’re on a cell phone and can’t afford or don’t have a good mic to use over Skype, have them install Skype on their phone and use Skype. Skype over a phone sounds better than a phone over a phone.
Even better is a good mic over Skype on a laptop or a desktop computer. People who are interviewed often should invest in a good mic, and radio producers can encourage people who are interviewed a lot to invest 50 bucks in a good mic. A good thing to tell them is “You’ll get asked to be on more shows if you sound good, and producers will keep you on longer.”
The basics of good audio are:
- A decent microphone.
- A foam windscreen (even if you’re indoors).
- A relatively sound conditioned room.
None of this is expensive to do, but most people miss one or more aspects of it.
If guests don’t have a good mic, this one is 60 bucks with shipping, sounds great, and connects to your computer with the included USB cable: The Incredibly Good (and Affordable) Audio-Technica AT2005USB Cardioid Dynamic Mic.
Guests should get a cheap (50 cents or so) foam windscreen to, to keep out “popping” sounds or “plosives.” Not having a foam windscreen is one of the biggest reasons a lot of people’s audio sounds bad. And it’s the cheapest, easiest thing to remedy.
More Advice to Give Remote Guests
Don’t have your heater or AC on during the show. Cool or heat your room before the show and during breaks. The mic will pick up the motor noise if it’s on during the show.
Have the mic as far away as possible from computer fans and other noise sources. Listen to the room when it’s quiet and see what sounds you can hear, then realize the mic is more sensitive than your ears.
If there’s someone making noise in your house, ask them not to. If they have to, or if you have a noisy fridge in the next room or something, shut your door and put a towel against the crack at the bottom of the door. Anything you can do to reduce ambient noise helps.
Don’t have any extraneous background noises. The mic will pick it up. The exception on my shows are cats. Cats are OK, and add to the show if they mew occasionally. Cats are encouraged, up to a point. Puppies are cool too, dogs too, if they don’t bark constantly. Barking sounds shrill and bad on radio.
Guests Should Use Headphones
You cannot use the speakers on your computer. It won’t work for radio. It will echo. Ear buds are acceptable, but not as good as closed-ear headphones. Ear buds can leak sound into the mic and that can echo. If you wear ear buds, you can cover them up with sound-deadening ear protection.
Old-school open-ear Walkman-type small headphones leak audio into the mic. That makes echoes and echoes are bad on radio.
The headphones I recommend are Sony MDR-7506. They’re amazing. Cost is 90 bucks a pair.
I’ve had two pair for seven years and they’re still going strong. The ear pads will wear out after a few years, but replacement pads are about 10 bucks for two and easy to replace.
For those on a budget, I recommend Sony MDRZX300 headphones, which are about 22 bucks and pretty darned good.
It’s best to be in a room with no reverb. Lots of fabric, rugs, curtains, etc, is great. Lots of metal, glass, bare walls, bare floors, ceramic tile, or hardwood are bad.
My article on free temporary sound conditioning: click here.
My article on inexpensive, permanent sound conditioning: click here.
Improving Skype Connections and Sound
Skype has gotten REALLY good in the past year or so. It sounds much better than it used to, and stays connected much better than it used to. But there are still things you can recommend to your guests (and do on your end) to sound even better, and to have more solid connectivity:
If you’re not recording video, turn off video on Skype. You’ll have better audio when you don’t have the video on, because the video uses some of your internet pipe and less bandwidth will be available for higher quality audio. When you have video on, Skype will auto-adjust to use less bandwidth for audio than when you have video off. So turn video off. This probably isn’t an issue at a large corporate radio station with huge bandwidth, but it’s a real consideration for people calling in over Skype at home, and it is a consideration for smaller stations with residential-type internet pipes.
Have your computer wired, not wireless. It will be less likely to drop the Skype call, and you’ll have more bandwidth available for better audio.
Don’t have someone else in your house (or small radio station) using lots of internet bandwidth while you’re connecting via Skype. If your roommate is checking e-mail or looking at Facebook or web surfing, that’s OK. But if they’re watching Netflix or using BitTorrent, that’s going to make your Skype sound bad and possibly drop the connection.
Have a phone number for guests who are calling in via Skype, so your board op can call them if they can’t get them on Skype, or if they get dropped from Skype and can’t get back in.
Many interviews on radio sound like there was no forethought to audio quality. And many guests sound like they were thrown into an unfamiliar situation with no preparation.
Radio is a very busy business, and producers don’t have a lot of time to prep with guests. But with very little prep (which could even include sending this article to guests before the interview), you can have much more comfortable guests and quality sound, far more often. This is especially worthwhile with guests you have on often.
Over time, better audio for guests can translate to more retention, more advertisers, higher ad prices, more for your bottom line, and just generally improving the craft of talk radio as a whole. And that helps everyone.
Michael W. Dean is the co-host of The Freedom Feens and Michael Dean after Dark on Genesis Communications Network. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.