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Radio: It’s NOT TV Minus the Pictures

BY IN BLOG On 09-02-2013

[This entry was originally posted on 2/19/13

Many years ago I wrote a political novel called “VP” and the publisher, William Morrow,  booked some promotional media interviews for me.  At the time of publication, I happened to be traveling across the country with a group of ABC News correspondents so the publisher’s publicity department took advantage of that trek and booked my first interview with a popular show on a powerhouse Detroit radio station. Now by this time in my career I had conducted thousands of print and television interviews, so I felt I really knew my stuff.  But that in-studio radio interview threw me because I went into it with the mindset that the medium was just TV without the pictures.  It isn’t.  Radio interviews, especially those conducted live and in-studio,  present a unique set of challenges. 

Before getting into those challenges, let me set the stage for my Detroit interview.  The interviewer was in a glass booth.  I was in an adjoining glass booth.  Further experience taught me this was an unusual situation, normally you would be in the same glass booth as your interviewer. MicrophoneIn addition to the thick glass between us, a huge microphone on some sort of gantry was suspended in front of his face and another hung in front of me.  He might just as well have been in Siberia instead of fifteen feet away — I couldn’t see his face nor he mine.  And then there was the voice — a Metropolitan Opera caliber thundering basso with odd and seemingly meaningless stresses on words and syllables. (“GOOD day, GEOrge. SO glad you could be HERE with us.”) And, finally, there were the gestures.  I couldn’t see his face, but I could see him emphatically waving his arms as if he were conducting the Detroit Symphony in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. It was all very distracting and I got very lost very early on and failed to take full advantage of the interview opportunity.

Learning from my own mistakes, I teach my media training clients that radio’s two biggest challenges are no images and no reread factor.  Let’s look at these in reverse order:

No Reread Factor

If I am reading a newspaper or magazine story and don’t quite understand a quote, I can reread it.  If I don’t understand a reference, I can look earlier in the story and get the context.  If I forget the affiliation of the person being quoted, I can hunt back a couple of paragraphs and find it.  I call that the reread factor.  You don’t have that in broadcasting, but in television interviews, there is the lower-third screen identifying title, so affiliation, at least, is available for the attentive viewer. Not so with radio.  In consequence, branding is extremely important in radio.  I’m sure you’ve joined a radio interview in progress and heard a writer talking about “the book,” “my book” and “it.”  Well, you go to Barnes & Noble and ask for “it.”  A large B&N store has close to 200,000 “its” on the shelves.  My media training motto is, “If it’s got a name, use it.”  And just because you’ve gotten that name in once does not mean you’ve done the branding job.  Listeners tune in and out throughout an interview, so brand early and often. This is more important in radio than in any other medium.  A really good radio interviewer might say, “I’m talking with George Merlis, author of “VP,” but most radio interviewers don’t bother to do that.  Even Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, who interviews several authors a week,  often forgets to brand her guests and their books. So name names on radio; it’s your responsibility to identify the product, affiliation, group, cause or company.

No Images

Radio offers its audience no visual clues or cues at all.  In a radio interview you have your words and your voice and nothing else.  The listener can’t see your sarcastic smile, your raised eyebrow, your happy grin.  You are a disembodied voice. So you need to make the most of that voice.  Also it’s up to you to make sure the listener understands everything you say the first time around. You do this by making your soundbites accessible and comprehensible. It is a rule of all media mastery that you speak clearly, simply, and in short but complete sentences.  Nowhere is that rule as critical as it is in radio.  And add another mandate: You need to speak slowly enough for listeners to hear and understand you.

Speaking slowly does not mean speaking listlessly. On radio, you must energize your voice and give it character and color.  You have only that one tool, your voice, to capture the listener’s attention.  Make your voice commanding by using inflection and stresses, not by talking at machine-gun speed.  Like the host who interviewed me long ago in Detroit, a lot of professional radio personalities achieve vocal energy by acting out as they speak or read.  That is, they grimace and gesticulate with exaggerated movement.  If you saw them, you’d think they were having some sort of psychotic episode. To brighten their speech, they do something old radio pros call “putting teeth in it.”  Putting teeth in a line means delivering it with a huge smile on your face.  It looks ridiculous but sounds great.  And, since it’s not TV, no one sees the jack-o’-lantern grin.  Try it.  Record yourself on your smart phone reading a line with a normal facial expression and then reread it with a big smile on your face.  When you play it back your ears will “hear” that smile.

Just Say No

These days a lot of radio is highly confrontational. Many hosts like nothing better than to verbally beat someone up.  Your principal defense against an anticipated onslaught of ridicule is your inalienable right to not do the show.  No media outlet has subpoena power; none can compel you to submit to an interview. If you are certain that you are going to be subjected to unreasonable treatment, that you are not going to be permitted to make any points, that you are being booked only to be the target of scorn, decline the invitation. Of course, if you are the sort of person who feels any publicity, no matter how adverse, is better than no publicity, go ahead and stick your neck out. You may win; you may not. In fact, by your own standards you may win even if a lot of listeners feel you’ve lost. When the syndicated Howard Stern radio show began airing in the Los Angeles market in the 1980s, I listened to the inaugural broadcast. Weight-loss guru Richard Simmons called in to congratulate Stern on his West Coast debut.  Stern lashed into Simmons and kept up a stream of hateful, homophobic invective for what seemed like a cruel eternity. I remember wondering why Simmons didn’t hang up on Stern, but he stayed the course, although Stern eventually reduced him to tears.  At the time I was supervising producer of ABC-TV’s “Home Show” and Richard was a frequent guest on the show.  When I next saw him, I told Simmons I had heard the broadcast and I felt Stern had treated him shabbily.  “Oh,” said Simmons, “he always does that when I’m on his show.”  Always?  This had happened before and Simmons came back for more? To Richard Simmons, the humiliation was worth it because it gave him an opportunity to reach out to the over-weight people among Stern’s listeners.

If You Say Yes

Once you make up your mind to accept an invitation to appear on a radio talk show, find out the circumstances of your appearance.  Ask if you’ll be the only guest, the names of other guests and the length of your segment. Also, will it be an interview, a debate and will the host take calls from listeners. If he will take calls, find out how long you’ll be on with him alone — you’ll want to get your whole agenda in during the host interview so the call-ins will be about the points you want to address. Once the calls start coming in, remember to keep to your message points; you are there to state and restate them, not to address a caller’s agenda.  Often callers don’t ask questions but use their time on the air to make statements.  If a caller agrees with you, endorses what you said, or praises you, thank him and reiterate your agenda point to reinforce it.. If the caller opposes one of your points, disagree pleasantly and restate your agenda point. As the in-studio guest you’ll have the last word and as a general rule, she who speaks last is the speaker listeners remember best.


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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.