15 principles of show booking

(Chelsea Conrad/NPR)

1. You are the keeper of the guest list.

NPR founding mother Susan Stamberg once compared a good radio show to a good dinner party. In both scenarios the host’s role is to lead his or her guests in an engaging conversation. As a booker, you manage the invite list to that party. It’s your job to find guests who are informed, vibrant, compelling – people you can learn something from, be inspired by, find entertaining, etc. This is why the pre-interview is KEY. It’s your chance to get a sense of who someone is, how they talk, what they know. The only times you can get away without doing a pre-interview is when a prospective guest is a known quantity (i.e. a newsmaker – like a high-profile politician or business executive; you know more-or-less what you’re getting because they’ve spoken publicly before, and they don’t have time for a pre-interview anyway).

2. Prerequisite: Must like people. 

In order to be a successful booker, you have to like people and be curious. But you also need a well-calibrated BS meter. Someone might be lovely to talk with, but still not appropriate for the topic you’re covering. If you get the sense that a prospective guest doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, you need to be able to quickly and tactfully say thank you and MOVE ON!

3. Before you make any calls, develop a core understanding of the conversation.

Your assignment editor asks you to find a guest on such and such a topic. Your first stop should be then to write down 1-2 sentences that summarize the conversation frame. Circulate that to your host, editor and producer and ask – is everyone on the same page? Are we all in agreement that this is what we’re interested in? Once you have that settled, read in. Find two or three articles that will give you a basic background on the topic, and help you form some intelligent questions. That’s also a good way to mine for guest leads. Since you’ll be scouting for guests from a chair in this building, you have to rely on the reporting of others to get you started. Look for names in those articles. They may not be the right guests, but they might be able to point you to others who could be.

4. Bookers are newsmagazines’ frontline reporters.

You are not only seeking a guest for an interview. You are refining the original story idea and gathering more “string:” You may discover the premise of the pitch is incorrect, or uncover more interesting pieces of the story, or dig up an important, yet-unheard-from — and even news-making — person. And like a reporter, make sure to understand where your guests are coming from. Do they take a position on the topic? A point of view is usually fine – but it needs to be made explicit to your team (your host, editor and producer).

5. The most important quality in a guest is that they know what they’re talking about. 

That means the guest is an expert on the topic, or they were at the scene of a breaking news event … or they have run a rural general store for 15 years and know the business inside and out. There are many kinds of expertise. Second, the guest must be a good talker (are they engaging, can you follow them, could a high school student or your mom follow them?). Third, can he or she get to a “QUALITY” connection (in order of preference: A recording studio, tape sync, Report It app, Skype, good landline phone). Getting all three – an eloquent guest with first-hand knowledge in a studio – is the Holy Grail. (You should also find a way to familiarize yourself with the recording format options. If you know how to do a tape sync or use the Report It app, you’ll be much better equipped to make these arrangements.)

6. That said, don’t let the great be the enemy of the good.

You always want to find the best possible guest. But some days (many days … OK, most days) the more pressing concern is finding someone QUICKLY who can do the job. A lot of the segments we do are same-day turn-around because they involve the NEWS! You always have to be conscious of the clock. If time is running low and you have someone who is informative and will fit the bill, book them. A guest you can learn something from is better than no guest at all.

7. Keep your team informed.

No one knows who you’ve spoken to better than you. Trust your judgment and, as often as you can, make the executive decision on who the best guest is. It’s difficult for your host or anyone else to choose from an array of guest options when they haven’t listened in on the pre-interviews. Just make sure to keep everyone on your team (your host, editor, producer) looped in on any stand-out strengths or weaknesses. Are there areas of the topic your guest is particularly interesting on (or, conversely, particularly boring on!) Is his phone line going to be potentially problematic? Is there a counter-intuitive way to pronounce her name? You want your team walking into the studio fully informed and with their expectations properly calibrated.

8. And, don’t be afraid to bail on an idea that just isn’t working.

If you aren’t finding anyone who can advance the subject at hand, or the segment frame just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, let your show producer and editor know. But give them enough time to formulate a back-up plan.

9. If a potential guest is too dense, a little coaching might help (but it also might not).

I often tell prospective guests to imagine they’re explaining the subject at hand to a really smart high school student. Our aim is to have an intelligent, interesting conversation, but one that doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Sometimes experts can adjust the way they talk – stripping out the lingo and making it more laymen friendly. But sometimes they can’t (scientists are particularly bad). In those cases don’t be afraid to say thank you and move on. Even if someone is technically the most knowledgeable, if no one outside their industry can understand them, they won’t bring value to most of our listeners.

10. Don’t put your all your eggs in one basket.

Try to have a back-up. Even if you think you’ve found the perfect guest, be ready for the possibility that his/her ISDN line will fail, or the schedule will change, or the guest will choke in a taped interview. If you’ve done your reporting, you should at least have some additional names and numbers of possible guests; and ideally, you should have made contact with them. [This doesn’t apply if the entire assignment is to book one specific, irreplaceable person.]

11. Temper guest expectations.

You can tell a prospective guest what you expect to happen, but never tell them what will happen. You can say that we expect the segment to air today; that it should last between, say, 3 and 5 minutes; that we will try to mention their (relevant) book or affiliation, if time allows; etc. But don’t make promises. There are so many moving parts to any show on any given day – a lot will change. You don’t want to set expectations that may be dashed. (This is not only about niceness; it’s about journalistic ethics! Check out some relevant parts of the NPR Ethics Handbook here.)

12. Work fast and be agile.

Our daily deadlines are incredibly short. At ATC, you could easily be handed an assignment at 10am and need to have a guest ready to tape an interview no later than 2pm. When you’re given an assignment, always ask – when do you need this by? Then, meet your deadline!

13. Always thank your guest.

It’s booker courtesy to send a follow-up note thanking the guest after every interview, regardless of how it went. Guests are taking the time to speak with us and share their knowledge for the benefit and enrichment of our listeners. So always thank them for that. You should send this note ahead of their segment airing so you can inform them when they can expect to hear it, and send a follow up link to where it will be archived online. When all is said and done, save the guest’s contacts for yourself and in any shared system your newsroom uses, with any notes that would be helpful to future bookers. You are the manager of these relationships. It’s the job of NPR’s bookers to develop a broad and varied network of people who are willing to speak to our listeners.

14. If you don’t understand something – ASK!

This goes for just about anything you’ll do as an intern, not just booking. NPR is a peculiar place with peculiar habits. There’s lots of lingo we use around here without second thought and there are a lot of technical processes that are second-nature to those who have been here a while, but confounding to newbies. If you don’t get something, just find someone with a kind face and ask for the inside info. There are a lot of wonderful and helpful people around here (all of which were once in your shoes!)

15. Enjoy!

Booking is hugely fun. You get to talk to new and interesting people every day. Strive for the voices that are interesting, surprising, and underrepresented. Avoid as much as you can the predictable and the usual suspects!

Want more? Here’s a great post on pre-interviewing from Sally Herships

Jessica Deahl has been booking guests and producing stories at All Things Considered since 2012.