It seems straightforward. Bring someone — a newsmaker, an eyewitness, a journalist — on to your show to talk to the host about something. The conversation should be gripping and illuminating, so think of smart, pointed questions for the guest. And, voilà! You have an interview.
But it’s not so simple. I know, because in 2018, after more than two decades as a reporter, I started working as an editor on NPR’s Morning Edition, setting up, scripting and vetting interviews. It was unlike anything I’d done before — and at first I honestly wondered whether I had the chops. As a reporter, you often have the luxury of letting an interview run as long as necessary to get a sizzling actuality or two, which then plays a bit part in a larger story you tell with the help of other sources.
But on a show, the interview is brief and it is the story. You need to find the right person and choreograph a flowing conversation, and there’s no space for trial balloon questions, particularly when it’s live. So much depends on preparation, and having an editor’s ear.
So I compiled this checklist with the help of a number of NPR show editors to help you survive any interview and give your show one memorable conversation after another.
Before the interview
▢ What’s the focus, the central question you are trying to answer?
▢ Why is the segment relevant now?
▢ Do you want to talk to an eyewitness, affected person, stakeholder, journalist?
▢ Why is _____ the right guest?
▢ Have you thought about diversity in selecting _____?
- ▢ What focused questions will you ask? Is it the right number of questions for the segment length?
- ▢ Do the questions follow a logical arc? Is there a beginning, middle and end?
- ▢ Have you done a pre-interview where you vetted them and …
- ▢ confirmed that they are who they say they are?
- ▢ gauged their responses to your questions, but without spoiling the conversation for the host? (TIP: Don’t ask the questions the same way the host will)
- ▢ Have you researched the background of the story and the guest, and presented the key elements in an easily readable way in the host passoff or script?
- ▢ If appropriate, have you supplied your host with ideas for pushback?
- ▢ Is there tape that can be played in the intro?
- ▢ If it’s a two-way with a guest, is there tape that can be played as part of a host question?
- ▢ If it’s a two-way with your own reporter, is there tape that can be played as part of an answer?
▢ Have you explored all connection options to get the best possible audio quality?
▢ Have you written a draft intro ahead of the interview?
▢ Have you written a pronouncer for the guest’s name?
During the interview (live or taped)
As you listen and fact-check, and the producer takes detailed notes, ask yourself:
▢ Are there any errors that need correcting?
▢ Are the most obvious questions being asked?
▢ Is pushback needed anywhere?
▢ Is there an important follow-up question, or one the host overlooked?
After the interview (taped)
▢ Which elements do the host and producer feel should make the final cut?
▢ Which do you feel are essential?
▢ Does the conversation work in the time allotted?
▢ Do you and the producer have an agreed-on workflow for the edit?
▢ Does the intro need to be updated?
After the edit
▢ Does the conversation flow naturally?
▢ Does the structure work?
▢ Does the intro draw in listeners?
▢ Have you double-checked all the facts, names, numbers and dates?
▢ If you used tape, does it help the flow or hinder it?
▢ Does the conversation feel slow at any point? If it does, more cutting may be necessary.
▢ Is it a memorable conversation?
▢ Does it leave the listener thinking?
▢ Does it live up to expectations and answer the central question (see above)?
Special thanks to Deborah George, Scott Saloway, Denise Couture, Gail Austin and Sarah Oliver