Talk radio remains one of the most popular formats around, providing information, opinion, intelligent entertainment and a surrogate for an actual company to millions of people. One common misconception among people who have never actually worked in the scene is that it’s easy. Work only three hours a day? Snap! And the work itself is just to keep blabbering, right?
The truth is that being a successful talk radio host is far from easy, and the only effective training available for the job is an experience. Even then, though, some things come right out of left field: a caller needing anxiety attack help and for some reason wanting to broadcast the fact to the whole city, cranks who won’t shut up until the rest of the world is as crazy as they are, and of course the occasional troll who just likes to hear his own voice, regardless of who else has to listen.
That a host will have to deal with these is a given; one of the main differences between a pro and a newcomer his handling them with aplomb and good humor. So, double-check that your phone really is on silent, make sure some cough drops are within reach, and steel yourself for the unexpected.
Thinking You’re Prepared for an Interview…and Finding out You’re Not
In one case, a talk show host was going to interview a crime mystery writer on live British radio. She’d made extensive notes, researched the author and his work and was feeling confident. So, her first question was about the link between people who vicariously read newspaper reports on crimes and those who get their kicks from novels in the same genre. No, says her guest: those two groups of readers are motivated by totally different things, and there is almost no crossover between them. Whoops! The interviewer had to shuffle through her notes frantically, looking for questions that weren’t based on that assumption. Luckily, the writer turned out to be a talkative type – it would have been some bad radio if he could only answer “yes” and “no”.
As another example, a scientist once went on talk radio to argue that the coal-fired power generation industry has less of an effect on global warming than people tend to think. Thinking that he had a sure-fire way of undercutting this assertion, the interviewer waited until about two thirds of the spot was done before asking the scientist where his funding comes from. Well, he replies, my specialty is power station design, but most of my clients are in the nuclear sphere, so I’m kind of speaking against their interests. I don’t think they’ll be mad, though.
The moral of the story is that, however carefully it’s planned, an interview can often go off into completely unexpected directions. Doing research for only one possible scenario is not a very good idea, unless an interviewer is really good at improvising.
Having to Tip-Toe Around Advertiser’s Interests
It’s sad but true: radio is a business just like seal clubbing and investment banking, and a host occasionally has to decide how far his professional ethics are able to stretch.
Most talk stations try to walk a line between controversial and uninteresting, and where exactly that line lies is determined by what will critically offend its target audience. In fact, advertising on talk stations only costs about half as much as on music stations, given similar audience metrics, precisely because of this risk. The increased importance of social media also means that fewer advertising dollars get spent on radio spots overall, while a station associating itself with a controversial brand – or vice versa – is obviously less than optimal.
Any conversation that involves politics or religion will probably offend at least a few people, but even subjects such as urban speed limits or celebrity divorces can cause tempers to flare up. The most important thing here is perhaps to respect the audience – losing one advertiser is nothing compared to losing 10% of listening share. Still, some slip-ups are bound to occur, such as the host who come on the air directly after an ad for a rock concert with the words: “Oh my…was that music? Do their parents know they talk like that?”
When Fanaticism and Facts Collide
Occasionally, someone on the show – whether a caller or an in-studio guest – will make a point that is simply so dumb that it’s impossible to argue with, such as that Islam is a country or that rape cannot produce pregnancy. In a perfect world, these little hiccups would be addressed through reasoned debate and empirical proof, and I implore anyone who finds this utopia to send me a postcard.
Simply cutting someone off is considered bad form. In the first place, this can and will be seen by some as suppressing the rights of others to have their views heard; in the second, these individuals provide quality entertainment for free. A true master at the talk show game will often handle such a situation by keeping calm and making fun of the fool. Asking enough questions, as respectfully as possible, will eventually show up the absurdity of such a position while keeping the host’s reputation intact.