Posts about interviews

The coolest Canadian

Screenshot 2013-03-29 at 9.27.41 AMI had the great pleasure last night to watch one of my favorite interviewers on one of my favorite shows, live in New York. Jian Ghomeshi [except for an excess H it sounds like it's spelled] is the host of the CBC’s Q, which I’ve listened to for years. You can — no, should — listen to him online, on Sirius (channel 159), or on some smart public-radio stations like WNYC, which have started carrying him.

Ghomeshi runs a radio variety show, but not like one of the late-night TV shows in America. It’s a smart variety show. It doesn’t try to be funny or hip but is both. Ghomeshi’s opening monologue is a written essay/soliloquy/riff that sets the pace for the show; it says, “keep up now.” He gets great musical bookings and gives them time. He knows how to speak with them because he was a rock musician himself. But the heart of the show is his long-form interviews with musicians, authors, actors, and divas; he’s comfortable with them all.

Last night I was thinking about my favorite interviewers: Howard Stern, Jian Ghomeshi, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, each live and uncut. And I started to understand, I think, what makes them great. They treat interviews like music.

That’s not my thought. At the after-party — an understated Canadian affair — I was talking with an American public-radio executive who was also a musician and a jazz producer and he said he saw Ghomeshi’s experience as a musician play out in his interviews: playing over the occasional wrong note, going with the flow of someone else’s solo. When Jian arrived later he, too, talked about getting into the right rhythm with a guest. It is musical, he said.

03-25-13---James-FrancoRight. In the car on the way home, I listened to a replay of Stern’s hour-and-a-half interview with James Franco this week. When I first heard the start of it, live, I thought Stern was being slightly ADD. He’d get Franco to go down a path; Franco would get ready to launch into a story; Stern would get distracted by a squirrel or perhaps he’d worry that Franco would spend too long and he’d deflect him to another subject; there was a bit of Mexican jumping bean to it. But last night I heard the rest of the interview and it was amazing. They got into sync. They were comfortable and out of that comfort came the surprising candor Stern can get even from jaded, over-interviewed stars. He truly is a genius at it. The real advantage of Sirius is not that he can say “fuck” but that he has the time, uninterrupted, to find that rhythm.

Ghomeshi has the similar advantage of being on public radio in Canada with two hours to devote to his guests. I’ve had the privilege of being on the show a few times. It’s shocking to my American media biorhythms to find myself in an interview or debate that doesn’t end in 2:30 — a race to the finish of the sound bite — but instead can turn into a real discussion. That contrast was apparent last night in Q’s media panel — one of my favorite parts of his week, but this time with American guests: The New York Times’ David Carr, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, and right-wing CNNer Will Cain. Though Goodman decried the sound bite, the truth is that they were all trained to recite theirs in sparse minutes while Ghomeshi was trying to get them to actually arrive at least at a clear statement of disagreement about gun control. Good luck with that. Cain wouldn’t play. Still, it made for fascinating radio/video/theater.

His other interviews each had their own cadences. Cyndi Lauper, who is approaching diva status, talked about her Broadway show with Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots, and about her childhood and, God help us, the Dalai Lama. Ghomeshi let her go. At his usual pace, with fewer guests than he had on stage last night, the interview would have gone on longer but the clock got in the way. Still, leaving us wanting more is not a bad thing.

Alan Alda tried to show Ghomeshi who was boss (“You grew up in the Bronx,” said Ghomeshi. “No I didn’t but I can tell you’re a Wikipedia reader,” said Alda) but that turned into a pleasant chat about the impact of M*A*S*H and about science (Alda is challenging scientists to define a flame and time so 11-year-olds could understand).

Vampire Weekend played three songs, a luxury the crowd enjoyed. Actually, they played four, asking to come back after the taping was done to rerecord their first. That provided a post facto punch line; now I understood the sly grins they shared when Ghomeshi — obviously aware of the redo that was coming up — asked Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij whether they were perfectionists.

The highlight of the night for me was David Cross talking about the return of Arrested Development. At the party, Ghomeshi said the two of them had hit that certain rhythm; watch how they did it at the start of the second hour, below. Cross began, like Alda, testing the line. He asked Jian whether he was that guy who had that interview — famously strange — with Billy Bob Thornton. “He was just such an insufferable prick,” Cross said. “We’re not going to replay that now, are we?” Ghomeshi asked. That could have gone either way. But then Ghomeshi exhibited real knowledge of Cross; he’d seen his stand-up act and knew his shows and had insightful questions and Cross responded with both candor and great comic timing. In only a moment, they became an act together.

After the show, I talked with a bunch of public-radio people and asked whether there was anyone in the U.S. market like Ghomeshi. They couldn’t think of anyone. Neither can I. We’re lucky we get to listen here. I asked his producers what the Canadian reaction was to Ghomeshi’s growing American fan base — did they wonder why he needed us. No, they said, but Canadians did worry that the show would become — like surely too much else from their perspective — too American. I don’t think that can happen. The acts and the subjects are shared. The attitude isn’t.

Ghomeshi is quite Canadian. He embodies what I like about the place — and why I indeed almost moved there three times (I am the rare Canadophile, but that’s another story). The Venn diagram of his and Canadian’s characteristics has many overlaps: calm, charming, self-deprecating, witty, easy, smart, never too hip, quite comfortable…. Hear for yourself.

I have just one wish: that Sirius and public-radio stations here would give his Q’s full two hours. We’re almost as smart and patient and interested as Canadians. Really.

Brian Lehrer and Public Parts

My chat this morning with the wonderful Brian Lehrer about Public Parts:

Zuckerberg interview: What went wrong

I want to get video of the uncomfortable keynote with Mark Zuckerberg and Business Week’s Sarah Lacy at SXSW today so I can use it as an object lesson in my journalism classes about how not do conduct an interview. My lecture:

Lacy’s biggest mistake was not knowing her audience. Here she had the founder of one of the most innovative, game-changing, and so-far-successful companies of the age — the age that is being created and celebrated by the audience here. But she could not, in the words of one frustrated audience member, ask anything interesting — not to them. Zuckerberg is a man of few words who doesn’t speak often and so there was a great opportunity to find out what this audience wanted to know.

How could Lacy have known that? By asking the audience. If I were up there, I’d have blogged a week before asking SXSWers what I should discuss with Zuckerberg. And if things still went sour with my own questions, I’d have opened up the discussion to the floor with the simple question: What do you want to know?

Next was the way she treated Zuckerberg. I have no doubt that she likes and respects him and that she was trying to put him at ease because he has been shy and nervous in such settings. But she condescended to him, talking about his age too much and about his flop-sweat when she first met him. In a magazine story for people who don’t know this man and what he has done, that might come off as quaint (it’s a magazine kind of observation — a way to show off, frankly). But, again, Lacy didn’t know her audience and by diminishing Zuckerberg it only seemed to insult him and this crowd. The equivalent would be interviewing Bill Gates at an industry conference and calling him weird who fidgets too much and has bad hair, like everyone in the room.

Worse, in her effort to charm Zuckerberg, Lacy came off like Mrs. Robinson. That was embarrassing for her and us.

She pulled some basic mistakes in interviewing. She interrupted him. The first minute of the conversation, he wanted to talk about people using Facebook to organize against Colombian guerrillas — a fascinating story — and she didn’t let him finish, trying to show that she already knew this. The real mistake was that she wasn’t listening.

Another good indication that she didn’t understand that her role was to let him have his say was when she announced that Facebook was opening in French tonight. That’s what he was going to say.

She rambled on to the point that Zuckerberg had to suggest that she ask a question. Definitely not a good sign in an interview.

She was inserting herself too much into the hour. The audience didn’t care a bit about her — or the book she plugged a few times (said a tweet: ‘Can we short her book?’). They were here for him.

When she tried to get tough with Zuckerberg, it came off as clumsy: “Come on, it’s not worth $15 billion.” And this once again shows that she wasn’t aware of the audience. They didn’t care about a business story. They wanted stories about technology and society. When the audience finally got to ask the questions and got tough on Zuckerberg themselves, they pressed him on why he doesn’t have a decent search on Facebook messaging — to which he agreed and vowed to fix it. In this crowd, that’s news.

When it became obvious that the audience was hostile to her — cheering Zuckergerg when he told her to ask a question — she acted hurt, as if this hour was about her. Worse, she told us how tough her job was. It wasn’t tough. It was a privilege and she was blowing it. And at the end, when she said that people should send her an email telling her what went wrong, she was so 1994; she didn’t understand that the people in the crowd were already coalescing in Twitter and blogs into an instant consensus. Oh, if only there’d been a back-channel chat projected on the screen beside her. Then, she could have seen.

After it was over, Lacy did go to Twitter and left this message: “in my book, getting mark to publicly admit to the yahoo deal, address beacon, and give news on changes in the platform and france equals successful interview”

Still, she wasn’t listening. Now, instead of asking Zuckerberg questions, she should again have been asking the audience. Instead she was telling them, NYTimes-like, what the story really was, not the one they saw.

At the end of it all, I have no doubt that Lacy is an experienced and talented journalist, that she respects Zuckerberg, that she was trying to put him at ease, and that she was going after the stories she found interesting. But that’s the essence of her problem: She didn’t stand back and remind herself that her job was to enable a conversation not with her but with the crowd about what they found interesting. And when she failed at that, the audience could tell her, in Twitter, blog posts, hoots from the audience, and even cartoons:

: Here‘s Rex Hammock on the train wreck. News.com’s narrative. Here’s one clip of the fateful talk.

Put down that phone

Scott Rosenberg weighs in on the phone-v-email interview debate with refreshing directness:

It’s undeniable that pros prefer phoners. Partly it’s because the phone is fast, and most senior-level reporters today learned their craft when the phone was really the only channel available. Also, it’s because a good reporter can capture an extra bit of color by listening to an interviewee’s voice and tone. But mostly, it’s because reporters hope to use the conversational environment as a space in which to prod, wheedle, cajole and possibly trip up their interviewee.

Any reporter who doesn’t admit this is lying, either to his listener or to himself. Phone conversations have the additional advantage of (usually) leaving no record, giving journalism’s more malicious practitioners a chance to distort without exposure, and its lazier representatives an opportunity to goof without fear. (I have no reason to believe Vogelstein is either. But in his email to Calacanis, which the reporter later posted himself, Vogelstein explained his preference by saying, “Email leaves too much room for misinterpretation. You can’t hear the tone in someone’s voice.” And that just sounds disingenuous coming from someone who earns his living writing text — unless Vogelstein has reinvented himself as a podcaster while I wasn’t looking.)

Why are we hearing about more interviewees shunning the phone? As Winer argued and Dan Gillmor argued and I agree, too many journalists get too much stuff wrong, and self-defense is a reasonable concern, given the likelihood of misquotation, out-of-context quotation and factual error.

The pros are going to keep lining up to explain why the phone interview is superior, but I haven’t yet seen a persuasive argument. On a BusinessWeek blog, Heather Green says she prefers reporting by phone or in person because “a conversation allows me to do followup questions.” Gee, I’ve done tons of email interviews, and nearly all of them involved followup questions. But what’s most revealing here is the misunderstanding (Green isn’t unique here, it’s widespread) of how blogging works.

Blogging is a conversation. That’s not a metaphor — it’s a simple fact that this story itself illustrates: Calacanis and Winer and Vogelstein and Gillmor and Green and many others have been having one such exchange (and now I’m chiming in too). To argue that the amongst-blog conversation doesn’t allow followups is ridiculous; if anything, our blog conversations have too many followups — and they have a hard time finding a graceful ending (though that optimist David Weinberger finds positive value in this lack of closure).

But in the online conversation, the reporter doesn’t get the last word. And the reporter doesn’t get to filter which parts of the conversation are available to the public. No wonder journalists want to stick with the phone. But I think it’s going to keep getting harder for them to get their sources to take the calls.

One blogger said I was issuing a dictum against phone interviews. No, I was just saying that it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer who gets to issue dicta now.