Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Approach to Being a Talk Show Host and Producer

Today, I entered my 24th year as producer and host of Work with Marty Nemko. So I figure it's not a bad time to tell you a bit about how I do it.

These ideas might be instructive not just for talk show producers and hosts but more broadly.

I choose guests with little regard to how much media experience they have. I care mainly that their mind is fertile, their content fresh and important, and they can think on their feet--I pre-interview most guests.

To help compensate for their lacking media experience, I embed these tips in the email I send them confirming their appearance:
Guests often ask me, "What makes a successful interview on your show?" Of course, it varies with the topic, but generally speaking, a good guest offers non-obvious but important information, entertainingly dispensed, for example, with a good anecdote.

My guests have also found the following tip helpful. Follow "The Traffic Light" rule of thumb: During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your imaginary "light" is green: your audience is paying attention. During the next 30 seconds, your light is yellow: Some people are starting to space out and/or think you're long-winded. After the 60-second mark, your light is red. Yes, there are occasional times you want to run a red light, for example, when you're telling a clearly interesting story or when an answer requires a bit more than 60 seconds, but generally you should stop. If more info is warranted, I'll ask a follow-up question. Using the traffic-light rule of thumb ensures the change of voices that makes an interview more of a vibrant exchange than a series of lecturettes. 
I strive to be authentic. For example, some talk show hosts use a "radio talk show voice." I speak naturally, conversationally. My career counseling clients that have heard me on the radio say I sound exactly the same. My favorite radio host, This American Life's Ira Glass has made the same choice. His voice could win an award for least likely to be a radio host yet his show is one of the most celebrated in radio history.

I sometimes script my introductions, other times not. There's an authenticity that comes from a non-scripted introduction but I've learned how to read a script so it doesn't sound scripted: I paraphrase and/or add a bit to the script, ad-lib.

For my typical half-hour interview, I usually prepare six to eight questions. I put them in a planned order but after asking the first question, I listen carefully to the answer so I can decide whether to comment, ask an unplanned follow-up question, or go to one of my planned questions. Listening well is very important and very underrated.

I send my planned questions to my guest in advance. My goal is not to stump him or her; it's to elicit the most thoughtful, rich answers s/he can generate.

Some listeners decide whether to keep listening based on the guest's answer to my first question so that question is usually the one I think will most interest my listeners and that my guest is likely to answer wonderfully. 

If there's a really tough question I want to ask, for example, one that invites a candid admission, I ask it right after s/he's given a great answer and is feeling relaxed. An example of when that worked particularly well  was when I interviewed Los Angeles Dodger great, Maury Wills. At the right moment, I asked, "Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton was always suspected of doctoring the baseball so it would do weird curves when pitched. How'd he do it?" Wills responded, "Oh, I kept a bit of emery cloth in my glove and when the ball was thrown around the infield after an out, I'd rub the ball against the emery and throw it back to the pitcher." For those of you who aren't baseball cognoscenti, he admitted committing an offense serious enough to warrant a suspension from baseball and maybe even get Sutton's Hall of Fame status asterisked. 

While I try to be kind to my guests, my main obligation is to my listeners. So when necessary, I will probe and be tough on guests if it will better serve my listeners. Similarly, during the show's call-in segment, while I try as hard as I can to help each caller, if I feel the air-time will be better spent if I interrupt, I do so even though it may seem rude.

While I try to err on the side of being encouraging to callers, I'm not afraid to be discouraging. For example, today, a caller asked what I thought of her business idea of having play-centric workshops for dog owners: creating Halloween costumes for dogs, how your doggie can help you deal with winter's cabin fever, etc. My response was that I don't believe people would pay enough money to make that more than a hobby. I suggested instead that she, who has lots of experience with dogs, dog owners, and their psychology, offer petology counseling: pet bereavement counseling or how to deal with being told, for example, that their pet has cancer requiring expensive treatment, which the owner can't afford. The caller was disappointed I didn't like her idea but I believe that she and the listeners were better served by my straight shooting. 

I must admit to occasionally and reluctantly pulling punches in areas of political correctness. Dare an idea of mine veer right of center even occasionally, I engender such anger from the supposedly tolerant liberal NPR audience that they often contact the station demanding I be taken off the air. It's hard to make myself continue to endure such opprobrium. So, increasingly, I've found myself skirting such issues. 

Often now, when I want to tackle a controversial topic I do it by moderating a debate between two equally-skilled protagonists. Or I might debate myself: I first do the best I can advocating for one side then the best I can in taking the other side and finally inviting callers to weigh in. Perhaps most fun, my wife and occasional co-conspirator on the show, Barbara Nemko, and I are the debaters and, in the middle, we switch sides. That way, the listeners can choose the side they find most persuasive, unaffected by which debater is better.

Producing and hosting Work with Marty Nemko has been one of my life's most rewarding activities. If you have a fertile mind and can think on your feet, you might want to try it but don't expect it to be remunerative. Even if it's not, it's still worth doing. And if you do it without expecting pay, it's relatively easy to broadcast your show, for example, by podcasting, or on a public-access television station or campus radio station.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Marty! Thank you for giving us an interesting and informative talk show!

It's really generous of you to provide your "3-minute makeovers". As a listener, you can tell you're trying hard to offer as much information as possible and get as many callers in as possible without being rude or short. Even so, you often generously spend more than 3-minutes on a caller in order to fully understand the issues.


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