How To… Do a Radio Interview

As part of our series revisiting some of our most popular posts, this week we feature ABC RN’s Michael Cathcart sharing the golden rules of giving an engaging radio interview. He takes us through the process of landing a radio slot to the ways historians can enthrall their audience by having a bold narrative, being enthusiastic and above all sharing a love of history!

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Michael Cathcart joined the ABC in 2000 as the presenter of Arts Today, later presenting the Famous Radio National Quiz and Bush Telegraph, Books & Art and now The Hub.
He has a passion for the arts. He has a first-class honours degree in English literature. In the early 1990s, he chaired the board of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and has been a regular participant in writers’ festivals ever since. He has also worked as a theatre director, dramaturge and script editor. He is married to the playwright Hannie Rayson.
Michael’s other passion is Australian history. You may also know him the history programs which he has presented on ABC TV: Rewind, Rogue Nation and Australia on Trial.
Michael has taught courses in Australian history and culture at Deakin University and at the University of Melbourne, from where he has a doctorate. He is the author of Defending the National Tuckshop (1988), a study of conservative responses to the Great Depression in Victoria. He has also produced an abridgement of Manning Clark’s epic A History of Australia and an anthology of Australian speeches. Michael’s book The Water Dreamers (2009) is an award-winning study of the influence of water and aridity on Australian culture. His most recent book is Starvation in a Land of Plenty (2013), a lavishly illustrated account of the life and death of the explorer William Wills.

So your new book is just out. You’ve written this one with a mass audience in mind. And you’re all primed to do heaps of interviews.

Rule 1. Don’t try to tee up these interviews yourself. It makes you look desperate or self-promoting (which – for some bewildering reason – is a turn-off in the media world). Insist that your publisher arrange interviews for you.

Rule 2. Don’t ever give away your own copies of the book in the interests of publicity. This really looks desperate. Publishers expect to sacrifice a pile of books on the bonfire of publicity and reviews. They budget for this. If you happen to talk to a journalist who expresses interest in your project tell them that you will get your publisher to send them a review copy.

Rule 3. You should help the publicist to write to a press release. This is vital, because most radio interviews are based on the press release. That means you are setting the agenda for the interview. So how do you write a press release which will persuade a radio producer to invite you onto their program? Simple. You need to convince the producer that you have “a story”.

A good radio story has several elements:

  1. The hook. This is simply the reason why we are talking about this today! What makes this story current? (The fact that you’ve just published a book does not, of itself, constitute a hook.) In reality hooks can be quite flimsy. An anniversary is good. (“It is 100 years ago this year, since… “) A link to a current debate also works well.
  2. The second element of a good story is a Big Idea – a proposition which can be stated briefly and powerfully. We all love to imagine that our work is awash with ideas. Which is great. But for the purposes of a radio interview, work out your single, principal contention. And shape all your answers accordingly.
  3. Next, you need a bold narrative. We want to hear an actual story. Not too long. No fussy details. And don’t worry about providing lots of evidence – unless the sources are juicy (such as “Top Secret” files, or a famous person’s private diary). The key to this narrative is big human emotions. You are telling a tale of love, or fear, or suffering, or courage, or betrayal. A powerful human story.
  4. The amazement factor. You want the listeners to respond: “Wow. I didn’t know that!” Tell them something they don’t know. Or convince them of a proposition which has never occurred to them.

Rule 4. So you’ve got your interview. You are now on air. Get the measure of your interviewer early. Very few radio interviewers will have actually read your book. How can they? Some of them are on-air three hours per day! So if you are talking on a Drive show on commercial radio, you will probably find that you can take complete control of the interview. Just do your routine.

If you are talking on ABC Radio National, the presenter or his/her producer will have read a fair bit of your book – and the presenter will conduct a well-structured interview. Even so, always remember that you are in control of what you say. Don’t say anything that you are not prepared to defend later. And make sure that you get your core message across. The earlier, the better. The average interview lasts between 12 and 20 minutes – and your time can be over before you know it.

Rule 5. Talk to your audience. Remember that you are not in an academic gathering. You are talking to listeners who are put off by academic buzz words. So you’re better off avoiding discourse, hegemony, postmodernism, epistemology and so on.

Assume your listeners are smart – but they know nothing about Australian history. (Why should they? They know about other stuff: nursing or accounting or how to grow roses.) Don’t say “of course” when you explain something simple. And introduce all your key players (“Robert Menzies”, founder of the Liberal Party and Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister.” “The Australian actor, Cate Blanchett”. And so on.)

And be enthusiastic. On radio, you don’t have any body language to add impact and emphasis to what you are saying. So you need to add extra energy and emotion to your voice. Really, it’s impossible to over-do this. If you are genuine, it will sound great.

That’s it really. Simple.

And remember to share your love of history. Let that shine through.



One comment

  1. Pingback: Roundup – 2017 | Australian Historical Association

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