I went into the media training business about 20 years ago because I had interviewed plenty of politicians who seemed to have no clear position. They didn’t seem to be up on their files. They seemed guilty of something.
In those days, there were a lot of misconceptions about how to deal with reporters—ask questions yourself, get combative, write out questions for them. I’m surprised that things are not much better today. A lot of my political clients think they need three or four 8-second messages to repeat several times in an interview. Most clients think asking them about their enabling legislation or the governance or reporting structure is a dirty trick. Some rely on messages more suited to high-school civics classes than a public television documentary on politics.
When you’re in public administration or politics, your enabling legislation, committee structure, mandate and such are simply your job description and work environment. A senior office-holder should know such basics.
The length of a good clip varies greatly. I once worked in a radio station that used the 20/20 news format. Newscasts were short, coming every 20 minutes, and featured a staccato style—active voice, present or future tense and lots of breathless shouting. It was as if the world just might come to an end at any hour. There was not much room for considered discourse by politicians or anyone else.
At the RKO radio networks, I had exactly 30 seconds for my reports—not 31. Should I give my source fifteen seconds? That was half the time. Practically, newsmakers could only get 9 or fewer seconds.
In both these formats I needed a news source who understood my time constraints, boiled the issues down into short, colorful clips, and did so quickly. If my sources couldn’t do this, they didn’t get another call.
Later, when I was anchoring the national news in public broadcasting, stories in my newscast lasted about a minute and a half, with clips of up to 20 seconds.
I hosted the supper-hour public-television newscast with a half-hour of news, weather and sport, followed by half-hour of interviews. The interviews were done either in studio or on location. Either way, they lasted between seven and 30 minutes, but usually no more than ten.
Editing changes the complexion of all this. Even the hype-rock reporter who wants 8 seconds from you conducts a three- or four-minute interview and then edits. Morning shows and talk shows might tape up to twelve minutes in order to edit down to five for broadcast. A radio documentary might require a 20-minute interview, and it’s not uncommon for a TV documentary crew to linger in your office for an hour to get a few short clips.
As a morning radio host, I did innumerable live, five-minute interviews with politicians. I needed 45-second answers. If I asked five questions and got decent answers, time was up, and we all went on our ways. If we taped, we’d talk for seven minutes and edit.
In this format the old cliché that the less you say to journalists, the better was suicide. If a guest gave me an 8-second clip that might have worked on TV or hype-rock radio, I was on the spot. How would I fill the next five minutes with this person who was giving 8-second answers? I couldn’t think up two dozen questions to fill up five minutes, so I had to resort to tough questions to get a rise out of my guest. My other problem might be that after asking my question, I’d turn my mike off and begin sipping coffee. If I heard the guest stop speaking, I’d be on the verge of spitting my coffee all over the sportscaster as I struggled to get my mike back on and think of another question.
On the radio talk show I hosted, I needed a guest who could kick the show off with an 8-minute interview and then field the calls. I might let a sophisticated guest field the caller’s question on his own, or I might say a few words as a transition and then pass it over to the guest. Either way, I needed someone with a couple of dozen good clips and a quick wit to last an hour. During the interview a clip might be 45 seconds. A caller’s questions might require a 15-second answer or perhaps a minute of more detailed discussion.
In print, I might be on deadline as a columnist or straight reporter needing one sentence. An editorial board might want two hours on a substantial topic. Columnists will normally have their own views and may be using you as fodder to promote their own perspective.