West Coast Live and the challenge of radio interviews

Today I went to Berkeley to be on West Coast Live, a radio show that you might think of as a rangier, looser version of Prarie Home Companion.

It was an awful lot of fun. It's the best of Berkeley: on the old side but lively, with a staff that's laid-back yet terrific at what they do, and clearly cares about putting on a great show.

The show was broadcast from Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, which not surprisingly is a warehouse that was converted into a performance space in the 1960s. West Coast Live broadcasts from there pretty regularly.

Fortunately, the person who interviewed me– he's one of the show's regulars, and a terrific pianist– had read the book and had lots of excellent questions. Actually, they were more like introductions to the book's high points: each one gave me a chance to talk about some important idea– embodiment, multitasking, meditation, and so on.

I find that talking about the book in this format is a challenge, but one I'm starting to figure out and am slowly getting better at. The first thing you have to recognize is that while the book is the reason you're on the show, doing good radio interviews absolutely require different skills than writing. In ordinary conversation, I tend to give very long answers to questions: I start talking, edit and revise myself as I go along, talk about the evidence and cases, and throw in asides or looks down interesting intellectual alleys.

That doesn't work on the radio: you don't have time, and you can't assume that the audience has the patience. Instead, you need to be focused, on point, and trust that the person interviewing you will ask the interesting next question– which you'll answer briefly. It's not a freeform jazz odyssey, it's trading fours: you want to play off the interview, get a good rhythm of call-and-response, not embark on a six-minute solo.

This isn't natural for me– or perhaps more accurately, it isn't very familiar. A few days ago, after an interview with an Irish radio station, I wrote out the questions I was getting– people tend to ask the same things– and then put together the shortest, most interesting answers I could come up with.

In many cases, I ended up with answers that were considerably shorter and pithier than ones I'd given on the fly. In a couple cases, I came up with completely new takes on the questions. It was a valuable exercise, and one I think I'm going to keep tweaking as the interviews continue.

I've got a big round of radio interviews coming up next week, and I might print these questions and answers out on note cards, then put the cards up in my workspace, so I'm surrounded by a blizzard of elegant turns of phrase and reminders of critical, must-communicate ideas.

My idea is not to merely read the answers, but to be familiar enough with specific turns of phrase or alliteration to be able to work them into the conversation, and I believe having them in front of me will help with that. (It's a bit like what the Homeric bards did, according to Perry and Lord: have a repetoire of key turns of phrase and descriptions, then improvise everything else.)

The interview concluded with me reading the last couple paragraphs of the book, which was good practice for Tuesday's appearance at Kepler's Books here in Menlo Park (there will be cake!).

Afterwards, the other authors who'd been on the show and I sat in the lobby and autographed books.

I'm happy to say I sold out– which is good, because on the way home the car overheated, and we limped into a dealership before the engine melted down. Fortunately, my father-in-law was able to come pick us up, and we'll just have to make do with my car for the next couple days (though that one is pretty close to the end of its life, and probably isn't worth trying to fix).

I write it off as karmic balance, the cosmic tax for such a great morning. Yes the car will probably cost a fortune to fix and it'll be a pain to deal with, but my family and I made it back alive, and the West Coast Live appearance was about the best introduction I could have to the craft of talking about the book with a live audience. I just hope next week's satellite tour doesn't cause and earthquake.

 

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