On January 17, CHMR-FM hosted the first of this year’s Media Workshop Series, bringing in experienced journalists and broadcasters from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences to share their insights and experience with our student and community volunteers. In this blog we’ll share some of the insights and points that arise in the workshops.
Our first guest was CBC reporter and host Cecil Haire. Cecil has over 31 years of experience in both radio and video/TV journalism, but when you meet him in person you realize he’s not only a sweet, kind soul but a journalist with a deep sense of integrity.
An eclectic path to journalism
After high school, he pumped gas for a year, and then did an accounting program at College of the North Atlantic in Corner Brook for two years. He was attracted to journalism, but wasn’t interested in print journalism which was offered in Stephenville. So, he applied to a program at an Ontario college, and got a job in a newsroom within a month of returning to Corner Brook. Then he moved to St. John’s, where he worked for the next eleven years in private radio. Following this, he moved to NTV to try his hand at videojournalism. He worked there for seven years, but didn’t like television as much as he thought he would, so he went back to radio which is what he really loved. He took a job at CBC Radio, and will have been there fourteen years in August.
“Its all I know how to do. There’s not much else I know. Radio is what I do.” – Cecil Haire
Having an accounting diploma helped, he says, later in his career when applying for news director, a management position. Other than that, the education in accounting didn’t factor much into his future work, but he doesn’t regret it, he says. As someone who always found math very challenging, an accounting diploma from the College of the North Atlantic was about as tough as you can get. “I don’t regret it. The diploma is mine. I earned it.”
While television is a field many young students want to pursue, he says it’s a tough area to get into. There’s more positions in radio, and more radio stations than TV stations, he says. And, he points out, in radio you do a broad range of work, from technical, to writing, to reading news, to on-air hosting.
Lessons from Cecil
Doing interviews is both a challenging and rewarding experience. Here are some of the lessons Cecil shared:
Things you have to deal with while doing interviews:
1) Their fear. When you interview people, most of them are nervous and afraid of looking stupid. They’re especially afraid of looking or sounding stupid in front of their peers. This is often communicated by fidgeting, a lack of eye contact, and other physical cues.
How do you calm down a nervous interviewee? Everyone’s different. Talk about it with them. Make sure they’re okay. Remind them why they’re being interviewed – they’re an expert on something, they’ve got something to say. Build up their confidence. Let them know that if they don’t know the answer to something, it’s okay for them to just say ‘I don’t know.’
Invite them in early. Get to know them. Show your human side. And importantly, stick around to talk to them afterward. Ask them how they felt about the interview. Talk through it with them.
2) Your fear. No matter how many interviews we do, or how calm we sound, we all still get nervous. When it comes to dealing with your own nervousness, there’s a human side, and a technical side. Do research before your interviews – that helps build your own confidence and helps ensure you’ll do a good interview. There’s no set rule – some people can Google a topic for 15 minutes and are fine to go on-air. Others read intensive research articles for 2 or 3 hours. Get to know what works best for you.
It’s okay to ask for help. Cecil often goes to his friend, Rod Etheridge. Often a friend or colleague will be able to come up with that great ice-breaker question, or give you a different angle or insight into the topic you’re preparing for. Asking for help is fine.
3) Know yourself. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are; get to know what your personal style is like. We all have different interviewing styles, and no one style is necessarily better or worse than another. But we should be aware what our personal style is like, and what its strengths and weaknesses are. For instance, Cecil was raised to treat people with respect, to be polite and courteous. That’s remained ingrained with him, and he knows he has to deal with that in interviews, because sometimes as a journalist you have to ask uncomfortable questions, and when you’re raised not to do that it can be hard to do. But when you know your fears, it makes it easier to recognize and tackle them.
4) Know your biases. We all have them. Other people will pick up on your biases very quickly, so it’s important to be conscious of them and look out for ways they may be influencing your interview. As an open line host, Cecil discovered that often callers would pick up on his biases and he would start receiving disproportionate numbers of calls from people agreeing with him. He says, “The listener can figure out how you feel about a topic by the types of questions you ask, even the words you choose when asking a question. That doesn’t work well when you’re doing a call in show and you’re inviting people with varying positions to call in.”
Some other thoughts and tips:
Trying to get an interview is a bit like being a salesperson. You have to sell yourself – why the interview is important, why the other person should talk to you about a topic. You also have to sell them on yourself – they need to know they can trust you, and that you’ll use what they say with integrity and honesty. Cecil says there’s something he does to put the people he’s invited to come on Crosstalk at ease. He says, “I ask them what they want to talk about. I find it puts them at ease, initially, if they know the first question or two. This can have a calming effect on folks who are not used to going on live, province-wide radio, taking calls from and talking to total strangers. I ask a lot of my guests. It’s the least I can do.”
Cecil prefers going in with ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions, because they’re accountability questions. ‘Why’ is a motivational question. Asking ‘what’ and ‘how’ is more important and useful for him, since those questions get people talking.
If you ever find yourself in an argument with someone, asking ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions is a great way to defuse it, because this gets the other person talking substantively and gets communication going in a different direction.
Despite having conducted about 15,000 – 20,000 interviews in his 31 year career, Cecil says that only two people in Newfoundland and Labrador make him nervous – Allan Hawco and Alan Doyle. “That’s because they’re both been asked every question on the planet. What could you possibly ask them?” he says.
Keep an open mind in an interview. What if you’re wrong?
Go into an interview with a curious mindset. Go in ready to be surprised, and in fact wanting to be surprised.
It’s fine to be silent at times, or to just sit and stare at the other person. It shows that you’re paying attention, and helps get them talking.
Body language is important – show that you’re interested in what the other person has to say.
Lots of journalists, when they do interviews, make the mistake of being demanding. They lead in with “Tell me…” Sometimes it’s actually okay to ask open-ended questions. An interview – especially a live one – is a conversation.
If you ask a question that provides people options (“Did you want to do X, or did you want to do Y? Or did Z happen instead?”), they will almost always simply choose the easiest option.
When doing a call in show, the participants have to know they’ll be treated with respect. “That goes for the guest, and the callers too. The show is a safe space. And if need be, if someone is disrespectful, they’re cut off.”
When do you stop an interview? When do you know that enough is enough? This is where your listening skills come in. You want to make something ‘happen’ in your interview. It doesn’t really matter what it is. When it happens, you’ll know.
Interviews for radio are different from interviews for news stories, which are different from interviews for documentaries. Be cognizant of the difference in interview styles and reflect on what style will work best for the interview you’re doing.
Got a guest who simply won’t stop talking? If worse comes to worse, talk over them until they stop. If you talk over them long enough, they’ll stop. Be polite but firm. If you have to interrupt them, explain “I’m sorry for talking over you, but I’ve got a really important question I just really need to ask lest I forget…”
If you’re out doing a remote interview and your interviewee won’t stop talking, simply pull your mic away. They’ll stop then.
You won’t get good unless you practice. It’s true for music. It’s true for sports. And it’s true for interviews.
Go back over your interviews. We all hate listening to ourselves, but it’s important to do it. Review what you’ve done and learn from it. Every day is a school day, no matter how old or experienced you are.
Ask the same question three times. Rephrase and go back to it. See how and if they answer it differently.
Practice, practice, practice. Create your own luck.
It’s only when you come back from an interview and you realize you’ve got nothing, that you realize what makes an interview good. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes.
On radio your personality comes out. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. It never works.
Honesty at all costs. Be honest with people because they’ll eventually find you out.
Your audience has to feel like you’re trustworthy. If you don’t know something, admit it. Even if you think it makes you look like a fool, that’s better than trying to fake your way through something, or getting caught in a lie. Just say ‘I don’t know.’
On last year’s student protest against tuition fee hikes, where students burst into and occupied the Board of Regents meeting rooms:
“That was one of the more interesting things I’ve seen at MUN! It was a good old fashioned protest at a university campus, and those students broke the rules. It was a big deal!”
On what he looks forward to upon retirement:
“I can’t wait for the opportunity to publicly say what’s on my mind about the things I see going on around me. When you’re a journalist remaining neutral and objective is so, so important. It would be nice to be able to openly express my opinion.”
NOTE: The next media workshop is Tuesday, February 6, at 2:00pm featuring VOCM’s Gerri Lynn Mackey! All welcome – free of charge! Don’t miss it!