Just as the local papers must make their pages relevant to their readers, the local radio stations need to fill their air time with a certain amount of local issues talking to local people. They will have discussions where they invite the public to participate by calling in, but there are many other opportunities where you may be invited to give a brief interview over the phone or you might be invited into the studio for a particular programme. If you have something to say and say it well, chances are that the station will come back to you time and time again. You can often initiate the process through staging a particular action or through a press release you issue, or by contacting the station directly, but in the long run it is all down to developing a relationship, as journalists, like most people, succumb to inertia, and if they have a reliable contact who will express an opinion eloquently enough for their purposes, they won’t bother going through the troubles of finding somebody else.
Getting a chance to speak is, however, only half the story, how you come across once you participate is the crucial other half. Too many good opportunities have been wasted by people insufficiently prepared for the occasion and unaware of what to expect. We’ve therefore put together a few hints and suggestions.
First of all, to get your message across it must be suitable for the target audience. If at all possible, you should listen to a particular programme before you take part in it yourself. Every radio station has its own type of listeners, and you will have to be able to speak to them in their own language, and within a station, different programmes aim at different sections of the listening community. There is a lot to be learned by listening to good speakers on the radio, and even more by listening to the mistakes of those unfortunate enough to have got it wrong. For your point to be taken on board, it must sound convincing, which in turn means you must sound natural and at ease with it yourself.
Good subject knowledge is definitely a plus, but there is no point overwhelming an audience with too many facts. Your aim is not to be acknowledged as an expert, but to break things down to key points easy enough to understand for everybody else. You may make a note of, let’s say, key figures, but too much detail often gets in the way of the clarity of your argument, and at no time should the flow of speech be impeded by reading from paper. Radio is a listening medium, and you should imagine talking to a real person even if you are only at the end of a telephone line or in a self-operated studio. Your contribution should be lively and enthusiastic, but not over the top, edging on the hysterical, nor should it be dry and monotonous. If you can get it out of your head that you are broadcasting and behave as if you were talking to one or two people directly in your presence, you will give a much improved impression.
Good preparation is important so that you don’t get caught out, particularly if the interview is live. In fact, there are slightly different techniques for live and pre-recorded interviews.
In a live interview you want to let the cat out of the bag, that is get the most important statements out of the way, as soon as possible, for if you save them for later, you might be off the show before you get the chance. The interviewer might want to lead you down a particular path of reasoning or corner you to get you to say what he or she wants to hear. Always feel sovereign enough to sidestep a leading question. You should only say what you feel comfortable with, and if you feel a question is devious or inappropriate, say so, politely of course. “I see what you’re getting at, but the real question is…” is a way of escaping out of such a cul-de-sac. You may feel under pressure, but it is important not to let on, and to stay calm throughout. Correct false assumptions, but don’t get drawn into slinging match, nor get yourself forced onto the defensive. Stick to the positive side of your case as much as possible.
A pre-recorded interview requires quite a different strategy. Keep your statements short and to the point and avoid at all cost to be side-tracked into saying anything not too relevant to your case, in order to minimise the potential of having your best contributions edited out and something relatively inconsequential broadcast instead. For example “I don’t object to the councillor’s right to express his opinion, but I profoundly disagree with what he has said” may well end up in you being quoted as saying “I don’t object to the councillor’s right to express his opinion” – full stop – so cut out the niceties and stick to “I profoundly disagree with the councillor”.
Proficiency comes with practice, and it is therefore equally important not to take on a task unless you are confident you can handle it. Just because a radio station would like a comment from you does not mean you have to comment. Unless you deal with the issue competently, you might actually make things worse by participating. So you also need to know when to refuse or at least postpone an interview opportunity, so you can adequately prepare or ask others for advice on what to say. Avoid being set up for a cock fight by the media, for example in order to allow them to split the community into moderates and fundamentalists. Radio show hosts love controversy, but scoring points is not always the best way of helping people understand your arguments.
It has already been mentioned that your words need to be appropriate for your intended target group and the type of audience of the station you are talking to. It is a safe bet that the majority of those will be people only slightly aware of your activities, if at all, so any jargon or technical terms should at all costs be avoided unless absolutely essential. To the uninitiated it will only sound like gibberish. The same goes for unfamiliar abbreviations.
Needless to say, but nonetheless important, that you should avoid any distractions whilst being interviewed, as the situation is tense enough by itself. Visit the bathroom beforehand, wear comfortable cloth and sit in a comfortable, private location. Turn off your mobile and make sure people around you are aware of you doing an interview. There’s nothing worse than the phone ringing in the background or someone shouting “have you seen my car keys?” whilst you’re trying to make a point. And, of course, turn off you’re radio set; besides the possible feedback noise, you won’t be able to listen in and talk at the same time, so leave the recording to somebody else for later reviewing.