The Interview

by Martin Green

Listen to how Martin delivers this approach in BBC's Radio 4, Dancers at Dawn

I interviewed Jeremy Deller about brass bands, trade unionism and other things. He is intelligent, articulate and unusual, all brilliant traits for the radio. He is by far the most professional interviewee I’ve talked to and this really helped. That set me thinking about what makes a successful interview, my thoughts from the train home.

Exploitative conversation for everyone’s benefit - I hope

 

I’m trying to learn how to interview people, here’s some experiences from an enthusiastic novice.

 

WHY

 

I seem to have a new sort of work, making radio programmes. It’s slightly accidental and I love it. I’m making shows for BBC Radio 4 and that allows for a certain sort of quite grown-up conversation and that’s a gift of a thing for me. I love grown up conversation.

 

I also love childish conversation, but I haven’t found a way to get paid for that yet.

 

(Fart lolly. Send us a fiver.)

 

HOW - WHY ISN’T IT REALLY EASY, IT’S JUST TALKING

 

We all engage in social conversation all the time, and around that we have various forms of culturally acceptable behaviour, responses, and boundaries. This is probably a necessity for a functional society, but it doesn’t lead to captivating radio in itself. I absolutely believe that every single person on the planet old enough to speak has something I am interested in hearing, I really think that.

 

This procedure then is finding a way to get it out of them.

 

The very first interview I did was just awkward, it was my own fault. I wanted to try it, and I asked a friend (a musician who is used to interviews and very eloquent) and I asked her about one of her favourite artists, and as soon as we started, I could see in an instant why people are impressed with good interviewers. Because you’re not really conversing, you’re trying to steer a ship without it being clear that you are. You are also not truly listening to the answer because you need to think about which way to steer next. However, if you actually don’t listen to the question, you may look distracted (which is a massive faux par) or actually deliver some non sequitur at the end of them speaking.

 

So that first one was hard, and I felt quite tiny after it, but I learnt a lot.

 

The next interviews I did were research interviews, and these are just joyous, there are a couple of things about them that make them easier:

 

•       If you weren’t genuinely interested you wouldn’t be there

•       It doesn’t matter if it dips in the middle

 

Gonna look at these one by one.

 

•       If you weren’t genuinely interested you wouldn’t be there

 

Don’t underestimate this, it’s so powerful, the biggest single thing for me, is learning to channel that bit of me that is fascinated in what people are saying. Because people can tell, and that makes them want to talk to you. We all (almost all) are flattered when people are interested in us, and you can’t really fake that I don’t think, you need to stick yourself in there a bit and fully engage. It has been such a joy for me to realise when people decide you care about what they have to say, how much they open up. 

 

•       It doesn’t matter if it dips in the middle

 

This is where great live interviews impress me the most. I have found that the interviews I get go through these golden, sparky moments of conversation, people saying interesting/beguiling/sad/funny things, and it feels like you are asking the right questions and it’s all great. And then the next question doesn’t resonate and it drops. I don’t know how useful it is as an analogy, but it reminds me of free improvised music. You wander through it and have these vibrant moments of connection, then it dips as you look for the next one. And just as with improv, I’m trying to learn to be ok about that, to be patient and allow the next one to arrive. If you get tense and try and force the energy into the conversation (I definitely tried in that first one with my friend) the experience loses authenticity.

"At the end of the day, people can always listen to something else"




 

Photograph: Sandy Butler

YOU ARE PROFITEERING FROM OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES AND EXPERIENCES, ISN’T THAT ETHICALLY DODGY?

 

Hmm. Well yeah, you sort of are.

 

I hadn’t expected to ever spend as much of my life thinking about this as I have, but sometimes it’s genuinely tricky. Be it happy, sad, funny, scary, important etc etc what we are really trying to make in radio is something that is engaging.

 

At the end of the day, people can always listen to something else, so you need to keep their attention. If it’s funny or exciting etc that is easy enough, but what if it’s deeply personal, perhaps tragic, or relates to something traumatic in people’s lives?

 

I have been interviewing people about brass bands and the history of the labour movement, and this still comes up more than you’d imagine.

 

You try and make people feel comfortable, safe, and guide them through a conversation in which they can open up.

 

And sometimes it feels as though you are talking to people who don’t get the chance to discuss some of these things very often.

 

It really isn’t so far from therapy, as a social situation, and people do open up, and perhaps they go further than they expected, they say things about their own lives, or about other people, they become upset, perhaps they start crying.

 

Well, rightly or wrongly, this is radio gold.

 

That’s what we all want isn’t it? To experience “genuine” human connections, to see into the souls of others, and tears proves that. And it translates so well in audio.

 

But then you have to decide, is this ok to use this? Legally they sign a release form first, so you are allowed to, but is it exploitation? Am I not literally making money from someone else’s misfortune?

 

On the other hand, maybe it is cathartic for the contributors, and often hearing of people with difficult circumstances can be of enormous help to listeners with problems in their own lives.

 

There is no answer of course, I’m just sharing the question about, because it’s a new one for me.

 

How people who make documentary on much more serious and traumatic subjects then make their decisions, I don’t know, as I say our topics are fairly light on the face of it. But once you get into individual’s lives, we all have stuff…

 

FINAL WORDS, TIPS FROM THE INEXPERIENCED

 

This is all new to me and I am unqualified in all, but I perhaps empathise with anyone reading this that would like to go and interview some people but hasn’t, because it is so recent for me.

 

First off - Just go and do it, go and find someone and take your phone and talk to them and see what they say, I’d be amazed if you didn’t find it rewarding and learn something about humans.

 

Secondly - Just go and do it. Take your phone….

Martin is a multi-award winning musician and Ivor Novello winning composer. As a member of Lau he has won four BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for Best Group. In 2015 he was nominated in the Best Musician category, has received the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists in recognition of his talent as a composer. In 2019 he won the Ivor Novello award for his sound walk “Aeons” that was part of The Great Exhibition of the North. Examples of his other work can be seen here 

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