The Secret to Interviewing Historians on the Radio

The author is the host of the syndicated radio series “History Counts.” The programs focus on important events and people in history that are ignored or misunderstood.

You hear the creak of an opening door – not quite human footsteps – a canine starts barking and said canine’s owner responds.  Sounds like a harmless event but this one occurred in the middle of recording an interview with a distinguished historian for the radio series “History Counts.”

There are some things you just can’t anticipate.  But for the most part, the key to making a success of a big interview with a historian is preparation, preparation, preparation.

On “History Counts” we specialize in long form interviews with historians on complicated subjects.  The broadcasted interviews can be as long as one hour and we want them to be, both, coherent and, as we say in the business, content heavy.  This is particularly challenging given the often complex nature of our subjects, such as the recent “History Counts” program on economic history “Manias, Panics, and Crashes.”

In getting ready for a big interview with a historian, I draw heavily on my experience as a practicing attorney.  As a litigator in private practice with a Wall Street firm and as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State, I argued cases at all levels of state and federal court.  If you’re not adequately prepared in court, you’ll be eagerly devoured by the opposing lawyer and the judge might pile on too.

In litigation, 90 percent of the work is done before you stand up in court.  Similarly, when interviewing a historian the great bulk of your work is behind you before you ask the first question.

Here are some helpful tips in getting ready for that interview:

1.  Read the book

That should be a no brainer!  But how many interviews have you heard which begin with “Why did you write the book?” and continue with vague questions that tell the audience little about the books content?

When you read the book, take copious notes.  I generally take about 15 pages of handwritten notes.  I highlight quotes that might be useful for inclusion in a question, e.g.  “With respect to British policy in the mid-east, you write …” -- please expand on that.”

2.   Write an outline to use during the interview

An outline gives coherence to the interview by leading you from a logical opening thesis through supporting evidence to a conclusion.  Audiences will actually come away learning something rather than be mildly diverted by a rambling conversation.

Some big interviews are easier to organize than others.  In our “History Counts” program on the murder of Martin Luther King, there is a clear chronology of events that propels you through the interview.  On the other hand, “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” was based on a book covering many centuries of European history.  So we had to focus on an important theme of the book and develop it with a few examples.

3.  Give the historian a head’s up

This is not the “O’Reilly Factor.”  You’re not out to ambush the historian.  So let him know in advance where you’ll focus so he can get ready. 

4.  Make the guest comfortable

If possible, I like to speak with my guest a few days before the show so he can get used to my voice.  If the interview is on the phone, we don’t start taping until I’m sure he’s ready and I invite him to ask any questions about the format before we begin.

5.  Connect history to today

Either during the course of the interview or in my wrap-up, I connect the historian’s story to contemporary events.  If the British and Spanish Empires declined because they diverted too many resources from their economies to the military, how might this apply to the contemporary world situation?

6.  Know your audience

I’m fortunate that “History Counts” originates at WPKN, a non-commercial station in Connecticut, and is carried by other non-commercial stations whose audiences are sophisticated and receptive to new ideas.  If you’re audience is less sophisticated, it can be helpful to write up a preface for the program which can help the audience put the upcoming interview in context.

7.  Follow up after the interview

Send the guest a thank you note.  Let him know when his interview will be broadcast.  He deserves every courtesy since there’d be no program without the thousands of hours he devoted to researching and writing his book.

Bear in mind that in spite in of every effort to prepare for an interview, “you know what” happens – which brings me to Mark Twain.

For months, I had been working on a program on the political writings of Mark Twain.  I was very anxious to bring the subject to our audience since these important writings were largely suppressed during Twain’s life and for many years after his death.

I was all set for the interview when I learned that my historian guest tragically passed away.  What to do?

I decided to invite Mr. Twain, himself, to appear as a guest on “History Counts.”  In late night sessions, I scripted a half hour interview with the great man in which he discussed the ins and outs of his political writings.  Shortly thereafter, we taped the piece, “Mark Twain vs. the Imperialists” with an actor playing Mark Twain and ran it as an edition of “History Counts.”

Getting ready for that big interview with a historian is a lot of work.  But that work is important.  You’re not just bringing interesting stories to your audience.  You’re giving your listeners valuable information that will help them understand events shaping their lives today.  As we say at the beginning of each episode of “History Counts”:

"History provides the roadmap to the future.  If you want to know where you’re going, you have to understand where you’ve been."

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More Comments:

Steven F. Sage - 7/13/2009

<< 1. Read the book. That should be a no brainer! >>

Unfair. Why must a broadcast interviewer devote valuable time to reading the book? More likely than not, print reviewers of the book contented themselves with merely reading the jacket blurb. A few among them might've also peeped at the Intro; maybe even a coupla paras from Chapter 1. Then they dashed off their review; replete with error, completely off the mark, but still: unassailable. So broadcast interviewers should depart from such a proven standard? And spend time... reading a book ???

Randll Reese Besch - 7/13/2009

I will look to see if I can find it being played on the web.

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