a crash course on appearing on a conservative radio talk show

ImageYesterday morning, I got an email from an associate producer of the Michael Medved show inviting me to discuss the recent USA Today oped on ethnic studies. They were hoping I could go on the air that afternoon—in four hours.

I was interviewed once before based on a USA Today article, over ten years ago, but that was for a puff piece on tips to survive the annual summer heat wave. I also googled and facebook inquiried Michael Medved and realized he was a conservative, which probably meant he did not want to interview me to agree with my opinion. So I had to prepare.

My main goal was not to look like a weak, lefty, sputtering fool on the air. I care deeply about this issue and believe in it. I wanted to defend it properly. So in the dwindling hours I had before my interview, I reinvested myself in the issue, realizing that from the comforts of my brief oped, where no one was opposing me, I couldn’t rely on my old argument. I had to have my talking points and be prepared to debate.

Facebook and Twitter were excellent resources, with friends chiming in on how to best handle the interview. The highlights:

  1. My college provost, who I coincidentally had a meeting with that morning, had some of the best advice: don’t use the old argument of why ethnic studies is necessary–even if it’s true—that the curriculum provides a more balanced representation of perspectives in history and society for people of color. Honestly, the host and his listeners are not going to care about that argument. Reason with their bottom line, which is their fear that these kinds of courses waste taxpayers’ money and promote division within an assimilated American society. The new argument for ethnic studies: these courses are crucial to a 21st century education, that in this international economy, our future students need cultural understanding of other perspectives to be able to compete in a globalized world. I do believe this, especially the stance that these courses do not have to be divisive. If anything, ethnic studies broaden and complement our traditional curriculum by being more inclusive.
  2. Monique Truong shared some media interview tips with the overarching theme of not being bullied or led by the interviewer. It is not my job to fill the air—it’s theirs. And don’t ever pretend to be an expert or speak on any issue you don’t know about.
  3. My former colleague Todd Butler at WSU shared a fabulous tidbit about a young liberal appearing on the Bill O’Reilly Show: keep your talking points short—to fifteen seconds. That way, you get your point across and you never get interrupted. It also riles your debating opponent.
  4. Over pho lunch, Matt peppered me with every possible hostile question I could get from potential callers. This helped immensely. So I wasn’t rattled or surprised when these calls did come in.

What I learned from the actual interview:

  1. There were a ton of commercials. One hour of interview was in reality only 37 minutes of airtime. I am used to listening to talk show interviews on NPR—where the guests can speak at length and debate back and forth. That didn’t happen on the Medved show. He would speak, direct a question at me as the music swelled to a commercial break, and I’d often have to wait  a few minutes before I could provide my answers. This actually helped me think through my argument, so I didn’t mind.
  2. I actually found myself moving away from my talking points to simply engage in the debate, making me realize I knew more than I thought. The interviewer and his callers, while certainly full of opinions on ethnic studies courses, had such a wildly different perspective on these classes. They clearly hadn’t taken the ethnic studies courses I had in my undergrad—which I credit for making me the writer and person I am today. This helped me stay cool and collected during the points, when I could have flown off into a nonsensical rage (which has happened to me before—often while driving in traffic or dealing with pushy parents at the farmer’s market.)
  3. Tweeting and facebooking during the interview was a wonderful way to get through the commercials. I was getting emails and wonderful comments of supports from friends and colleagues.

So I feel aptly prepared the next time I get a radio interview request. I doubt I’ll ever evolve into a regular talking head, but it was great fun.