A guide to radio interviews

Interviews with interesting case studies, experts, politicians and anyone with a story to tell are the lifeblood of talk radio.

This is a quick guide to setting up, carrying out and using radio interviews, whether for programmes, bulletins or packages.

Getting your guest

You’ve had your editorial meeting and you know what story you’re covering, and you’ve probably had a chat about the sort of guest you’re after.

Think about what you want to get out of the interview:

  1. Do you want to hold someone to account for something that’s happened? In that case you need to go to the person or organisation responsible, whether that’s the government, council, police or any other institution.
  2. Do you want someone to tell you about their experience? In that case, think about who’s likely to have a relevant story to tell. If you’re doing a story about Covid-19 restrictions on holidays, for example, try ringing local travel agents (they still exist), glamping sites, bed and breakfasts. If you’re doing a story about schools, you want parents of children of school-age or you want teachers.
  3. Do you want someone to react to something that’s happened, or about to happen? In a lot of cases, the relevant trade union is a good call here, or the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Again, you might also want to speak directly to the end-user affected.
  4. Do you want someone to talk about research, or a campaign, or a project? Go directly to the person or organisation involved!

If you’re working at a big organisation like the BBC, you’ll have access to a contacts database where you may find the people you need. However, if you’re looking for a case study, the fact that they’re in the database means their story has already been told. That’s fine for some programmes – especially if you’re producing a phone-in with ten minutes before you go on air – but there’s nothing better than telling someone’s story for the first time.

So for case studies, get creative. Think about whether you know anyone personally who fits the bill, look on Facebook groups, search Twitter, ask around.

For organisations, go to their website and find contact details. You may need to go through a press office but always look for an About section and see if you can at least find the name of the person you want to interview.

Councillors are easy – their numbers are listed on the council website.

If you find phone numbers – call people. If they don’t answer – text them. Don’t email when you can use the phone. The sooner you get a guest confirmed, the sooner you can stop trying to find more guests.

Don’t wait for one person to get back to you before trying another – call everyone you can find who would be a good interviewee. You can always stand people down or set them up for an alternative time (politely and considerately) if too many say yes.

Make sure you get their informed consent – remember the Ofcom Broadcasting Code – and let them know how long you need them for. People who aren’t used to being interviewed for radio assume you need a lot of their time when you usually only need five minutes.

Before the interview

If you’re a producer setting up a live interview for a programme, you’ll normally have a chat with the guest when you set them up to get details that will be useful for the presenter and will help you write the questions. And of course, you will have already researched the story and the guest.

Write the cue – normally just two lines and the inline introducing the guest – and about three questions. The presenter should pick up on the guest’s answers to ask more.

When writing your questions, think about what you want to get out of the interview – if they’re responding to something, put that to them first, then ask them to go into more detail about their experience. Do you want them to call for something to improve, or be done differently? Ask them a question that leads to that, something like “what do you think should happen next?” From a newsreader’s point of view, this is a good way to update a story throughout the day.

If you’ve found out something really interesting in your pre-chat with the guest, make sure you’ve got a question that prompts them to say it in the live interview. Don’t assume guests will just repeat what they’ve said to you.

Doing the interview

First, be aware of how long you’ve got. If you’ve got four minutes for the interview, don’t give them the opportunity to ramble on for two minutes about their breakfast. Unless you’re interviewing them about breakfast.

If you’ve asked a couple of questions, they’re talking a lot, there’s one minute left and you still haven’t got them to address the most important point – cut in and ask that crucial question. You don’t want to run out of time and find you haven’t added anything to the story.

LISTEN to what your guest is saying. Don’t just think about your next question. It’s awful to hear an interview where the interviewer asks a question that the guest already answered. Or when the interviewer doesn’t pick up on something huge the guest said. But also, don’t be afraid to ask a question more than once if they didn’t answer it properly – especially if you’re holding someone in power to account.

If you’re doing a pre-recorded interview it’s still a good idea to act as if you’ve only got a couple of minutes (and in fact you may still only have a couple of minutes with them even if it’s not live).

After the interview

If you’re a presenter – relax, move onto the next story.

If you’re a producer or broadcast assistant – say thanks to the guest, hang up, and move onto the next story. But you may need to clip out the best bit to tee up another interview or repeat later in the programme.

If you’re a reporter or newsreader – open up the interview in your editing software and pull out all the best clips. You’ll want to save at least two 15 second clips from every interview, and ideally a couple of extras. Save them with the right naming format – e.g. SCHOOLS JONES ACT1, SCHOOLS JONES ACT2.

Then write your cues or script to use with them. If you’ve got a really strong line or angle from the interview, you can nose the story based on what they say, e.g. “A Leeds teacher says there are too many children going to school in lockdown.” Try to make sure your clip doesn’t just repeat this though.