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Q&A: NPR’s Audie Cornish on the Intimacy of Interviewing

From Poynter:

great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. It can be informative, entertaining, thoughtful.  Here, an interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish

Jesse Thorn: You have worked at NPR for like 95 percent of your professional career. Is there an NPR way of doing things, do you think?

Audie Cornish: There definitely is. And, well, are you asking about reporting or hosting?

Jesse: I’m asking about hosting and interviewing, specifically. But reporting too. Your husband’s a reporter, he’s a newspaper reporter, right?

Audie: Yes, yes he is.

Jesse: So like I’m sure that you know what it’s like outside of the world in which you operate.

Audie: I do, I did have a moment. I started at the Associated Press.

Jesse: So what what’s the difference, do you think?

Audie: What is the difference? Well I would say maybe there’s a carefulness, for better or worse. There are sort of pros and cons to that. But there’s definitely a kind of carefulness to the work and thoughtfulness and sort of approach that says, “Hold on a second. Does this make sense? Is this a story? What’s the narrative? Like what are we trying to say? Who’s the person who would benefit from hearing this story?” Like you ask yourself so many questions. I kind of feel like when I was working at the Associated Press it was like, get it out now. You know it really was kind of: who, what, when, where, why. Like, this is the wire. I mean, this is like not today. Obviously they do all kinds of great enterprise work and things like that. But I think at NPR there’s a lot of carefulness. As for hosting and interviewing, I didn’t know jack about it. I, like everyone else, just turn on the radio, and Scott Simon or whoever was there. And they were sharp and witty, and they seemed to know everything and read magazines that I had only, like, heard of but never actually held. And when I became a host I actually just, like, got a copy of Sound Reporting, which is a book that was put out by NPR.


Audie: When you are reporting, you are a detective, you’re a scavenger, you are wooing people. I know for me I was in love with every person I spoke to until I spoke to their enemy or the person at the other point of view. And then I was in love with them. Like, you’re just coaxing. No one’s looking at you. No one’s hearing what you’re doing to try and get this person to feel comfortable enough to tell you things that will actually help advance your story. That is completely different from sitting down and having a targeted conversation that’s supposed to unfold seemingly naturally over the course of several minutes. Minutes you know will be edited down and that need to have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s such a different ballgame. And it was a very hard transition for me because you are an active participant in that story, you are a narrator in that story in a way that is very different than when you’re writing a news report or a news feature. I think Public Broadcasting, and I’m just going to say, Public Broadcasting and its other haloed kind of colleagues, right? Like, there are a lot of products out now in the podcasting space that feel like public radio even though they aren’t public radio. They all come from that tradition. The idea of, like, sitting down and trying to reach the height – the nirvana is authenticity. You know? Like a real connection between two people that’s on tape. That sounds sort of, like, pornographic somehow, which is not my intention. But that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to have intimacy, like, on demand.

RELATED: Susan Orlean reveals a secret pro tip for conducting interviews

Jesse: That is something that I do recognize. It’s also something that I’m terrified of. I mean in my day to day life not just in my professional life. And the idea of generating that in 15 minutes or 7 minutes, which is what ends up airing in a generous piece that you might be doing on an NPR news show. It’s just flabbergasting to me.

Audie: I don’t believe you at all because you do this for a living, and I listen to your show. And like your whole spiel is like, “Hey,” – you’re actually, in fact, you, one of the techniques I’ve noticed about you is you are a kind of person who trades on intimacies a little bit. It’s like, “Oh here’s a thing about me.” And then the person goes, “OK. He just told me a thing now I’m going to say a thing. ‘This is how I felt then…’” You know, like, that’s like exactly how it works. That’s a real conversation. And I think what’s terrifying is rejection, right? Which we also feel in all of our lives and we can… When you’re an interviewer and someone effectively rejects you, the way we say it oftentimes is they won’t quote unquote, “play ball.” Yeah, that sucks. Those are really long minutes where you’re like, “What am I going to do with this? This person isn’t really saying anything.” And by that I mean people who are people. I don’t mean what I would call, you know, kind of combatants, right? People who are like super PR trained; politicians, CEOs, people who basically arrive at the interview in a defensive crouch. You kind of know what that’s going to be. But you don’t really want that with a regular – like a person. You know? A civilian or an artist or someone who is really capable of having that kind of conversation with you and who might otherwise be willing to if there wasn’t something blocking it that day, right? Whether it was traffic or they’re not feeling well or they don’t like you. That happens too.

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