25 years ago there was huge flooding in Northern California that I covered as a very young news reporter. It was an extraordinary experience that culminated with my being on a broken levee next to neighborhoods of families all on their roofs as the water took over the rest of their houses. They were screaming and waving flashlights, trying to get the attention of news helicopters to pluck them off. When the sun came up the next morning, this is what it looked like…
I learned a huge lesson as a reporter that night. For the first time, I put down the notepad and just watched and listened, and then opened a mic and just spoke, off the top of my head, describing what I was hearing. It was really, really good. So much so that Paul Harvey played about 30 seconds of it in his broadcast the next day. If you ever heard Paul Harvey, you know he almost never used any sound other than his own voice, and less that of other reporters.
At the same time, the morning host of the station where I was working had to do non stop flood coverage at the station. But the parking lot was flooded. So he waded across the parking lot and then entered the station soaking wet. He took off his pants and did our highly rated, award winning, non-stop, wall to wall flood coverage, hours of it, in his “tighty whities” as he says it. He tells a very funny story about it.
So 25 years later the station decided to do a special on those floods and our coverage, and that host and I were in the unusual position of being interviewees instead of interviewers
It was eye opening. In all of the preparations for that show, no one ever pre-interviewed us. No one ever asked us our stories. So during the show, no one knew to “go there” with us, and never gave us the opening we kept waiting for to be able to tell our REAL stories of the event.
After so many years of producing and developing news and talk shows, I was reminded of how important it is to just take a minute and prep for an interview. To think it through; think about what’s going to make it great content and not just an interview. And, as often as possible, really knowing what the guest is going to say. Especially if you or a good producer have the luxury of asking them first. On the day of our 25 year special I was reminded of a lesson every bit as valuable as the one I learned 25 years earlier as a reporter putting down the pencil and notebook and just listening first.