Friday, November 19, 2010

Let's End the Soundbite Interview

Here's a piece I recorded for the Radio 4 Programme Feedback, which was broadcast this lunchtime. It's part of a series about what people want from Radio 4 in the future...

Next time you listen to Today, the World at One or PM just count the number of times you hear the phrase: “I’m sorry, that’s all we have time for”. Time after time nowadays in interviews, politicians or pundits are cut off in their prime just as an interview is getting interesting. Why? Because Radio 4 news producers think their listeners have the attention span of a flea.

Yes, we live in a fast moving society, but how can an interviewer possibly get anything out of a politician when the politician knows full well that he will either be interrupted after ten seconds and will only be on air for a maximum of a couple of minutes. What happens is that the politician decides in advance what he wants to say and will say it whatever John Humphrys might decide to ask. And where does that get us? Nowhere. The listener is shortchanged.

A few months ago I was asked on Today to discuss the David Laws resignation with Kelvin Mackenzie. Evan Davis asked me an initial question. I answered it as briefly as I could. Kelvin then had his go. I assumed I’d get another bite of the cherry, but Evan then tried to draw the interview to a close. I audibly sighed and uttered under my breath ‘for God’s sake’. At least I thought it was under my breath. Evan, to his credit, albeit it with some embarrassment, asked if I had something else to say. I most certainly did and had a go at Kelvin for his criticism of David Laws. Kelvin was provoked, and the listener got a far better deal than they would have done if we had only been allowed one short answer.

It’s time Radio 4 stopped treating its listeners like kids with attention deficit syndrome. Yes, the 8.10 interview on Today can last 10 minutes – on the odd occasion longer, but where has the forensic 30,45 or 60 minute interview gone? You won’t find it on your TV and, unless you’re a non politician, you won’t find it on Radio 4. If we want to hold politicians and others to account the one on one, longer interview is the way to do it. And it’s very cheap radio. So come on, Radio 4.

13 comments:

Plato said...

Well said.

Mike in Edinburgh said...

R4 Today coming up to 8am, cut Digby Jones off to go to the weather. Then they did an piece promoting the Archers' new website.

Oh, and while we're moaning about R4, why do they say "The President of the United States, Barack Obama". I think they can safely assume R4 listeners know who Obama is.

startledcod said...

Couldn't agree more about the shortened interview. It allowed Gordon Brown to spout tractor statistics and never answer a question. The number of times one shouts at the radio.

Four words - Andrew Neil Hard Talk, or is it three? His pre-election interview with St Vince was excellent. Surely it should be added to either BBC2 or Radio 4.

richard.blogger said...

I do agree. Remember at the election there were those 30min Paxman interviews with the leaders? I found them far more helpful than the TV debate circus.

However, politicians also have some blame. Cameron was on a Radio 4 phone in during the election and I phoned in and asked a question about the NHS. He avoided what I asked and just gave a platitude from the manifesto. I felt shortchanged, I felt that he had no respect for me nor the audience by ignoring my question. But from a political point of view, if he had answered my direct question truthfully it would have embarrassed him. So what should he have done - not agreed to the phone in?

LibCync said...

100% agree with this!

Max Atkinson said...

I totally agree about BBC news programmes treating listeners like morons - and not just on radio.

Why else would television news show us hardly anything from political speeches (http://bit.ly/bHHAoE)?

Why do they insist on inflicting PowerPoint-style presentations on us from reporters out there on the other side of the studio (http://bit.ly/9TfEGw)?

And who, in their right mind thinks that 6 guests on BBC Question Time is better than 5 (or that 5 is better than 4)?

I can only conclude that they don't care and/or never do any research into how listeners and viewers react to their news and current affairs coverage - for the simple but arrogant reason that 'they know best'.

ANDY EDINBURGH said...

Ian i am amazed to say "i 100% agree with you "
Andrew Edinburgh

ChrisM said...

Spot on. But will the politicians buy it? It suits most of them to just issue a sound bite as they have never lived in the real world. That Eagles woman on R5 this morning again issued the standard Labour gubbins about the coalition taking a "reckless gamble" with the economy without anyone challenging her on what her ideas were for getting us out of this hole. I would love to see her grilled for an hour. She would run out of propaganda after about 35 seconds.....

Mark Reckons said...

Didn't there used to be some sort of internet based TV station that specialised in long form interviews with politicians and political figures? Can't remember the name of it now....

Unsworth said...

Damn right.

And you can quote me.

Andrew said...

Sorry to disturb the mood of unanimity but in most cases I am not convinced longer interviews would work. Within a few minutes, most politicians would reveal they had little to add to their basic briefing. To extend the interview any longer would be pointless. We need politicians with a Healy-like hinterland who have something interesting, original or relevant to say. But where are they?

Osama the Nazarene said...

I so much agree with you. The producers must come from education institutes that have dumbed down their output and regard everyone as having the concentration span of a flea while interviewers are happy to ask prepared questions but cannot think on their feet to respond to the answers and interrogate their interviewees more deeply.

Mr Yithy said...

I, too, lament the (near) extinction of in-depth interviews.

Alas, I think the pre-election leaders' debates have made their resurrection even more unlikely.

Aside from the media's (mis?) calculations of their audience's attention span, the politicians themselves increasingly see both ranging interviews and close-argument as lose-lose propositions: it is reasoned that the small audience fails to justify the investiture of time in preparation and the studio - even if the interview goes well; in contrast, an increased duration brings with it a concomitant opportunity to gaffe, forget, confuse, stray from one's remit or simply mis-speak. In this (not uncommon) eventuality, the product of five seconds' miscalculation is isolated, cut, and amplified a thousand times from the sleepy backwaters of BBC4 (or whatever) onto the front pages of Fleet Street. It's a risk only the brave - or perhaps the foolhardy - would volunteer to undertake voluntarily.

Thinking along similar lines, I was listening to a parliamentary debate in the background (online) whilst working on my computer the other day. I was struck by the low-calibre of speakers across the back-benches. The managed only clumsy thoughts expressed clumsily in tones, styles and voices that would clear a village hall in minutes. Were I cursed with a lack of communication skills yet considering such a career, I may well consider a course in public speaking or rhetoric; they were dreadful. Do the parties not offer training?