Often when we sit down for dinner, my wife will ask, “Who was on the show today?” Usually I scratch my head. “I can’t remember,” is my reply.
I’m not growing senile. I just have to cram a lot into my head to prepare for interviews. I get the mental equivalent of buffer overflow. Once I wrap a show, the RAM clears.
But that doesn’t mean guests don’t make an impression. Of the thousands of people I’ve interviewed here at Federal News Radio, quite a few have made a lasting impression. I learn something from every interview, including from the repeated guests. That’s what’s great about covering the federal government — there’s always something new to learn. It sounds cliche, but this is one great job.
Here are a few of the highlights from 2017.
Twice I’ve interviewed Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. The most recent piece aired this week. I haven’t met Shulkin in person, but he comes across impressively. He’s prepared. He doesn’t wander off topic. He’s polite, but not one for chit chat. He gives the sense he’ll leave VA better than he found it.
Jenni Main floored me. She’s the chief financial officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Don’t ever think bean counters lack passion for what they do or for public service. I learned a lot about CMS from Main’s interview.
Comptroller General Gene Dodaro is another. He runs the Government Accountability Office. He visits us for an in-studio interview when the bi-annual high risk comes out. You sense that no matter how many years he’s served, each report matters to him. GAO people are on weekly. Occasionally they chuckle at something egregious. But they’re always fair-minded. They never berate anyone personally.
Always interesting are people at the program level. Joe Pica of the National Weather Service helped shepherd a highly capable new weather satellite into orbit. Victor Convertino of the Army Institute of Surgical Research helps save soldiers from blood loss. Special FBI agent Bryan Drake helped take down a literally evil doctor. So many creative and hard-working public servants the public has mostly never heard of.
Vendors, attorneys, inspectors general, members of Congress, high ranking military officers — all have appeared in the past year. All have contributed to an ongoing, civil discussion about the country and the big and small challenges it faces.
I can’t name everyone. Hundreds have appeared this year. But know that the broadcast staff members Lauren Larson, Eric White and I have treasured each guest.
People ask, do we have favorites?
Some we like just for their voices. We’ve dubbed one guy “Squidward” because he sounds like the SpongeBob SquarePants character. We have a “Marge Simpson.” Don’t get me wrong. We love accents, dialects and distinctive timbres. They make radio great.
We also appreciate people ready to suggest good topics, willing to answer our questions. People who don’t hide behind public affairs. Vendors willing to address issues and not try to peddle products.
I can always tell when a guest is doing his or her first radio interview. Sometimes they tell me beforehand. Sometimes afterwards, in relief that it’s over. But everyone is capable of sounding good.
I can also tell when someone is reading a script. That’s a guarantee of a curve ball question. You’re talking about your work, career and passion. No one needs a script for that. And for radio, you don’t need to get dressed up.
I often get asked the question, ‘what’s the secret of a good interview?’. It’s simple. You can’t do poorly when talking about what you care about and have knowledge of. Dale Carnegie called the great secret of effective speaking simply talking about something you’ve earned the right to talk about through experience.
I sometimes joke with guests beforehand, asking them to prepare to be asked whether Mussolini should have invaded Ethiopia. In reality, we ask people about their work. About what motivates them to get up and head out day after day, year after year.