Q&A: Brooke Gladstone on being the audience’s surrogate

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. It can be informative, entertaining, thoughtful. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This episode features Brooke Gladstone, co-host of On the Media. An edited transcript is below.



Brooke Gladstone: I think more like an editor I believe than a host. And I interview more like an editor than as a host. The host part, the presence part, the part of you that should be authentic is [there] but it’s also divided because part of me says, “Will this link to that thing he said earlier or do I need to circle around?”

Jesse Thorn: That is interesting to me because your show has always been so tightly edited. I mean it’s like the worst you could say about it probably would be that it would be too tightly edited sometimes.

Brooke: Oh yeah. In fact, when asked about the program during some survey or other, one word that came up frequently was dense. And I think dense in this case meant really concentrated to the point where if you cough or something, you might miss something. And that’s not conducive, necessarily, to the best listening experience. I mean if you, if you can’t breathe or burp, then maybe you need to put a little air into the show. Right? We’ve been trying to do that; our interviews have gotten longer. I won’t say languorous. They’re still full of ideas and they’re still pretty dense, but we give things more time to play out.

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Jesse: One of the things about doing radio specifically as a medium is that it is both typically a secondary activity for people which is say that they’re listening when they’re driving or doing the dishes, and also completely linear, and there’s only one input. So if you space out listening while you’re watching—first of all, when you’re watching the television, it’s probably the main thing you’re doing. But also if you space out listening while you’re watching the television, you probably saw what happened. And if you look away for a minute, you probably like—I sometimes if I’m ironing my shirt while I’m watching the television or if I if I lose the visual, I can probably pick it up from the audio. And in radio it is completely linear. There’s no going back and you’re only getting that one thing. So if you miss something you are out of luck.

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Jesse: Your show is different in the tone of its interviews than other public radio shows. At least to my ear. Do you do think that’s true? You agree with that?

Brooke: Well I know that that was our intention, those many 16 years ago when we first started doing the program. That’s because we were a show that was critical of our colleagues in the media and because it was going to be much more of an analytical program than a news-breaking show, that we would practice what we preach and become more frank, more direct, more revealing of our own views rather than doing the voice-speaking-from-on-high kind of style of an earlier era. We decided that we would basically lay our emotions and our biases out on the table, regarding them as data points that would be useful to the listener. And because we would be calling upon our colleagues to be similarly honest and not to engage in in false balance, not to use awkward locutions like, “What do you say to the person who says…?” when you are actually the one who’s believing it and the one who’s saying it. Now sometimes you aren’t the one and then maybe in that case that phrasing is relevant. But a lot of times it’s just a way to distance a correspondent from their own views. And we weren’t going to do that; we were going to own our views. I assume that’s what you meant, Jesse?

Jesse: Yeah, I do mean that I think there’s also a built-in contentiousness on your program. It’s not intense. It’s not the kind of, you know, structured-for-drama thing that you get on cable television news, for example. But I think that part of you guys, you and Bob revealing yourselves more on the air, is that when you disagree with what someone is saying, you will press that disagreement a few times, especially when they give you a banal answer.

Brooke: Right. Well, that’s just really believing that we are our listeners surrogate, and that we’re not just checking boxes. This is certainly not unique to us. You hear it on the BBC all the time. You know if you don’t get the answer the first time, then you ask again and you ask again, and you cannot imagine, Jesse, how many times we ask the question, and it doesn’t come on the air. I mean, the idea isn’t to edit to win the argument. The idea is to edit so that people can get an accurate sense of the way an interview went without beating a dead horse. So we may ask the same question various ways six times and only leave one follow up or two on the air. And we do that because we know that the listener wants an answer. Hopefully we’re asking the questions they want asked.



Brooke: I have fantastic producers. They provide me with a prep that has the fundamental questions I need to ask so that the issues get out there. So I absolutely believe in having a good, solid prep because then I don’t have to worry about the basics. Those have been offloaded onto the paper. I can therefore listen very closely to what they’re saying without having to anticipate and hold in my mind what the next question will be. I’m a huge fan of preps. I mean, don’t forget my background, I was an editor of Scott Simon’s program Weekend Edition and the senior editor of All Things Considered for several years. I know what it’s like when a major question has been missed, and I’ve done it myself. So I want all of that stuff on the prep, then I can really listen to them hard for the questions that occurred to me spontaneously in the moment. So I can be outside the interview and inside the interview simultaneously. The prep enables me to be inside the interview, because the general framework of the interview is down on paper.

Jesse: Is it different when you are talking to somebody who you are leading through an explanation versus somebody that you know at some point while there are elements of explanation, at some point very well there is an element of adversariality?

Brooke: So you’re saying when I know I’m going to disagree with someone, do I approach it differently in the interview. Is that what you’re asking?

Jesse: Yeah, or do you prepare differently ahead of time?

Brooke: I still want him to lead me through an explanation. I absolutely do. Generally it’s because I see an inconsistency. I want to see if he can rectify that inconsistency. I’ll give him every opportunity to rectify that inconsistency. And if I have to ask the question four times to piece together a great answer, I will do that and not show every single time I ask the question. Just to get a really good answer. I really want everyone to sound their clearest and to—you know, this is why the show is so dense—offer the most cogent explanation in the least amount of time. And that I can achieve with editing if they give me material to work with. If they don’t, then those are the occasions where I want to assure the listener that we tried. You know, I won’t go on and on about it. It’s not about me. But just to show that we didn’t want to let them down as their surrogates so they can see the process even if it doesn’t yield anything.


Jesse: A year or two ago, WNYC, the station at which On The Media is based, decided to distribute its own shows. It’s no longer distributed by NPR, but it was created as a show to be distributed by NPR and was distributed by NPR for something like 15 years. Was it a problem that you had this perspective at NPR?

Brooke: Yeah. Sometimes we run into some problems. It was—look, NPR didn’t have shows of commentary and analysis. It had news shows. This had the look of a news magazine…. You know, to use the old duck joke: It looked like a duck, it walked like a duck, but it didn’t quack like a duck! And it was difficult for it to get its arms around and back in those days, 15 years ago; the whole tone of media coverage and commentary had changed, at that time we were making a bold decision which today has become much more the norm. And I don’t mean that a lot of people are just shouting off a bunch of opinions and yelling and screaming and the volume goes up. I think we’re very civil. And I think we’re very knowledgeable when the show is full of information—and its won a Peabody and lots of other awards and the rest of the industry respects it—but it did something different.

Because the nature of the relationship between the audience and the news producer has changed, the playing field has been leveled because of the internet, and because of the constant back and forth. If you try to be omniscient, you’re playing by rules that no longer [hold] in this environment. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be fair and that you shouldn’t be accurate. All of those things are more important than ever, especially when just the very nature of truth is under attack. But that doesn’t mean you have to hide. And I think we were trying to be absolutely fair, absolutely accurate, but we weren’t trying to hide 15 years ago or in January of 2001 when the show was relaunched.



Jesse: If you’re representing yourself when you’re talking to someone you know, and you’re trying to be a whole, authentic person and have your cards on the table, and so on and so forth, while still being accurate and fair, how do you also serve as audience surrogate, when the audience is often in many ways very different from you, ideally?

Brooke: OK, I don’t think there’s a real inconsistency there. Because I’m just talking about being real. Right? I’m still trying to ask the questions that I think need to be asked. Now, not everybody will agree with me, but not everybody would agree with me if I was pretending to be omniscient and had no view of my own. I’m still going to ask the same questions because I’ll still believe that those are the most important questions to ask. And in the case of the program, and of course we’re not the only show, the desire for real, honest information has just gone through the roof. I mean, the downloads have exploded, listenership has really gone up, contributions that we haven’t even asked for—which is good, because our show is still not quite self-supporting after all these years. Thank you, WNYC. But the thing is that it’s the same questions, it’s the same cogitation, it’s the same analysis that doesn’t change. It’s just that I’m not hiding. So I think I’m still doing the best job I can for the listener. The listener simply knows who I am, and they can factor that in.

Jesse: There are so many more direct follow-up questions on On The Media than there are anywhere else in public radio. You worked on traditional public radio news shows for years. Is it because they’re being edited out? Is it because they’re not being asked? Is it because you’ve chosen to ask more, or what?

Brooke: I don’t think they’re being edited out. I think a lot of public radio programs like Morning Edition or All Things Considered, where I worked, you don’t get to sit and interview somebody for like 25 minutes, to get a six-minute interview or a four-minute interview. You maybe talk for 10 minutes or something like that. What we do requires time. The interviews go on for a long time.

I mean, if you’ve got five things you need to ask, and you know you’ve got 10 minutes with them and you know that they’re not going to answer question two, no matter how long you ask it, unless you really break them down, you’ll try and then you’ll give up. This is the problem with follow ups. I’m not saying they don’t want to do follow up. I think there is a question of civility. You know, some people think pushing people hard on questions they don’t want to answer sounds uncivil. But I think mostly it’s just that there isn’t enough time on Morning Edition and All Things Considered to do that. There aren’t that many programs where the interviews go on for so long. At This American Life and at Radiolab, they’ll take forever with a person. And they will craft it to make a perfect narrative. Our show is generally not narrative-driven. I always love it when we do have a great story to tell, but often our show is purely about ideas without that wonderful narrative storytelling structure to power it through. And because of that, you know we need to give the interviews an arc so that you can follow. And we need to get somewhere.



Jesse: So one of the things I find refreshing on On The Media and exciting about On The Media, is that segments on your show have other structures. There are other discursive forms, other than anecdote-reflection-anecdote-reflection-anecdote-reflection-lesson.

Brooke: I know that sometimes it can feel that it’s all about stories. And stories are great. I recently did a series I’m really proud of about poverty in America. And people told their stories, and it was exciting, it was thrilling to give them time to tell their stories. But it wasn’t always in the story that the lesson came out. The story helped explain in microcosm a larger problem, and then you got the larger problem, and then you got all this other stuff around it. So they helped propel the information in context.

Jesse: What are the structures you’re thinking about as you conduct that interview that aren’t the story of something, the narrative of something?

Brooke: Generally, if there is a peg, a news peg, we will write that we won’t ask them about the news because it might change when you do a weekly show and you do an interview on, say, Wednesday or Thursday. Things can happen. But we might throw some tape into the top, and then we get them to jump into the sort of heart of the issue first. At least, that’s the way I like to do it. And then, we might step back and talk about history, we might talk about previous examples. We’ll go to the main characters or protagonists in the story to talk about their background. Then we’ll talk about the stakes, the larger message for everybody. And then Bob [Garfield] likes to end sometimes with a joke if it calls for it. There’s usually an emotional peak somewhere, and that’s usually the last answer or the penultimate answer, where someone has just been talking about this for long enough. They’re very comfortable now speaking. And they’ll just fundamentally say what drives them or what makes the story so critically important for them. The question might be: “Why do you care about this so much?” That’s after we’ve established the news, and we’ve got some basics. And then after that, we might just call it a day. If they bring up something that’s weird that I haven’t expected, the whole thing could take a big left turn. And after that, the last thing is: “What are the stakes?” “Why does this matter?” “Why should I care?” They have to go through all of that before we even begin the process of calling anybody or approving the idea.



Jesse: Are there questions you’re scared to ask?

Brooke: Yes. I’m afraid to ask them because they’re awkward and because they’re personal. But there’s also an edge of adrenaline that makes me want to ask them, because when you’re asking hard questions you really feel like you’re doing your job, as long as the stakes justify asking these questions. And I try very hard not to put people on the spot unless I feel that the issues have a direct impact on the way we see the world or on the way we live.

Jesse: Like, that it’s worth it?

Brooke: Yeah. It’s got to be worth it. And not just because it’s great radio, although that helps.

The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

Photo credit: Janice Yi (WNYC Studios)

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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.