Q&A: NPR’s Audie Cornish on the intimacy of interviewing

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 ten 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 Audie Cornish, the current co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered. An edited transcript is below.

 

The NPR Way

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?

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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.

 

INTIMACY ON DEMAND

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.

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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.

 

INTERVIEW ETIQUETTE

Audie: I have two ways of doing it. First, I always do what I jokingly call Miranda rights which is, “Hi. You’re here for the interview. Thank you so much for doing this. We know you’re busy, we know you don’t have to talk to us, so we really appreciate it.” And they say something like, “Oh sure, blah blah, dah tah tah…” And then I say, “All right, well, here’s the thing. We’re going to start rolling soon and have you done an interview with NPR before?” And they say, “Yes, no, whatever.” I say, “Well just in case, you and I are going to talk for 10 minutes, 15 minutes if you have a lot to say. But it’ll be edited down to a third or fourth of that. And so to prevent you being edited in a way that you don’t feel comfortable with and us having to wrestle down a whole lot of tape, I’m going to ask you to keep your answers comfortably short.” Oftentimes I’ll describe it as the Thanksgiving dinner version of the conversation, “Everyone around the table respects you. They kind of know what you do. But they don’t care that much because they’re there to eat.” Then I often ask them, I tell them that if they need to restate their answer or if they need – if they feel like, “Oh I don’t like where this answer’s going I want to stop and restart.” I tell them, “Go ahead and do that.” I also tell them that at the end, we take all the tape with us. So that is pretty much… Will be the end of the interview. But I will re-ask questions for clarity or for content and I’ll always tell you which I’m looking for. So I do that like whole thing before… You know what I mean? I have a two minute version I gave you kind of the eight minute version.

Jesse: That’s amazing. Is that the same conversation that you have when you are interviewing the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and when you’re interviewing Frank the owner of Frank’s Garage where they just discovered the world’s largest frog. Yes.

Audie: The difference is that with the lawmaker they usually wave me off halfway through my second sentence.

Jesse: Is that true? Really?

Audie: Absolutely. They know this, they know the deal. But, you know, I still say it because I’m not a reporter and never have been, and this is to my detriment. I’ve never been a reporter that’s been much for, like, off the record, on background, this that, I’ve never been that kind of person. I think those reporters do fantastic work as we are seeing now under this current kind of political environment. I’ve always been an on the record person. And so my whole thing is if it’s like on, if it’s not on tape, it practically didn’t happen for me, you know? Because that’s to me what’s going to be the meat of my story. I’ve never been big on sources.So, I do always say it and sometimes they go, “Uh huh, OK, OK, I get it.” Or they look at their person, and they’re like, “Oh this is taped, right?” Sometimes they think it’s going to be live. Sometimes they think it will be live to tape. Sometimes they don’t have time, and they’re like, “Yeah I get it.” But I would much rather have someone waive their Miranda rights, right? Then me not say it.

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Jesse: What if somebody says, you know, what if it’s a public figure of some kind and they start their interview by saying, “You know I’m sick and tired of illegals taking our jobs. Hold on. Let me restate that. I think that undocumented immigrants are a burden on the economy.” Do you use the second one?

Audie: I don’t know. We haven’t had that that often. I feel like people are better coached than that, in this day and age. I’m looking at my reporter and my producer, and she’s nodding. We’ve been actually working on a series with freshmen lawmakers. I actually can’t remember the last time that happened.

Jesse: Is there something that you ask when you don’t know what to ask? Do you ever not know what to ask? I mean if you’re talking to somebody for 15 minutes maybe you’re trying to get something real particular but…

Audie: Because I know the conversation will be edited down, I don’t necessarily have the luxury to go on a fishing expedition. So I often write my questions in advance wherever possible. I rewrite and noodle around with the language even though I know for fact I won’t necessarily read it word for word. And I always have more questions than I need. In fact my poor producers and editors always see me coming in with like a long script, and then I’ll say, “Let’s put a star next to the things that actually matter.” Like, even though I have 15 questions. Because I want to make sure I at least get the things we absolutely know we want to ask, even if they don’t yield great answers. It’s not that I run out of things to ask, you know what I mean? It’s more that I have occasionally, where you just like flip over the paper, and you’re just having a good conversation, and one thing leads to another and things can go very easily. When in doubt, I often say something, like, very straightforward, and this is directly from the Sound Reporting handbook. You know… “What haven’t I asked that I should have? What’s something you wish people would ask you that they never do?” Like, people oftentimes have an answer for that.

 

STRUCTURING THE STORY

Audie: Not everyone can tell a story. If you think about how many times you’ve hung out with a friend and they’re telling a story and it takes, like, these kind of detours and turns and you’re kind of like, “Oy, get to the point.” Not everyone actually can tell their story and so what you’re trying to do then is actually help them convey the information with a beginning, middle, and end.

Jesse: So you kind of have to identify what the structure is and what the punchline is and make sure that you have all of those pieces in the conversation. So at the very least you can patch it back together with a little bit of editing.

Jesse: That’s 90 percent of what I do. And then I have to hand it over to a producer. But I know that if I don’t give you all of the materials you can’t make the sweater, or whatever. So I spend a lot of time – Even my note taking while I’m talking to people saying, “OK what was the beginning of this conversation? We’re going to start there.” We hem and haw about what’s the start. And then you know what’s great and what’s joyful is when people surprise you: when people laugh, when people sigh, when people make a joke, when people tell you, like, a part of it that you’re like, “What? No one told me that,” Like, “I had no idea.” You know what I mean? Like, “What temperature do you put the oven on for that?” Like, that is the moment that is the kind of thing that makes people go like, “Oh, NPR interviews they’re so great blah blah blah.” It’s like you do… It’s like fireworks, you know? There’s a lot of planning that goes into fireworks. Even though what you see in the end looks kind of beautiful and chaotic and surprising.

 

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE HOST

Audie: It’s not about me. That’s like 90 percent of what’s guiding my work. It is not about me. It’s about whoever is in front of me: what they’re trying to say, what that means, what’s at stake for all the rest of us and hearing them talk. I don’t know. Did you ever watch Law and Order?

Jesse: I have seen Law and Order.

Audie: You’re, like, too cool to say you, like, watched Law and Order? It was in syndication for many a year.

Jesse: I don’t really like Law and Order. Everybody likes Law and Order. I have a friend who literally dedicated, like, has dedicated a huge part of his artistic and creative life to Law and Order –

Audie: Yeah, because he is an incredible human being, is what it sounds like.

Jesse: I think he’s a great guy. I do think he’s wonderful. He’s currently in the process of building a low-rider dedicated to Jerry Orbach…

Audie: Oh God. Alright, first of all, let me get the number later because we have something in common. But the reason why I’m bringing this up is because one of the reasons why I like Law and Order is you don’t necessarily know, like, who they’re dating or – You see little glimmers of who they are. And that’s kind of enough. You mostly are there to see the case of the week and how it unfolds. And like whatever they’re trying to say about society, you know? It’s not about them. And then in a way you become closer to them. And I think that… Yes you are right. There are a bunch of people who are, especially in this environment, think that public radio hosts are like dispassionate and that we’re going for this false objectivity and blah blah blah blah. I totally understand where people are coming from with that. Number one: I don’t have that many opinions. People who have that many opinions are paid a lot of money and they’re great at it. But I can’t tell you I have that many opinions on this many topics. My show is literally called “All Things Considered.” And some days you’re like, “I don’t know. That seems like a thing.” Like, you just – I’m curious as anyone else. Like, “How does this work? Is it going to work? Why do some people say that this is a fact and some people say it’s not a fact. Like, when did that become a thing?” Like, I have all the questions everyone else has. So I just don’t believe in posturing that I know more than my audience.

 

ON BEING “THE LAST DINOSAUR”

Audie: I’m sensitive because, like, as the last dinosaur, you know, I’m very – I’m actually sometimes do get a little offended at the way people in podcasting talk about NPR. And I have to remind myself that, like, for such a long time NPR was the big gorilla. You know? It is just like the 800 pound gorilla. And people felt like they had to define themselves by all the ways they didn’t do things the way it was done at NPR. And because I didn’t grow up with it, I didn’t have any of that baggage. I think now that I’ve been doing the job longer, I’ve had to learn to let go of that and realize, like, “OK I’m at a legacy media organization.” And, yeah, if people want to say, like, “The host are dispassionate, I don’t remember anyone’s name, and it’s boring.” Then, like, OK fine. You know, I’m just going to take that hit. It’s OK. We’re still doing what we do, and we still do it really well.

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

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss/NPR

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.