A Reminder to Go Easy on My Next Guest
What it feels like when the interviewer becomes the interviewee
In my forty years working in television, I have interviewed countless people, ranging from slick politicians to egocentric movie stars, from agenda-bound public relations professionals to everyday people suddenly thrust into the center of a news event. Many of the interviews have been conducted on live TV, where time is of the essence and where the questions and answers are sometimes off the cuff and surprising.
More than once I had an unprepared question pop into my head that caught my unsuspecting guest off guard. And quite often there was never enough time to allow the interviewee to fully get his or her point across, the clock relentlessly clicking down to the final seconds before a commercial break. That's just the nature of the beast; the broadcast keeps moving, time waits for nobody, and you can't edit out the parts that don't work.
Interviewing someone live on the air is no easy task, but I have often sympathized with my guests, seeing their frustration at how quickly their few seconds of fame passed, and how rarely we were able to go beyond the surface of a story. But it wasn't until a few years ago that I was truly able to feel what those guests actually feel in that moment as the camera and its viewers stare them down.
I got a call at my Georgia home early one Saturday morning on my day off. A news producer from Fox News in New York, curious about a recent heat wave in the Midwest, had gotten my number from The Weather Channel. “Could we interview you live on our evening news program tonight?” she asked.
“You want me?” I questioned. I knew there were plenty more knowledgeable experts than me, and no doubt they would have been able to answer their questions with more clarity.
“Well, we wanted the ‘Weather Dude’ himself,” she explained. “We figured since you talk to kids a lot that you could make this latest heat wave simple and interesting for our viewers.”
It made sense. And I was both available and willing. And frankly, I was flattered too.
“It’s only a four-minute segment, so your answers need to be succinct yet informative,” she stressed.
“I can do that,” I told her. But she wasn’t taking any chances. The producer went on to explain precisely how the interview would proceed, even telling me the exact questions the host in New York planned to ask me: 1) What was causing the widespread hot weather? 2) Were any records set, and where? And 3) What was the forecast for that area over the next few days?
Three questions. Easy-peasy. And to make it even easier, she explained that I didn’t have to worry about driving to the Fox affiliate’s studio in downtown Atlanta; a car would pick me up and take me there in plenty of time to get inside, get some makeup on, sit down in front of the camera and put on my microphone.
“Should I provide my own makeup?” I asked.
“That's not necessary,” the producer said, “We’ll have a makeup artist there to do it for you.”
Wow, I thought. This is a class act. They really do make it simple.
“Your segment will be in the last fifteen minutes of the hour,” the producer added, “around 8:50 pm or so.”
That evening I changed into a suit and waited for the driver outside. He was right on time, arriving at 7:20 on the nose for the drive into downtown Atlanta. There was very little traffic on this particular Saturday night, and we pulled up in front of the TV station just a little before eight. As I got out I told him, “I’ll be back in about an hour. You’ll take me back home?”
“Sure,” he said. “That’s what I do.” He added, “See you around 9:00,” and drove away.
Never having been to this TV station before, I wasn’t sure of the layout, so I walked up to the front door and found it locked. I could see inside and the lobby was dark. Looking around for some sort of buzzer or intercom, I soon found a button and pushed it.
“Yes?” came a voice through the tiny speaker.
“Nick Walker here for a live interview with Fox News,” I announced.
“Who?” the voice asked.
“Nick Walker,” I replied.
“And someone’s going to interview you?” the voice inquired further.
“Yes,” on Fox News, live, in about 45 minutes or so.”
“Okay, just a minute,” the voice acknowledged. “Let me ask someone else about this.”
I waited for a few minutes, taking in the warm night air. Suddenly my phone rang. It was the Fox News producer in New York.
“Mr. Walker, we’re making a change. We’re moving your segment up into the first half-hour of the show. We’ll come to you live in about ten minutes.”
“Well right now I’m standing outside a locked door waiting to be let inside the station,” I told her.
“All right, I’ll try to call someone to let you in,” she said, and hung up.
About three minutes later a woman came to the door and opened it. “You’re Mr. Walker?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. ”I’m supposed to be interviewed live on Fox News in less than ten minutes.”
“Follow me,” she instructed, and took me through a maze of hallways into a darkened studio. “Just sit right here,” she said, pointing to a swivel chair on a slightly raised platform in front of a TV camera. "I’ll find someone to bring you a microphone and earpiece and get someone to turn on the lights in here.”
“I’ll need to be made up,” I told her. “They told me a makeup artist would meet me here.”
“No one’s arrived yet,” she said. “Do you have some makeup with you?”
“No,” I told her. “They said the makeup artist would supply it.” I looked at my watch. It was five minutes until show time, so I pleaded with the woman, “Does the station have any makeup?” I had been on TV only once before without it, and had since promised myself never to do it again after seeing how pale and washed out I looked.
“I’ll see if I can find some,” the woman said, and rushed out of the studio.
A couple of minutes later a technician arrived with my microphone and earpiece. I grabbed them and hurriedly put them on. Three minutes to go.
He turned on the studio lights and adjusted the camera to my height. Just then, the woman returned holding a compact. “I couldn’t find any other makeup so I brought you mine,” she said, handing me the round container and a powder puff.
I appreciated the gesture, but gave her a quizzical look. The woman was African-American.
I opened the compact and sure enough, the makeup was four or five shades darker than what I was used to. But I had no other choice. I crushed the powder puff into the dusky paste and began to smear the color onto my cheeks. In the compact’s tiny mirror I watched my face transform into a darkly-tanned image that would make even George Hamilton cringe. “Ninety seconds,” the technician said from behind the camera.
I continued to brush the makeup on as lightly as possible, trying to avoid the inevitable, but it was no use; I looked like one of those bronze busts you see in the hallways of public buildings. Quickly finishing up, I handed the makeup back to the woman. “Thanks,” I sighed.
“Sure,” she answered, eyeing me pityingly.
Just then I heard in my ear the news anchor in New York return to air after a commercial break. He spent thirty seconds introducing the story about the heat wave and then introduced me. “With us tonight is Nick Walker from the Weather Channel, sometimes called ‘The Weather Dude.’ Tell me Nick, what is the cause of this recent heat wave?”
Knowing the questions ahead of time, I had rehearsed my answers in order to make them clear and to-the-point. I was even able to use one of my "Weather Dude" illustrations about how a bicycle pump heats up when you push the plunger down because of the increasing pressure. Likewise, the middle of the country was under persistent high pressure which enhanced the warming. It took me less than a minute to complete my thought. As I finished, I heard the producer in my ear. “Two minutes,” she said, counting down the time of the segment. Right on time, I thought.
“Were any records set?” the news anchor asked, just as I had been told he would. I had memorized a few cities and numbers and spouted them off. As I finished my list of them, I was already thinking about how I was going to answer the next question with my rehearsed statement about the forecast.
“One minute,” was the producer’s cue in my ear. Then the anchorman paused and spoke again.
“Let me ask you something that just occurred to me. Is this heat wave a sign of global warming?”
The question hung in the air for a moment as I suddenly realized that my prepared answer about the forecast was not going to work. My face began to burn under the already copper-colored mask covering it, and I could almost hear the sudden grinding of my brain slamming into reverse, changing gears, then engaging again, headed in a totally different direction.
There was no time to do the answer justice, so I repeated the mantra that almost every meteorologist has said at one time or another. “I'm not a climatologist," I recited, "but I do know that global warming is determined by taking world-wide temperatures over a period of several years and comparing them to long-term averages. No single heat wave is a sure indicator of a warming climate, just as no single cold snap would mean that it's not warming.” I wasn't satisfied with my answer, but it would have to do.
“So you’re telling us this heat wave presents no evidence of global warming,” the host summed up. It was more of a statement than a question.
“Ten seconds. Wrap it up,” came the voice of the producer in my ear.
There was no time to elaborate. “I'm saying it’s impossible to judge climate change by one weather event,” I repeated, feeling deflated that the original story had suddenly died, taking me with it, and that I was the one who had driven the nail into my own Coppertone-tanned coffin.
The host thanked me and pitched to a commercial. “We’re clear,” bellowed the technician in my Atlanta studio, and stepped up to help me remove my microphone and earpiece. I stepped off the platform and thanked him. The woman with the dark makeup returned. “May I show you out?” she asked.
As we reached the door, someone else was letting another woman in. She was carrying a makeup kit and appeared to be in a hurry. I asked her, “Are you the makeup artist for Fox News?”
“Yes, I need to make up a guest for them; he’s doing an interview in about twenty minutes,” she answered, eyeing my face suspiciously.
I explained that the producers had decided to take my interview early so I had applied some makeup myself.
“Yes, I see,” she said, looking at me the same way an experienced sculptor might cast a disparaging eye on a two-year old’s papier-mâché creation.
I walked out the door and it closed behind me. I glanced at my watch again, and realizing my driver wouldn't be there for forty minutes, I sat down on the concrete steps to wait and rehash the evening. Where had I gone wrong? I had prepared as much as possible, I had arrived on time, I had followed the instructions that I had been given. Now that I had time to think, I came up with a much better and more articulate response to the final question, the response I could have given and would have given, had I known what was coming.
Thinking of the many guests I had interviewed over the years on live television, I reasoned that maybe this was somehow cosmic payback for all the poorly-worded questions I had asked them, or all the times I had to cut them off as we ran out of time. For the first time, I really knew what it was like to be in their shoes.
Would this experience help me have more empathy for the guests we brought onto our programs? Yes, definitely. Could I use this experience to somehow make it easier for them? Probably not. I'll try, I thought, but honestly, I can't change the nature of live TV.
So to my next guest, I'm sorry. I really am. I feel your pain, believe me, more than you could ever know. I can only pass on to you one piece of helpful advice.
Bring your own makeup.
© Nick Walker 2018
Have you ever been put on the spot like this? How did you handle it? Please leave a comment below.