Many faculty members who read Academe have no doubt conducted interviews with the media, sharing their expertise on a variety of topics. Early in my academic career, I appeared occasionally on local TV and radio programs and was interviewed in a few dozen newspapers on a variety of topics.
During the past four years my visibility has increased: I have conducted numerous radio interviews nationwide and throughout Canada, appeared on television a little more frequently, and now have book signings.
What changed? I started writing trade books instead of textbooks or academic books.
Textbooks rarely appeal to a mass audience. So why would the media want to interview an author of a “typical” textbook? Sure, textbooks are informative and serve their purpose—in the academic world. But morning radio hosts are unlikely to invite you on their show to discuss theories and concepts. And Oprah is unlikely to have the author of an introductory textbook in sociology on her show.
The publication in 2006 of my book on the TV show Seinfeld is what grabbed the media’s attention. I was now a part of popular culture. My book on The Simpsons followed in 2008. By this time I had a number of radio stations that regularly interviewed me and looked forward to talking to me about future projects. I have since published two other trade books: Shameful Behaviors, which argues that there is a growing culture of shamelessness in society, and Sports: Why People Love Them! (co-authored with Tim Madigan), which discusses the positive side of sports.
My experiences conducting interviews with the media pale in comparison with “big name” academics. For those of you who are just beginning to promote materials in the popular press, however, my experiences may be practical and applicable. What follows are a few things I have learned about working with the media.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do be prepared for bad phone connections and not being able to hear some of the radio hosts (and their questions). Don’t yell into the phone to compensate. I have conducted numerous interviews with a radio station in Geneva, New York, and I can never hear the host. When the interview is finished, my ear hurts from pressing the receiver so hard against it.
If you are doing a radio or television interview by phone, don’t use a cell phone. Use a land line. The latter are less prone to static and to dropping the connection.
Although newspaper reporters want an immediate interview, don’t be surprised that radio interviews may be scheduled weeks in advance. Do keep track of your scheduled interviews. Bear in mind that DJs and TV anchors begin promoting their scheduled interviews on the air before their guests go on. If you are not there to take the call, or do not show up in the studio on time, you may be subject to their on-air disdain. And they will hesitate to contact you in the future.
Don’t get into a heated battle with TV and radio hosts, as they can keep slamming you on the air after the interview. Maintain your integrity, of course, but do so politely. The hosts control nearly everything during the interview process. They can put you on “delay” or turn off your feed. About the only thing you can control is walking off the set or hanging up the phone. But again, the hosts can slam you for doing that.
In general, don’t give short answers. Radio hosts want you to do their work for them. Elaborate. During one radio interview to promote my book on Seinfeld I was asked, “What is sociology?” When I defined sociology as “the systematic study of groups, organizations, societies, and culture and the interactions between people,” the radio host, appearing dumbfounded, replied, “Oh, is that all?”
Don’t be surprised if TV and radio hosts mispronounce your name or the title of your book. Radio hosts have referred to my Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld as “Scientology”; “Seinology: The Scientology of Seinfeld”; “Seinfeldology”; and “Sociotology.”
Don’t correct the host. Do politely state the correct name of your book sometime shortly afterward by incorporating it into your answer to their next question.
Do talk energetically. Radio and TV hosts want you to entertain, inform, and hold the attention of the audience. Don’t use the monotone voice that some professors unwisely adopt in the classroom.
Be prepared for late calls from hosts. Be patient. A 7:00 a.m. scheduled call may not arrive until 7:10 a.m. or 7:14 a.m. Don’t blow off the interview because the journalist or radio host called late. If you are doing multiple interviews in one day, be sure to schedule them far enough apart to allow for a tardy early interview. You may be helping hosts out by serving as a guest on their show, but they are promoting your book or your cause.
Do have your own Web site or Twitter account. Hosts will want to direct members of their audience to your site so they can learn more about you and even buy your book. You can use your Web site or a Twitter account to post your scheduled upcoming interviews. Don’t be shy about briefly plugging your site at the end of the interview.
Do be prepared to have scheduled interviews cancelled or postponed. The host may call in sick that day, or something unexpected may occur, such as a local disaster or emergency, that changes the focus of that media outlet for the day.
If you are being interviewed by a “morning team” radio show, do be prepared for numerous people speaking at the same time and being confused as to when you are expected to respond. Be prepared for shallow conversations. Don’t be surprised if they seem to forget about you. If you are being interviewed by one host, especially on a news show, you can expect a more in-depth analysis and discussion of your book.
Do your homework. Find out something about the host and the show you are going to be on. This can be invaluable. Don’t be afraid to adjust some of your comments based on the audience.
Do watch your language. George Carlin made note of the “seven dirty words” you can never say on the air. These words are still frowned upon. As a professor who is used to watching his language in class, I do not have any problems abiding by this rule. However, the first time I was interviewed on the Playboy channel (satellite radio), I briefly wondered to myself, “Am I supposed to swear now?”
Do thank the host for having you as a guest. And be sure to send a follow-up “thank you” message to your interviewer. It makes a difference for future interviews.
This list of “do’s” and “don’ts” represents a sampling of my past experiences as an interview subject of the mass media. I hope this list helps my fellow academics with little or no experience being interviewed on live TV or radio. Like teaching and every new class, each interview has its own unique flavor. Not everyone is comfortable doing media interviews. If you choose to put yourself “out there” and become a part of the popular culture, make sure you are up to the task. Teaching in class and talking on live radio and television are two entirely different things. If you have a certain personality, however, and you are trying to promote your discipline, school, department, or self, try it. You may have as much fun with it as I do.
Tim Delaney is an associate professor and chair of sociology at the State University of New York at Oswego. He has published numerous books, including Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld (2006). A new work, Connecting Sociology to Our Lives, is forthcoming in 2011. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.