If interviewing is an art, Krys Boyd has had plenty of practice with her paintbrush. For a remarkable five days a week for the past 11 years, the Texas journalist has been illustrating the depth and context of current events for the public radio show “Think.”
“People have been talking for a long time about how the medium of radio is destined to go away, and I think that the huge interest among young people in the podcast format proves that’s not true.”
Sometimes she prepares dozens of questions for each segment on the topic-driven show, which dedicates one hour to a single topic and allows listeners to delve deep into the subject’s world.
“The most important thing for me is just to pay attention to what people are saying and to the way they communicate,” she says of the process. “I go into every interview with a plan, but I have to be listening carefully to what my subject is telling me and how they’re telling their story.”
Radio, she says, is an oral form of storytelling, and rumors of its imminent demise notwithstanding, she’s a big believer in its future.
“I think it’s stronger than ever, and it’s being creatively done,” says Boyd, who has interviewed subjects as varied as the actor Bryan Cranston and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and often tackles timely topics on deadline.
Her show has been airing since 2006 on NPR’s North Texas affiliate, KERA, and went statewide in January. In addition to its huge Texas following for the broadcast, the show is downloaded more than about 200,000 times each month — half of them by listeners outside the state.
I spoke to Boyd recently about how she prepares for each show, what’s special about radio journalism, and the art of the interview.
Can you walk me through the preparation and research you do for each show and interview subject?
When I’m not on the air, I’m either reading and taking notes or writing my questions. After the show ends each day, we have a short meeting right after, a little post-mortem. I collect all my research, which in many cases is a book and supplementary materials that our interns will help me pull, I take it all home and work for a couple of hours for each hour that I’m on the air. I’m writing Post-it notes into the books and materials, and I let those percolate. I usually prepare a couple of days out from the show that I have to do just so I can keep thinking about what I’ve absorbed. The morning of the show is when I’ll put together my questions and a basic outline of the things I want to make sure the interview covers.
The show really relies on the subjects being able to talk at length about a specific topic. How much do you vet sources to make sure they’re going to be good on air?
A lot of the people we interview have done many interviews in the past. If they’ve been in lots of media outlets, we know they’re going to be fine. My producers will call people and chat with them for a while to get a sense of what their style is and if they’ll be comfortable speaking for an hour. Occasionally we have someone we want for the show, and they say, “I can’t possibly talk about this for an hour,” and sometimes we’ll try to talk them into it if we really feel like there’s more than enough material. But if they’re especially reticent, that’s a red flag, and we move on and try to cover the subject with someone else.
How far ahead do you schedule shows, and how do you fit in timely stories, like the episode on Charlottesville that aired just two days after the protests?
If the subject is a book or an article, we can schedule that even a couple of weeks out from the day we want to air the show. Our schedule is very much fluid. The day that we had the Charlottesville show, we had something else scheduled for that hour, but we all started texting each other Sunday morning and said, “We can’t not address this.” The producers call and reschedule the interview that had been there, and we get to [work on the] interview that’s timely. Some things that we cover that are in the headlines lend themselves to waiting a little while and doing a more thoughtful approach to the ideas that drive the story, but something just need to be addressed immediately. Even on a timely subject, we very much want to take a different tack than you’re hearing everywhere else. What we talk about a lot on “Think” is that other journalism outlets might do the who, what, where and when, what we really want to ask about is the why.
Despite our best efforts, we all go into researching a topic with biases. Is there a specific interview that you’ve done over the years that really changed your point of view about something?
My point of view changes all the time. One of the luxuries of being a journalist and trying really hard not to come at your journalism with a particular perspective is that I’m not required to declare this is my view point and then gather up information that continues to support that. I can do a story or a show interview that’s very much from one perspective, or the person I’m speaking to has a very strong opinion, and I just want to understand what led them to that opinion. And then I’m completely open to doing something that takes a very different perspective later on. We’ve done a lot of things about climate change and consumption of material goods and how there seems to be a relationship between all the stuff we buy and throw away and damage to the planet. But we did an interview with someone a couple of years ago from Reason magazine who had done a very wonky investigation of the environmental costs of throw-away plastic bags compared to those bags you buy for 99 cents from the grocery store and found that in some ways it’s not as clear-cut a story as you might imagine. The reusable bags do have a greater footprint than the ones we throw away. I don’t fall on one side or the other on that, but I’m completely open to considering in different shows very different views of the same subject.
How much do you personally gain or learn from the listeners who call in to the show?
The listeners contribute a lot to the show. They ask questions that help inform my performance in that interview or in future interviews. If something is not clear to them, and they’re asking for clarification, it certainly suggests something that I could have done [better] in my performance to begin with. Sometimes they call and share a story from their own lives about the way this topic relates to something that they understand personally. Not all the calls are radio gold, but sometimes they really are a wonderful enhancement and a reminder that you really are here for the audience. It’s not just a conversation with me and my guest for our own consumption. We’re serving an audience of people that is very diverse. I like hearing different kinds of names. I like hearing from people from all over the state. Different accents, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, education levels.
“The most important thing for me is just to pay attention to what people are saying and to the way they communicate. I go into every interview with a plan, but I have to be listening carefully to what my subject is telling me and how they’re telling their story.”
This is the first year “Think” has reached audiences across Texas. Has your approach to the show changed at all?
We were never really locally focused to begin with. We have one hour that is only broadcast in North Texas, and if we do something that’s specific to North Texas, we do in that first hour, but even in those cases, we always want to make sure the subject is relevant even if you’re not in the local listening area. Today, for example, we did a conversation about the sexual assault by football players at Baylor University. In some ways, that feels like it’s a local story to Waco, but it’s really a story about the way large institutions respond to these really difficult questions and either protects the students or the rapists.
What do you think is different about radio journalism than print or TV?
There’s an intimacy to radio you don’t get elsewhere. The greatest strength of radio journalism, at least the interview format that we use, is you just get to hear people’s voices, and you really get to focus on the tone of voice and the way a person speaks. There’s a lot we know about other people based on how they communicate that comes through in radio in a really profound way. You get it in television, but there’s a lot of other things going on in TV. There’s video that rolls over an interview, and you’re looking at how someone’s dressed and their appearance. I really feel like radio is about as close as you can get to being inside someone’s head.
People have been talking for a long time about how the medium of radio is destined to go away, and I think that the huge interest among young people in the podcast format proves that’s not true. What radio really is is an oral form of communication and storytelling; I think it’s stronger than ever, and it’s being creatively done.
What have you learned about the art of interviewing through the years?
Art is a perfect word for it. The most important thing for me is just to pay attention to what people are saying and to the way they communicate. I go into every interview with a plan, but I have to be listening carefully to what my subject is telling me and how they’re telling their story. Sometimes if you notice that someone is reluctant to speak, you have to accommodate your style in a way that makes it clear that you’re listening. I don’t think I demonstrate to every guest that I agree with everything they say to me, but I always want them to know that I’m listening, and I genuinely want to understand what they have to say to me.
Besides that curiosity that forms the heart of every good interview, you have to prepare in advance. You have to spend a lot more time than any normal person would think makes any sense to go into the conversation ready. You have to understand what you’re going to be talking about. Listen for points of view that are different from what you expected, and be prepared to respond to something you didn’t expect.