The Good Interview

Posted on 07/02/2012



The Good Interview

It has become such a bore watching interview sessions or shows on Nigerian television these days. No doubt this is one area where the fallen standard is so glaring. There are rampant cases of poor questions (questionnaires?), poor quality of reportage, a total absence of extremely vital ‘follow-up’ questions, patronising gone wild, and evident lack of research or preparation. Very few of our stations remain exceptions to this rule and when you do find the rare exception, be not surprised that it comes from the much maligned ‘old school.’

Just the other week, at a private dinner with the former Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, it was one of the subjects we broached upon, both of us coming to the conclusion that broadcasters must up their game in this regard – he actually recanted one of many experiences where he had to ‘debrief’ the reporter on how to ask better questions, to save him from embarrassment!

I was once that reporter. As a young broadcaster I learnt an important lesson in handling interviews early in my career as an announcer at Ogun Radio in Abeokuta. During the political fervour of the Second Republic, the twelve governors of the opposition parties had come together to form the short- lived ‘Progressives Forum.’ At one meeting of the forum, held in Abeokuta, the opportunity came for me to interview Chief Bola Ige, then governor of Oyo State, and an acclaimed linguist and orator extempore, who flouted the intimidating nickname, ‘Cicero.’ I thought I had done enough research and preparation on the subject, but in answer to my very first poser, Chief Ige admonished me for not doing enough to find my own answers to the subject before presenting him with the question. I had merely asked why the opposition parties had decided to team up? His retort was sharp, vintage Cicero: “If you had done your homework, young man, you would not need to ask me such a silly question.” It was a bitter first experience, but the lesson was learned – in hindsight, the same question would have been rephrased thus: Now that the Progressives have come together, beyond the politics, what is the next plan of action?

Many years later, I had a brilliantly co-ordinated interview with Julia Morley, founder and owner of the Miss World franchise, such that by the time the interview was over she remained seated, totally hypnotised, mouth-agape awed as she faced Ben Bruce, my boss at Silverbird, back then, asking him: “Where did you get him? He could walk into any radio station in England!”

During the #Occupy Nigeria Strike protests this past January, the terrestrial airwaves were rife with poor interview shows, ranging from the grossly imbalanced, the utterly patronising, and the the ill-prepared, to the juvenile and annoyingly mundane. It was the worst of Nigerian television on display during the period, made more visible by the fact that due to the strikes, everybody was watching! NTA, the national carrier was true-to-form, embarrassingly unprofessional in its approach, constantly feeding it’s nationwide audiences with one- sided views and lazy reports. At times it almost seemed as if the editors didn’t even bother to edit the State House releases! AIT attempted to present a position of objectivity, but struggled in its efforts by employing a confusing cluster of verbosity and long-winded interviewing style to alienate the viewer. Silverbird TV was the worst culprit of all – allowing a bunch of juveniles to subject audiences to daily doses of immature, poorly researched, inane arguments. The subject at hand was bigger than these ones, who I’m sure would’ve been more adept had the subject been Lady Gaga versus Nikki Minaj! TVC often seemed like the exact opposite of NTA – an unbalanced opposition view will only get as many views as its ‘die- hard’ supporters. Although, my insider sources did inform me that on one occasion that TVC did attempt to balance their opinions, the invited pro- subsidy guest had to be secretly ‘bundled’ out of the premises, like a scene out of a high-flying spy thriller! It seemed a mob had laid ambush for him outside the television station’s gates at the end of the interview session!

In all of this, however, one station stands out – Channels Television. Only Channels provided utterly balanced reportage throughout the crisis – crisp, mature, well- researched thesis and organised presentation and production. Broadcasting is all about believability. By watching any one of the Channels TV presenters, newscasters and reporters during the crises, I could see and feel their passion, the originality of their stories, and the glaring absence of emotion – in fact it took the tragic death of one of their colleagues, extraordinary reporter, Enenche Akogu, to finally break their firm resolve – even I shed a tear as newscaster, Amarachi Ubani, collapsed after reading a faultless, professionally delivered news bulletin, the day he died! Even if anyone had any doubt about Channels honcho, John Momoh’s allegiance, prior, the performance of his team during the imbroglio casts no doubt about his sense of professionalism!

Quality reportage and brilliance of the art of the interview has died in Nigeria. There are fewer and fewer respected connoisseurs of the art. One of the best in Nigeria was Momoh Kubanje. Kubanje would dissect a story, get all the detailed hard facts he needed from a source just by his persistence and knowledge of the subject. A former Lagos State Commissioner once told me how Kubanje got him to say more than he intended to by using those methods – he had called the commissioner up for his opinion on a particular contentious issue. The calls came in as Mr. Commissioner was having his bath, Kubanje got all he needed, and more. The man just needed to get the insistent Kubanje off his back! It is a credit to his memory that a programme exists in Momoh’s name to this day on a Lagos station. It is also a credit to his professional worth and diligence!

One is both dejected and disappointed when one watches ‘sudden TV stars,’ gatecrashers, starlets and non-starters, mess up what should be brilliant interviews, and there are many such shows these days that do no good to the profession – sadly some of them even stretch beyond our borders, courtesy our South African partners, DSTV, but at the same time, there are many brilliant international examples one could learn from. Acclaimed Modern masters of the art do still exist – there was the recently retired Larry King, the untiring David Frost, there’s the BBC series Hardtalk, the insistence and bravery of Christiana Amanpour, the nerve of Becky Anderson, and so many other models you could copy from.

Delivering a good interview is simple, really – obey the rules of the game, get knowledge, do your research, prepare well before, employ the ‘Follow-up’ strategy often, write down your ‘intros’ and ‘extro’ and always be in control. A few ‘do nots’ are also in order – don’t patronise, don’t stutter, and get your facts right. Dianne Sawyer, the American ABC Network Prime News anchor, also gave some valid advice about giving good interviews. She said: “An investigation may take six months. A quick interview, profile, a day.”

God’s guidance, as always.

Femi Sowoolu.

Posted in: Essays, Media Related