[World, January 7, 1995]
Three, two, one, and I was on the air. With a crackle my phone line was patched in, and I heard a jovial voice saying, “Welcome, Frederica! So glad you could join us today!”
My host and all his audience heard: “Bark bark bark bark bark bark bark.”
The mailman’s arrival at that moment had thrown Sparky into End of the World Alert mode. “I hear you have a dog,” the host gamely went on. “Yes, now everybody knows,” I agreed miserably.
Welcome to the wide, wild world of radio talk shows. I’ve done twenty-four in the last few months, with another ten on the calendar. Everyday, it seems, my book publicist calls with new configurations of call letters and times. Everyday I learn a little more. Here are ten radio life-lessons:
1. In-studio or on the phone? To the listener there’s little difference, just a slight crackly distortion of a phone-in guest’s voice. But to the guest, in-studio means wearing a dress, sitting up straight, and trying to look intelligent. On the phone you can wear sweats, do your nails, and ponder the purchase of a tranquilizer gun for the dog.
Despite this, studio is best. On the phone you can’t see your host’s desperate signals that a break is imminent and you should wind up this answer pronto. Phone-in blindness means that sensitive guests develop a terse, hesitant quality, while ramblers are surprised by abrupt, mid-sentence cutoffs.
2. Don’t say, “The weather must be lovely in Denver just now.” That was yesterday’s show, and today’s baffled host is in Birmingham.
3. My book is on the heavy topic of abortion alternatives, and titled (ital)Real Choices(unital). One host went to a commercial like this: “We’re talking about choices here, and that’s just what customers get on your car lot, Jim. Tell us about it.”
4. These hosts do shows on many, many books, which means their specific familiarity with yours may be somewhere below minimal. I considered it a tipoff when a host simply read down the table of contents, saying, for example, “Here’s another one, ‘Adoption: Grief and Grace.’ And what did you mean by that?”
Worse was the show where I placed the book facing me on the microphone table. The host said, “And today we’re discussing—” here he craned his head to read the title upside down “—‘Real’…uh…’Choices’…”
5. The host and I were sitting knee to knee in the studio. He asked me a question. As I began my reply, he jumped up and ran out of room to check sound levels, leaving me to fill the empty air with my nuanced response.
6. He did the same thing again a few minutes later.
7. The host was prepared with a long list of good questions. However, she was not prepared to have a conversation about them. One after another the questions came like bullets; I would respond, then pause for her reply. She would say “Uh huh…”, prodding; I would fumble to think of something else to say. When I ran out of steam she’d fire another question. It was the most exhausting experience I’ve had yet.
8. “We’ve been having such a good conversation this hour, we’re going to keep Frederica around for an extra 30 minutes!” News to me—unwelcome news, in fact. Always go to the bathroom “before” you go on the air.
9. The board lit up with calls; the energetic host would punch a button, reel off an opinion, and punch the next button. I wondered if any of the callers wanted to talk to “me”.
10. With the topic of abortion, you often get calls from anonymous women hesitantly revealing deep sorrows. I run on pastor’s-wife time, under the assumption that when someone needs to talk you clear the decks and listen as long as necessary. But radio hosts are on a different kind of time, which includes hovering concerns like, “OK, we’ve got 78 seconds till the Mr. Tire spot.”
As a result, I’ve sometimes been worried to see distressed women hustled off-stage. One host apologetically told me, “We just can’t get too deep, because we don’t have time. We’re kind of compelled to keep it superficial.”
Along those lines, I’ll conclude with an exchange a friend of mine swears he heard many years ago, when Larry King’s radio show ran in the desolate wee hours of the morning.
Caller: “Uh, this is my first time calling. I just wanted to say that, uh, my dad died—about two years ago. And it just hit me really hard. I would sit up late—I couldn’t sleep—I felt so alone. All I had was the radio. So I listened to you, Larry, and you got me through. No matter how dark the night was, and I thought I just couldn’t make it, you were always there. You never knew, because I never called in till now, but I wanted you to know how much you meant to me during those hard times.”
King: “So what’s your question?”