I’ve done hundreds of interviews in the course of my radio career. Only a small percentage have included a guest in the studio with me. The far larger majority were on the phone and, in most cases, that was a better working arrangement.
If I’m talking with someone who is in another location, I can check my notes, leaf through an article or two I’ve skimmed ahead of time, turn my mike off to give my engineer an instruction, or do a dozen other things that help me conduct the interview while still maintaining a stimulating conversation.
On the other hand, if they’re sitting opposite me in the studio, I feel compelled to maintain eye contact. Moreover, during the commercial breaks, there’s always some small talk to be made, rather than sitting there in awkward silence. Quite often, however, those off-the-air comments evolve into something more — something good enough to discuss on the show — but the spontaneity is nearly impossible to recreate on the air, so a great anecdote or new talking point has been wasted.
It also makes it easier to ask tough questions when you’re not in the same room. Ted Koppel understood this dynamic when he anchored “Nightline.” Even guests who went to ABC’s Washington bureau, where the show originated, were more likely than not sequestered in a separate studio with nothing more than a camera and an earpiece as their only connection to Ted. He watched them on a monitor, listening intently, while simultaneously devising his next line of questioning, all without having to worry about the familiarity inherent in sharing space with the interviewee.
The best exceptions to this rule have always been comedians. Some of the top touring pros have returned to my shows again and again because they understand this. Whenever someone like Brian Regan or Jake Johannsen or Heywood Banks makes an in-studio appearance, anyone in the room would swear that we don’t get along, judging by the way we nearly neglect each other during the commercial breaks. The truth is exactly the opposite. They know that if they just give me a couple of topics they want to touch on, I’ll lead them to a place where they can show off their best stuff, so that’s all that needs to be said while the mikes aren’t on. The lack of off-air conversation comes from knowing that it’s best to save it for the show, when we can improvise whatever magic we’re going to create for the listeners.
The same is true when I’m doing an ensemble show with several other regulars — newsman, sports guy, sidekick, traffic reporter, etc. — all of whom are welcome to contribute anything on the air at any time. There may be times during the break where someone will say, “When you have a chance, ask me where I was last night, because I have to tell you about this party my wife dragged me to” or “At the end of this newscast, I have a story you’ll definitely want to jump on” or whatever. But that’s all they have to say. The rest gets preserved for when we get back on the air.