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Podcasting lessons from a Hollywood conversationalist

You’ve got your tech, you’ve got your tools, but what about your interview style?

So you’re starting a podcast: you’ve got your tech, you’ve got your tools, but what about your interview style? Who better to look to for guidance than Alec Baldwin, host of WNYC podcast Here’s the Thing. Jill Park dissects her podcast idol.

When talking about podcasts, the show that is held up above all else is This American Life. Host Ira Glass has spearheaded the show since its inception, as well as the much talked about spin-off podcast Serial – a content phenomenon that has become such a part of the zeitgeist that, like Vegemite and its fans, you can separate the world into avid Serial listeners and everyone else.

So, it’s fair to say when Glass doles out praise to other podcast hosts, he’s worth listening to. When recently interviewed by Alec Baldwin for the latter’s WNYC podcast Here’s The Thing, Glass dissects Baldwin’s interview style in the ultimate meta podcast interview.

“I think you are a very skilled interviewer,” Glass says to Baldwin. “An interview is a party, you are the host of the party and the interviewee will do what you do.

“What you model, they will do too. It’s human nature. And so, if you tell a lot of funny stories, they will tell you funny stories back and if you tell personal stories, they will tell personal stories back.”

So, breaking it down, what are the elements of Baldwin’s style that make him the perfect podcast host?

He has pedigree

When most people look at Alec Baldwin, they see one of the characters he has played: Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock, the dad in Beetlejuice, Hal in Blue Jasmine. He is Hollywood royalty. Like the raconteurs of Hollywood past, he has an unlimited cache of anecdotes (usually involving his many industry connections) that add a personal touch to the conversation.

When talking to Girls’ creator Lena Dunham, for example, Baldwin quizzes her about her agent. Upon learning that Lena’s agent is a keen cigar smoker, he wheedles out of her that he knows the agent in question as he is, in fact, a board member of the cigar club (the Grand Havana Cuban) the agent attends.

Top tip: Share your own stories. They can be a great way to put your interviewee at ease (and it also gives them a chance to come up with their own response).

He does his research

Regardless of whom he is interviewing, it is clear that Baldwin has always done his homework. While he lets the interviewee tell their own story, he is always able to précis a point for them or ask the question that pushes them to add extra detail, something that would not be possible without a foundation of strong research.

Whether he is interviewing Sarah Jessica Parker or former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, he is always able to add some insight into the world in which his guests operate.

Top tip: It is worth holding a pre-recording interview with your interviewee to get an understanding of what they want to talk about. Then you can research these points and prompt them to add more detail in the interview if they go off topic.

He’s the conversation king

To elevate a podcast beyond the mundane, discussion must transcend a straight Q&A and move into unadulterated conversation. What better than to be sitting by the fire, podcast on, whisky in hand, and be drawn into a conversation as if you are at the table itself?

Baldwin asks the tough questions you shout at the radio – usually in quick succession that adds a great pace to his conversations. “Why did you do that?” or “Why not?” or even “Such as”.

Top tip: Don’t be afraid to push your interviewee on a point. The tiniest detail can help paint a fuller picture in the eyes of your listeners.

He’s not afraid to ask personal questions

When interviewing Sarah Jessica Parker, her inevitable Sex and the City years come up for discussion. She chats about her close relationship with her co-stars on the show, starkly contrasting with the decades of press chatter that often reported disruption amongst their ranks.

Top tip: Don’t hesitate when it comes down to asking the hard questions. Your interviewee might appreciate the chance to give their side of the story.

… and if he doesn’t understand something, he always asks for clarification

When discussing the CIA back in the 50s with former Harpers’ editor Lewis Lapham, he seeks clarification on his view of the organization:

Alec Baldwin: So you’re saying there’s what kind of a demeanor to them? Frat boy demeanor?

Lewis Lapham: Yeah. These were the kind of guys that I had avoided during my entire four years at Yale.

Top tip: Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something, chances are the audience won’t understand either.

He respects his interviewees

Getting inside the mind of your interviewee, beyond the surface niceties, can add an extra dimension to a podcast. Research your interviewee, for sure, but consider what angle you could take that would bring fresh eyes to a topic.

Baldwin, more often than not, interviews celebrities of the past and present. The common theme is that they were all at the top of their game at some point in their career. Regardless of where the interviewee now sits in the celebrity cycle, respect is paramount.

“You’ve got to treat them with the respect that they once demanded,” Baldwin says to Glass. “The phrase I always use is what are they used to?”

Glass agrees: “It’s almost like an empathetic act, of what is the world to them and how am I going to angle something in that will get them to say something.”

Top tip: Treat your interviewees with respect. Always.

He knows how to deal with difficult situations

In his interview with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, he deftly moves on from a difficult line of questioning about whether Seinfeld views himself as an actor, with levity.

At one point, Seinfeld turns the tables on Baldwin by asking him a series of questions on a tangent to the previous discussion. It is testament to Baldwin’s skill as an interviewer that he manages to maneuver the conversation back to Seinfeld’s career.

Top tip: Be prepared for discussion to go on tangents and don’t be afraid to go with them, but have tools up your sleeve to bring the discussion back on track.

… and he’s not afraid to share his opinions

In the same Seinfeld interview, Baldwin takes a moment to explain his stance on the Anthony Weiner scandal. He happily gives his opinion before moving the discussion back to how focused and hard-working Seinfeld is.

Top tip: Give your opinion if you’re asked to.

He enjoys the conversation

Most importantly, it is clear from his flowing and natural conversations that Baldwin takes joy from the show discussions. There’s nothing more infectious than when he laughs out loud at an anecdote, or his awe becomes palpable when he lets his idols talk uninterrupted.

In a recent interview with Still Alice and 30 Rock co-star Julianne Moore, they have a delicious moment when discussing their shared past in TV soap operas.

Alec Baldwin: You were Franny and Sabrina Hughes on World Turns and before that you did Edge.

Julianne Moore: Were you on Edge?

Alec Baldwin: Only when you were on a soap can you say ‘Edge’.

Top tip: Remember to enjoy yourself.

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