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Interviewing the interviewer about interviews

by admin December 1, 2009

Do Jian Ghomeshi and I have good chemistry?
It’s the unlikely question this writer stopped to ask himself in the midst of an interview with the popular broadcaster at the Winnipeg Folk Festival this summer. Ghomeshi, 42, is the host of Q, the arts and culture show that airs weekday mornings on CBC Radio One. Since debuting in 2007, its become the station’s highest rated morning show ever. That’s due in no small part to the engaging interviews Ghomeshi has conducted with everyone from Leonard Cohen to Super Dave Osborne.

So what better thing to ask a professional interviewer about than what makes a good interview? “A good interview is basically where you get the interviewee to say things they haven’t said a million times &- especially if it’s a high profile person who does a lot of interviews,” Ghomeshi said. “An alchemy of a lot of things” produces that result, he added, including “a good chemistry between the interviewer and interviewee.”
Researching your subject, and demonstrating that you’ve done that research, is also important. Ghomeshi said it’s not unusual for him to research a person for 10 or 12 hours, or for a few days if it’s a particularly big interview. Although he’s never had any formal training as a journalist, Ghomeshi said his experience as a member of 1990s folk-rock group Moxy Fruvous helped prepared him for his current gig.

“I will not interview someone if I’ve not experienced the content of what I’m interviewing them about,” he said. “In other words, I won’t interview an author if I haven’t read their book cover to cover, I won’t interview a musician on their new record if I haven’t listened to it end to end.” It’s a personal rule that comes partly from being the interviewee “and knowing within 15, 20 seconds . . . if the interviewer had listened to my record or not. If they hadn’t, I think honestly in a lot of cases, I would go into message track . . . I wouldn’t be as engaged as I would be with someone who I felt had invested in preparing to speak with me. That’s a pretty simple lesson: I don’t ever want to look somebody in the eyes when I’m interviewing them and have them see anything other than someone who’s completely aware of what they’ve been up to.”
Born in England to Iranian parents, Ghomeshi immigrated to Canada with his family in the late 70s. He studied political science and history at York University and began writing opinion pieces for dailies like The Washington Post and The Globe and Mail while in Moxy Fruvous. That led to hosting the CBC TV program Play and contributing to the Hour, which eventually led to Q.

Not every interview has been easy, though. In April 2009, Ghomeshi spoke with actor Billy Bob Thornton and his country band, the Boxmasters. Thornton was uncooperative at best, answering basic questions about the band’s history with, “I don’t know.” Footage of the interview went viral and the incident made headlines around the world. “I can’t go anywhere without people talking to me about it,” Ghomeshi said. “Literally, I’ve been stopped in the streets of London, England. As I walk through [the Winnipeg Folk Festival], there are a lot of people who are saying lovely things about the show or having seen me in the past, but there’s a fair percentage who stop me and just want to talk about Billy Bob.”

And how does Ghomeshi feel about that? “I understand it, but there’s a lot more that I do. “I mean, my feeling about the whole thing has been, if that interview means it brings people to the show, and it leads people to see the Leonard Cohen interview or the Sonny Rollins interview, I’m happy.” More of a reputation means the show can get more access to high-profile guests, which Ghomeshi sees as key to continued success. “I want to do important interviews that people feel they learn from &- and that I learn from.”

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