Give in to Your Inner Dummy

People on the radio are smart. Before your eyes do that crazy, “Oh dear god, my eyes are burning!” thing when you flip on the light in the morning, the smart people on the radio have not only decided what’s news, they know what to tell you about it. And it’s weird when you start working in radio. You push and push and someone lets you in the door and then it’s like, “Oh no! Now I have to share cubicle space with the smart people.” It’s exciting, but totally intimidating.

But here’s the secret. The smartest people on the radio are dumb. Or not dumb exactly, but they’ve realized that the smartest thing you can do sometimes is admit that you don’t understand something.

Take Terry Gross. I worked with her at Fresh Air for almost five years and I learned so much listening to her ask questions over and over and over again. And o.k., Terry’s brilliant, but at some point I realized that one of the cards she plays all the time is to furrow her brow and ask some version of the question, “Huh?” Or I don’t get it. Or what do you mean? I think a lot of Terry’s interviews at the beginning of the financial crisis were like that. There are entire hours, all 43 minutes and 30 seconds of available tape time on Fresh Air, devoted to answering, “Wait, what’s a CDO again?” Terry never pretended to be a financial journalist. She never played the expert. She just asked other people who knew their stuff for their take on it.

Don’t get me wrong; reporters who know their beat and build up institutional knowledge are invaluable. Terry relies on a lot of those people for guests. All I’m saying is that you don’t have to know everything. And when you don’t know something, admit it. And try to incorporate that tape into your story. If you’re honest in your pursuit of a story, you win in so many ways. You have the opportunity to slow your story down and serve as the listener’s stand in. You can break down really complicated subjects so people actually understand what you’re trying to say. And you know, you seem like an actual human being.

I guess giving in to your inner dummy is just another way of saying be curious. And don’t let the fact that you don’t totally know what you’re doing stop you from chasing your curiosity. Once you catch your curiosity you’re going to have to work your ass off, but that’s another sidebar.

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  • Rachel Coker

    12.20.10

    Reply

    An excellent point. I’ve been in journalism for more than 10 years, many of them as an editor. I always tell reporters who work for me that it’s better to seem “dumb” in front of a source than in front of thousands of readers/listeners/visitors. If you don’t understand something, neither will the people who are counting on you to make sense of it!

  • Julie Drizin

    12.20.10

    Reply

    I think too often journalists think they are supposed to be experts on everything instead of just sharp enough to ask the right questions at the right time to the right people. Sure, there are such things as stupid questions, but those are usually the ones that go unasked because a reporter is too embarrassed to seize the moment and do their job. Instead they nod and smile as if pretending to understand every word that a foreign language speaker has uttered. But who nobody is really served by that.

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