Discover more from Starting Out
I gossiped with Normal Gossip's Kelsey McKinney and Alex Sujong Laughlin
Plus: how to prepare for an interview
As you’re reading this, I’m on a plane to the Online News Association’s conference in Philadelphia. It’s my first ever fancy professional conference and as I write this I’m trying to source professional looking clothes from all my friends. Over the last three years I’ve ditched my office wardrobe for a comfortable work from home lifestyle. No more! Does anyone have a blazer I can borrow?
I’m going to the conference as part of the MJ Bear Fellowship cohort, and am going to be learning a lot about how to make this newsletter more helpful and engaging for all of y’all. If you’re going to be at the conference, come say hi!
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This month’s interview is so much fun: I got to gab with host Kelsey McKinney and producer Alex Sujong Laughlin of Normal Gossip, the hit podcast from Defector. Some things you should know about my relationship with Alex and Kelsey:
Kelsey gave me this excellent advice when I got laid off for the first time: if you’re going to drink, don’t drink something you love, because you’ll associate that beverage with this moment in your life. I had some whiskey.
Alex witnessed a moment of profound digestive distress while on a run around Prospect Park and made me laugh about it instead of clowning me, which she would have been well within her rights to do.
They’ve seen me through some wild times. We had a lot of fun talking about the success of the show, and the role gossip plays in your early career.
Alice: How has gossip impacted your careers?
Kelsey: I've actually never thought about this in my entire life. My first journalism job in general, if you can call it that, was working as the Life and Arts Editor at The Daily Texan, which was a job.
I went to the University of Texas, and that's the newspaper there. It was a job I got solely because other people were gossiping about a blog I had written for the Harry Ransom Center, which was an on-campus library, and then they just poached me into the paper. So really, it's gossip's fault that I'm here at all. Then, famously, my very dear friend Aleks Chan lied to me: "Yeah, you can be the editor of a 20-person staff for The Daily Texan. It'll only take five hours a week." Lie, it took 35.
It's fine. Whatever. I loved it. It was great. Then I feel like every job I've had has been fake in that they were all startup media companies, and so I had to learn of their existence, which was kind of gossip. I worked at Vox – you had to know about Project X happening to get people even to send you the link to apply. Then I worked for Fusion, which was famously gossipy, and then I was freelance. Then the Deadspin, Gawker universe famously is... What's the phrase? Today's gossip, tomorrow's news.
Now It's my whole job.
Alex: Yeah, my route has been different from Kelsey's, though parallel, because we both went to big state schools in the south and both applied for the same first job, but she got it and I didn't. That's where the gossip begins. I hated her.
Kelsey: That's why we're enemies.
Hey y’all! If you’re new, here’s the deal: this “season” of the newsletter I’m doing resource guides on a theme: interviewing for narrative podcasts. But if you’re not a producer for that kind of show (maybe you work in broadcast, or do a chat show) I hope you’ll still get something out of this, I think that a lot of the same principles apply.
This month: Writing a prep (jargon for a question list) for an interview! Since there’s sooo much to say on this, I’m splitting up the guide into two parts. All of this is written in first person, because it’s how I approach this, but it’s by no means a complete guide. Share your tips for interview preps in the comments!
Prepping for your prep
If the interviewee is not a public figure, I’ll do most of my research in the pre-interview. That being said, you may be surprised by the media appearances that an average person might have done. So it’s always worth searching just in case.
If the person being interviewed is in the public eye, I do my research. That typically goes beyond basic social media and Wikipedia. Here’s a checklist:
Has this person appeared on a podcast before? Listen to those interviews.
Have they given a TED Talk or done other speaking engagements that might be on YouTube? Watch some of those.
Read any other interviews findable online.
Then I ask myself: what do I wish other interviewers had asked about? Are there questions this person seems tired of answering, or answers I’ve heard across several interviews that sound rehearsed?
The benefit of this research is that:
I won’t ask the guest a question they’ve already been asked a million times. At minimum, I can at least ask it in a different way.
I can go into the interview already knowing the basic contours of their story. I’ll get that information because I’ve either pre-interviewed them well or done a lot of research, or some combination of the two.
There’s a couple ways to do this. Sometimes I write down as much as I possibly can think of, without much self-editing. The goal is simply to get things on paper. Then, I shape and revise that list.
Other times I’ll make a rough outline of the story as I know it, and reverse engineer questions based on the plot points that will be in the story.
Think of it like a baking project. I know that at the end of the day I want to bake a cake, but first I have to make sure I have all of the ingredients. In this very clumsy metaphor, the cake is your story. The tape from the interviewee are major ingredients. You can only gather those ingredients by asking the right questions.
So if I’m hoping to create a vivid scene of two coworkers arguing in their break room I’ll want to ask questions like:
Describe the break room, what did it smell/look/feel like?
How did you know X was upset with you?
What were you saying to each other?
What thoughts were running through your head when X started to yell?
A few kinds of interview questions
There are three types of questions that can help you get started.
Of course there are infinite types of interview questions, but I’m trying to avoid writing a whole book) soI’m going to give some sample questions here, based on a hypothetical interview with a (fictional) barista who unionized her workplace, which I’m calling Coffee Shop.
Obviously you’re looking for fact-based answers to all your questions — what I mean by this is that these questions help situate you in time and place.
When did you start working at Coffee Shop?
How many people voted for the union? How many against?
When did you feel the tide turn for the union?
How often did you meet with management to discuss the contract?
These are questions that put the listener in a place and time and feeling. You can identify potential scenes by looking at your notes on the story (notes from your pre-interview or research) and asking, “What moments are the most action packed and/or decisive? When does a “character” make a decision or have a realization? When does conflict come to a head? When does their perception of a situation change? When do they lose control?”
You said you were on break when you heard your hours got cut…can you take me through that moment?
What kinds of things would you typically see in the break room?
What did it smell like?
How did you usually feel when you went back there, was it a relaxing space?
What thoughts were running through your head as you drove to work on the day of the vote?
What was the first thing you noticed when you got to work on the day of the union vote?
How did you feel when you heard [coworker] was thinking about voting no?
How did you hear that news, was it over text, in person?
Take me through the morning of the union vote in as much detail as you can, I promise I won’t get bored. (This line, “as much detail as you can, I promise I won’t get bored,” is something I learned from Criminal’s Phoebe Judge and I think it’s genius.)
These are questions that will help you understand something about the person as a “character.” They illuminate how that person sees the world, themselves and people around them. These questions can also help the listener understand the themes of the story.
What impact did your parents' jobs have on how you thought about work/labor?
What kept you going when the organizing process got hard?
Union organizing can involve difficult conversations, is that something you were nervous about?
How did unionizing change the way you thought about your job?
When did you start thinking of yourself as a leader in this process?
Do you think this guide would be useful for a friend? Share it with them.
Next month: Editing your questions, what not to ask, and the questions I put in every prep.
Apprentice News Clerk, AirTalk, American Public Media Group, ($18.66/hr)
Fall Internship, Audacy Boston, (No pay information shared)
Ray Didinger Internship, Audacy Philadelphia, (No pay information shared)
New York Market Intern, Audacy, ($15-$20/hr)
Programming Intern, The Block, Audacy ($15/hr)
Associate Producer, Pipedreams, American Public Media Group ($22.70 - $27.20/hr)
The Build Grant, Broccoli Productions. This grand funds $1,000 for five individuals looking to build their audio projects and careers.
Submit to the Resonate Pitch Party for a shot at $10,000 towards making your pilot.
If you are hiring interns, fellows or other entry level positions, send your job postings and rates to startingout [at] transom [dot] org and I’ll list them in the next issue. Please note that Starting Out features only paid opportunities.
Alex and Kelsey Recommend
Next month: Welcome to Provincetown host Mitra Kaboli on reporting, sound design, and why you should maybe not be relying so much on Descript.
Starting Out will always be a free resource. If you want to support this work you can donate to Transom. The newsletter is edited by Jennifer Jerrett and Sydney Lewis. Interviews are transcribed with help from Elizabeth Kauma.
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