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Jim Blasingame Small Business Advocate Show

I had the great honor and privilege of being on Jim Blasingame’s Small Business Advocate last week. Now, I’ve been doing my fair share of radio interviews, but this was truly exceptional. If you weren’t around for the live broadcast last Tuesday, we’ve got a helpful link with a big welcome sign on it sitting right there on the left.

I have done quite a bit of radio interviews and Jim ranks up there with the best. He knows how to get the best out of his interviewees. Now, I suspect many of the folks reading this humble blog have never done a radio interview, because I’ve gotten dozens of emails about what it’s like. So you’re in for a treat. I’m going to tell you what it’s like (and why Jim is so great). Get ready for some real-time radio complete with a tarantula!

Okay, in just a couple months I’ve gone from radio virgin to radio whatever-the-opposite-of-virgin-is. I’ve done a few mega-big-ones, like Jerry Doyle, ABC News Radio, and Thom Hartmann (well, I consider Thom a big player because I’m a huge fan of his show and his books and I’ve been listening to his show pretty regularly for the last couple years). And I’ve done a huge number of local stations from the great Northwest to Maine to the deep south.

Here’s what it’s like.

First, you get a schedule every week or so from the people who are handling your bookings. They don’t give you a whole bunch of information. Naturally, since many of the shows are local, you’ve never heard of them. In fact, you’ve probably never heard of the big national ones, either, unless you’re a radio junkie. Radio is like smoking. People pick their “brand” and that’s that. It is actually a good thing that you’re not familiar with the shows, since they don’t seem “real.” If you get booked on a show that you know, like Thom Hartmann, the run-up is a game of nerves that you, at best, play to a draw.

On the day of the interview, you plop your tired old bones down by a landline telephone (cell phones are right out), a bottle of water, and a clock about twenty minutes before they’re scheduled to call you.

Why a clock? You have to watch the time. If the announcer doesn’t get key information out, like your Web site, your book title, or how people can buy your book, you need to handle that yourself before the clock runs out.

Then the phone rings.

Or it doesn’t. Sometimes they forget to call you and you have to call them. Sprint loves it.

You pick up the phone and the producer of the show says hello and chitchats for a few sentences. Most of the time, these folks are as pleasant as the day is long. They’re cheerful, grateful, and genuinely sunny. After doing a few of these, you get the impression that part of their job is to make you feel good.

Then, after a few words from the producer, the phone goes “click.”

And . . .

Nothing happens. You sit and listen to commercials. Sometimes you catch the last few minutes of the previous segment, but typically you listen to Posturepedic and big auto sales commercials.

Then . . .

You hear the host announcing you. And that, the first few times you sit through it, can be pretty chilling. So far, everything has looked and felt like a phone call. Guy says hello, puts you on hold, and you listen to background whatever while on hold. But this introduction suddenly reminds you that you’re on radio and, well, there are hundreds to tens of thousands of people listening. If you listen to the introduction, you’ll probably get nervous. That’s your name and your book they’re talking about and, hell, you could be sitting in your car right now in rush-hour traffic listening to it. “Hey, that’s me!” you shout to the passengers in the car with you, even if there aren’t any. So the first time you hear a radio host announcing you, it’s a bit nerve-wracking. Once you’ve heard it a dozen times, it’s nothing.

And then . . .

Your phone goes “click.”

The host’s voice goes up a couple decibels in your earpiece.

You’re now live. You can now say, “DOWN WITH [insert your particular craziness here].” Instead, the host asks you a question. And now it’s your turn. You must say something clearly, quickly, to the point, intelligently, and memorably. Everything you say, every “um,” every wrong word, every ellipsis, every paraphrasis, goes out there to radio land to announce to the world, “Gee, I’m dumb” or “Listen up!”

Here’s the thing. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. You get to have a great conversation on the phone with someone who is intelligent, engaged, witty, and genuinely interested in what you say. Except for that scary little introduction, it’s this really nice, really smart person calling you to talk about what you love to talk about.

The first thing that strikes you is how incredibly talented these radio hosts are. They are charming, engaging, intelligent, and they almost never make mistakes. They don’t just throw questions at you; they respond intelligently and diligently.

You see, when you listen to talk or news radio in your car or while you’re cooking, you typically are only half-listening (at least I only half-listen; I’m too busy screaming at LA freeway drivers or irritated that the duct tape fell off the Check Engine light). However, when you’re on the phone with a radio professional, you pay attention, you focus like a laser on everything they say, so you’re more than aware that they’re tremendously good at what they do. Which, I suppose, is why they do what they do and the rest of us flip burgers or design Web pages.

And after doing a couple radio interviews, it hits you that these guys are on your side. They want you to do well and they know how to get you to perform at your peak. Once you realize that, radio interviews are as simple as talking to your best friend on the phone.

Above all, you’re surprised by how genuinely good they are as conversationalists, how well they can dialogue with you. Folks like Jerry Doyle, Chris Wittig, Jim Blasingame, and Ed Flynn are just simply fun people to talk to, especially Ed Flynn, who is obviously having the time of his life. It’s infectious. And many are darn good businesspeople, like Thom Hartmann, Jim Blasingame, and Jerry Doyle, and they’re a joy to listen to. It’s not just an interview, but a chance to learn something from a master.

Sometimes they ask questions you can’t answer. You can’t say “I don’t know” and you can’t dodge. You think on your feet or go smack on your face. Those are the only alternatives in live radio.

In almost every case, the host hasn’t read your book. They have a bio, a few speaking points, and some questions. Thom Hartmann looked over the book and Jim Blasingame, bless his heart, read the book. But that’s rare. In only one case did I have an interview with a radio host who was unprepared, but that was booked an hour before my appearance. What characterized that interview is that he asked several questions I never expected or really thought about. But, again, this almost never happens.

Sometimes you get some pretty off-base questions, and the best way to handle them is straight to the point. My ABC Radio News interview, for instance, began with the hosts introducing me by saying that “according to Richard Hooker, a recession is a great time to start a business, that it’s easy to start a business in a recession” and segued into the question, “Is it really that easy?”

I didn’t even hesitate with my answer. “No. Starting a business is never easy.” The hosts were a bit surprised and put off by this answer, but I then proceeded to give my talk on how business is hard work with millions of obstacles and setbacks.

It turned out to be a great opening question because we then spent the rest of the interview talking about how to do that hard work, which is the philosophical core of our book. (They expected me to be like every other bestselling author on business which makes business success sound as easy as removing a sock — you know, books like the Four-Hour Workweek).

So you’re having this great conversation and then commercial break comes up. “Click.” You’re now muted again. Sometimes the producer comes on and chit-chats or tells you that you’ll be live again in a couple minutes. Rarely do you talk to the host in these commercial breaks. One time, the host picked up the phone during the commercial break and told me not to talk about a certain business topic I mentioned or he’d cut off the interview “right now.” And it was fair of him to say so. It’s his radio show, not mine. So I step carefully around that topic nowadays when I do interviews. Topica non grata.

Then “click” and you’re back and running. The whole thing passes by rapidly because it’s more fun than you can imagine. You get to talk about a topic you really love and know with a genuinely interesting, eloquent, and engaged stranger in this really fun phone call.

If I were asked in a radio interview what it’s like to do a radio interview (because, unlike in a blog, you need to be able to answer questions in one or two pithy sentences), I’d say this: “It’s a really cool, fun phone call with a really cool, fun stranger.”

Which is the advice a good friend of mine gave. My very first radio interview was on national radio on hundreds of stations. No preflights on a few local stations. No. Straight to the tens of thousands all over the nation type of program. So I wrote a quick Facebook message to a good friend of mine, Paul Brians, who’s the author of the bestselling, funny, witty, you-must-buy-it Common Errors in English (its’ better than Eats Shoots and Leaves, trust me). His advice? Just remember to have fun.

But it’s also a one-night stand as phone calls go. At the end, the host wraps it up, announces your Web site and book (or asks you to), and “click.” You’re muted again. That’s usually the last you ever hear from him or her.

On a couple shows, I’ve taken listener calls. And I’m here to tell you that nothing is more fun, more rewarding, more engaging than taking listener calls and answering their questions. If I could do that all day long and still pay my bills, I would. I took calls for 45 minutes on Thom Hartmann (may fortune shine on him!) and for a full hour Deborah Wilson’s Living Wealthy on an NPR station in Baltimore. People phone in with their business ideas and problems and it’s genuinely interesting to hear what they’re doing and challenging to think through their obstacles and challenges in just a couple minutes.

Back in another life, I misspent my youth as university faculty. In the long prelude to that profession (called “graduate school”), I had a few teachers, couple mentors, and a couple acquaintances that I genuinely admired and wanted to emulate, such as Rene Girard (featured in this month’s Stanford magazine — still alive at 85, God bless him), John Freccero, Jacques Derrida. What struck me about these guys is that they never prepared for class or lectures, yet they were the most interesting, most brilliant, most organized lecturers and teachers I ever met. Rene Girard, for instance, would simply walk into the classroom and ask, “Are there any questions?” Someone would ask a question and he would then riff on that question like some intellectual Miles Davis. He never had notes. He never prepared. In fact, he almost never reread the book all the rest of us had to read for class.

“I want to be like him when I grow up,” is what I said in my naive doctoral student way (all graduate students say something like this at some point or another). So I deliberately trained myself to be able to do the same when I became faculty. I forced myself to do little to no preparation and never walked into a classroom with notes. I would walk into class, pull up a chair in front, sit down, talk, ask questions, and have conversations with the students. Even if there were hundreds of students in the class, I always made a point to converse with them rather than talk at them. Midway through I’d ask for questions and start riffing on them.

It was, to say the least, a hard apprenticeship (try winging it without notes for an hour in front of an audience of 200 some day), but over the years, I mastered it (not at the level of a Rene Girard or Jacques Derrida, by any stretch of the wildest imagination). It forces you to really know what you’re talking about and constantly apply it to what’s unfamiliar and unknown to you. I’ve always said, “the purpose of knowledge is to create new knowledge; you should constantly and fearlessly confront what you don’t know armed with what you do know.”

I’m here to tell you, no matter what your path in life, that of all the skills I’ve learned, from my science days to my humanities days to my creative and artist days to my business days, that skill — the ability to talk without any preparation — has been the most valuable by far. And the ability to fearlessly take on what I don’t know or understand has been the most rewarding.

So you can see why it’s fun beyond words to take listener calls. You get to take what you know and refashion it for an unfamiliar problem and . . . it works!

And sometimes, the unexpected happens. On the Thom Hartmann Program, someone called in with a story rather than a question. I’m listening carefully to his first sentence, see some movement out the corner of my eye, look up, and . . . a tarantula is walking across the dining room table about two feet in front of me. I am, literally, looking into his eyes. No joke. You can actually look into the eyes of a spider that big even two feet away.

Now, I’m live on Thom Hartmann across the entire “you” “ess” of “a,” so “SHIT!” at the top of my lungs is not on the menu.

Then my three-year old walks into the room. Not seeing the atomically mutated spider giant padding its way across the table, he puts his hand on the table six inches from it. Right in its cute, furry, spidery path.

So down goes the phone, I send the three-year old to another room (“Get out! Get out! Now! Leave!” in a stern stage whisper), and pick up the tarantula (yes, with my hands — I push it with my left hand to the edge of the table smack into my open right hand, which I then try to close around it, but only manage to pin it to my hand with my fingers because, well, he’s as big as my hand) and quickly escort him to a dirty Tupperware container in the sink — all the while, on our memorable trip from table to Tupperware, he’s making these disturbingly nasty and unrealistically loud clicking noises inside my hand — and slam shut the container, resulting in more nasty clicking noises and what sounds, I swear, like a growl. That being done (and the three-year old now deciding that it’s loud party time in the next room), I rush to pick up the phone just in time to hear the last three words of the caller.

Thom Hartmann says to the caller, “That’s a really good story. Do you care to riff on that, Richard?” I answer with meaningful silence because I’m doing the Sergeant Schultz routine in my head, “I know nuthink. NUUUTHINK!” Then Thom says, “Are you still there, Richard?” “Yes,” I reply, in the kind of “eep” that mice do in a Chuck Jones cartoon when they’ve walked into a cat’s mouth disguised as a saloon. Now, Thom’s a consummate professional and I’m sure he realizes that I haven’t paid one lick of attention to this caller, that this call has spilled “into the void of the ignorance of having been,” as Sammy “Sunshine” Beckett once said. So without missing a beat, he moves on to the next caller.

I’m telling you. These guys are really good at what they do.

Go to the podcasts of the Thom Hartmann program on his Web site (my interview was July 14). You’ll hear me responding to the caller with nothing whatsoever. Just remember: I’ve just done the rickshaw routine with a spider the size of your hand.*

When the interview is all over and you’ve been “clicked” into muteness, the producer usually picks up and thanks you, “you’re great,” etc. A couple times, the host picks up, thanks you, “you’re great,” and you’re done. A few times, the phone goes “click,” the commercials start playing, and . . . nothing. And more nothing. So you just hang up.

If you’re taping, however, the host always talks to you afterwards. And they’re just as wonderful off the air as on. Fortunately, I’ve worked around enough successful Hollywood creative folks — producers, directors, actors — to realize that you always make a quick and graceful exit when you’re talking with talent.

Here’s what made Jim Blasingame such a delight. I get up at some ungodly hour since his show schedule is based in the east — by ungodly, I mean before 4:30 AM. At 5 the phone rings and the producer, with the most radio-perfect voice I’ve heard in my life, introduces himself and “click,” I start hearing the last bit of the previous segment.

But Jim doesn’t play by other people’s rules. I’m listening to his last segment and then a commercial starts. Then . . . “click.” The phone goes live. Jim Blasingame comes on and introduces himself (this has only happened a couple times with radio hosts). And he starts talking about the book. He’s read it! Or at least parts of it. And we have this absolutely wonderful, substantial, informed, high-quality one minute or so talk about small business and start-ups. And then . . . “click.” Phone goes dead for about ten seconds and Jim does the intro. And then we have one of the best-informed discussions about business I’ve had in a long time. It’s like talking to a business school professor, it’s that engaging and informed.

It’s really simple. He did what I would call a “running start” into the interview. I did a documentary series many moons ago with expert talking heads (and I’m currently doing a video on customer service with stellar customer service people), and I always start the interview with a “running start.” Before the camera starts rolling, I chitchat with my interview subjects and gradually transition to talking about the subject at hand. At some point, the crew working for me decides to turn the camera on and we’re going. Most of the time, the subject doesn’t know the camera’s on and the interview has started. These running starts have given me the best on-camera interviews I’ve ever seen. And that explains why all the interviews I’ve been listening to on Jim’s site the last week are so good.

We get to commercial break and “click,” the phone goes mute I sit back and get ready not to listen to two minutes of commercials.

But then something different happens. “Click.” It’s Jim Blasingame again. And we chitchat, talk about llamas, talk about a section of the book. And it’s just as great and just as fun as the on-air interview. And then . . . “Click.” We’re live again. And away we go with this great talk about business, grants, and venture capital. What’s particularly delightful is that he talks like me. He’s blunt, thoughtful, to-the-point, and peddles reality rather than the business illusions the rest of the media is addicted to. To be honest with you, I just wanted to shut up and listen to him. Which is why I’ve become a faithful listener.

So we get to the end of the interview and “click.” Back into mute mode. But then . . . “click.” I’m talking with Jim Blasingame again, not the producer. He thanks me, invites me back, and we chitchat for a few seconds

What was the end result? One of the best interviews I’ve done, even though ten seconds before the interview started, I was ready to pass out on my kitchen table. By starting the conversation before the interview, by chitchatting, cracking jokes, talking substantively, we got a running start on the interview. So as I’ve been pushing through his interviews on his Web site, the high quality of these interviews is easily explainable.

And following the interview, his producer emails me a graphic and a link that I can use to direct people back to the interview. Where, if you follow the link, you’ll find a treasure trove of excellent interviews. I’ve spent the last week rooting around in his Web site and, well, I’m a fan. No-one else I’ve interviewed with has been so savvy about marketing their show and creating an audience. When I sent the link to my partner, Steve, to put on the Web site, he checked it out and sent me a voice message,

“This guy is a class act. They really know what they’re doing.”

I’ve done a couple dozen radio interviews and Jim’s operation was the first one to send a link that I could use to promote his Web site and radio show. Why isn’t everybody doing this? They have Web sites.

Thanks, Jim. Not so much for the interview (big thanks for that!), but sharing your incredible Web site and showing us all how it’s supposed to be done from start to finish.

*By the way, I have handled tarantulas before. I’ve also removed a scorpion from my shoe by picking it up by the tail. And I’ve even handled rattlesnakes — I’ve been “rattlesnake wrangler” for a couple dog “rattlesnake avoidance” training classes, which means I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know a few (muzzled) rattlesnakes at incredibly close quarters. So it’s not like I was doing something impossibly brave by picking up that spider. There was nothing mysterious or unknown about it. I’d handled tarantulas before and I knew what to expect (the same applies to rattlesnakes — I know what they do because I took the opportunity to spend several days handling them, so I know what to do to keep myself safe without jumping out of my skin). I told you above: never fear what you don’t know or understand. Just get to know it or understand it and be governed by what you know, not by what you fear. However, that being said, don’t pick up a tarantula unless you know it’s relatively safe, as in non-venomous safe. And don’t fool around with a rattlesnake unless it has a muzzle on it. Which isn’t something you encounter very often in the wild.

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