In his son’s new podcast, David Frost, who interviewed Gloria Steinem, Robert Kennedy, and, famously, Richard Nixon, reflects on the art of the interview.
FROM: Air Mail
BY: Wilfred Frost
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My dad carried out more than 10,000 interviews in his life; the exact number is unknown. Since he died, seven years ago, I have slowly found and restored missing tapes, and regained rights to many of them, the culmination of which has been my podcast, The Frost Tapes, out now.
The focus of The Frost Tapes is 60s and 70s America, and the extraordinary parallels that can be drawn from that time to today. Dad had a front-row seat as American history unfolded, but many of his interviews from that period have been overlooked for decades. The roll call of guests is truly spectacular, with episodes on race with Huey Newton, James Baldwin, Dick Gregory, and Stokely Carmichael; on women’s liberation with Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, and Billie Jean King; on media with Walter Cronkite and an eerily prescient, young Roger Ailes in 1969; and on politics with Robert Kennedy, recorded just weeks before his assassination, and Ronald Reagan. Of course, we also revisit Dad’s epic encounters with Richard Nixon, including large chunks of the 28 hours that never aired in the first place. There is even a never-before-released interview with Joe Biden from 1987.
More impressive than the guest list is what Dad got them to say. He didn’t focus on the headlines of the day but rather explored his subjects’ personal philosophies, and, as he would say, what made them tick. This meant that not all the interviews made news immediately, but they provide a treasure trove of timeless material, and an illuminating look back at those makers of history 50 years onward.
David Frost on interviewing:
>Do your research: “The point about preparation, as you know: the more you do, the more it liberates you to go with whatever happens.”
>Draw them out: “You are trying to draw people out, not shut them out. You have got to put the point that has to be put—you know there will be occasions when there will be confrontations, but to set out to provoke people when you don’t have any smoking pistols I think is a mistake because you shut people up rather than opening them up.” And: “It’s that old Aesop’s fable about interviewing. The wind and the sun having a competition to get someone’s coat off, and the wind huffs and puffs and the man just draws his coat close around him. Whereas the sun just shines warmly, and the man takes his coat off. Really, you’ve in a sense got to create a context in which people feel like taking their coat off.”
>Make it about them: “The most important task for an interviewer is to be a catalyst. That is what he is first and foremost; he is a catalyst. He is not a principal…. Most of all his task is to turn the spotlight, maybe the searchlight, onto his subject.”
>Trust your instincts: “There is something about how you can physically take control of an interview, you know, not by throttling the person; whether it is by leaning forward, you know, it’s instinctive. It’s like with a silence—there are two forms of silence in an interview: one, you know if you wait there is more to come, and it’s probably even better. But the other silence, which is excruciatingly lengthy, is if the person has simply blind forgotten what they were going to say, and in that case if you wait for something to come, nothing is going to come. It’s instinctive in that sense.”
>Be impartial: “By the time I could first vote, which at that point was 21, I was already doing That Was the Week That Was and other things, and I realized that it could be a real millstone for people to say all through your life, ‘I happen to know he voted for so and so,’ so it was better to stay absolutely independent. Which I already have of parties all along—I have never found a party I could support 100 percent in all of the countries I have done TV in, and so, if I voted, I would vote for the man. I know that is doomed—however wonderful your local candidate is he cannot buck the system, but I would vote for the quality of the man if I was actually voting. I am genuinely pretty centrist I would think, left of center on some issues probably, but I am very much an independent.”
>Be genuine: “Nobody else could have done the questions for you, because a talk show rests above all on reality—above all on seeing that the person is interested or bored by the person he is interviewing.” And: “You can’t con people in an interview.… You’ve got to be born with that sense of curiosity and that real fascination of what makes people tick.”
That last one is most important. I am not an actor; I am a presenter and interviewer. Despite gaining so much from reviewing Dad in action, ultimately I will continue to do things my own way. But it has been the greatest privilege of my professional life to review what America’s cultural icons had to say, and the way in which Dad got them to open up, and I hope you will consider listening to them, too.