MPR’s Kerri Miller on interviewing, reporting, and time ticking


Minnesota Public Radio host Kerri Miller was Wednesday’s guest at the Twin Cities Media Alliance “Lunch With a Journalist Series.” One audience member spoke admiringly of the show and told Miller, “You seem to know everything.” Indeed, Miller can attack topics like United States foreign policy in the Middle East, the sharing of household duties between men and women, and household mold all in the course of one week. We promised Kerri Miller would be, as she frequently says on air, “very interesting.” She didn’t disappoint. This is an abridged version of audience questions and Miller’s responses that helped us understand just how she does it.

Do the current shifts in technology and the media affect the work you do?

Well, yeah they do in some ways, but I am very, very lucky. It’s such a luxury to have the time and space to do the kind of reporting, research and background work that we do on the show. And it’s a luxury to have the interest from the organization that I work for to do that work. I mean I could “fake it,” and not read the books and do the research, but they don’t want to me to do that. They know that the quality that I and the producers bring to the show is valued by the audience.

But of course the shift affects us. Here’s one: We’re going to put cameras in the studio. That’s no biggie for me since I used to be in television, but that’s going to be hard for some people to adjust to. But, we have a new website and more video on it, and Bob Collins is always taking things from one of the shows and putting it on the News Cut blog, so there’s discussion online there.

Do your guests try to make ground rules about the discussion before the show and do they get disappointed once they realize they might get some tough quetions?

It’s pretty usual that the guest comes in with expectations about the show and those generally get dispelled within the first ten minutes. We try to prepare them with the right expectations, like we send them links to the shows. But even if I might ask some tough questions or the callers might do that too, people don’t feel like I’m attacking them. I mean, it’s not me yelling at some one saying, “Come on, this is a big puff job and everyone knows it!” It’s gotta be a serious conversation and people respect that.

What about being fair and balanced? Is it meaningful to have two people with two opposing views on the show and let them go at it? How do you handle that issue and how you handle controversial questions?

I give our audience a lot more credit than to say, “Hey! She didn’t have both sides of the issue on this show. I’m not going to listen anymore and that’s not good journalism!” I think they get it a lot more than that. But, for some issues it’s good and necessary to have differing views. Like for single-payer, I knew we absolutely needed to have two strong guests on either side. (Of course, I didn’t realize that they would come out and call each other liars in the first five minutes!) I try to do what what John King does on CNN, which is really explode an issue, but it doesn’t need to be formulaic.

If you could double your budget what would you do?

[Laughing] What wouldn’t I do? No, but I miss a lot of the reporting in the field and going out and finding the information and seeing things for myself. I think there’s value in that. I would have loved to go Afghanistan right now and do some more of the hands on reporting. I’ve never been to the Middle East and I read about it all the time and it’s a hole in my understanding that would be great to go explore.

I would have 6 producers.

I’d take the show on the road.

How much editorial control do you have?

Technically, I’m something like the “managing editor,” but it doesn’t say that on my business cards. But I have three wonderful producers and we’re all pitching shows to each other all the time and we’re all constantly reading. The producers are highly influential in the creation of the show. So the process might go something like this. Some one suggests something for a show, like here’s one that I call a “high concept” show: Do rich people take away or contribute to the economy? Now, I might want to do that and a producer will come back with a list of people we could have on the show She’ll give me a list and I’ll say, “Well, now, I don’t want a boring tax accountant on the show. I want some one who can think big and talk big.”

What’s your media diet?

The Sunday talk shows; CNN; I read lots and lots of newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, the London Papers, a couple Middle Eastern papers; Newsweek; The Atlantic;; The Daily Beast, Colbert (not every day). Of course, I read tons and tons of books. And TV. Unlike a lot of the MPR employees, I do consume TV because I think there’s something to be gathered from TV and what’s going on. And Charlie Rose. I love Charlie Rose and watch him every day. I like to think our show as a mix between Charlie Rose and Tim Russert. Charlie Rose is really great because he really gives it time and space to breath, but I want to make sure that I can still ask the kind of tough questions.

The Daily Planet?

[Laughing] Ummm, not yet. I’ll be putting that on the list starting tomorrow.

What do you do to prepare for a show?

I look at a lot of old stuff. If Governor Pawlenty were to come on the show (which he doesn’t seem inclined to do these days) I would go back and ask for campaign speeches and coverage. I would say, “Hey you said in 2002 that you were going to do this” and bring up the old stuff. I’m not a big fan of the “in the moment” political interview. One of the most interesting moments with Governor Pawlenty was when we talked about his change of heart on gambling and the stadium and some other things. But preparing for interviews is also about the way you ask questions. When I asked him about his change of heart I could have attacked him. Instead I asked him, “How are we to really know who you are and what you stand for?” Now that’s not really an adverserial question, but it gets at the heart of things. (Then again, he hasn’t come back since then.)

And then it’s really about pulling together a lot of sources from all the different things I read. I reference things that I don’t even always remember where I got or where I read.

Plus, I read the book if the show’s about a book. You’d be surprised to know how many guests say, “Oh my god you read the book!” And I’m thinking, how could you not read the book? I never realized it was a thing in journalism not to read the book.

Then the callers bring so much to the show. They are able to ask questions that I never would have prepared for and I can’t even express how important they are to the show.

How do you keep it moving the whole hour?

I’m very concious of time ticking by and the fact that people have a lot to do. They have very busy lives and might only have time to listen to 20 minutes here and there, or they listen for the whole hour but they have a lot of things to do at the same time. So it had better be good.

What are some of the favorite shows you’ve done?

Gloria Steinem was one of them and it was exciting to talk to her. I loved interviewing Wynton Marsalis because well, man he’s just got a fantastic brain! I mean, what a brain to pick! Dr. David Eagleman is a sientist who writes fiction by night, and is a guy with boundless knowledge. I mean boundless knowledge, and it’s just so fun to talk to some one like that. Richard Dawkins is another one I’m proud of because he’s just a guerilla and you’d better be prepared for him because otherwise he’ll just mow you over.

Do you miss being on TV?

No. I never was one of those people that was about journalism just to be on camera. For me, it was always about the thrill of the hunt for the story. If I miss anything I miss being in the field. Every now and then, and I have an agreement with the producer of the show, I get to go out in the field again.

How difficult has it been for you to adjust to having a black president? And a techinical question: Is it “President Obama” or “Mr. Obama?”

Adjusting to a black president. Hmm. Well this time last year we were in the heat of the campaign and it was so exciting and I miss that. And as far as Mr. Obama versus President Obama goes, it’s an issue, yeah. But Alicia Shepard has blogged about this really well and has looked at the rules and the rationale for referring to both.

How do you respond to the accusations that public radio leans to the left and that being knowledge and informed is a “liberal thing?”

Well, I guess I just don’t buy it. I don’t that just because you are informed and listen to MPR you’ve got to be a liberal. Look, when I do a shout out to Republicans on the show and ask for Republicans or conservatives to call in, the lights are lit up all over the place and I get all kinds of people calling in.

How can I get a guest onto your show?

I look for some one who can is high energy, who can be engaging and can go with the flow of the guests because you never know where the guests are going to take things. This happened to me just the otehr day where I had a guest on the show who was completely monotone and just really low energy. Nothing bothers me more than a low energy guest with a low voice who can’t make it engaging. Because quite frankly it’s boring radio.

Find a pitch that is national in scope, that can fill an entire hour. I think of the show as layers, and we’re peeling and peeling and peeling. The issues has got to have the capability to keep it interesting and revealing for an entire hour. It’s got to have momentum. So it can’t just be, “Look at how great my organization and the great work we’re doing.” It has to be issues based.