My odd path to network TV began in late May, when I published a 10,000-word story in Atlanta magazine about Aubrey Lee Price, a fugitive pastor from Georgia who embezzled millions and faked his own death. (I’ve already discussed the origins of this crazy story on The Freelancer.) The piece generated strong stamps of approval online, but I received only one TV interview request, from a local Georgia station. That surprised me, since it was a story that big networks and publications had been trying to break.
Then in early August, I pitched an unrelated story to Esquire about a man who watched his own funeral. It turned out this man had made up the tale, so I searched for something to fill the void. I had plenty of material that didn’t make it into the original piece on Price, so I pitched Esquire a “What It Feels Like to Fake Your Own Death” story about Price’s alleged experience. That article was short—omitting much of the authoritative Atlanta saga—but it got way more buzz.
The Esquire piece appeared online on a Monday in early August. The next night, around 10:15, I got a call from a New York number. It was a producer from Good Morning America. She’d read the Esquire piece and wanted to do a segment on Price… the next day. She acted as if I’d just broken the news.
“Can I send over a film crew tonight?” she asked.
I looked around my girlfriend’s house. I’d been sitting there drinking whiskey with her roommates for the last hour and was about to go to bed.
Forty-five minutes later, after a cold shower and a calming chat with my girlfriend, I was Skyping with a GMA producer, repeating the crucial parts of the narrative: I broke the Price story for Atlanta magazine, where I’m a writer-at-large; I sat and talked with Price in jail for more than 10 hours during the reporting process; I found his fugitive story to be implausible, at best; and that I’d appreciate it if they flashed Atlanta magazine’s cover during the segment.
The producer told me the request wouldn’t be a problem.
I was having this conversation, by the way, while sitting in the only quiet room in the house—which I realized, looking around, could be mistaken for the Unabomber’s den. Not quite the impression I’d hoped to make.
The next day, we tried it again, this time with a film crew, at another house. Two men arrived midday and set up equipment without offering instructions to me. Suddenly, a woman in New York—another GMA producer—started asking me questions through the speakerphone of a cellphone.
Oh, and just before cameras started rolling, I was told to look at the stone-faced sound guy sitting 10 feet away and pretend he was actually the woman asking me questions… even though her voice was coming from the phone sitting on a table out of view. I performed this quasi-ventriloquist act, not very well, for a half hour. After some floundering, I finally got used to the awkward setup.
But there was only so much I could control. The next day, I was dismayed that the resulting three-minute TV piece seen by millions got most of the details I’d repeated to the first producer—and the second—incorrect, including how to pronounce my last name. GMA also didn’t flash the cover of Atlanta, as promised; I’d told the magazine’s editor, who helped a great deal with the original piece on Price, that they would.
As another GMA producer had said to me that morning, “This isn’t 60 Minutes.”
So, while it was cool to briefly be on TV and gain a few Twitter followers, the reality was a little frustrating. In the interest of helping other writers optimize the on-air experience, should it present itself late one night after a few drinks, here is some advice:
1. Make the producers agree in writing to correctly pronounce names, credit your publication, and report the facts of your story. There are no guarantees they’ll get it right, but this will help.
2. When the camera starts to roll, imitate politicians: Regardless of what questions you are asked, plainly and clearly describe the message you wish to tell. This way, you won’t get caught stuttering about something you hadn’t planned to say.
3. If you are asked to direct your answers to a stone-faced sound guy—or anyone other than the person asking you questions—ask said sound guy to nod cheerfully as you speak to make it seem like you are in a real conversation.
4. Lower your expectations—and the expectations of those you report to, if possible—about how the TV piece will look on air. I was interviewed for a solid half hour, but GMA only used 15 seconds of tape. They weren’t the best 15 seconds or the worst 15 seconds. They worked within the context of GMA‘s simplified version of my story. Your story will be simplified, and perhaps even spun, so be prepared for that.
5. Finally, no matter how badly they screwed up the details of the story you worked on for months, tell the television producers you truly appreciated the opportunity to appear on their big-deal show. The next time you’re on—talking about your book or film, naturally—it’ll go better.