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I have always been good at socializing, but not at socializing with a purpose.  That’s why, historically, I have often shied away from networking events despite not being a shy person.  I didn’t like the idea of mingling with an agenda.  I’ve recently learned that’s a toxic mindset to have while networking.

Build relationships now, get business later

Part of my new position at Goff Public includes board and civic involvement with the goal of finding new business.  But the phrase, “finding new business” should be explained.  Yes, it would be great to attend a networking event and leave with a new client.  But that’s just not realistic.  The goal is to build relationships that might pay off later.

My new mindset at networking events is to simply pretend I’m at a party where I don’t know anyone.  A party with complimentary bagels and coffee.  A party where everyone is dressed up and passing out business cards.  A party where everyone is eager to meet new people.  So why not embrace it?  Instead of being intimidated by the word ‘networking,’ I have eliminated the word from my vocabulary.  I no longer attend networking events.  I go to business parties with strangers.  That mindset makes it much easier for me to approach people, shake hands, exchange stories, and pass out business cards.  If I make a good impression now, the next time someone needs PR representation; perhaps he or she will dust off my business card and give me a call.

For the last four months, I have been working on what I call my “signature project” at KVSC-FM. It’s an hour-long news feature about Somalis living in St. Cloud. In the last decade, the Somali population in St. Cloud has swelled from just a handful to an estimated six to seven thousand.  They come to the United States from their war torn country in search of a better life, but when they get here they quickly find being a stranger in a new land comes with a whole new basket of challenges.  In the feature, I explore the struggles Somali refugees face with things like finding jobs and learning English, but also tell stories of Somalis who have found success in America.

My feature aired on KVSC 5/4 and 5/5

Since the feature aired this week, I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from people who say they learned a lot from listening. Hearing this feedback validates the countless hours I put into producing the feature. For this blog, I want to share a few things I learned while putting together the story.

Somali refugees don’t get as much public assistance as I thought.
When Somali refugees arrive in the US, they receive a one-time resettlement grant. Each person receives between $900 and $1,100. The full $1,100 is typically given to people in families of three or less. Families of four or more usually receive $900 per person. For a typical Somali family, it’s enough money to cover a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment, and a couple trips to the grocery store.

A smile and hello goes a long way.
When Somalis arrive in the United States, many of them are scared and going through culture shock. Unpleasant encounters with Americans who don’t have time for them can only add to their stress. When you see a Somali person, a simple smile and “hello” can make their day and improve their perception of the community.

Racism can be practiced by anyone.
As a white male who has lived in predominately white communities throughout most of my life, I have grown to think of racism as something mainly practiced by white people. However, through covering this story, I have learned that there are people of color who also stereotype people based on the color of their skin.

There is no such thing as an all-encompassing “cultural rule”
When I first met a Somali woman I interviewed for my story, I extended my hand to initiate a handshake. She politely declined, saying, “Somali women don’t shake hands.” The following week, I interviewed another Somali woman. When we met, I remembered the cultural difference and was sure to keep my hand to myself when we greeted each other. However, this woman offered her hand to me, and we shook hands. After the handshake, I told her I thought Somali women didn’t shake hands. She said, “Some do, some don’t.” Much like American culture, everybody has different preferences. There are some people who like to hug, others who shake hands, and the Howie Mandel’s of the world who prefer the fist bump.

To listen to part one of my feature, click here.
To listen to part two of my feature, click here.

On Thursday, March 3rd, I conducted KVSC’s monthly live interview with the president of St. Cloud State’s (SCSU) Student Government Association. Near the end of the interview, I asked her to address rumors floating around campus that homecoming might be eliminated at SCSU. She responded saying the President’s Council had made the decision to scrap homecoming and replace it with year-round “school spirit events” that were still being planned. When she said it, I realized it was a big deal because no other media outlets had covered this story.

When I broke this story, my only motivation was to inform the public

After the interview, I wrote a brief story with the simple headline, “SCSU Eliminates Homecoming,” and posted it on KVSC’s news website. Word spread like wildfire and within hours of the story’s posting, social media sites were buzzing with mixed reactions from students, alums, and community members. In the following 48 hours, several other media outlets jumped on board and ran the story. What started in the basement in Stewart Hall was now making its way around the state.

Since I broke this story, some have asked me about my motivation to post it on our website. Am I upset about the university’s decision? Do I have a personal vendetta against the university? It’s obvious the people who ask these questions do not understand the role of the journalist. As a reporter, my opinion does not matter. I am simply an inquisitive observer who conveys information to the public. Journalism is a simple process: gather the facts, arrange them in a way that makes sense, and publicize the facts. I have been a reporter for seven years and have grown accustomed to viewing the world through an unbiased lens. It takes little effort for me to set my personal interests aside for the good of a story. If ever a conflict of interest should arise, I would take myself off the story in a heartbeat.

When a journalist is enterprising, gathering and writing a story, his/her only motivation should be to accurately and ethically gather all the facts necessary to inform the public. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last seven years, and it certainly wasn’t any different in the case of SCSU’s “homecoming saga.”

**Weeks after I broke the story, I interviewed the President of St. Cloud State, who was “annoyed” because the university wanted to announce the cancellation of homecoming on its own terms. Click here to read that story.

“I’m ready when you are,” said a soft yet poised voice coming from behind me. I had a pretty good idea who it was, but when I turned around and saw that unmistakable face and trademark smile, my heart started racing. As a news reporter, I’m not supposed to feel star-struck. I had interviewed Brett Favre before, but that didn’t compare to what I was feeling now.

Obama rallies supporters in Green Bay. That's me circled in pink (upper right)

It was Friday February, 15 2008. I was a news reporter for WBAY-TV in Green Bay, WI.  The man I was about to interview was Barack Obama, who at the time was going head-to-head against Hillary Clinton to win the nod as the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate. My photographer (Michael Bergman) and I had been waiting all week for this moment. Before the interview, Obama gave what seemed like his 1,000th rousing speech to a sea of jacked-up supporters at UW-Green Bay. As the rally proceeded, I prepped myself for an interview with a larger-than-life politician. Boy was I wrong.

After the rally, in a private room, the walking television ad approached me and warmly shook my hand, I told him, “I know you’re a busy guy, so we’ll get right to it.” He smiled and said, “That sounds great.” I was immediately shocked at Obama’s down-to-earth nature. His animated, preachy persona at campaign rallies was nowhere to be found in this face-to-face interview.

In a down-to-earth conversational tone, Obama told me why he will fight for the people and values of Northeast Wisconsin if elected president. Not once did he lose eye-contact with me. He stood tall, yet his stance was not intimidating. Then I noticed how surprisingly skinny he is. At about 6’2”, he can’t possibly weigh more than 175 lbs. I guess TV really does add 10 lbs.

To test the rising politician’s ego, my final question was simply, “Do you think you’re going to win?” He responded, “We’re going to do our best. I hope I win, but if I don’t, all I can ask for is my best.”

Sharing a passion for Chicago sports, the two of us briefly commiserated about the Bears’ losing streak and as I shook hands with the presidential candidate for the final time, he said, “It was really nice meeting you, Chris.”

Journalists are not supposed to get starstruck, but all I could think about at that moment was… “Holy s***! The future president just said my name!”

Every February in central Minnesota, when the winter slump reaches its crest, hundreds of radio geeks collaborate for 50 consecutive hours to do something remarkable. This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to be a part of KVSC’s 32nd annual Trivia Weekend, an institution in central Minnesota. Frankly, if you live in St. Cloud and have never heard of Trivia Weekend, you probably live underwater amongst the granite quarries.

Trivia always takes place over the second weekend in February. It started at 5pm Friday with a live marriage proposal (Congrats to Patrick and Amanda) and ended at 7pm Sunday with an epic battle for first place. Throughout the 50 hours, KVSC DJ’s read roughly 450 trivia questions of varying point totals over the air. Teams hastily research the questions and call answers into the volunteer-run phone bank from their home base (usually someone’s house). The team with the most points at the end of the contest wins the Minnesota Masters of Trivia Traveling Trophy. 71 teams competed in 2011’s Superheroes of Trivia.

I view Trivia weekend like a game of Jenga. There are so many building blocks that go into the event, all of equal importance. If one block falters, the entire production tumbles. Here’s a rundown of the various building blocks that, year after year, are always in place:

Trivia phone bank in action

The question writers: The questions provide the pulse of Trivia. A group of volunteer question writers work throughout the year to create hundreds of “google-proof” trivia questions varying in difficulty. These unsung heroes of Trivia spend the sleepless weekend tucked away in a back room at KVSC, making adjustments on the fly, creating questions that would make Watson’s brain hurt.

Phone bank volunteers: If you’ve ever strolled through the halls of Stewart during Trivia weekend, the sights and sounds of the phone bank were sure to catch your attention. The phone bank gives Trivia its personality. Two full classrooms packed with sleep-deprived, but well-fed, volunteers, answering 1980’s phones that are constantly ringing off the hook. Most volunteers use a catch phrase when they answer the phone. My favorite one this year, “Superheroes of Trivia, I just soiled my spandex.”

The sponsors: Trivia sponsors are the reason why Trivia volunteers never starve. About 40 local businesses donate food at staggered times throughout the weekend. The clear favorite this year was Red Lobster shrimp and cheddar bay biscuits. It’s clear Trivia weekend is strongly supported by the St. Cloud business community.

The DJ’s: Encompassing KVSC DJ’s past and present, the on air talent of Trivia Weekend boasts a diverse range of personalities, from esteemed professionals to juvenile hooligans. Regardless of the maturity level, each DJ brings great energy to the  Trivia experience. DJ’s form teams of two and read questions in two-hour shifts. The two-hour shift is a brilliant idea because it means on air DJ’s are never low on energy (in theory).

Trivia Teams: Whether eight or 30 people on a team, I am convinced there is no better way to bond with a group of people than spending 50 hours attempting to answer borderline impossible questions. There is no cash prize, just an old traveling trophy. The people who participate in Trivia do it purely for the challenge and the joy. Five states were represented in this year’s trivia contest, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and Maryland. Last year, one trivia team member participated remotely from Iraq.

UTVS: If you live in the St. Cloud area, turn on channel 21 during Trivia weekend and I guarantee you’ll have trouble changing the channel. Trivia is also broadcast on UTVS, St. Cloud State’s television station. The 50 hours of live television hosted by college students is packed with entertaining moments.

KVSC Alumni: Also known as the “Goat Posse,” KVSC alums have a variety of roles throughout the weekend including production, DJ’ing, question writing and phone answering. Whether they’re still in radio or have moved on to other professions, KVSC is fortunate to have an insanely dedicated group of alums that would probably choose Trivia Weekend over the birth of their first child (sarcasm?).

Questions evoke better responses than statements

With the NFL season officially over, I want to take this time to rant about some sports reporters. I’m not going to pick on anyone in particular and I’m not going to stereotype an entire group. But let me just say this: it irks me how certain sideline and courtside sports reporters conduct their halftime and postgame interviews.

Before I dig into them, let me first say I understand their job can be chaotic at times. It is their responsibility to convince emotional athletes to talk to them on camera and hurriedly ask questions that will a) elicit an engaging response, and b) not offend them. Whether it’s victors at the peak of excitement or losers sulking in defeat, interviewing emotional athletes can be challenging.

That said, it really grinds my gears when sideline and courtside reporters don’t ask questions. In other words, they make a statment, jam the mic in the athlete’s face and expect them to respond.

Instead of blowing more hot air, I am going to channel my rage into a made up post-game interview:

*********

Reporter: Jay, you were 32 for 38, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and you just beat an undefeated team. That had to feel good.

Athlete: It sure did.

Reporter: With an early season injury followed by the death of your father, it has been a difficult season.

Athlete: Yes it has.

Reporter: Next week will be no easy task. You’ll be playing your rivals in Minnesota led by a 57-year-old quarterback who just won’t quit.

Athlete: Yes, that is the next game on our schedule.

*********

Luckily for the reporters, athletes are typically media savvy enough to know how to respond to such ridiculous statements. That’s why the athlete’s responses above are not realistic. It’s just how I wish they would respond to Captain Obvious’ thoughtless gibberish.

Now here’s an example of how the interview could have gone a lot better if the reporter’s statements were modified into questions:

*********

Reporter: Jay, you were 32 for 38 with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. How does it feel to beat this undefeated team on its home turf?

Athlete: It feels remarkable. We’ve been preparing for this game for a long time and were able to execute in all phases of the game. Hats off to my offensive linemen who gave me plenty of time to throw the football.

Reporter: Your season started with an injury. Then your father died unexpectedly. How have you been able to channel all of the distractions and hardship into success on the field?

Athlete: There’s not a moment that goes by that I’m not thinking about my father. He was my biggest fan. I’m playing every game for the rest of this season in his honor.

Reporter: Next week will be no easy task. You’ll match up against your rivals in Minnesota led by a 57-year-old quarterback who just won’t quit. How will you prepare for this game?

Athlete: He’s the only quarterback in the league who actually remembers the Vietnam War. Despite his age, he’s still got a cannon for an arm. We’re going to work extra hard this week in preparation for the big game.

*********

Before you add my name to your “people to kill” list, I want to reiterate that there are many talented sideline and courtside reporters who do a great job. However, there are, in my opinion, too many who have trouble conducting a basic interview. Is it just the journalism nerd in me, or have you noticed this too?

Who am I to compare myself to this genius?

Remember Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey? It was a recurring Saturday Night Live segment in the 1990s. That is the inspiration for this blog, a series of “deep thoughts” about interviewing:

 

*Cue heavenly musical riff*

Phil Hartman’s Voice: “And now, Deep Thoughts… by Chris Duffy.”

 

An interview is simply a conversation where one person is doing most of the talking and the other person is doing most of the listening.

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Creating a list of questions before the interview is a great way to prepare your mind, but if your eyes are glued to the paper during the interview, you’re sacrificing your personality.

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In meeting someone new, the first question you ask probably wouldn’t be “why didn’t your daddy love you?” It’s more likely to be “where are you from?” Use this same mindset when ordering your questions.

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Don’t cross your legs. Don’t fold your arms. Maintain eye contact. The things we learn about nonverbal communication in the classroom are valuable. But the bottom line is if you’re relaxed and comfortable, chances are the person you’re talking to is relaxed and comfortable too.

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Silence makes most people uncomfortable, but it can be a journalist’s best friend. If you want someone to expand on a thought, oftentimes a silent nod will prompt him or her to keep talking.

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Just because you’re asking a tough question doesn’t mean you have to ask it in a tough tone.

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Journalists get to talk to some of the most fascinating people and relay those conversations to the public. The combination of responsibility and thrill makes it one of the greatest professions in the world (in my biased opinion!).

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