Testing, testing... one, two, tea
EC: Why Every Radio Interview Starts with Breakfast
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I have long known that breakfast and radio, the cornerstones of my morning rituals, pair extremely well. But on a recent Saturday, while cleaning and catching up on podcasts, I noticed a peculiar link between them: recent episodes of two of my favorite shows, Reply All and Outside/In, featured guests describing that day’s breakfast. This coincidence summoned a piece of trivia from somewhere in the depths of my radio-loving brain: “What did you have for breakfast?” is often the question a radio producer will use to check recording levels before launching into an interview.

“I refuse to do it,” Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s The Gist podcast told me when I asked him about the breakfast question. Why? “Cliché,” he said. “No one cares,” he added, though I would beg to differ. Mike “would rather avoid the most boring sentence of the day.” But the question’s mundanity is intentional, according to This American Life producer Sean Cole, who, despite loving breakfast so much that he tries to eat breakfast foods throughout the day, had only eaten a morning Clif bar on the day we spoke. “You don’t necessarily want to ask anything of substance,” Sean told me, “in case your levels are off and you can’t use the tape.”

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Though this old-school trick is used so commonly that many producers consider it more a reflex than a choice, it’s arguably not the ideal question for the task. It often yields an answer too brief—“coffee” or “nothing” (sad!)—to be useful. Some follow-up tends to be necessary: asking for more detail (“Did you have anything on the toast?”), or simply requesting that the guest ramble a little. Reply All co-host Alex Goldman sometimes asks, “If you could have anything for breakfast, what would it be?” “Pancakes always figure into the fantasy,” he noted.

Sometimes, none of that works. Taylor Quimby, senior producer for New Hampshire Public Radio’s Outside/In and Word of Mouth, explained, “It’s a good barometer for whether or not your guests are game.” If you keep getting one-word answers, “it’s often a bad sign for the interview,” said Taylor, who eats a bagel with cream cheese at 10 a.m. every weekday.

On the other hand, as Alex Goldman put it, “If a person is warm and open and gives you a good amount of information, you’ll think, oh, this person’s okay.” The answer, Alex said, can give him “incredible insight into how the next hour of [his] life is going to go.” By this standard, I would have accurately predicted that talking to Alex would be a delight: he’d had Multi Grain Cheerios and the half of a banana that his son didn’t eat. His son had the other half and a pouch of puréed squash and apples. Alex thinks baby food is “criminally underrated.” “It’s just a smoothie,” he pointed out. “It’s kind of great.”

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Asking the breakfast question can help make the interviewer more comfortable, regardless of the answer. This American Life producer Zoe Chace felt this way when she interviewed the elusive Lauryn Hill in 2010 for NPR’s “50 Great Voices” series. After a weekend of chasing the artist and her handlers around a music festival, Zoe and her editor wound up hitching a ride with Hill back to her hotel. Zoe was pretty freaked out. This interview was “the scariest thing ever” because Hill meant so much to her personally. Sitting squished next to her in the car, Zoe fiddled momentarily with her equipment, then went for the breakfast question. Lauryn Hill had not had breakfast that day.

“It was a dumb way to start,” said Zoe, who, when we spoke, had not yet breakfasted herself but was making spaghetti, which she planned to enjoy with pesto and an egg on top. But she couldn’t have launched straight into the difficult question she’d soon have to ask: Why did you stop putting out music? “I had to do something that made it feel like I was in a normal situation doing an interview with someone,” she said. For Zoe, the breakfast question provides “an extra beat.” In asking it, the interviewer flips a switch and settles into the familiar role.

So under what circumstances might this question leap from level-checking, nerve-quieting patter to usable tape? In the Reply All episode “The Picture Taker,” Alex Goldman asks the CEO of a struggling photo-storage service (which has since shut down) what he had for breakfast. “I had a waffle with Nutella,” he replies. “I’m having the same breakfast as my three other kids.” Alex included this because it humanized him. “The conversation got very technical very quickly,” he explained. “I wanted to remind our listeners that this guy was—yes, he was the owner of a company, but he was also a human being.”

For similar reasons, Outside/In’s “The Pokémon Question” opens with a roundtable of guests introducing themselves by name, profession, and breakfast. Taylor Quimby told me that on Outside/In, they like to include “little bits where people are really just people.” Hearing people introduce themselves, talk about breakfast—this can help make guests more relatable.

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Sometimes the breakfast question yields a satisfying distillation, exactly what you’d hope your guest might say. “I had some espresso,” Werner Herzog once answered before a New Hampshire Public Radio interview, “and a cookie.” Other times, it spins off into an unexpected conversation. Sean Cole once interviewed a man who’d had peach yogurt—probably. He wasn’t sure because he had no sense of smell or taste. They discussed this for 45 minutes before they even touched the subject of the interview.

Luke Malone, a producer for StartUp, speculated that “in the most generous sense,” maybe the breakfast question offers a way to begin getting to know somebody, to “start to figure out a little more about a person.” I spoke to Luke on a particularly virtuous day: he’d had two eggs with kale, shiitake mushrooms, tomato, and peach, all fried up together. “My best self, my best breakfast,” he said. He admitted he’d had ice cream for breakfast over the weekend. I admitted that I had, too.

On the surface, the breakfast question doesn’t seem particularly intimate. But the answer can serve as a refreshingly honest window into a person’s life and mind, humanizing and humbling and silly all at once. When Sean Cole recorded the late poet Franz Wright reading his work, Wright answered, “I had bacon and eggs.” He paused as if marveling at how clichéd that was. “I really did.”