Job: David Inge joined WILL-AM’s "Focus 580" when it was created in 1981. He has been the full-time host of the live interview call-in program since 1985. Inge earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northern Illinois University and a master’s degree in journalism from the UI.
‘Focus 580’ is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, right?
The official date was Feb. 2, but we’re celebrating it on the 28th with a special event – a show featuring the president of National Public Radio, Kevin Klose. And we’ll have a live studio audience, just like ‘Oprah!’ [Klose will be the featured guest on the anniversary program at 11 a.m., after a 10 a.m. retrospective with portions of the program’s most memorable interviews.]
You’ve been on the air for so long, how do you come up with ideas for interviews?
We do 10 hours of interviews a week, and sometimes that seems a little overwhelming. But there are so many things that are worth talking about that I’m sure we’re never going to run out of topics. We always manage to find things that are new, that we haven’t done before.
Where do you get your topic ideas?
We get our ideas from lots of places: listeners, other staff people, speakers coming to campus. We try to keep on top of current events and look for programs that we think offer issues that are important to discuss and we try to find people to talk about those things. We’re lucky enough that we can sometimes indulge our own curiosities as long as it’s something that will also be of interest to our listeners. I think we try to do things that are fairly challenging and do them in a way that makes them accessible.
Are there certain topics that inspire more interest from your listeners?
The shows that get the most calls are the ones that are devoted to the nuts and bolts issues of daily life: home maintenance, financial planning, women’s health, gardening, computers and stereo equipment. Some of these topics are done monthly and as soon as people hear what the show’s about, they don’t have to think very long before they have a question.
Who is your audience?
It isn’t just Champaign-Urbana or the UI, and it’s very diverse. Our coverage area is very large: It goes as far north as Chicago, down into southern Illinois and a big chunk of western Indiana. I think it’s people who are sincerely curious and trying very hard to understand the world and what happens every day.
How much time do you spend preparing for interviews?
Every day I spend two hours on the air, but I spend a lot more time preparing for the show. It depends on the topic, but I’d guess I probably spend three to four hours preparing for every hour that I’m on the air, reading, doing research. Every show doesn’t take that much time, but a lot of shows do.
You interview a lot of authors. What do you do when a person isn’t real talkative on the air?
There are people who are great writers who find it easier to write than to talk about what they do. There are those people you have to work with more, give them more questions, encourage them, even pull the stuff out of them. We try to create a relaxed, conversational atmosphere. I think that guests respond when they know that the interviewer has spent time preparing and has some background on the topic. Over and over again, authors have said to me they’re stunned that I’ve even looked at their books. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there interviewing these authors, and they’ve never even opened their books. I don’t know how they do it.
What is the best part of your job?
Getting to learn new things. It has great variety. I get a chance to meet interesting folks and all those things that they tell you are the virtues of being in journalism. I have a lot of freedom to choose topics I want to do, provided it’s something that’s going to be interesting to other people.
What are the challenges of doing a live call-in show?
It’s a little unpredictable. Guests can tense up when we go on the air. And when I put a caller on the air, all I know is where they’re calling from. I don’t know what they’re going to say. By and large, the callers are very thoughtful and constructive and add something to the program. There are some that are a little bit wacky, but it wouldn’t be a real call-in show without them.
How long have you and your producer, Jack Brighton, been working together and what is Jack’s role?
We’ve been working together 13 1/2 years. I also have another part-time producer, Harriet Williamson, who also works with Celeste Quinn on the afternoon show. The producers are really important in terms of developing ideas, making contacts, getting background materials for the hosts, setting up shows and getting all the logistical stuff worked out getting the guests on the air.
Your spouse, Celeste Quinn, is also a call-in show host. What are the advantages and pitfalls of having a spouse who does the same job? Are you ever competing for the same guests?
We spend too much time at home talking about work, and somebody has to say, ‘That’s it – no more talking about work tonight.’ We spend a lot of our home life preparing for the next day’s programs. We bounce ideas off each other, asking ‘How should I approach this? What should I ask?’ It can be very helpful. But, no, we don’t fight over guests, although sometimes we’ll suggest guests or topics.
What’s the most important skill for a talk-show host?
Careful listening. Preparation, certainly, and going into an interview knowing what you want to accomplish, but then you also have to listen very carefully to the person you’re talking with. And you always have to adjust where you’re going depending upon what you’re getting back.
There’s a story I like to tell. Celeste and I like to go into this little restaurant in Urbana, and we became friends with the waitress. And she was surprised when she found out we were talk-show hosts. She said, 'But, you’re so quiet!'