For the Chairman

You should generally give all your participants at least a week to think about the subject they will discuss, and to plan the point of view they will take. Then it is best to assemble them at least an hour before the broadcast, and get them into a “warm-up” prebroadcast discussion. Some discussion programs go on the air without this, but the “warm-up” has many advantages. Because of it, the discussers are more likely to start the broadcast by plunging straight into the subject, instead of hemming and hawing for 10 minutes. Also, the “warm-up” period gives you a chance to work out with the discussers a rough design for the program—a plan of argument.

Most ad lib discussion series are nowadays planned to some extent. This doesn’t mean they’re a fake, that they’re not spontaneous. They are. It only means that the chairman may have led the speakers to make certain agreements among themselves. After arguing a while in the “warm-up” period, they have recognized that the problem of the day can be divided into several phases. They have agreed on an approximate allotment of time to each of these phases, and agreed in which order they would take them up. In this way they can avoid various flaws that can wreck a roundtable. A roundtable that has spent 30 heated minutes on a minor point, and never reached the heart of the problem, is a fizzle. A roundtable that wanders 25 minutes, and is just getting into the most important issue when time is up, is exasperating. A roundtable that reaches its major dramatic climax in 6 minutes, and spends the rest of the time petering out on side issues, is equally dismal. These failures can be avoided by planning. It is your job to guide this planning. You should yourself have thought about the subject from all sides, and come to the “warm-up” discussion with a tentative plan. If the discussers want to change this, you should lead them to adopt an alternative, joint plan. During the broadcast you should, by occasional summaries and well-chosen questions, steer the discussion from one phase to the next, so that the plan is carried out. Without spoiling the spontaneity of the broadcast, a chairman can in this way give the program the right scope and unity, and a feeling of climax.

Don’t try to settle it. A roundtable shouldn’t try to “settle” things. The chairman should ward against stating a final “conclusion.” To be sure, many people would like you to. Some people always want to know who’s right. They would like the solution to a major world problem wrapped up to take home. But though its human to want that kind of certainty, the world isn’t that way. It’s part of getting educated to learn to accept the complexity of current issues. So don’t try to settle the problem. You may, however, define the points on which all discussers seem to agree, and then those on which they disagree. By thus marking off the agreement from that of dispute, you help listeners see the problem more clearly, without giving them pat solutions.

After all, the idea is to get your listeners thinking hard, not to save them the trouble.

Here is a check list of responsibilities for the chairman. This list is based chiefly on suggestions by George V. Denny, Jr., Moderator of America’s Town Meeting of the Air:

At the beginning of the program, it’s your job to get the discussion started quickly. You can often do it best by posing a problem, or asking a provocative question. Something to rouse interest and make ideas flow.

When the discussion is underway, drop out of it as quickly as possible. Don’t dominate.

At intervals, summarize points made, being sure to summarize and not editorialize. But don’t say, “Now let’s summarize …” Say, “You men seem to agree that such-and-such is true, but you can’t get together on so-and-so. Now what about this ...” You both summarize and kick off the next phase of the discussion at the same time, without putting on the brakes and then starting all over again. Keep the conversation flowing.

When discussion lags or is blocked, lead on to a new phase. Pose a question that shifts the discussion, and provides a new springboard.

When a speaker is vague, abstract, rhetorical, ask him for an example of the point he’s making. Or if you think he’s too tied up, give the example you think he’s trying to describe, and ask if that’s what he means.

If a majority tries to squelch a minority, insist that the minority view at least be heard.

If yours is an audience participation type show, be sure you do get the audience actually to participate. Much of the value of the entire program depends on how many men get to put in their word by means of questions from the floor. Encourage your audience to be a real and active part of the program.

At the end, summarize the points made. If you like, define areas of agreement and disagreement. But don’t state your own “conclusions.”