As host of WFAE’s popular “Charlotte Talks” show for nearly two decades, Mike Collins has done longform interviews with thousands of newsmakers, news gatherers and just-plain newsworthy folks.
And the guest he’s remembered the longest is the one who forgot him the quickest.
The story goes: In 2001, Gaffney native Andie MacDowell sat down with Collins to talk up her new movie, “Dinner With Friends,” which was getting a special premiere at the Belk Theater in uptown.
“For an hour, we looked into each other’s eyes and had this really good conversation,” he recalls. That night, he attended the premiere, accompanied by friends eager for an introduction. “So we get to the stairway at the Belk, and Andie MacDowell’s coming down and we’re going up, and they said, ‘Go ahead, introduce us!’ I walked up to her and said, ‘Andie MacDowell, I’d like to meet my friends’ – and she said, ‘And who are you?’ She did not remember me from that morning.
“And I completely get that, because I will run into guests that I’ve had on that morning in the Harris Teeter; we had this intimate conversation for an hour, but they’re out of context at the Harris Teeter, so I don’t know who they are. Anyway, my friends said, ‘Well, you sure made an impression on her.’ ”
Collins has made an impression on Charlotte, though. His career here started in 1983, when WBT hired him part-time to do an oldies all-request show out of its old studio at Carowinds (he’d commute from Columbia, S.C., where he was working at South Carolina Educational Television). Two years later, he moved across the border permanently to host WBT’s morning show.
He ascended to program director and helped the station transition from music to talk, and co-hosted WBTV’s “Top O’ the Day” show with local TV legend Barbara McKay.
In 1998 he jumped to WFAE, which had been piping in NPR talk shows out of Washington D.C. (“The Diane Rehm Show,” “Talk of the Nation”) and Philadelphia (“Fresh Air”).
Collins had pitched the idea for “Charlotte Talks” this way: “I wanted it to be the talk show of record, if there is such a thing – a place that if something’s happening in Charlotte, we’re going to talk about it, and you’re going to come away understanding it better than you would have if you didn’t listen to us.”
For the first show, he used the same approach he’d employed with great success in his previous radio jobs. He didn’t write the intro, he didn’t plan out any questions, he just got on the air and winged it. Almost immediately, he knew he’d gone about it all wrong; on public radio, he couldn’t just work his way out of a tight spot by cracking a joke or cutting to a commercial. (The show has just two short breaks.)
Today, Collins says he might spend as much as five hours preparing for a chat. But the biggest challenge isn’t the preparation; it’s keeping things interesting – for everybody involved.
“After 20 years, we have done every topic known to man many times,” he says. “We’re not a big city. It’s the same things over and over again. Growth and education are a big part of that package all the time, and I have to find in my own mind a way to make that fresh for me, or I’ll go crazy – and make it fresh for the audience, because I want them to keep coming back.”