One columnist will never do it by the book


People sometimes see me on the street, tug at my sleeve, and say: "Hey, Roger, where do you get your column ideas?"

To which I usually reply: "Get your hands off me before I call a cop." Or, "Who said you could call me Roger?"

But if I happen to be in a better mood, I will take the time to answer seriously:

I get my column ideas from a lot of different places. From what I hear and see and think and feel. From what people write and call and tell me. From colleagues. From all over.

Now, however, I can dispense with all that. In fact, I will never have to think about what I am going to write about ever again.

That is because I now am on the mailing list of a publication called "Feature Ideas -- Sources & Ideas for Columnists & Feature Editors."

This booklet comes out monthly, is about 60 to 80 pages long, and is, indeed, filled with ideas. Sort of.

By "sort of," I mean it is filled with people selling something. Themselves. A new book. A self-improvement process. Something.

The business of America is still business. Years ago, I wrote a column on the Phil Donahue-ing of America. It seemed to me that a whole subculture had sprung up whose sole purpose was to go on TV and talk about themselves.

Today, this subculture has grown because of the talk radio-ing of America. A TV talk show can handle only a few hundred people a year. But as AM radio stations across the shift into "all-talk" formats, thousands and thousands of people now have to be found to fill up all those empty hours.

And the different media cross-pollinate. A person who has been on 20 radio shows calls his local paper and says, "Hey, you should write about me. I've been on 20 radio shows!"

Or, if one of these people gets written up in a newspaper, he can make a zillion photocopies of the article and send them to radio stations across the country.

Almost all of the people listed in "Feature Ideas" have written books, though not always with publishers whose names you'd recognize. But today, when publishers consider whether to bring out a book, one of the first questions they ask themselves is: Can we get the author on the talk shows?

So publicity drives the process. And "Feature Ideas" is devoted to publicity, to telling columnists and feature writers just what they need to know.

And, as a little bonus, the booklet sometimes provides "Sample Questions" just in case the columnist forgets how to ask questions himself.

Some examples:

* "Interview the Man Who Lost His Hand and Regained It! -- Twenty-eight-year-old Earl Harrell was an ordinary foundry worker until the day his supervisor told him to operate a drill press he'd never used before. Minutes later a gruesome accident tore Earl's entire hand and forearm from his body.

"Earl Harrell has been profiled in the Milwaukee Journal and has been interviewed on Milwaukee radio and television.

"Sample Questions: How much use of your hand have you regained? What have you learned about yourself as a result of your accident?"

* "Why Sitting Properly Is One of the Hardest Things You Can Do -- Everyday activities such as sitting in a chair, talking on the phone, carrying a purse or briefcase and sleeping can put tremendous strain on your body if you do not do them correctly. Judy Leibowitz and Bill Connington, co-authors . . . will tell you what your mother has been telling you for years -- good posture is important!

"Sample Questions: Is the technique difficult to learn? How does it help with aches and pains? How can it make you look slimmer?"

* "Tabloid Predictions: Why Do Their Psychics Get It All Wrong? -- Every year the tabloids reveal their predictions for the new year. And every year they are wildly incorrect. Find out what is really going to happen in 1991 from former commodities broker turned psychic astrologer Terrie Brill. Just some of Terrie's future predictions:

-- Liz Taylor will suffer from a recurring illness in 1991.

-- A 1991 revolution in China overthrows the government.

-- Major earthquake in Los Angeles in February.

"Sample Questions: How do you manage to make accurate predic

tions? How does being a psychic affect your life? Was it difficult to learn to control your powers?"

* "Interview America's Funniest Cop -- Law enforcement is an exciting and sometimes dangerous profession. But as Don Parker will tell your audience, it isn't dangerous all the time. He'll entertain them with true stories, like the time during a drug raid when he tried to kick in a door but got his foot stuck! Or how Don helped a car thief change a tire -- then watched him drive off! Don Parker was a cop for 18 years and he says, 'Everything that can happen to cop has happened to me -- twice.' "

If you'd like to know more about any of these truly fascinating people, just let me know and I'll call them up and write a column about them.

Or, better yet, maybe I'll just give you their numbers. And you can call yourself.

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