The death of Michael Parkinson, the journalist and broadcaster who interviewed more than 2,000 people on TV talkshows, has unleashed a wave of nostalgia for 1970s celebrity interviews. Predictably, many observers caught up in the moment are happy to gush that Parky was the best celebrity interviewer of the television age. He wasn’t – but he did perfect a style of interview that’s far more important than many realise.

The key aspect of the long-form interview – and the one that makes it so important socially – is not the length, nor the ego of the presenter (which must always be restrained), but the ability to follow the answers. In many of today’s interviews on news and current affairs programmes, an interviewer will be lucky to get five minutes with a celebrity or politician, maximum 10. That means questions have to be carefully calibrated and answers truncated – listening to the answers and going off at an unplanned tangent just aren’t possible. It means politicians and celebrity agents can control the flow of public information.

Parkinson did have the ability to follow the answers. If a guest said something he wasn’t expecting, he could develop the theme, regardless what the next planned topic of conversation on his clipboard was. He was also lucky, in the sense that his main tenure on BBC Television (1971-82) came at a time when celebrity agents were happy to enjoy their clients’ exposure and banned far fewer questions. When the BBC revived Parkinson in the late 1990s, times had changed and the format no longer worked. It was stilted and slightly disappointing.

I confess I never really liked Parkinson, though some of that was pure envy – he had exactly the job I wanted. He has rightly been praised for not wanting to become the celebs’ friend, and he did put his ego to one side. But that ego was considerable (anyone who broadcasts has to have a decent-sized ego), and he had his unattractive sides. His interviews with women show a disrespect bordering on misogyny that can only partly be excused by his Yorkshire roots and the ethos of the time, and he was dismissive of the informality of the BBC’s first breakfast TV in 1982 when he was part of ITV’s rival offering; the BBC style proved more durable.

But he was very professional. He always did his homework, so he knew not just what to ask but where to go when an answer called for spontaneity. That was his greatest attribute, and one that’s crucial to the success of the long-form interview. I’m not implying that Graham Norton doesn’t do his homework, but Norton’s chatshows are so staged that he has no use for listening to answers – his shows have been programmed so he moves on to the next question (probably with some film clip attached to it), and no-one can develop any themes.

The story goes that Parkinson was hired for his talkshow by David Attenborough, then head of BBC Television, who described him as “the best freelance interviewer at the time” (an interesting bit of unconscious arrogance by Attenborough; as if a quality broadcaster might be found outside the BBC!). But Attenborough had experienced Parkinson’s most obvious predecessor, John Freeman, whose interviews between 1959 and 1962 set a standard for asking a question and then retiring to a safe distance while the guest struggled with the answer. Freeman understood the power of asking a short question in a soft voice and responding to the answer. Freeman operated in an era when broadcasters were more deferential to politicians, but he arguably got more out of his guests than Parkinson did.

Can the long-form interview survive in an age of social media? My view is that it’s more essential now than ever, precisely because the brevity and echo-chamber nature of social media means interviews that get behind the superficiality of what appears to happen counter the malign effects of social media and force people to realise that there may be more shades of grey than the apparent black and white of social media certainty imply.

Fortunately, radio has continued supporting long-form interviews, and podcasts are giving them a new home. My envy of Parkinson has found an outlet here, as I’ve done a series of long-form interviews with tennis legends for the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s ‘Tennis Worthy’ podcast. I have an hour with each legend – I do my homework, but then put my ego to one side and encourage the guest to feel it’s their space. The result has been an initial collection of 12 interviews, all of which taught me something on a human level. The listener compliment I cherish most is the one praising “an alpha male Wimbledon champion in tears describing an out-of-body experience during the fifth set of a Grand Slam semi-final.” The compliment is that I created the environment for him to recall this and share it.

Radio is doing its best to keep up long-form interviews, and they have the advantage of being very low-cost in production terms. The vehicle most cited is Desert Island Discs, a BBC Radio programme that is now 80 years old, but listen for the edits and you realise it’s too staccato to qualify as a long-form interview. The closest on British radio is Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking, the veteran political journalist’s attempt to get information out of politicians so we understand better what makes them tick, rather than trying to catch them out in a set-piece prime-time grilling. It deserves to succeed, simply because it tells us more about our rulers than the decisions they make.

I still cannot hear the end of Match of the Day on a Saturday night without my subconscious expecting the jazz theme tune to Parkinson to follow. Parkinson was a staple of my childhood and Parky’s death is rightly acknowledged. But in an era when the nuances that make governing difficult are glossed over for the clear-cut certainties that make us feel better, the importance of the long-form interview should be at the centre of Michael Parkinson’s obituaries.