Producers' love/hate relationship with callers is the old can't-live-with-'em-or-without 'em paradox.
Former Seattle producer Luke Burbank, a reporter for NPR's Day to Day, (KUOW m-f, 12-1p) describes it thus: "A good call can launch an entire hour of good radio. A bad call can really tip the train off the tracks."
On the other hand, a producer told us, listeners are often "encouraged by hosts to think they're brilliant, and truly own the show." (they are, after all, members of the exclusive club of people with intelligence advanced enough to snap on the radio at the apponted hour) Some will call 11 times everyday, with suggestions or pronouncements for the staff,who are their employees, and demands to go on the air.
Call screening for their own shows is done by most of the producers we talked to. KIRO producer Tina Nole, (Dave Ross (m-f, 9-noon) and Ron Reagan (9m-f, 12-1) puts the callers in order and mixes the calls into what she hopes is a good conversational stew, if not a soufflé.
"Strategically placing callers is a real art," she says. "I put them in a certain order, but if an important question is raised by a caller and another has the answer, or if Dave takes the topic in a new direction or something, I'll change the order."
TomF, a BlatherWatch commenter who's screened for national and local shows says the producer's job is to build "an organic information product in real time that will appeal to the show's core audience."
That may mean, he writes, keeping a good caller on hold until they fit into the flow of the show. thie caller may have "a funny or sweet 'kicker' question to end an hour with. And sometimes, he says, "the opportunity to air a waiting call doesn't arise at all, so the board is dumped at 59:30. Sorry about that. It's no conspiracy, though; it's producing.
"Think of the calls as spices around the stockpot. You'll use some heavily, some lightly, and decide against others."
The criterion for callers depends on their purpose, said KTTH host/producer Dave Boze (Sytman & Boze,m-f, 5-9a), "On some topics, you’re just looking to put another voice on the air for a change-up. For others, you’re seeking, only the most articulate and creative voices in the audience."
"We really try to put on callers that disagree with Michael," says Jeremy Steiner, Michael Medved Show (KTTH m-f,12-1p) producer, "it's much more interesting to engage and debate issues with people than to hear the amen chorus."
But callers brave enough and good enough to come on the radio and debate, are not plentiful.
"I love callers who have a story. Or are quirky," says Luke Burbank, "The worst caller is someone who just flatly agrees with the host. The problem is, those are most of the people who call. And hosts love to hear people agree with them. But it’s terrible radio."
National shows like Medved's have more staff than the local shows and such high call volume, they can be choosier. The show has an associate producer who does most of the screening for Steiner.
"If [callers are] not interesting, we dump them and keep fishing for the good ones," says Steiner. " If we're not getting the type of calls we'd like, we restate the question on the air to attract the type of calls we want."
"The criteria are: passion, clarity (in voice and thought), originality, and will the caller forward the topic?" said Travis Box, a veteran producer, now a manager at Fisher.
The most important thing about callers is their ability to speak quickly, clearly, and well. "I get people to articulate what they are going to say," says Nole, "and more clear about what their point is."
"You may have a great point to make,"said TomF. "But if you're long-winded, heavily accented or otherwise hard to understand, contentious to the point of being tiresome, likely to freeze in fear, or simply say "uhhhh" too often, you won't get on."
Sometimes listeners are passionate when they call, but will lose it on hold. They need a "fluffer" to get them riled up again. Producers fluff them up. Boze says, "There's always a danger they'll unload their passion on the call screener—that’s why I never want to hear their whole comment prior to the air."
"I never liked winding people up off-air," says Burbank, "but I did always tell them to be as energetic as possible. And to not ask the host how they are doing. That happens on like 99% of all calls into a radio show."
Burbank always tried, when he produced, to get listeners to find the personal angle. "The guy who calls because he disagrees with affirmative actions is boring. That same guy, who hates affirmative action because it cost his brother a spot on the diving team, which led him to become an alcoholic male prostitute. Now that’s interesting."
He'd always ask people why they had the opinions they had.
Not everyone likes answering the phones. Boze: "Call screening is frequently like Chinese Water Torture. You hear the same mistakes, jokes, insults, comments over and over again. It’s fun at first, but it really wears on you. After a couple of years, it becomes excruciating."
And it can be a little scary, talk radio attracts the hardcore bewildered, and the chronically pissed off. Surely one of the earliest symptoms of insanity is to call in to a talk show, says a producer.
"I've been threatened twice since I've worked here," says Tina Nole. (Nole presently has a mentally ill woman threatening her that KIRO's had to call the cops about). "I'm at fault because I spend too much time with those people. I try to talk them down, try to reason with them. You finally have to say: you're creepy and you're done."
Stephanie Rose says, "Lou [Pate] and I had angry listeners meet us in the parking lot after work."
Crazy callers, boring callers, amen-ing callers- all are a hundred times better than no callers.
According to Box- sometimes it’s the day, sometimes it’s the topic, and sometimes it’s the host. "At those times you learn to adjust on the fly, adapt the way you are presenting the topic, pump up your host or, if all else fails…bail out and go to a different topic."
Hosts especially, are nervous when there's no calls. "Callers are an emotional outlet... they give you affirmation that you’re being listened to," says Dave Boze.
"No matter how long a host's been doing it, and how polished they are- they all live in fear of not having any calls," says Burbank. "That’s why they give the number out like 80 times per hour."
We've all heard insecure hosts who implore the callers, don't ever leave me! According to Burbank: "If you hear a host say, “John Jim and Rick, we’ll get to you after this break” it means they are really, really scared. They’re trying to make sure those guys don’t hang up during the commercials."
The national Ed Schultz Show (KPTK, m-f, 12-3p) is one of the few shows in America who doesn't screen calls. (notable exception: Coast to Coast with George Noory) Producer James Holm says, " When he started out, Ed used to literally pick up the phone and say, "Ed Schultz," not knowing what a person's name was or from where they were calling. Now we say what's your name, where are you calling from, turn your radio off. We're the closest thing to a reality show in talk radio."
There is a slight movement in the business toward callerless shows, but that doesn't seem to be on the horizon anytime soon.
Read The Producers, Part 1 here.
Stay tuned for The Producers, Part Four: gettin' the "gets," the celebs, and the (shudder) paycheck