The staff of the call-in programs produced by NPR and our Member Stations share one common sentiment: It is the callers that are the magic of the show.
While a great host and an experienced, talented staff certainly enable a program to succeed, "it's the callers that elevate a good show to a great show," says Keith Shields, executive producer of The Exchange, a daily call-in show covering news and public affairs from NPR Member Station New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR).
Screening calls for public radio programs like The Exchange is both challenging and an important part of producing a cohesive show, in terms of content and cadence, and can result in the most compelling stories when done well. NPR Talk of the Nation Executive Producer Sue Goodwin describes the call screener's role as "creative nonfiction," the art of working with an audience member to move the on-air dialogue forward.
The Call Screener Formula
For public radio call-in programs like NPR's Talk of The Nation with Neal Conan, WBUR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook and NHPR's The Exchange with Laura Knoy there is somewhat of a formula to producing a great show. Each step adds up to create great radio. Here's the recipe for the secret sauce:
Choose a Topic with Local or Individual Impact: These programs each cover the broad spectrum of news and cultural content from gun control debates in Washington and around the country, to live, in-studio musical performances. But even the biggest national stories have impact on local communities or individuals.
At NHPR's The Exchange, conversations often focus on the local stories and impact of a national news piece, but also cover events and topics exclusive to the region.
For example, Shields recalls one man who phoned into the show the day after a flood hit New England. The natural disaster was making national headlines, and the man called just as he was walking into his house for the first time. Upon entering, he was greeted with a foot of water, which he was experiencing while live on the air. That story can only be told on a call-in show.
Build a Focused Framework: Goodwin says her Talk of the Nation staff is responsible for framing and focusing a show in a way that asks for callers. During the live show, if a question does not seem to generate a conversation, then the producers and the host re-frame the question in order to get the best possible responses.
When choosing callers to go on air, producers at these programs are also striving to include voices from all perspectives on an issue. Alex Kingsbury, a former producer at On Point, says they are looking for "the best geographic, gender, racial, political diversity in the callers so the host has in his disposal a lot of different directions to take the conversation."
If you think that sounds easy, remember all this happens live.
Anticipate the Conversation: At Talk of the Nation and On Point, the person who produces that day's show also screens the calls. At The Exchange, however, a volunteer or an intern is responsible for carefully pre-interviewing each caller.
"You have to find out where particular callers are going to fit into ... the show, but also anticipate where the conversation is headed," Kingsbury says. This means staying in contact with the director and the host about what's coming up next. There is a balancing act."
Have a Great Host: One common thread connecting the national and local call-in programs is how the team focuses on making each caller a priority, treating them as if they were a guest in the studio. Much of this responsibility lies on the shoulders of the host; asking the right questions and making callers feel as though they know him or her in order to tell their best story.
"Because the caller feels safe, you won't get the story they tell people, you get the real story," says Talk of the Nation's Goodwin. She says every caller is treated as if they are right there in the studio, and that space is thought of as a character. You've probably heard Talk of the Nation Host Neal Conan using the phrase "join us" when inviting listeners to call-in to create an atmosphere of a friendly conversation.
Focus on Storytelling: Conan calls Talk of the Nation "the democratization of expertise," because he and everyone on the show considers callers experts on their own lives.
They often say to callers during the screening process, "tell us what changed" or "tell us about a time you made a decision" to help us understand the bigger picture, because it's those personal stories that can make you stop and connect.
"We feel that communicating through telling stories from our lives sometimes much more effectively than opinion points and counter points," says Goodwin.
Incorporate Social Media: With more and more of our national dialogue taking place online and in social media, call-in shows are also paying close attention to comments coming in via email, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.
In addition to adding to the diversity of ways listeners can contribute, the host can always keep the discussion going between callers by adding in the digital comments, of which there is always an abundance.
Talk Amongst Yourselves: The dialogue between the host, the director and the producer is essential for all of the shows. Whether it's a national broadcast or a regional one, a typical program will have one person make it on the air for about every five callers that do not.
Talk of The Nation uses an internal chat system that allows the producer to log a caller's information - their name, where they are from, what they are going to talk about - onto a screen mirrored for the host in the studio, as well as the director in the control room.The other call-in programs have similar in-studio chat systems for the same kind of digital conversation between the producer, director and host.
How to be Picked by a Call Screener
For those of you who wish to know the inside scoop on how to get on the air with a national program or a local show, On Point's Kingsbury shares the key: "Reverse engineer our screening process."
"Anticipate where the conversation is headed and make your comment very germane to what is going on," he says. "Listener comments should be targeted and focused, but they should also be genuine to what the callers believe."
You can never be 100 percent sure what's going to happen on a live, call-in show, but Kingsbury said it well: "And that's live radio!"
Elizabeth Tizzy Brown is a former NPR Intern and current student at George Washington University.