The secret of how talk show callers get on the air

Even without looking, I can tell that the nation’s radio station producers were rolling their eyes while listening to a complaint from a caller on today’s Talk of the Nation.

During its program on nutrition guidelines, a caller complained that NPR’s “call screeners” (we call them “producers,” actually) were letting mostly women callers through for a show on diet, but during an earlier segment, “the male screener only allowed one female caller in during a foreign policy discussion.” (Scroll to 24:15 below. Or you can just take my word for it.)

The Talk of the Nation host skillfully, and with tongue held, manipulated the caller back on topic.

How does it work really? As far as I know in 35 years of working in radio, the gender of the caller isn’t even a factor in determining whether a caller should be allowed to ask a good question on air.

Radio, at least Public Radio, isn’t like the open lines on C-SPAN where they take one caller from the “Democrat line” and one caller from the “Republican line” and everyone gets on in the order they call no matter how stupid or pointless the comment.

Calling a public radio station program isn’t the zipper merge.

A producer’s allegiance is to the listener and the discussion. Each call and each question or comment has to fit the conversation at the moment it’s taking place.The best way to find yourself on the air with a comment or a question, is to focus on something that hasn’t already been said.

“I want them to be concise and thoughtful,” MPR Midmorning producer Chris Dall says. “I want them to be passionate yet restrained. I want them to be listening to the conversation that’s going on. I want them to have a question or comment that moves the discussion forward. I want them to understand that no matter how good they think their question or point is, they just might not get on the air.”

As for gender, radio hosts know when the callers are mostly men or mostly women, but there’s not a lot they can do about it. Any radio producer is at the mercy of who’s calling. Maybe more women are calling on a topic than men. Should the producer put a male caller with an irrelevant comment on instead of a female caller with a good point?

The producers have a tough job, preventing irrelevant conversation — a complaint about a producer during a show on nutrition, for example — getting to your ears. Sometimes for every good question you hear on a public radio talk show, there’s probably at least three others telling a producer what a jerk he/she is.

Very few of the many I’ve known over the years actually are.

  • I used to be a phone screener in the 90’s here in Minneapolis – by and large coherence, an ability to get to the point, and something new to say was the most important point – even at a talk station that tilted to the right politically, there was no indication of how to select guests other than by content

    in fact, I remember hearing the PD say he liked complaints of people who couldn’t get on air – it meant we were being selective but depending on the days and the host, we’d throw on the pizza man if no one was in queue

  • Mark Myers

    I’ve often found myself wondering how some of the questions get through on TotN, but I guess not everyone will be honest about what they are going to say to the producer.

    Also, keep mentioning that zipper merge! You’re doing us all an amazing public service.

  • Mary L

    When I was at public radio, I was taking my dad around for a tour and I introduced him to one of the current news hosts. Later he said to me “she must be very smart”…and I gently corrected him, “she has smart producers.”

  • ed of golden valley

    I actually heard the caller on ToTN today and I for one didn’t think her gender question, or complaint was that out of line. I really didn’t know how producers manage callers, I know there is some short of screen, but now I know. Thanks for the explaination.

    Can I assume Rush Limbaugh’s “producers” handle callers the same way?

  • @ ed of golden valley – yes. Rush’s call screeners work the same way.