Some exasperated listeners ask me, “What does it take to get on Talk of the Nation?” Their frustration? When they call NPR’s weekday, live national call-in program, their questions or comments are rejected. The studio producers or “screeners” tell them they are “off topic.” Callers are further upset when the screeners end the conversation in an apparently abrupt manner. And that’s when they contact me.
Some perspective is needed here.
Have Your Say
Listeners who call Talk of the Nation and its Friday version – Talk of the Nation - Science Friday, usually have something to say. That’s why they call. That’s what the program is seeking, but with some caveats.
Callers tell me they are surprised when, contrary to expectations, their first encounter is not with the hosts – Neal Conan or Ira Flatow. The person who answers the phone is a producer whose job is to determine whether the listener’s ideas fit into the program topic.
That’s not what they expect, and they want to know what the ground rules are.
So it’s worth going over the assumptions about how an NPR phone-in program works.
The Challenge of Live Radio
The first thing to remember is that Talk of the Nation is live radio. Well, almost live. There is a seven-second delay in broadcasting the program. That gap is there in the event that the listener gets on but then wants to talk about something else -- or worse -- so the studio director must be able to terminate the call. Occasionally, some callers have been known to “bait-and-switch.” They tell the screener that, yes, they do want to discuss the day’s topic. But once they are on the air, they start to opine on a pet peeve. That’s when the audio trap door springs open and the caller vanishes. But aside from that, Talk of the Nation is as live as radio can be.
When the program starts and the topic is announced, the phone lines in the studio light up instantaneously. That’s when the screeners go to work. They ask the callers what they want to say and, on the spot, they must decide whether the listener’s comments will add to the discussion. They also have to determine whether the caller will be to the point.
Sometimes, would-be participants call without a clear idea of the issues. Sometimes they want to discuss the issue with the screener. One outraged listener told me that she wanted the screener to help her frame her question. When the screener said there just wasn’t enough time to do that, the listener was disappointed and angry.
Advancing the Story
Sue Goodwin, executive producer of Talk of the Nation, says the program is looking for a number of things:
We are looking for callers that can advance the story by giving us unique stories and opinions that broaden our coverage. We let listeners know at the top of the show exactly what we are looking for and who. It will be different for each show. Callers who respond to what we ask are the most likely to get on. Most often, we ask for personal stories that can shed light on the topic we are covering…Sometimes we ask for questions that will expand the story. Often listeners have questions that we have not thought of and their questions can help make a topic more relevant to our listeners' concerns. Sometimes it's more important to get opinions. We make a great effort to balance the range of opinions we air on any topic and not repeat the same opinion.
In my experience, a program like Talk of the Nation is one of the most complex forms of radio. That’s because it must do at least two things simultaneously: It must rely on a steady flow of engaged and thoughtful listeners to keep the program moving and at the same time, allow for answers from any guests and experts who are there to inform the discussion.
Brisk but Not Rude
Because the program is live -- not recorded -- that means the producers have to keep an ear cocked at all times to make sure that the comments are taking the program where it should go. Producing this kind of radio requires good nerves and nimble instincts. Any live program is always a gamble and the people behind Talk of the Nation and Science Friday do it five days a week. Goodwin says the logistics can be demanding:
We usually have to screen up to thirty calls each hour to find the best six or seven calls that actually make it to air. We have to screen quickly and screeners may have to say goodbye to a caller before that caller is ready to hang up. In each case, the screener will explain why the call is not being chosen. The most common reasons for a call not getting chosen are if it replicates a previous caller or if it is off focus. Sometimes, bad reception on a mobile phone means we have to reject a call.
The hard fact of life for Talk of the Nation is that this is not a program where every comment gets heard. A call-in program that broadcasts the ideas of every person who calls in may be more democratic, but it also tends to be lousy radio. A solid phone-in program must be a bit Darwinian in this respect: Only those ideas that add to the discussion will survive to get on the radio.
Ira Flatow who hosts Science Friday, agrees with Sue Goodwin. His advice echoes hers:
1. Ask a question that is "on topic." Many callers' questions have nothing to do with the topic being discussed.
2. Relate a personal experience that reflects and amplifies the topic being discussed. If we're discussing something that has happened to you, we'd like to hear about your experience.
3. Bring up a point that has not been made yet but that you feel is important to discuss. We don't always think of all the angles. If you've got one that we missed, tell us about it.
4. Define your question before you call us. We know you're nervous. So try to formulate a question before you go on the air, so that you don't waffle around the point.
There are two other technical suggestions worth noting:
Don’t use a speakerphone. The sound quality is usually so poor as to be useless on the radio. And
Don’t call from a cell phone while driving. This is a good rule first articulated by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of NPR’s Car Talk. No matter how good your ideas are, they can’t be worth risking your neck and the necks of your fellow motorists.
That Goes For E-Mailers, Too
The same advice about brevity is also applicable to those who write e-mails to comment on other NPR news programs. Some listeners have complained that they have been disappointed that their letters weren’t chosen to be read on the air.
Morning Edition and All Things Considered receive hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand letters per week. Keeping comments short and to the point will likely improve your chances of getting your letter read on the program. All e-mails are read by the program’s producers. But considering the number of e-mails received every day, it’s just impossible to get them all on the radio.
So be brief, be to the point and, chances are, we’ll hear you on the radio.