Sunday, January 14, 2007

Talk Radio - Do's and Don'ts Part I

After reflecting on my last posting about Joan Price being on the receiving end of nasty talk radio, I thought I should share some of my hard found knowledge of that media.

Radio has its own rules, some of them are unwritten but you don’t want to violate them. Authors are frequently given the advice to promote themselves on radio shows, but if you don’t understand what you are getting into – it could be a disaster or just an unpleasant and unprofitable experience. Before ever trying to become a guest on talk radio, you should understand how it works by listening and by experiencing the medium by being a caller. Only when you've mastered that should you try and graduate to becoming a guest.

First off, I want to explain a little of my own experience with radio so that when I start expounding on what you should and shouldn’t do that you’ll know how I learned this knowledge.

I’ve listened to talk radio for over fifteen years. I’ve been a caller to hosts in the Los Angeles and San Francisco markets as well as cultivated a professional friendship with Pat Thurston at my local station that has lasted a decade.

I’ve been an in-studio guest at KABC-Radio in LA, KSRO in Santa Rosa and have also been an on-air guest for KFI Radio in LA and KSRO in Santa Rosa.

One of the first things you need to know about talk radio is that the host is a slave to the clock. The show is to provide an entertaining experience for the listening audience and not as a courtesy to callers. That means as a caller you may sit for close to an hour on the phone and never go on the air. Or you might get twenty seconds to speak after waiting for 50 minutes. You might get hung up on, shouted at, or have your sound turned off.

It all depends on what the host thinks makes good radio. Don’t take it personally.

Talk radio is not like the deli line where first come – first served. Nope. You can be waiting forever online and someone calls in with a snazzy comeback to what the host just said, they can be bumped to being the next caller on-air.

So here are the Do’s and Don’ts.

Do: Be prepared to wait.

You will be waiting for someone to answer the phone, you’ll be waiting to get on the air. You’ll be waiting a lot. If the phone rings and rings and rings, know that you got through. There are a limited number of lines to the radio station and you might not get another chance to get on air because if you try back again you might get busy signals.

Hang on until someone answers the phone.

Don’t: ever express annoyance to the producer for anything. Not the seventy rings before they picked up – because they might be juggling five lines at once. They handle one caller at a time. If you don’t have the patience to manage the waiting for the phone to be picked up hurdle, you’ll never be fit to be an on-air caller.

Do: Shut off your radio as soon as the producer answers the phone. You can hear the show on the phone while you are on hold.

Don’t: have the radio going on in the background. There’s generally a ten second time delay so that they can bleep out any FCC fine inducing comments before they make it on air. If the host hears the radio playing when through your phone, you’ll annoy the snot out of them. They’ll have to tell you to turn off your radio and when you get back, they’ll know that you’re a newbie who doesn’t know how radio works. They’ll treat you like dirt and toy with you, if they are of such a mind.

Do: Think of something pithy to say to add to the conversation. It must be summarized in a few words because it will be typed onto a computer screen by the producer. For example:

John from Kokomo “Adores sliced bread.”

Marty from Chicago “Crusty sourdough is better than sex!”

The producer might not think that your comment is entertaining enough to get on the air, and even if they do put you on hold for the host - if your comment line doesn’t sound intriguing enough, you might never get on air.

Don’t: try to have a meaningful conversation with the producer. They’ve got a lot of things they have to do. Be succinct. They want to put callers on hold as quickly as possible so they can get back to paying attention to what is being said on-air.

Do: Have a clock nearby and watch it zealously throughout the time you are on the phone. Knowing when the show breaks for the news and commercials will help you guage how much time you will have when you get on the air to make your point.

Don’t: use your speaker phone. Hosts hate that with a passion. Also do not leave your phone, if you need to use the bathroom make it quick and do it during one of the long breaks like the newsbreak at the bottom of the hour.

Do: Pay attention to what is being said. Listen for a hissing noise before the host says your name and announces you are on the air.

Don’t: say “am I on the air?” Most times you will only talk to the producer once, then the next voice you hear is the host. Be prepared to go on the air at any time.

Do: listen attentively because sometimes the producer will come back to tell you that “you’ll be up next” or something to that effect. If you are daydreaming and don’t respond, the producer might hang up on you. That’s preferable to the host saying, “John from Kokomo you’re on the air…..John are you there?...Hello, John!…Marty from Chicago, hello!”

Don’t: Waste any time with niceties. Do not thank the host for taking your call. It’s a waste of airtime. Taking calls from listeners is what the talk radio format is about. Thanking the host obligates them to respond and wastes more time. Similarly don’t ask the host how they are. Tom Leykis hates it so much when callers ask “how are you?” he has responded, “Do you care?”
Do: Springload your argument. Start off with a bang. What was it that made you want to call and respond to the topic? Was it to set the host straight in regards to a faulty assumption? Or was it to give your feedback on their opinion? Whatever it was, start with that first. That might be the only thing you get to say on air. Hosts will many times hang up on a caller and then respond on air to what was said. A lot of times it sounds as if the caller might still be there, but they aren’t. That way, the host doesn’t have to worry about annoying “uh huhs” on the other end of the line that would detract from the listeners enjoying the show.

Don’t: Ramble. Don’t start talking about something else other than what you stated to the producer and then say, “but what I called in to say was…”

Do: Use logic when you are making an argument. If try to state something as a fact, be sure you can back it up. Broad brush opinion strokes will work if you are on a show that preaches to the choir and you are agreeing with the host. Otherwise, if you call a host with integrity and not just a polemicist, you need to be able to cite your information and have it be from a credible source.

Don’t: Read from a study. It sounds boring and it irritates the host. If they ask you “are you reading?” stop immediately because it is bad radio. It’s better to say something like “Kathleen Hall Jamison from the Annenberg School of Communication did a study on college students and the effects of pornography and it was found that…”

Do: Follow up with a host if you make such a claim. Use email, fax or snail mail. Show them the study you cited, links to it, etc. Prove your own worth and reliability as a caller. I had made a claim on-air to “The Joel Roberts Show” on KABC Radio regarding the political topic of violence against women and followed that up with a letter to the talk show host a few days later. Included was not only the Senate Judiciary Report that I cited, but an op-ed I had written that was published in the Los Angeles Times. Joel was so impressed that he called me and asking me to be a guest on his show a week later.

Don’t: Call a host you are unfamiliar with. Listen to the show for at least a day or two before you call. If you call after becoming enraged by a host’s commentary and do not know anything about them you are setting yourself up for being embarrassed on-air. I used to listen to Tom Leykis when he was the afternoon drive host on KFI radio and his show was about politics and current events. (Not like his current style which is sleaze.) It was amazing to hear callers try to take Tom to task and not know how to make their points in a logical fashion. He eviscerated callers by using their own logic against them, and it often made for cruel sounding radio. I likened it to watching someone walking into a buzz saw.

I called Tom on-air back when he was in LA and some of the times I disagreed with him. However, I knew exactly how to put forth my points in a manner that was respectful and logical and I emerged unscathed.

Do: Understand that if you contradict what the host says that you need to control the argument as long as possible up-front. That means that you have to have your argument prepared and say as much without breathing. As soon as you take a pause, they might just cut you off. Unless you are shouting profanities in the phone, they generally won’t cut off a caller mid-sentence. So if you have a point that is hostile to the host you must try to filibuster your thought as much as possible before you have to breathe, because once you do you are letting them have the floor back.

There might not be a give-and-take. Be prepared for that strong possibility.

Don’t: filibuster once you’ve made your initial argument. The host may ask you questions about your logic or facts. Listen to what they are asking you and answer them. I hate it when callers try to avoid answering the host’s questions and there becomes a shouting match. It’s bad radio and you look like a fool.

Once you are off the air, the host can make fun of you with future callers for the rest of the hour. Or you might appear on commercials for the host as a promotion, making your embarrassment be something that people will hear over and over.

Do: Realize that most talk radio shows change topics every hour. If the host never got you on the air and the news at the top of the hour starts, hang up the phone and go about your life. You wasted time with a phone to your ear, but there are worse ways to spend an hour. Next time resolve to come up with a better and more engaging topic phrase for the producer to get you on-air.

Don’t: squander any time if you are the last caller of the hour. If the host says, “you’ve got twenty seconds” then use it wisely. The news will cut in and you’ll be off the air in twenty seconds. Make your point and make it well. You will have the last word on that subject.

That’s enough for now. I’ll revisit this topic again and talk about what it was like to be a guest on a show and how I’ve successfully and unsuccessfully pitched show topics.

If you think I've forgotten anything or have questions about talk radio, please be sure to leave a comment.



Holly Kennedy said...

Wow. I'm amazed. I had no idea how much was involved! Amazing stuff. Thanks for the post. All the best in '07 from a Canadian author!

ORION said...

I could not stop reading this!
I saw you on Holly's blog.
So what advice do you have for authors on the air?

L.C.McCabe said...


That will be my part II. I had to stop where I did because the post was threatening to become massively long.

I'll do another post about being a guest and also how to pitch your ideas for a show to producers. I'll tell what has worked for me in the past. It's a different nut entirely than being a caller to a show.

Doing good radio like public speaking is a skill. Not everyone feels comfortable in front of an audience, but there are ways to overcome your fears and improve. Hopefully my insights will help others such as yourself.