How To Know If a Call Should Be On

The short answer is that if a caller improves a segment, put it on the air. If not, don't. Done. But it's not that simple in the real world.

Listener contributions can improve radio shows, but weak callers bring a show to a grinding halt. Listeners don’t call as often as they once did, and some personalities are so excited to get a caller that they try to figure out a way to put them on, even if the story adds little to the show. Others think callers eat into talk time and regard the callers scornfully. But at the end of the day, the criteria should be simple: Someone has to decide if a call should be on the radio.

The short answer is that if a caller improves a segment, put it on the air. If not, don’t. Done. But it’s not that simple in the real world.

Callers can add to a conversation, provide a counter-point to an opinion, say things a cast member can’t (or shouldn’t), and advance a topic when appropriately used. Notice the last phrase: when appropriately used.

Callers should be scrutinized, screened, managed, edited, and programmed so the host(s) sound better. That demands discipline, creativity, and good judgment.

Go For Quality Over Quantity

Lighting up the phones should never be the goal. One or two great callers are far better than a dozen weak ones. Quantity never beats quality.

Many personalities take one (or two or three) more calls than they should or extend a topic one (or two or three) breaks beyond the entertainment value because the phone is still ringing. Call volume has nothing to do with entertainment value, and vice versa.

Repetitive Contributions

Even great callers should not be allowed on the air if their story doesn’t move the topic forward.

When calls become repetitive, the audience becomes bored. You may get different stories, but the callers’ contributions don’t move the story forward if they come from the same perspective. You don’t need five callers with varying versions of the same story.

Schedule callers in a sequence that introduces a new angle to advance the storyline. For example, imagine a topic about a toddler saying something that embarrassed them in public:

Caller 1: I’ve been there, too. My three year old can’t say “socks”. He calls it “cocks” and I don’t know what we’re going to do.

This adds to the story by sharing a common experience (things your kid can’t say that embarrasses you), but even if the next caller has a good story, it should add to the progression. This example doesn’t move it forward:

Caller 2: When my son was in preschool, he kept telling the teachers that mama always spanks daddy. He couldn’t pronounce “th”. It came out sounding like “sp”.

A compelling story has become a phone topic with callers discussing what their kid says. The second caller’s story isn’t a problem, but putting two similar calls on will cause the rest of the topic to become stuck.

The host is responsible for identifying angles in the story and exploiting them. Asking Caller #2 what they did about it would move the storyline forward.

Screen For Stories, Not Hot Takes

Your show has plenty of opinions and hot takes, or at least it should. If not, there’s a character/personality issue. Usually, a show doesn’t need more opinions to add to a topic unless the opinion challenges a hot take and introduces a new perspective.

When screening calls, look for stories that emphasize a perspective.

Callers with opinions usually lead nowhere. Listeners have no relationship with the caller and don’t care what they think, but a story representing a point of view adds color to the topic.

Callers offering advice for a situation are not nearly as interesting as callers telling a personal story that speaks to the problem because it opens the conversation and adds value.

For example, here’s a caller that offers opinionated advice:

Caller #1: That woman needs to tell her daughter that she has to be home by 11 because those are the rules in the house.

Here’s a similar point of view with a story:

Caller #2: Hey guys, don’t do what I did. I laid down the law to my 15 year-old daughter and told her she had a 10 pm curfew. She was home every night at 10, and a few months later, we realized she was back out the door at 10:15. She snuck out and was good at it.


Scrutinize each caller and evaluate whether it fits your topic and how it improves the segment. Most radio shows are better with phone calls, but great personalities don’t need callers to entertain the audience. When a caller introduces a new “branch” on the “topic tree,” the story moves forward and enhances the show.

But plan each segment as if there will be no valuable calls to protect against airing weak contributions because you “hoped” there would be good calls.

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Tracy Johnson is a talent coach and programming consultant. He’s the President/CEO of Tracy Johnson Media Group. His book Morning Radio has been described as The Bible of Personality Radio and has been used by personalities worldwide.

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