How talk radio listens to its audience, provides lessons for online publishers

Colin McEnroe of WNPR. Photo by Chion Wolf

Audience participation hasn’t been an easy undertaking for online news publishers. Thanks to the unruly culture of online commenting and the “sadistic” actions of Internet trolls, every few weeks another news site announces modifications to its online commenting policy. Among the changes seen lately:

What’s clear is that no online news site has found the perfect formula for meaningful audience participation. As a digital journalism professor studying trends in online commenting, I wondered: Can online publishers learn any lessons from talk radio?

Comments from listeners are “part of the fabric of the brand” of talk radio, said Michael Harrison, editor-in-chief of TALKERS, a trade magazine for the radio industry. Callers serve as an integral piece of the medium’s editorial and business strategy, he said.

“We try to make all of our shows conversational,” said Chris Kinard, program director of WJFK-FM 106.7 The Fan in Washington, D.C. “A show with all talking heads can get boring. Callers help diversify perspectives and keep a show fresh.”

Callers, like online commenters, can be unpredictable. They can also be unexpectedly entertaining and insightful, Kinard said.

However, audience participation on the airwaves isn’t like the commenting free-for-all often found online. There is methodology behind it.

Living, breathing producers – not computer algorithms – screen callers before putting them on the air. That screening process is radio’s form of comment “moderation,” and it’s been effective in helping radio hosts maintain control over the quality of a show.

Also, professional radio producers say they act with the explicit goal of “adding value” – either editorial or entertainment value – when deciding to incorporate contributions from the public. If, through the screening process, producers determine a caller will not meet that “value-add” criteria, then the caller’s comments will not become part of the show.

“We use callers as a tool to move the show forward,” said Karen Shiffman, executive producer of NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook.”

Since “On Point” is a nationwide public radio call-in show, Shiffman said her team aims to feature callers from various regions of the county and callers who can offer additional perspectives.

By design, not everybody gets to participate.

All the talk radio professionals I interviewed noted that strong moderation seems to be what’s missing from the audience participation that takes place on most online news stories.

“I think a variety of voices add to a show,” said Dave Roberts, vice president of ESPN Audio Network Content, “but you can’t do a good show based on just open phone lines.”

Roberts said ESPN’s talk radio shows, such as those hosted by Colin Cowherd or Mel Kiper Jr., feature a blend of guests, interviews, commentary from the host, and observations from the public. Those audience contributions can take the shape of phone calls, and increasingly, social media posts from Twitter and Facebook.

Roberts said more ESPN radio shows are utilizing social media for audience participation over live phone calls, because that’s how many audience members prefer to communicate. Producers like social media-delivered contributions, too. There is less risk than a live caller. A listener’s Tweet or Facebook post can be fully screened ahead of time. Only the best observations are picked to be read on the air. And because audience comments are being hosted on other platforms, there is little liability for ESPN.

ESPN Radio provides more than 8,500 hours of talk and event content annually, reaching more than 23 million listeners a week.  “We want to incorporate the comments and opinions of listeners,” Roberts said, “but we decide what to include.”

“We don’t want [ESPN Radio] to become a vehicle for personal attacks. What is aired should not be needlessly offensive,” he added, “not when there are editorial steps we can take to be smart and entertaining and a good outlet for sports debate.”

How talk radio decides who gets on air

From a technical standpoint, if a caller’s connection is poor, if he or she can’t be heard or understood, that caller isn’t getting on the air.

WHYY, Philadelphia’s public radio station, indicates in its caller criteria for the show “Radio Times” that callers are not entitled to be part of the story:

“Your role, simply put, is as a contributor. And our role, as the program’s producers, is to choose which callers have the most to contribute to the quality of our show – in much the same way we decide which guests you, as a listener, will want to hear…

“The best callers are people who have a single point to make; the worst callers are those who take too long to get to their point or are off-topic. We want the callers to help move the conversation forward, not take us backward or on a tangent. Your comment should be of interest to the general audience.”

Different talk show hosts may set their own standards for which callers get airtime.

“Some hosts roll with any crazy person that comes through on the phone,“ said Kinard of WJFK-FM. “Then there are those who want the call screeners to be strict in terms of the person being on topic and having well-thought out opinions.”

Shiffman said callers to NPR’s “On Point” are not only competing against the show’s one-hour time limit, they are also competing against the show’s guests and other callers to bring something original to the discussion.

For commercial radio shows dependent on advertising, producers may only pick callers who fit the demographic of the show’s target audience.

Talk radio shows don’t particularly like chronic callers, either. A variety of voices and opinions is better.

John Dankosky, news director of WNPR in Hartford. Photo by Chion Wolf / WNPR

Listeners who call into a show are “content providers,” said John Dankosky, news director of WNPR-FM in Hartford, Conn., and fill-in host for the New York City-based public radio call-in show “Science Friday.”  “I’m utilizing calls as texture for the show.”

Dankosky said his job is to curate the most compelling content for inclusion.

“What I let on my air is my responsibility. In my mind, I’m responsible for the comments because I chose to make production decisions within a program to make that content happen,” he said.

Just as talk radio shows differ in taste and tone based upon the personality of the host, online news sites can tailor their particular flavor of audience participation to reflect their character. Gawker, for example, uses the unpredictable nature of its anonymous commenting system as part of its snarky appeal. Meanwhile, The New York Times slow-moderates its online comments for relevance and civility.

How talk radio deals with trolls

Live radio has an advantage over the Web when dealing with a troublesome audience participant.

“Radio is reacted to in real time,” said Colin McEnroe, host of “The Colin McEnroe Show” on WNPR-FM in Hartford.

If a “comment troll” gets past a screener, a talk radio host can immediately deal with the problem caller and minimize damage to the show’s reputation.

“In the course of a discussion, we can take a negative comment from a caller and turn it into something better – turn it into a bit,” said Kristin Decker, an executive producer at WGN Radio in Chicago. “The comments are not just sitting there, fusing negativity indefinitely like in online publishing.”

McEnroe agreed. “That instantaneous presence – how you react in the moment  – is really important. On radio, that’s the opportunity we have to say to the caller, ‘That’s horrible, or you are an idiot.’ The basic values of the host, the institution and society are all affirmed in that moment.”

“I don’t know how, short of having a real-time moderator, online can recreate that,” McEnroe said.

Most small and medium-sized online news sites can’t afford to employ an army of full-time moderators. As an alternative, some sites encourage their reporters and columnists to act like talk radio hosts and moderate the comments on their own posts. But timely moderation can become a chore if a story goes viral, and busy journalists have other priorities – like producing more news stories.

McEnroe, who also writes a weekly column for The Hartford Courant, knows what it’s like to have online trolls dropping bombs in the comments section of his posts. He’s jumped on his comment threads and tried moderating, but admits it’s not the same as live radio.

Online comments linger, and the ugly ones fester.

McEnroe said he worries about the average sane commenter on a news site “who didn’t do anything wrong, but who gets bullied out of a conversation.”  “How do we take care of that person, so they are free to participate without being called [names], or threatened?”

Cries of censorship?

I was curious to find out if talk radio ever gets accused of “repressing free speech” because a caller didn’t get on the air or was cut off. This is a complaint often heard by digital news publishers who choose to moderate comments amid strong online resistance to censorship.

The talk radio pros I spoke with said it is not an accusation heard very often.

“Bottom line: there may be a lot of callers trying to get through and people know we only have a certain amount of time,” said Kinard of WJFK-FM.

Kinard said if a caller doesn’t get on his airwaves, he or she is welcome to share comments online, via email or text or social media, or record and submit 10 seconds of verbal commentary on CBS Radio’s audio roadshow mobile app.

Lesson: Be more strategic and selective

Does every online news story require unfettered, unlimited public discussion? Harrison of TALKERS magazine doesn’t think so. He said he’d like to see more digital news publishers acting strategically with audience contributions.

If user comments on a particular story are going to drive page views and increase the number of people or advertisers coming to a site regularly, then that’s a good reason to include them, Harrison said. But if open commenting devolves into “heckling that besmirches the hard work of the professional journalist,” and discourages audience members from reading, listening or participating, then the comments should be excluded, he said.

In the talk radio business, the callers are not more important than the listeners.

Audience participation should be used to achieve a specific goal, Harrison said, not as a form of interactivity that “panders to the trend of interactivity.”

Todd Manley, WGN Chicago’s vice president of content and programming, offered this parting lesson.

“If the comments take away from the product, or cause audience members to second guess the credibility [of the host or the station], then that’s not good for business,” Manley said. “It’s guilt by association.”

Marie K. Shanahan is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut who tracks trends in online news commenting as part of her research. She spent 12 years as an online editor at The Hartford Courant, where anonymous online comments caused her many headaches.

Related training: Managing Comments on Your Web Site

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