The Art of Call Screening, Part 1

If you take callers on your show, you already know a great one can make a show; a boring or bad call can kill it. When it happens, you can almost feel the listeners tuning out. And like so much of radio, screening calls seems so easy. Just answer the phone and put the caller on the air, right? Not exactly. Screening involves a whole lot more than just picking up the phone. It means managing  people, and sometimes even coaching the callers. Great call screeners use intuition as well as skills.

radioinfo contributor Valerie Geller speaks to Dennis Clark, (pictured)producer of the Ryan Seacrest show, who suggests using the phone as you would a second or third microphone. “It doesn’t matter that it is located elsewhere, treat the phone as another guest mic.”

Whatever your format –  whenever you turn over your broadcast to a caller, that caller becomes partly responsible for maintaining your audience.

If you’ve produced, you’ve likely had the experience of putting what seemed to be a great call on the air –  then watched it bomb. Conversely, a caller who seemed like a long shot, slow-paced, slightly out of your demographic target, or a little weird, completely surprises you with unexpected humor, spontaneity, passion, or a great story that makes the show.

The art of this job is learning to screen out bad or boring callers while attracting great ones, plus coaching the average or mediocre callers to become better and more powerful on air.

Many hosts panic when they see they have very few or no callers waiting to go on the air, but part of a producer’s job is to remind that host that less than one percent of the listening audience will ever call a talk show. 

Great shows sometimes have very few or no calls. The number of blinking lights is a false indicator of how well a show is going. Unfortunately, hosts like to see a lot of calls or they get nervous.

The host’s job is to focus issues or topics in such an engaging manner that interesting people with strong opinions and something to say actually want to participate by calling in. Sometimes, the host can be so compelling calls are not even needed.

Calling In is Not A Right

Contrary to popular belief, getting to speak on a talk show is not a given right in a free and democratic society. No matter what callers think or tell you, making it to air is not “their right.” It is a privilege. Use your callers to the show’s advantage, not the other way around. A lot of hosts look at a bad caller the way a DJ would look at playing a bad song. Don’t put a bad caller on the air.

Don’t Ruin The Fun

Avoid ruining the fun for the listeners and for the host by telling them in advance what they will hear. Just give them a hint. Talk radio is a journey, a conversation, and if the host gives the story away, there is no journey. Keep the magic of radio. Work with and encourage hosts not to reveal what is happening behind the scenes. Try it this way: “Mary, tell us about your amazing dog.” Or simply, “Mary, you are on WABC.”

What Makes for a Good Caller?

Screening calls gives your show a chance to be more powerful. A successful talk show may reject as many as 50% of the calls that come in. A good caller is relevant, interesting, funny, or poignant; a character we can care about, someone fun, with a story, with an opinion or passion, that can add to the show in some way, and make it better. Remember, normal people don’t call talk shows. Mostly, it’s the weird ones, with the strange experiences and vision and stories to tell, who create those “magic moments” on air.


A Few Tips

  • If you are bored screening the caller, how interesting will your audience find him or her?
  • If you are discussing a human experience, it often works better to put on callers who have lived through that experience and have a story to tell rather than an academic or expert who is removed from the experience.
  • Avoid multi-part questions or a long, rambling preamble.
  • Before you decide to put a caller on air, make sure the point he or she wishes to get across is concise, clear, and focused.

Age vs. Life Force?

A lot of stations prefer to put callers on air who sound  like they’re in the demographic group the station is targeting, and while that makes sense, vital, passionate, interesting callers who have good questions, a sense of humor, are great storytellers, or have had personal experience of what you are talking about will always work, no matter their age.

 For callers on air, Dennis Clark shares the system he uses:

  • Name and Place. First, identify the caller and find out where they’re calling from. Think locally whenever possible—suburb, city, state, etc.
  • The Point. Because most callers are not trained broadcasters, they may be repetitive (boring), or dilute their initial points. It’s best to go with the first point they’d like to make. Second and third points are usually weaker and may dilute the caller’s initial point.
  • The Close. Closing the call is something of an audio ‘hug,’ not a ‘thank you for calling,’ but it should end in a positive or warm ‘close out.’ You can fade out the call, and then acknowledge the caller. The purpose is to let other callers know that this is a safe place to call, and that they can join our circle with confidence.”

 Put Yourself “On Hold”

Have you ever called a show? If, as a producer or screener, you have not had the experience of calling a radio or television talk show, try it. Call somebody else’s show. See how the process feels when you get screened. You will be amazed when the shoe is on the other foot. If you understand what it feels like to be put on hold, then it’s your turn and suddenly you’re on-the-air with a question for a host or guest, it adds another perspective. Seeing it from the other side will allow you to be a more effective screener.

Next week in Part 2: “The Art of Call Screening,” producers’ caller criteria, along with tips for politely rejecting the “bad, the boring or the crazy…”

About the Author of Beyond Powerful Radio – A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age

Valerie Geller, president of Geller Media International Broadcast Consultants, works to help communicators become more powerful in 30 countries, including Australia, for news, talk, information and personality. Through consulting and individual coaching for news and talk talent, Geller finds and develops personalities, leads “Creating Powerful Radio” and “Communicate Powerfully” workshops and seminars for radio and TV broadcasters, internet radio and podcasters. Geller is the recipient of the Conclave’s 2010 Rockwell Lifetime Achievement Award and is the author of four books about radio including her latest from Elsevier’s Focal Press Beyond Powerful Radio – A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age. To contact Valerie Geller for a one-on-one coaching or consulting, appointment, or for information on the “Powerful Radio” seminars and workshops, call +1 212 580-3385

Note: This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on and has been republished with permission.