Your Phones Are Dead
October 27, 2015
If you recall the 1990's business book, "Who Moved My Cheese," by Spencer Johnson, it is the story of two mice in a maze who suddenly discover that their cheese is not in the same spot every day. One mouse keeps returning to where the cheese used to be, one adapts by exploring new areas, and finds new cheese.
For every radio show in North America, similarly, their cheese has moved in a similar way: Hosts who used to count on caller response for content are finding that the phones are just not ringing anymore.
Local laws have restricted mobile phone use while driving, and in-car is where the vast majority of listening happens. Plus, younger consumers would rather text, Snapchat or instant message than talk on the phone.
So, how can you adapt and evolve? Diminished caller interaction doesn't have to mean the end of your show. It does mean the end of you "doing it the way we've always done it."
Here are some caller replacement tips that we have seen practiced effectively:
Don't call us, we'll call you.
The John Boy and Billy Big Show invites listeners to submit their contact information in a "Be On The Big Show" page on their website. You can invite listeners to participate in contests and phone topics by signing up in advance. (TV shows like Ellen, Rachel Ray and Steve Harvey have been practicing this for years.) Support this tactic with produced on-air imaging inviting listeners to "Be a participant or a contestant on the show." Remember, the hugely successful "Car Talk" show on NPR never took live calls. Listeners left voicemails throughout the week and the producer got the good ones on the phone for the hosts before the show. (Hey - there's another idea: Set up your own listener voicemail.)
You can no longer throw out ideas on the air spontaneously and expect callers to instantaneously respond. In the future, you'll have to think ahead and plan your content more in advance, as you'll see in the ideas below.
Post topics on social media
...in advance of the show and invite those who interact to call into the show. Post topics even two to three days before the show, and not only will you find interesting people for the phone, you can gauge which topics are hot or not by the interaction.
Post topics online, message boards, Craigslist, Kajiji etc.
And invite listeners to e-mail you if they have a story relating to a topic. Example: Post on "gigs" that you're looking for people who divorced and then reunited with the ex who are willing to tell their story. You can offer $5 bucks per story, but people will respond just because they want to be on the radio.
Build a list of reliable characters who can participate in the show.
When you encounter a funny, well-spoken caller, ask for their number and reach out to them again on the phone in advance of an on-air topic for their input. Some can become part of the cast of the show over time.
Build a "panel of experts."
Like a marriage counselor, police spokesperson, lawyer, psychologist, etc. who will contribute to topics on the show. Contact them about bringing stories and experiences to a topic before the show begins
Record topics and contests on-location.
Example: If you play a trivia contest, play it on the street with a random passer-by. Award the prize in-person, record and edit the interaction and air it later on the show. You can also bank several at once this way. For example, at the next summer festival you attend, take your recorder and ask the people that you encounter for their experiences relating to the coming week's topics, the same as you would have asked phone callers for input in the past.
Record and edit.
It is a convention with some shows that live listener interactions are crucial for spontaneity. While live calls might feel more energetic in the studio, our experience shows that callers are not trained performers and that most need a judicious editing to make their contribution compelling. When you have listener interaction "in the can," it gives you the opportunity to tease ahead to it more effectively, because you know in advance what they are going to say and how to pre-sell it. Besides that, the future of radio will involve more podcasting, more app-based content and more specialized online streams so you will be doing more pre-production in the years ahead anyway. Use that to your advantage and edit out the weaker moments all that you can.
The old saying is true: "Every problem is an opportunity." Adapting to and embracing this change in consumer behavior gives you new avenues for great on-air content, and it can improve your chances of producing reliable, entertaining show segments.