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How Should Talk Radio Use Callers in 2023?

While I wouldn’t hire a caller-driven show in most circumstances, I wouldn’t likely hire one that rarely or never took callers.

Andy Bloom



A photo of a rotary phone

I continue catching up with people I saw again or met at the BNM Summit a few weeks ago. I also am still thinking about the sessions and information shared in Nashville. One topic that came up several times over the two days was the role of callers in today’s talk radio.

It was a question I asked Chad Benson, Erick Erickson, and Tony Katz when I moderated the “Talking with Talent” panel on the first day of the Summit, which you can buy a digital ticket to view here.

It was one of only two subjects during the session where I recalled any differences of opinion. The other was about video streaming.

In this column, I review the panelist’s views on callers. Their quotes are edited for brevity and clarity. I’ll add my opinions as a programmer, something I couldn’t do as a moderator when they differed from the panelists. I am interested in other readers’ views.

Erick Erickson is the only one of the three who takes calls regularly, although he points out that his show isn’t caller-driven, saying, “I don’t take a lot of callers, and I will go some days without taking callers at all.”

Chad Benson said he “hasn’t taken a caller in seven or eight years.”

Similarly, Tony Katz says, “In an average week, I take a total of zero calls; zero point zero.” He explains, “Twitter is my caller if I’m going to use something as a way of bouncing into something else.” Katz will use a tweet to report somebody else’s viewpoint. Katz adds that he is not anti-caller and that there are times when he has taken calls.

Benson also uses Twitter and texts in place of calls. Benson does both a national and a local show. The latter includes one caller segment. He maintains, “The reality is that it’s just easier” for listeners to text the show. “People don’t want to pick up and make a phone call. They want to send a text. That’s the way they want to respond.”

Sure, some, maybe many, listeners would rather text than call. I disagree that listeners prefer to text is a valid reason to stop taking calls. I haven’t seen research showing a majority of listeners would rather text than call talk shows.

The more relevant research is from Nielsen Audio Today 2023. The data shows that radio listening remains strongest in the car.

  • This year, 65% of total radio listening is away from home, and 68% of away-from-home listening is in the car (29% at work, 3% other).
  • 73% of all radio use during morning and afternoon drives happens in the car.
  • 74% of all AM radio listening is in the car.
  • In its Share of Ear study (Q1-23), Edison Research finds that more than 60% of all time spent with audio in vehicles goes to AM/FM radio.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average commute time in America increased by 10% between 2006 and 2019.

Since the pandemic, average commute times have fallen 4% due to a combination of more remote and hybrid work and changes in travel behavior, such as traveling at different times of the day to avoid rush hour traffic.

As Infinity Broadcasting President and CEO Mel Karmazin famously used to say, “When I see traffic, I see time spent listening.” A talk radio addendum in 2023 might be, “When I see traffic, I see talk radio listeners who can’t (or shouldn’t) text but have lots of time to call in.”

Katz explains why he doesn’t take callers. “I often discuss on-air whether I should take more callers, and the vast majority of people on social media and email is ‘No!’ If we wanted to hear from the callers, we’d have put the caller on the air and given them a show.”

I’m going to have to be a contrarian here, too. People on social media and email don’t necessarily represent the total audience. We’d likely get a totally different and equally unrepresentative result if we based our actions solely on people who call into talk radio shows.

Erickson has a two-part answer for why he takes calls: “As I’m growing nationally, a lot of local program directors love the idea that they can have (a listener) from their market call the show. It sounds more local, and there’s a connection to them.”

I relate to Erickson’s anecdote. We added an 800 number exclusively for Philadelphia listeners when we put Stern on in Philadelphia. Howard made a big deal of it when he took a caller from Philly. I think it was part of his early acceptance.

Erickson continued, “At the same time, I build great relationships, not just with the callers, but with the listeners by how you handle the callers.” True. There is a personal touch, even an intimacy created by speaking with a caller, which responding to a text or Tweet can’t achieve.

As Erickson has discovered, calls managed well in a couple of choice spots in an hour can help cement a host’s relationship with the entire audience. Angelo Cataldi, who retired from Philadelphia sports talk station 94 WIP earlier this year, used callers for this purpose, perhaps better than anybody I’ve heard.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t advocate for a caller-driven talk radio show. I largely agree with Katz. If the callers were so great, they’d have their own show, and some have—for example, the late Mike Trivisonno. I met him in 1988 at a bar in Cleveland where he was doing a trivia night. Trivisonno was a regular caller to a Cleveland sports talk show. Our meeting led to his role on the WNCX Morning Show. He eventually became a mainstay on Cleveland sports and talk radio.

Rush Limbaugh had the best explanation for the role of callers on talk shows. El Rushbo used to say, “The purpose of the caller is to make me, your humble host, look good.” Indeed.

Katz offered some opinions about how to treat callers when you take them. He said, “The caller is not adversarial even if they hate you.” Maybe this is a regional difference. In the Midwest, callers are less antagonistic toward hosts with whom they disagree. It is not the case on the East or West Coasts.

He suggests hosts “Should not be adversarial” or say things such as, “You’re just a fool. You’re stupid.” Instead, he says, “Find a way to take what they’re saying and use it against them with a smile on your face or say ‘Hey, thanks for the call, let me tell you why I think you’re wrong’, and go to your audience. I don’t get confrontational with the caller. It makes you sound like a bully-thug-jerk.”

Benson points out, “Isn’t that reality television? People like skirmishes. Nobody wants to watch a bunch of women sit down and eat dinner. They want to watch them fight, scream, and yell at each other.”

Erickson offers a “confession.” – Occasionally, I’ve got to confess; I try to find the call-in and let the one idiot come on who has a profound point. Like a woman who called once and insisted that the word ‘fairness’ was in the Constitution. I word-searched the Constitution live with her on the radio. The word ‘fair’ is not in the Constitution. It ended badly for her, but I thought it made for great radio.”

I agree with Benson and Erickson; drama draws listeners. But it depends on the specific situation. At WCCO, creating any drama between hosts, or hosts and callers, would have been ridiculous. At WIP, tension between Cataldi and Howard Eskin (and many others) brewed for years. By the way, both had no problem telling callers they were stupid. Eskin built a career around calling people “dopes, nitwits, and morons.”

Erickson praised his screener. It’s critical to have a great screener and not just someone who gets the name, location, and a brief description before putting the call on hold. While I don’t think in this environment of talk radio, it’s beneficial to be confrontational all the time, I believe having the periodic person with opposing views on to debate (whether a caller or expert) is healthy, but they can’t be stooges. They must be well-spoken and able to represent their thoughts well. Again, quoting Limbaugh, you have to “defeat them on the battlefield of ideas.”

When I came to WIP in 2007, my opinion was that callers were unnecessary. In my first six months, I had an epiphany. We had ten phone lines at WIP. One of the big revelations for me during the session was when Erickson revealed that Rush Limbaugh had only three lines. I had the screener on my desk. I could see when all the lines were lit and when they weren’t. It didn’t take long for me to realize the correlation between the phones and ratings. I learned to expect good and bad weeks and knew which dayparts were strongest and which needed help. It didn’t vary over my nine years there.

While I wouldn’t hire a caller-driven talk radio show in most circumstances, I wouldn’t likely hire one that rarely or never took callers. Somewhere between two and five an hour – depending on the daypart and what’s happening feels right to me.

What are your thoughts about callers on Talk Radio in 2023?

Below are my top rules about callers. What are yours that aren’t on this list?

Send me your thoughts and rules to [email protected] or via X (formerly known as Twitter @AndyBloomCom.

Andy Bloom Communication’s rules for callers on the air:

  • Well-screened: Avoid all the repetitive stuff (hello, how are you, first time, etc. Get to the point. Only people who sound good on the phone.
  • Discipline: Stick to one point. One attempt to reel the caller in. Afterward, it’s time to hang up.
  • Keep it entertaining and moving: Avoid caller monologues.
  • Rush’s rule: “The purpose of the caller is to make the host look good.” Ensure callers address something the host is prepared for and has an answer for.
  • Callers can also contribute empathy for the host.
  • Only one voice for several hours can drone on.
  • Callers beget callers: If you don’t take calls, you won’t get any. If you do, others will call.
  • The two-minute rule: Calls should never be more than two minutes, but no rule says they are owed two minutes.
  • The two-caller rule: In most cases, except for special segments, two callers back-to-back is enough – usually to end A-Block.

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King Charles Already Facing Headwinds After One Episode at CNN

If viewers are coming to watch King Charles in the first place, they want to hear from Barkley first and the most. This show is not a democracy for multiple voices.

Jessie Karangu



A photo of Charles Barkley and Gayle King

Gayle King and Charles Barkley joined a long list of personalities on Wednesday who’ve tried their hand at hosting a cable news show, King Charles.

The previous cast of characters at CNN in particular have included comedians as famous as D.L. Hughley and Bill Maher, history makers like Connie Chung, tech executives such as Campbell Brown, and even a former governor – Eliot Spitzer – who was forced to resign in shame.

CNN, unlike MSNBC and Fox News, doesn’t have the privilege of choosing political sides for ratings because of the gravitas their name exudes in the journalism world. Bringing on famous figures in pop culture to give their take on the headlines seems like a natural solution to competing with idealogues on opposing networks. Unfortunately for CNN, though, it’s a solution that never seems to work – including this time around.

The debut episode of King Charles began with a Man-on-the-Street segment featuring King and Barkley asking random folks walking around New York about today’s politicians, Joe Biden’s age, and Taylor Swift and Beyonce. The segment also showcased the duo’s newfound chemistry and announced the upcoming guests over the next hour similar to a late-night comedy show.

It was a great way to bring the audience in. Viewers got to see an intro that is uncommon in the cable news world, they got to hear the opinions of people who are just like themselves, and it showed the quality production value this show is bringing to the table from the jump.

As viewers got to the set, it was obvious CNN put a lot of time and effort into making this program a success. The wardrobe of the talent, the studio design, and the color scheme were extremely polished. The guest list of this show for the first episode on cable news was also very impressive. Fat Joe, Steve Kerr, and Van Lathan may not be A-list celebrities, but they each bring a respective following that is different from the type of guests that normally populate CNN and its rivals.

One of the first problems this show faces is that despite its name, there isn’t much King and there isn’t much Charles. King moderates panels that have a lot of interesting things to say while Barkley utters a comment or two on the side. It’s almost as if it’s forgotten that Barkley is a key force in bringing this show to fruition in the first place.

The guests that were part of these panels had a lot of interesting perspectives to give. Lathan brought some humor to a discussion about George Santos when he discussed his love for the Congressman’s high jinks. CNN primetime host Laura Coates also joined the show for two segments and provided much-needed legal expertise during a conversation about Young Thug’s ongoing trial in Georgia.

While the discourse was good, Barkley is one of the most boisterous personalities television has ever seen. America has tuned into his antics for decades whether they agree with what he’s saying or not. LIV Golf almost paid him hundreds of millions just to get his opinions on a random golf tournament every week. If viewers are coming to watch King Charles in the first place, they want to hear from Barkley first and the most. This show is not a democracy for multiple voices.

King and Barkley have been fixtures of American pop culture for decades. Their presence on any platform holds a lot of weight. King’s tenure at CBS has helped make their morning show more relevant than it ever was before and more competitive ratings-wise. Barkley has set a standard for the art of analyzing sports on television in a way that even John Madden couldn’t.

The first 20 minutes of the show need to be focused on them and their viewpoints. Because of King’s role at CBS, viewers won’t be able to get many opinions out of her, but at the very least there is some journalistic perspective she can provide or perspective from her decades as a celebrity and Oprah’s best friend. This should be the Black version of Live with Kelly and Mark. King and Barkley can talk about their weeks, their lives, and their families and run down the various headlines that are having the most impact on society in an unscripted format.

The show also needs to be live. If they want to film some interviews outside of their timeslot to air later in the show to accommodate an important guest, that’s fine. But the beauty of watching Barkley on television is that it is live and you never know what to expect or what’s going to come out of his mouth. When you take that aspect of excitement away from a program like this, it just seems like one of those celebrity podcasts that no one asked for and ends up getting canceled after a year or less.

In today’s climate, if you’re hosting a show, especially a weekly show, there’s gotta be some type of headline that comes out of that show. There has to be something that forces viewers to adjust their schedules to want to tune in because many viewers’ habits are already established in the first place. A talk show like King Charles — discussing pop culture in the middle of primetime competing with live sporting events, The Golden Bachelor, or a reality show based on Squid Game — is going to have a hard time surviving.

CNN has established itself as the straight news alternative with up-to-the-minute analysis involving the latest breaking politics and world event headlines. Viewers have already told CNN that’s what they like about the network particularly in primetime. It may not be as highly rated as MSNBC and Fox’s lineups but it is much more advertiser-friendly than Jesse Watters or Rachel Maddow.

During times of volatility like the upcoming election, and the wars in Ukraine and Israel, CNN’s ratings tend to bump up higher and occasionally beat MSNBC and other entertainment networks. Interrupting that flow of news in primetime when it has been difficult for CNN to keep a primetime lineup intact for years won’t help matters at the network at all. Continuity matters to viewers.

CNN makes enough revenue and has enough of a positive reputation that becoming a major contender in primetime should no longer be a main focus. As long as the network doesn’t flounder as it has in the past, maintaining 500,000 viewers a night and peaking in the millions during major breaking news stories is something their parent company should be proud of. It is much easier to sell to advertisers than an opinionist who has the potential to explode your company’s stock every night depending on what they say.

Is there space for King Charles on CNN? Yes. Around 5 PM ET, another cable news network across the dial leaves their newscasts and opinion programming to the side for a panel show that is the highest-rated telecast on cable news. The panel discusses political headlines but also delves into pop culture and trending topics you would read about on X/Twitter.

CNN should move King Charles to Wednesdays at 5 PM ET to directly compete with The Five and provide perspectives about the world from two individuals who aren’t tied to a specific political party and have way more pull socially than all of The Five’s hosts combined. Create a happy hour type of environment on air where King and Barkley aren’t held to rigid restrictions, truly get to be themselves, and serve an audience around that hour that is more receptive to talk and discussion given the other shows that air during daytime hours on the big broadcast networks.

CNN also needs to dedicate more resources to promoting the duo. A replay of King Charles should air after Inside the NBA every week so that his fans are aware of another platform Barkley participates in. The show should have a social media presence of its own.

A sneak preview of the show should be promoted each week on both CBS Mornings and Inside the NBA. The duo should go on a press tour across various shows, podcasts, TikToks, blogs, and everything in between to gin up interest in the broadcast.

CNN should also use one of its sister networks – HLN, truTV, or even OWN – to boost the reach of this show given the figureheads that star on the show and the potpourri of topics that are discussed that don’t necessarily have to do with breaking news and politics that normally fill CNN’s airwaves. A boost in viewership could bring in a different type of advertiser and more profits. Barkley is already a showman for other products and could easily be utilized in commercials that air during the show.

CNN already implements a similar simulcast strategy with CNN This Morning by airing the show on HLN. CNN’s sister network brings in an extra 70-100,000 viewers every morning and at times, it is the highest-rated program of the day for HLN. WBD also utilizes the strategy often when they’re broadcasting the Final Four and it has helped college basketball’s national championship become one of the highest-rated sporting events of the year even when it is exclusively on cable.

King Charles has a lot of potential but it is already on a short lease. Variety reports that CNN is looking at the show as a “limited-run series.” Its first episode drew 486,000 viewers, according to Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr. Two weeks prior, the show it replaced known as Newsnight drew 525,000. There is potential to make a statement and stand out amongst everyone else in cable news but only if CNN will let the show and its hosts fully breathe.

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The Road to Radio Stardom Has Changed For the Better

The landscape in the industry is changing even faster than many of us realize on a day-to-day basis.



Photo by Alan Levine CC BY 2.0.

The old adage in radio was to start in the smallest market you could get a job in and then keep working your way up the ladder and end up in the biggest market you could reach. However, that model, while still having a purpose, is in large part not as linear as it once was.

The era of social media, digital media, and work-from-anywhere has dramatically changed the way we view personalities.

For years, we assumed someone in a Top 5 market was obviously more talented than someone in market No. 25. While that is still likely true, in large part, it’s far from that black and white. Having worked in small markets like Woodward, Oklahoma, to then the No. 1 market, New York City, to now Kansas City, I can say there are incredibly talented broadcasters in markets well outside the Top 100, and there are some really mediocre broadcasters in the No. 1 market.

And with the way the world has shrunk, courtesy of technology, it doesn’t require one to necessarily make that leap to a market to simply increase a broadcaster’s exposure to then (hopefully) land that bigger and better job. 

Now, thanks to all the various social media platforms that broadcasters need to reside on, broadcasters can develop enormous followings and garner regional and national attention without having to “prove” themselves in a Top 5 or 10 market.

This is a win for broadcasters. None of this is about settling or resting on your laurels, but it means you can become a national personality from nearly any market in America today. It’s not just New York and Los Angeles. And the examples are all over the country. 

Clay Travis from Nashville. Dana Loesch from St. Louis. Steve Deace from Des Moines. I could continue with a list of really talented people, but you get the point.

Social media, for all its pitfalls, has allowed local and regional broadcasters to build larger followings beyond their cities and parlay those into larger opportunities. And they’re able to do it without living a NOMAD lifestyle.

That being said, that’s not judging anyone who wants to live it. I’ve made 3-4 major moves in the last 10-12 years. We all typically do it to some degree. New places bring new challenges and opportunities and larger markets typically bring larger paychecks. 

But the broader point is that we can be pickier on our next move if one even makes sense. That doesn’t mean that jumping five to ten market sizes isn’t the right move, it may be. But it no longer has to be, because you need the exposure in the larger market to keep working up the ladder to then land in a major market to make the most money possible.

Broadcasters can now generate revenue away from just their salaries and bonuses via exclusive online membership opportunities, digital footprints not connected to the radio station, influencer routes on social media and several other creative ways to create multiple revenue streams, which would be wise in the current climate, anyway.

Ultimately, the landscape in the radio industry is changing even faster than many of us realize on a day-to-day basis, and there are creative paths and advantages to today’s climate that can be taken advantage of, if personalities play their hand right.

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3 Tips on How to Get Station and Market Research Without the Whopping Budgets

Many of us have not seen research in a while. I am going to give you some poor man tips for getting the pulse of your community. 

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A photo of a piece of paper showing bar graph research

No research budget? No problem! Ok, many of us have not seen research in a while. I am going to give you some poor man tips for getting the pulse of your community. 

These are tried and true methods that I have been using my entire programming career.  Disclaimer: getting great unbiased research is a tremendous tool to strengthen your station or show. I have learned a few tricks that may help you assess your community and audience. 

Use Your Station’s Database for a Small Survey

Usually, you must hold the carrot of winning a couple of hundred bucks for a participant.  There are many advantages to this method. You are likely to have P1s who love your product and have a commitment to the station. Talk about cool! 

Building the questions is the tough part. You don’t want to ask leading questions that mirror your thoughts or the attitudes of the audience. I like open-ended questions. I would also like to know about the participants’ demographics. 

For whatever reason, my station’s database is different than the actual listeners to a news/talk station. You may find your database like mine: 70% women. Of those women, a large portion are in their 20s and 30s. Sadly, this is not your audience. You will need to willow them out as you compile the information. 

The questions need to be about the audience, not about your station.

-What are your people doing for fun?
-Do they like to travel?
-How long is their commute?
-Do they have kids?
-Are they married?
-Are they happy with their school district? 
-What is their biggest concern? 

People love to talk about themselves. Let them do it and then sprinkle in questions about the station. 

-Are there enough traffic reports?
-Have you ever called a show?
-How was your interaction with the host or producer?
-What is your favorite restaurant?
-How much time do you watch sports each week? 

You certainly can add many questions like this.  Knowing your audience allows you to reflect on their lives, concerns, and interests. 

Be A Spy

I love doing this one at lunch. Pull into a restaurant that appeals to businesspeople in your area. Get a table near a large group and start writing down the conversation.

Are they griping about the boss? What are their concerns? Do they tease each other? How much do they speak about their significant other? Are they discussing something they read, heard, or watched? 

Just write down their conversations. I have taken this information and crafted promos and liners around it. It is a small sample size, but if the group is in your target for the station, you can learn a lot of good stuff. This just costs the price of lunch and a beverage. DIY at its finest. 

Quick On-the-Street Surveys 

This is another way to get a pulse on the community. Does your town have an event geared to the community? Go out with a producer, a salesperson, and give three quick questions. You need to guess the age of the participant. Ask for their ZIP code. this is to determine whether they live in your area. 

Then three quick questions. I like to use multiple choice. 
-How frustrating is the traffic?  1 to 5 with 5 meaning very agonizing.
-Your biggest concern: Crime, Taxes, Money, or family? 
-How long have you lived in your home?  These are quick questions to give you a pulse on your neighbors’ concerns. 

None of these are as good as a solid perceptual. I have read a lot of research, and the conclusions are the biggest concern. Years ago, I worked for a company that did several perceptuals. I was asked to read them by my format captain, who was new on the job. I read them carefully over the weekend and typed up a short report. The conclusions were completely different than the data. 

I am sure that if you have the opportunity to do a research project on your station, you will want to know the unvarnished truth. If you are in the enviable position of interviewing the companies that do research, you need to know the following things:
-Are the conclusions what I want to read or need to see?
-How is the best way to assess the data provided?
-Will the data allow me to develop an action plan to grow my ratings? 

If you want research to confirm your preconceived thoughts, skip the expense. If you want to maximize your return, learn how to critically read the data. 

What is your action plan following the study? There should be a clear path to allow you to identify vulnerabilities, opportunities, and strengths. All of these are equally important. 

Once you know your vulnerabilities, you can strategize to shore up your weaknesses. Once you know your opportunities, you can address them and create another path for your brand to succeed. Knowing and perhaps confirming your strengths allows you to use these as a base point for your brand’s continuing success. 

Don’t mess up good research. These are wonderful windows on your station and community.  They are key to helping you create a listener-focused experience that will support your station for years to come. 

Don’t be frightened to have some of your personal conclusions destroyed. Is this about your ego or is it about your team, station, and market? 

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