What Radio Talk Shows Can Teach Us About Engaging With Our Audience Online

Feb 4, 2013

This is NPR has a post about the secret sauce that makes a great call-in radio show, based on best practices at NPR’s Talk of the Nation, WBUR’s On Point, and NHPR’s The Exchange. Among the ingredients:

  • The show has a well-chosen topic that has an impact on the audience - something listeners care about.
  • The host and producers frame the topic in the right way to encourage participation; what’s the question you can ask listeners that will bring about the best responses?
  • A competent, patient call-screener works with listeners to help them put their best foot forward; this person is also the guardian of the sound and focus of the topic.
  • An engaging host knows how to coax guests and callers to address important, often controversial matters in a way that advances the discussion.

Does anyone else also see a framework for engaging with the digital audience here?


Credit On Point, Facebook
 This got us to thinking about some of the ways local talk shows engage successfully with their on-air audience and how they can turn that experience towards social media. We often talk about engaging our radio audience online, but that’s only part of the job. We also want to find and nurture a new audience online, including potential fans who don’t know we exist but would love to follow what we do. These two audiences develop in different ways, but a well-considered strategy can grow both audiences and encourage them to participate more often. Here are some ideas:  

Be specific about what you want from your audience. For most topics, you’ll get better response from your audience if you tell them specifically what you’re looking for. For your health care show, are you looking for personal stories about the high cost of care, or instances where someone was denied care? Don’t hesitate to tell your audience how they can make the best contribution, even if it's a question as straightforward as what do you think about this?


Credit St Louis Public Radio, Facebook
Seed the conversation early and leverage your online community. Create a post on your show blog or program page that gives the audience a heads up on tomorrow’s topics. Don’t think of it as a promotion piece, primarily; think of it as a chance to “present the problem” that you want to address on the next show. Succinctly state some pro and con arguments and include how you’re going to focus the topic. Or ask a question that taps into the zeitgeist. That will get your listeners’ juices flowing and they may start chatting on the site. 

When Melody Kramer worked at Fresh Air, she didn't have to stir up callers for the show. But she was a genius at engaging with the online community and building interest in shows before the show aired. (Kramer explains some of her techniques in this webinar.)


The same goes for the Facebook post you’re going to create: if you write a promotional post (“Tomorrow at 3pm we’re going to talk about the Governor’s State of the State address”), chances are no one will like, comment or share it and the Facebook algorithm will bury it. But if you spend a few minutes thinking carefully about the contribution you want from your audience, you can craft a question that sparks discussion or sharing of personal stories. That’s not only the kind of response that’s more useful to you; it’s also the kind of engagement that will get your post seen by more people. Give it a shot and if your question doesn’t get the response you hoped for, don't give up. Pick another tool from your toolbox. Share a captivating image that illustrates the show topic or find a provocative article that’s related to the topic and share it with a relevant excerpt and see if it sparks conversation or sharing.


Credit WBUR Radio Boston, Facebook

Your show is on the radio for one or two hours a day; it’s online 24/7. The show might be off the air at 10:59 AM, but how can you extend its value the rest of the day? Fresh Air finds interesting or funny related content or memorable quotes, and it spreads those little nuggets of compelling content across Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all day long. Give it a try for your show.

Here's another idea: find an unforgettable 90 seconds of conversation from today’s show, upload the edited audio snippet to SoundCloud and drop it into Facebook. That audio clip may be the perfect promotion for the long-form interview. What’s the most interesting article the host read while preparing for the interview? Share it on Twitter.

Live tweet your talk show only when it makes sense. Promotional posts (“Up next, we’ll be talking about high gas prices”) are not very effective. What fraction of your followers will happen to see that tweet in real time? And what tiny fraction of that fraction will then run for their radio or their phone? Frankly, on most days, live tweeting of any kind doesn’t serve any clear purpose and it takes a lot of time away from more useful activities (like finding interesting content to share with your fans during the rest of the day). Live tweet newsworthy guests, like the mayor or the governor, just as you would live tweet a major press conference. Use your news judgment to make the right choice.

Credit Russ Gossett

Certain kinds of stories perform much better than others in social media, especially on Facebook. We researched dozens of station Facebook posts and discovered nine types of stories that cause high levels of engagement - likes, shares and comments. Instead of creating posts that are simply promotions for talk show topics, find a facet of your topic that stimulates your audience's curiosity and use that as your hook, or search for a powerful image to illustrate your topic.

Finally, experiment constantly and don't give up. Effective social media isn't easy; your audience has so much information flying at them all the time, that our messages can get lost in the noise. But if you focus on creating compelling content, use metrics to monitor your impact, and evaluate your results, and test new tactics, you can break through the clutter and build your following.