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Is Making Phony Phone Calls to Entertain Really That Big a Deal?

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Is Making Phony Phone Calls to Entertain Really That Big a Deal?
ByKipper McGee

Recently Rush Limbaugh responded on-air to an article in Tablet magazine (http://www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/58759/radio-daze/) implying that he, el-Rushbo, had used staged phone callers on his show. The charge ignited a feeding frenzy that virtually knocked Charlie Sheen off most radio boards.

After reading the full transcript of Rush's response, (http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_030711/content/01125106.guest.html)
Radio Ink reached out to a number of broadcasters to get a sense of how they feel about using staged calls for both incoming and outbound conversations and bits.
  
It should be noted that the FCC long ago prohibited the recording or airing of any outgoing calls without the subject's prior consent. The recording and airing of incoming calls is held to a different standard of "implied consent," as it is understood that those calling a studio line are doing so with the knowledge that their call may be aired. Meanwhile, some hosts, particularly in music formats, have found staged inbound calls to be a viable resource in creating an entertaining radio show.

Stations use a variety of tactics, from "harvesting" calls (especially so-called "requests") for playback at a later time to sharing "stunt callers" between stations. There are even pre-packaged solutions on the market. One such product, Premiere On Call, was specifically mentioned in the Rush flap.

"Services like Premiere On Call allow entertainment stations/programs to produce and customize parodies, pranks, and skits quickly and easily, at any time of day, for the purpose of entertaining and engaging their audiences in accordance with FCC regulations," says Julie Talbott, Premiere Networks President/Content & Affiliate Relations.

McVay Media News/Talk specialist Holland Cooke observes, "I heard Rush go on and on about this on air, and he sounded surprisingly defensive about it. I hear him A LOT, and never heard what sounded like a fake caller." Acknowledging that Rush's content routinely ranges from issues to entertainment, Cooke notes that "because Rush allots so much time to song parodies and other produced elements, it's understandable that, when this On Call story surfaced, people would wonder."

One key question appears to be whether there are different standards depending on how a given show or station is branded. One large-market music PD, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells Radio Ink, "I think there is a big difference between music and News/Talk stations. There is an inherent contract of trust between a listener and a News/Talk station. Even the stations more on the talk side of the spectrum feature hosts that are trying to convince you to agree with their positions. If callers are fabricated to share opinion or information that supports the host, it is building a case that is designed to persuade. In that setting, I do believe it is a violation of that contract to use fabricated callers." He adds, "In a music format, I think anything goes, as the vast majority of shows are designed to only entertain. The suspension of disbelief covers their use."

Tony Lorino, APD and morning host at Entercom's KGEX (Gen X Radio 99.7)/Kansas City, concurs. "As a solo morning host (and former morning show producer), I've seen my fair share of well intended phone bits that I thought would yield massive feedback never cut through on the phone lines," he says. "And yes, I've used friends or co-workers to help 'start the phones.' After all, my job is to entertain an audience for an Adult Hits radio station, not present facts or news." As far as outsourcing canned callers, Lorino notes, "Although I've never contracted with a service to stage calls, I can understand why stations do." Echoing the distinction between entertainment and information, he adds, "Having said that, we're a music station. I'm not sure how comfortable I'd feel doing that with a News/Talk station."
Marcus Brown, PD of News/Talk WIND in Chicago, emphasizes the sanctity of the format. "News/Talk audiences hold their hosts to a higher standard than might be the case in other formats," he says. "I've always felt that the credibility we establish with our listeners is an asset that we must protect. Using pre-arranged phone calls and passing them off as real erodes that trust. Part of the job of a talented talk show host is to be so compelling that interesting listeners call with their opinions."

However, the responsibility goes beyond just the host or PD. "Part of the job of a good call screener or producer is to vet and coach callers before they get on the air," Brown continues. "I understand how some jocks might use a service like this in certain formats, but in News/Talk, authenticity wins."

Jeff McCarthy, VP/Programming for Midwest Communications, sums it up this way: "If the call enhances the entertainment and information value of the listening experience, I believe it's a good practice." As an example, he noted multi-market voicetrackers who save phone calls from their live shows and re-use those calls on voicetracked shows in other markets. "However," McCarthy adds, "the emotional element translates to any audience engaging in the experience, and the material is timeless."
McCarthy agrees that if a call is set up to deceive the audience, such as during a hot button topic on News/Talk, it probably shouldn't be done. He asks, "Does this compare with scripted TV reality shows or edited news sound bytes that mislead the end user into believing a different message than was intended?"

Clearly, the issue of whether to use so-called "stunt callers" depends on the brand standards a show or station is trying to establish. As Talbott notes regarding Premiere On Call: "This type of service is used primarily by humor-oriented entertainment/music programs and formats." Entercom's Lorino adds, "When your credibility is a cornerstone of your brand -- even if you're in talk programming versus news coverage -- you're dancing in a gray area. If you, as a host, producer, or programmer, feel like you may be jeopardizing any journalistic integrity, you probably are. At that point, I'd be less likely to 'stage' content."

Kipper McGee is an RAB Certified Digital Marketing Consultant, recognized as a leading media strategist and brand manager. He has lead successful station re-launches, format changes, and/or Web turnarounds in highly competitive markets, serving such legendary media brands as WLS/Chicago, WDBO/Orlando, and KBEST 95 /San Diego.

Now as Chief Media Brandwidth Specialist at Kipper McGee LLC, his primary focus is helping define and monetize the next generation of branded media content. In this capacity he has served on-air and online clients ranging from radio stations and network providers to Fortune 500 companies.

McGee is a frequent speaker/panelist/presenter at national broadcast conventions including numerous state, group and corporate meetings. He has been named one of Radio Ink's Top Programmers, and has received the Conclave's Rockwell Award for lifetime achievement. Kipper can be reached at 312-402-4667 or kippermcgee@gmail.com.




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