Radio phone-ins: making them work

You never know what a radio phone-in might bring, so how do you stop debates going awry and keep unpredictable callers in line? We discuss how radio phone-ins work, and how the teams involved handle the unexpected.

Radio phone-in shows are a staple of stations across the country, addressing current news stories, stimulating debate and bringing valuable stories to light. However, it takes a certain skill to avoid clichés, rants and the odd expletive dominating the airwaves. Paul Buller is joined by Julian Worricker, Gabriella Incalza and Tim Wheeler, to discuss what makes a good phone-in.

The panel discuss some of their most memorable phone-ins, from the bizarre to the poignant, and emphasise the need for constant, effective communication between the presenter, producer and those manning the phones. Long gone are the days of physical switchboards – now producers and presenters only have to look at their computer screen to see the calls that are waiting, the names of the callers and a brief description of their story.

“Treat your listeners and callers with respect.”– Gabriella Incalza

All three guests agree that it is vital to have a clearly defined opening question to ask the listeners, otherwise the debate can quickly become unfocused. However, they also note that presenters and producers have to be flexible and willing to take the show in a different direction if a question isn’t garnering the right response, or if a caller suddenly sheds new light on the topic.

Phone-ins are no longer just about calls, and the panel mention how useful social media is, with texts, tweets and Facebook messages forming a key part of the debate. They all conclude that a sense of humour is essential, as is the ability to admit to one’s mistakes. 

Julian Worricker is a presenter for BBC Radio 4’s consumer programme, You and Yours, and chairs the programme’s weekly phone-in. He also covers Radio 4’s political news programme Any Answers, and is a presenter on the BBC’s News channel. Julian’s career has taken him from Radio Leicester through to 5 Live and the BBC World Service.

Gabriella Incalza is a freelance producer for the rolling speech and news network LBC, and is assistant producer for the weekend show with Petrie Hosken and Andrew Castle, plus Drivetime with Iain Dale. She has produced radio for Celador and Radio 1Extra, in addition to launching the award winning community station Bang Radio.

Tim Wheeler is the producer and stand-in presenter of The JVS Show on Three Counties Radio. The show won Silver for best speech programme at the Sony Radio Academy Awards 2013, and Gold for best mid-morning show at the Gillard Awards. Before this, he was studio manager for the BBC World Service.