How to create an effective call-in program

What is a call-in?

A call-in or phone-in is a radio show where listeners share opinions and stories relating to important topics in their community.

How can it help me serve my listeners better?

  • It exposes listeners with new perspectives and accurate information.
  • It helps listeners form their own opinion on important topics.
  • It promotes respectful civil dialogue among opposing viewpoints within the community.
  • It promotes diversity, equity and inclusion by giving voice to a wide range of lived experiences.
  • It helps identify and dispel misinformation.

How can it help me produce better programs?

  • Audience calls/reactions are a rough barometer of which topics are important to my audience, and whether (or not) I should cover it more in the future.
  • It's a source for knowledgeable, opinionated, articulate listeners I can interview for future programs.
  • It’s a source for important first person stories from people directly impacted by major issues.

How do I get started?

  1. Pick a topic of interest and concern to your listeners.
  2. Focus it with a question.
  3. Feature a knowledgeable guest.
  4. Keep comments short and focused.
  5. Diversify perspectives: Promote your topic, remove barriers.
  6. Abide by your country’s call-in regulations.


1. Pick a topic of interest and concern to your listeners

Pick a topic where your listeners have something personally at stake. It needs to be about something that touches the lives of your listeners, and is important to them. Some call-ins help a community address an important issue (e.g., “Why is the maize harvest lower this year?”) Some help a community share its emotions (For example, they can allow callers to offer tributes on the death of a respected elder).

Some call-ins are for sheer entertainment (e.g., “Who is our country’s best football player?”)
Some call-ins help the community respond to emergencies (e.g. Extreme weather events like flooding or severe wind storms)

And lastly, some call-ins are about sensitive or taboo issues in the community which require advance planning, thought and care (e.g. domestic violence).

2. Focus it with a question.

Your audience won’t entirely engage with your topic until you’ve crafted the right show question. Is there an ideal caller or story you want on that show? Then ask yourself, "will my show question attract that call?" If you’re not sure, try it out on a few friends! Did they immediately understand it? Did your show question provoke a variety of passionate stories or opinions? Did their answers sustain your attention….did you want to hear more?

If the issue is about the decline in maize harvests, don’t ask “How was your maize harvest this year?” Instead, ask listeners a focused, emotional question, such as: “Did you harvest enough maize to feed your family all year?” Pro Tip: Make sure your show question has the word “you” in it.

3. Feature a knowledgeable guest.

Call-ins should be a source of both heat and light. The heat will come from the stories and opinions expressed by callers. The light can come from an invited studio guest who can provide relevant evidence-based, peer reviewed research. Occasionally, they may need to fact check claims made by callers or add context to their valuable observations. Avoid guests who use jargon or technical terms the audience won’t understand. They should be engaging, thought-provoking and immediately understandable, to anyone with a grade 6 education.

4. Keep comments short and focused.

For the first half hour of the show, start every call with a version of the topic question. Don’t repeat it exactly the same way each time. Opening with the topic question (and repeating it) is important because it will help callers stay on point.

Some callers will stray. They will try to talk about something else that interests them — and not answer the call-in question. You owe it to your audience to steer them back to the original question. For example, you can say: “Mrs. X, some day we should perhaps have a call-in about goats getting into gardens, but our topic today is about your maize harvest this year.”

If the caller continues to stray or talks beyond their time, you owe it to your audience to interrupt or talk over them. When you do, say “Sorry to interrupt but thank you so much for your call. We have so many other callers who are waiting for their turn to talk.”

That said, be sure to privilege the articulate, thoughtful caller. Give them more time. If the caller is particularly engaging, push beyond their opinion. Ask them for a personal story to help the audience understand their valuable point of view. Callers are “experts in their own life” —their stories are much more valuable than their opinions.

5. Diversify perspectives: Promote your topic, remove barriers

Give your audience multiple ways to respond to your topic BEFORE you go to air. Start promoting your topic days in advance. You can do this by posting the topic question on WhatsApp, text messaging, radio spots, newsletters,and social media. Some of the best online respondents can either be booked as live callers or you can read their edited replies on air. Consider creating a "call now" radio spot 1 hour before the show airs so you can start screening calls before you go live.

Before the show, record people responding to the call-in question. Take the most interesting and energetic statements and use them in a promo that runs during the week. Then replay those strong opposing opinions in the intro of the program and throughout the show. The point is to campaign and recruit a wide variety of responses so you can curate them for quality and range of opinion during your live show.

Women listeners typically have less access to mobile phones than male listeners. Also, they often lack the time needed to make the repeat calls necessary to get through, and give up after the first or second failed call. To get more women’s comments to air, have at least two call-in lines, and dedicate one of them to women callers. This way, you can usually ensure that 50% of the voices you put on air will be those of women.

Get a toll-free number. Or make a deal with your service provider. Ask them to make all calls to your show free of charge. This will boost both the number of calls and the variety of callers, and make the comments more representative of the whole community.

An effective call-in show is about the quality and range of viewpoints shared throughout the show. If you still are unable to attract enough diversity of opinion, you may need to pre-book diverse guests to ensure a variety of viewpoints are represented.

6. Abide by your country’s call-in regulations

In some countries, call-in programs are simply not allowed, and a station could have its license revoked. In other countries, call-in programs must be time-delayed so that the broadcaster can eliminate any illegal or objectionable comments before they go to air. In other jurisdictions, broadcasters must keep the name and telephone number of everyone who speaks on air. Check with your station management to find out about the regulations that govern your call-in programs.

Other useful points about creating exciting and useful call-ins

Prepare! Editorial

Call-ins are live programs. The more you can think about what might happen BEFOREHAND, the better prepared you will be to respond to surprises that are thrown at you during the live show. This is especially important if your call-in topic is a controversial or sensitive one, such as domestic violence, or a political one, such as “Is the local council helping farmers?” Preparations for this kind of call-in might include:

  • Start the show with pre-booked callers or guests with opposing viewpoints, to encourage listeners to call-in.
  • If you expect callers will overwhelmingly express one point of view, have a range of other perspectives prepared (you can read replies to your social media posts or play tape from street interviews earlier that week).
  • If you expect an individual or institution will be criticized during the show, do everything you can to give them a chance to respond to that criticism, live or in a written statement or a pre-recorded clip.
  • Imagine extreme points of view or mis / disinformation that some callers might express, and how you will handle them. Prepare a "fact sheet" which is a list of important facts which you can use to correct false claims.
  • Sensitive topics require extra time, avoid doing them quickly. Often they’re ones which require interviews with vulnerable people (e.g. survivors of physical or psychological abuse). Pre-interview people who are ready to share their story, verify their claims and (when necessary) protect their identity to avoid negative outcomes.

Prepare! Avoiding dead air

There is nothing more embarrassing than no-one calling in! This might be because the topic is not of general interest. Or perhaps the topic question is unfocused, or has simply not triggered the interest of listeners. Or it might just be that listeners want to hear more about the topic before they call in. Here are a few ways to reduce the chances of having long stretches with no callers.

  • Choose the topic and the topic question very carefully.
  • Have a knowledgeable studio guest who is talkative, and engaging. Their talk will help fill time while waiting for callers.
  • Consider booking a few callers to start the show, particularly if their fact-based opinions or stories are relevant to your topic.
  • Have some pre-recorded “vox pop” clips to lead the show.
  • If your topic is hooked to an important news story, start the show with a reporter with “the latest” update from the field.

Filtering: Consider screening the callers

If you have multiple call-in lines, and if you have a large volume of callers, it makes sense to screen them. It also helps to avoid extreme comments, off-topic comments, and too-regular callers. The screener can get the caller’s name, their location, their mobile number, and the main comment they want to make. Don’t screen out a caller simply because you do not agree with their opinion! The studio operator can also be the screener.

If you do not have resources to screen callers live, you can create a survey using Google Forms which can be posted online. The survey should ask for listener contacts and a brief description of what they want to express. The survey URL can be promoted before and during the show. This is helpful because it will generate a spreadsheet with potential callers who are eager to talk and have provided you all their contact information. You can call back the best submissions for screening purposes.

Filtering: Respect the callers, manage every call

Always remember that you don’t have a program unless you have callers! Listeners will phone in if they hear other callers being treated with respect. Thank every listener who calls, and make them feel heard. Build on their ideas whenever possible.

If a caller is not used to speaking on air, encourage them, and help them express their opinions clearly. If someone calls for the first time, celebrate that. It will encourage others to make their first call. Be sure to praise the best calls, and celebrate the range of opinions you’ve heard on the show. Your enthusiasm for the topic, callers and guests will fuel audience engagement!

It’s also important to establish expectations early in the show by mentioning the rules. The rules can be as simple as this: “We want to hear from as many listeners, with as many points of view, as possible. And we ask everyone to stick to today’s topic. Priority will be given to people who have not phoned in before. And remember that Zoom FM does not tolerate profanity, insults or hate speech.”

Once you establish the rules, you’re prepared to manage every call for the benefit of your listener. Praising great calls is easy. But the success of your show will ultimately be determined by how you deal with everybody else. It has to be done gracefully. This is particularly important when the caller is talking too long or saying inaccurate or inappropriate things.

Filtering: Dealing with serious unsubstantiated claims

If a caller states something important as a fact, and you either doubt it or you don’t know if it is a fact, deal with it. Don’t let your listeners assume that it is a fact because it was on the air. For example, if a caller says, “We all know that most of the council budget is being spent in the Southern Region,” and if you cannot verify or correct that statement, you should say something like the following: “Mr. Inoussa, that is quite a statement you have just made. I do not know if it is a fact. Perhaps other listeners will want to agree or disagree with you on this.” If you have journalistic resources at your station, you could also say something like this: “Mr. Inoussa, that is quite a claim you have made. I will have our News department check into this and we will report our findings at the beginning of our next call-in.”

Filtering: Watch for praise callers

Sometimes a powerful person will ask someone else to phone in and praise the powerful person on air, regardless of the topic. It is unfair to give airtime to such callers. Gently ask the caller if they want to answer the call-in question, and if they do not, then gently move on to the next caller.

Filtering: Callers who don’t want to be named on-air

Most callers are comfortable giving their names and locations. But some people might face consequences in their home or their community for speaking out. This is a sensitive issue. On the one hand, you do not want to give anonymous callers the chance to spread gossip about other people. On the other hand, you do not want to silence people who face threat or harm.
Ask the caller what personal risk they might face if they are identified on-air. Risk of physical or financial harm (job loss) are legitimate reasons. So too is the stigma they could face within the community by sharing their story (e.g. alcoholism, sexually transmitted disease, etc.).

If you agree to protect their identity, tell them you still need to log their real name and contacts for your records. When you introduce them, be transparent with your audience. Tell them why you are not sharing their name (e.g. “I’m talking to Kofi in Kumasi. That’s not his real name. We’re withholding it because he could lose his job by sharing his story.”)

If a live caller has a highly sensitive (and potentially valuable) story which could negatively impact others in the community, that caller MUST agree to specific conditions before going live to air. They must agree to NOT identify the person or business or institution involved. Depending on the size of the community you may also want them to withhold the location of the story to protect the identity of those involved. You can always choose not to put them on live, and investigate for a more full story later. In either case, do everything you can to verify their claims!

Remember, you don’t need to put risky calls to air. ... Always evaluate the value of their story and within the time you have, verify, verify, verify!

Going live: Sensitive topics

Sensitive topics may invite graphic stories or discussion of controversial or taboo subjects which may not be suitable for vulnerable listeners (children, survivors of domestic violence, mentally ill, etc). If you expect some may be offended by the topic, be sure to warn your audience at the start of the show and again before a particularly sensitive interview. For example, “Today’s topic may involve discussion of subject matter that might not be appropriate for all audiences…Listener discretion is advised.” Or “This next interview will involve graphic details which may not be appropriate for children…You may want to turn down the volume a little for the next few minutes.” If you believe discussion of this topic could be emotionally triggering for some members of your audience, be sure to mention resources where they can find support and care while on-air.

Going Live: Don’t draw wrong conclusions!

If ten listeners get to air and eight of them say that they had worse maize harvests this year, don’t conclude that eight out of every ten people in your area had worse maize harvests. What you can say on air at the end of your call-in is that “eight out of the ten callers you heard had worse crops this year.” What you cannot say is that “80% of farmers in this region had worse crops this year.”

The reason why you need to be careful about the conclusions you draw is because a call-in does not have the accuracy of, for example, a random door-to-door survey. Consider the limitations. The call-in caller:

  • must have access to a mobile phone
  • must be prepared to pay for the call (unless calls are free)
  • must feel comfortable speaking in public, and on this issue
  • must be able to listen to your call-in program at this time

In other words, the call-in caller may not be representative of your whole community.
Also, with political topics, people tend to call based on their level of motivation. Sometimes a topic triggers callers who want change, while the “silent majority”—listeners who are satisfied with things as they are—won’t bother to call.

Starting Up: Learn about your audience

A call-in—or better still, many call-ins—will give you a growing understanding about what is important to your listeners. But don’t stop with call-ins! Visit the communities you serve, meet with women, meet with men, ask them what is important to them. Click here to learn about audience research. You can also use on-air polling to find out what a lot of people think about something. With these polls, you will hear from hundreds of listeners, rather than the ten or twenty who get to air on a call-in. These polls are sometimes called “beep-to-vote” or “flash voting.” Learn more about “flash voting” in this document about how to gather regular feedback from your audience.

Starting Up: Start small

If you haven’t done a call-in before, start with a relatively simple and uncontroversial subject or question like, “Is your maize harvest better than last year?” With the experience you gain, you can move on to more complex and/or controversial topics like, “Does the government’s fertilizer subsidy help you?” or “Is our elected representative helping farmers?”

Starting Up: Find the right host

The call-in host has a complex role to play, and it requires a lot of skill to do it right. They must:

  • know the topic well
  • help callers clarify points that might not be clear to listeners
  • be able to sniff out trouble before it goes too far
  • be friendly and polite but also firm
  • keep the right emotional tone for the program, (for example, having fun with callers when appropriate, and being more
  • serious or formal when required)
  • solicit a wide range of viewpoints without taking sides.
  • pick up on important points raised by callers, and ask callers to elaborate
  • be able to fill time when no one calls
  • sense when a caller has had enough time, make them feel heard, and then gently say goodbye….and much more!

Starting Up: Use a studio operator or co-host

A call-in makes great demands on the host. It is hard to do all of the host’s tasks and answer calls. If you have more than one call-in line, consider having a second person in the studio to operate for you and take the calls. The operator can also edit text messages, social media comments, and emails so they can be read live on air.

Starting Up: Be alert to hate speech

Have a discussion in your station to find out if anyone else is having problems with hate speakers, and develop a station-wide policy on how to define hate speech, identify it on air, and deal with it. Also, develop a station-wide editorial plan to deal with the problems that are the root causes of hate speech.

Where else can I learn about call-ins?

Internews has produced an excellent toolkit on how to do all kinds of interactive radio programming. 


A format is a specific way that sounds and words are assembled for use in a radio program. Formats include interviews, panel discussions, dramas, vox pops, story-telling, documentaries, tape-talks, host monologues, etc.

An on-air poll is a radio format in which a radio station invites listeners to respond to specific questions by phoning the station. The station usually reports the results of the poll live within the same program.

A promo is a brief message designed to build your audience and encourage listeners to tune in to your farmer program.

Regulations and rules are tools that countries use to make broadcasters comply with the terms of their license and with the laws of the land. Countries can impose warnings, fines, and temporary or permanent closure on stations that do not comply.

A segment is any one (usually regular) part of a radio program.

A time-delayed program uses technology to create a brief time period (for example, 10 seconds) between the moment when a caller speaks and when those words are broadcast. If a caller makes inappropriate or even illegal comments, the station has time to stop those comments from being broadcast.

A vox pop is a radio format in which a broadcaster goes out into the community and asks a range of people the same questions on a topic. The recorded replies are usually edited for length and focus, and are broadcast within a program dealing with that topic. (Vox pop is from the Latin, “vox populi,” meaning “voice of the people.”)


Doug Ward, Chair of the Board, Farm Radio International, and Richard Goddard, Senior Producer, “Cross Country Checkup, Canada’s national open line show” on CBC Radio, and FRI volunteer. With additional contributions from Charles Shanks, Senior Producer, “Cross Country Checkup, Canada’s national open line show” on CBC Radio, and from Liz Hughes, retired CBC journalistic manager and member of the Farm Radio International Board.

This BH2 was originally produced in 2015 and revised in May 2024.

Project undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

This resource was translated with the support of USAID’s New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund, through the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Tanzania. For more information about the Fund, please see: