Talk Show Best Practices

Project Background

The PRPD/LNI "Sense of Place" research study concluded that the performance of public radio's local news and information programming too often fails to deliver on its promise. Listeners in the study repeatedly described the quality of this programming as "hit or miss."

The study also found that call-in talk programs "split the core" audience - appealing to those who enjoy the companionship, but repelling an important segment who find callers uninformed.

There are strong system-wide aspirations to expand local news service, but the 2006 NPR Local News Station Survey revealed many stations already badly under-resourced and poorly positioned to succeed.

Listeners have clearly told us that to provide the value they expect, we need to make a commitment to do only what we can do well - and do well consistently. The PRPD/LNI Talk Show Best Practices Project was created to provide guidelines, training, and tools like the Talk Show Matrix that can strengthen the planning and production of local programming.

Talk Show Best Practices Matrix

The project has created a three-dimensional matrix for talk programmers. The matrix includes:

  • A listing of the elements of successful talk shows
  • The actions that need to be taken to deliver on those elements
  • Tools to help talk programmers carry out those actions

The elements in the matrix are organized around:

  • The selection and shaping of content
  • The selection and shaping of talent
  • The selection and shaping of craft

- the "what", "who" and "how" of the programming we put on the air.

Created by KUOW Program Director Jeff Hansen and LNI Station Projects Manager Marcia Alvar, the matrix should be considered a "work in progress" as PRPD and the LNI continue refining the matrix to assure utility and add more tools.

Talk Show Summit: Beyond Hit or Miss - Building Better Talk Shows

A national gathering of talk show producers, hosts and station Program Directorss, convened to help identify and develop "next steps" for the Talk Show Best Practices Project.

Meeting Background

The meeting title echoes one of the key listener findings from the 2006 PRPD/LNI research project: Sense of Place: The Value and Values of Localism when listeners around the country consistently described the quality of public radio's local talks shows as "hit or miss."

The summit was planned and facilitated by PRPD President Arthur Cohen, as well as KUOW Program Director Jeff Hansen and LNI Project Manager Marcia Alvar who developed the Talk Show Matrix.

Station attendees included Colorado Public Radio, KNPR, KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, KUOW, KXJZ, North Country Public Radio, Vermont Public Radio, WCPN, Wisconsin Public Radio, WNPR, WNYC and WUNC.

Summit Goals

The four main goals of the summit were to:

  1. Refine and advance the "best practices" identified in the PRPD/LNI Talk Show Best Practices Matrix.
  2. Determine if there is a need and constituency for new training programs and/or conferences targeted to public radio's talk programmers.
  3. Develop specific ideas for the type of training/conferences that might be desired
  4. Begin developing a common language to discuss the broad range of programs currently called talk shows.*

* Even the relatively small group of stations at the summit represented an enormous range of presentation; from what we called an "Uber-Produced" program (entirely pre-edited and pre-produced) to "Radio Verite" - all live with very few filters in place including little or no pre-screening of callers on whom these programs rely heavily.

Getting Ready for the Discussion

To prepare for the summit, attendees were asked to;

  • Review and critique the Talk Show Best Practices Matrix
  • Prepare a self-assessment of their program
  • Provide brief audio excerpts from their program to illustrate both successes and shortcomings.

These materials provided the focus for the meeting agenda.

We want to thank the participants for the hard work they did to prepare for the summit, and their willingness to share both their aspirations and assessments of their programs.

Attendee Goals

To kick off the discussion, attendees were asked to share what they hoped the Talk Show Project could achieve. These are the goals they identified:

  • A shared vocabulary - what we mean by words like:
    • "Talk show"
    • Host "opinion"
    • Host "personality"
  • A stronger sense of community among system peers
  • Training
  • Articulation of best practices
  • Staffing information
    • Role of Producer
    • Hiring/Career path
  • How to build audience
  • Knowing what audience expects of us
  • Standards/practices for partnerships
  • How to do research - clearinghouse
  • Learn how to measure impact
  • How to measure success
  • The right topic mix - national/local
  • Aircheck standards for talk shows
  • Promotion
  • Dealing with topics that need repeated/continued coverage over time
  • Awards/recognition for talk shows

Possible Outcomes/Future Projects:

Attendees suggested a number of activities to help strengthen public radio talk programs. PRPD and LNI have already begun work on several of these ideas and welcome any potential partners who want to support and participate in this important work:

  • Issue a broader "call" to stations throughout public radio for examples of current talk show practices and tools that may serve as models for others.
  • Explore the creation of regional training sessions. These would be hosted by a station that produces a talk show. Observation of the planning, production and critique of the show would be incorporated into the training agenda.
  • Develop training that helps people become trainers themselves - a "Train the Trainers" approach that can strengthen full station staffs rather than just the one person who can attend a workshop.
  • Use the web to provide ongoing listening sessions and critiques as well as topic-focused webinars.
  • Refine the Matrix and reversion into other forms such as handbooks that could be focused in a variety of ways:
  • Issue a broader "call" to stations throughout public radio for examples of training activities they feel could strengthen the listener service of public radio talk programs.

Defining the successful elements; Actions needed to establish those conditions; Tools to make it happen

The Public Radio Talk Show Handbook

The Public Radio Talk Show Handbook is public radio’s first comprehensive online guide to creating and producing local news/information/talk programming. Written by LNI Project Manager Marcia Alvar, KUOW Program Director Jeff Hansen and PRPD President Arthur Cohen, the handbook identifies a broad array of best practices and tools to help stations deliver high quality local shows on a consistent basis.

With input from station program directors, show producers and hosts, the guide provides sound advice covering all aspects of local show production – from that first idea for doing a show to the demands and details of day-to-day production;

  • The Listener Service Foundation - What we know about public radio listeners; who they are, what draws them to us and what they expect when they tune in.
  • Building a Strong Infrastructure – A checklist for planning your program’s mission, format, staffing, funding and sustainability.
  • Editorial Planning - Proven practices, tips and tools for selecting and shaping your show’s content
  • On the Air - Hosting and interviewing, caller screening, handling and the craft and formatic details and promotion and marketing that go into making great shows.

A growing index of tools is also provided.

The LNI and PRPD want to add even more tools and resources so if you’ve got something to share with your public radio colleagues, we invite you to email it to us at

October 10, 2008: Project Announces Plans for New Handbook and Workshop for Talk Programmers

During a 2008 PRPD Conference session called Building Better Talk Shows, LNI Project Manager Marcia Alvar and KUOW Program Director and PRPD Board member Jeff Hansen engaged attendees in a discussion of talk show best practices, and previewed both a comprehensive new handbook and workshop for station news/information/talk shows:

  • The session featured an abbreviated version of the airchecking session done at last June's Talk Show Summit in Denver.
  • The outline for a new handbook for Talk programmers was presented which incorporates a number of suggestions made at the summit about the Project's Talk Show Best Practices Matrix.
  • Plans were also unveiled for a new regional talk show workshop that will be piloted in 2009. A pilot workshop will be done prior to the 2009 PRNDI Conference June 10-13 in Portland, OR. The LNI's new J-MEGS will also be offered. A new workshop from the Morning Edition Grad School team, J-MEGS will focus entirely on the local journalism stations produce for Morning Edition.