Listeners & viewers

The audience services squad

Bonding with callers on a station's "front line"

Originally published in Current, Dec. 16, 1996

By Cecilia Capuzzi Simon

Twyla Lozano says she doesn't have to consult a calendar or the night sky to determine when the moon is full. All she has to do is monitor the incoming phone calls at KCPT in Kansas City, where she is the audience services specialist. When the moon is full, she says, she gets the weirdest of what are already some pretty strange calls.

Those on the front line of public broadcasting--answering phone calls and letters from viewers and listeners--know what Lozano is referring to. At KVIE in Sacramento, for example, there was the viewer who called to complain that "The Donner Party" documentary promoted cannibalism. Seattle's KCTS heard from a mother who wept inconsolably on the phone when told that the station had run out of Barney videos. At KCOS in El Paso, a woman called repeatedly for years complaining that the station was sending her "devil messages" (a staffer one day punched a few touch-tones on the phone and the caller, believing the devil had spoken, never called back).

Then there was the caller who asked PBS's Katherine Quintini to track down a program from the 1970s on fleas (no other information provided) and the woman who insisted that the Queen of England was censoring PBS.

Despite such calls--and the humor or heartburn they might provoke--pubcasters recognize that building relationships with their audience is a station's lifeblood. As Heather Mudrick of WEDU in Tampa says, "Every viewer is a potential member." And though WEDU fields a lot of calls from people wanting to know the weather forecast or what time the space shuttle will take off, Mudrick says station personnel always try to provide answers. "A lot of people think of us as a public library, a resource for any and all kinds of stuff," she laughs. "It's not really a bad way to be thought of."

Others on the front line agree: "You need to service your audience," says Kenneth Lawrence, director of programming at KUHT in Houston, "or you'll have no audience to service."

It is this connection that ultimately sets public broadcasting apart from commercial stations and cable networks. But it places mushrooming demands on station personnel at the phones.

When Lozano began work at KCPT a year ago, the station averaged 98 calls a week. At the end of October, calls peaked at 317 per week and since have settled back to about 200 a week. In Boston, WGBH takes more than 3,000 calls a week. Ten people are assigned to handle calls and letters, and still the department is understaffed, according to Roberta MacCarthy, director of marketing and development. At WFYI, Indianapolis, two trained volunteers take 200 calls a week.

Public radio has experienced similar growth. Two years ago, listener calls skyrocketed after NPR decided it could generate more interest in its programming--and more revenue--by systematically promoting its tapes and transcripts after each hour of programming. Its four-person staff was buried by the response. The network installed an automated phone mailbox system and outsourced orders for tapes and transcripts to relieve the burden.

Many factors account for the growth, including stepped-up direct-mail efforts, pledge drives, and even publicity about hotlines for viewers. When Twyla Lozano joined KCPT, the station advertised in its program guide that it hired a person to answer viewers' concerns; this month the station will air spots promoting Lozano's role.

Stations' web sites, meanwhile, are stimulating e-mail. In theory, online information should answer questions, but in practice it encourages a whole new population of viewers to contact their pubcasters. Georgia Public Television's new web site--not yet advertised to the public--is already generating 10 e-mail messages per week. WGBH's web page racks up 200 a week. Last year, the Boston station used a half-time person to handle its online messages; this year it needs full-time attention. Roberta MacCarthy says online communication with viewers is the future and stations need to prepare: "It is an area that's growing by leaps and bounds. And soon every national programmer will have a web site. How do we meet those demands?"

At the least, these changes have many public broadcasters rethinking how to manage and evaluate viewer contacts.

"Getting more calls is a good thing," insists Marcia Killingsworth of the Georgia network, which just hired its first full-time viewer services rep. "So many times people refer to viewer services as 'answering the phone.' Viewer services has become one of those industry buzzwords. We're trying to change that mindset."

The "good thing" Killingsworth refers to takes a couple of forms: More calls means the station is reaching viewers, making a connection and generating interest--in short, reinforcing its community mission.

Bring back the Couch!

The calls, as Twyla Lozano sees them, can also be used as a "tool" by the station.

"Several needs are served for the station when viewers call in," she says. "The station can plan marketing, it can track the effectiveness of its marketing and promotional efforts, and it can tell what programming the public is watching or responding to. A cohesive viewer services program transmits an overall image that the station is involved."

Last summer, for example, KCPT scheduled Big Comfy Couch as a fill-in, aired all the available episodes and took it off the air in the fall. Lozano says the station was immediately "flooded" with calls.

Viewers in Houston had the same response when KUHT pulled Big Comfy Couch. The station also put it back into the schedule. "We depend a lot on viewer calls to let us know what they like and don't like," says KUHT's Lawrence.

But the calls themselves are only one factor in influencing schedule decisions. How many does it take to make a station reschedule a show? Re-air it? Refuse to air it? Refuse to air a repeat? Attach a disclaimer? Run an edited version--or the unȘexpurgated version--of a controversial program? The answer is, it depends.

At KCPT, it took 80 calls over a two-week period to get Big Comfy Couch back on. It took 16 to get the station to air Live at the Met after it had decided not to.

Lawrence at KUHT says he uses calls as "indicators." It is obviously easier, he explains, to respond to calls about kids' shows. From a practical standpoint, there's simply more product available for easy schedule changes. Giving viewers what they want is called "being responsive."

But when it comes to controversial programs for adults, it's harder to make clear-cut decisions. Are public broadcasters "being responsive" to viewers if they air a show that outrages some people--or cancel a program that delights others?

KUHT's Lawrence speaks for many public broadcasters when he says, "We pay attention to calls, but I don't know of any decisions made because of negative calls or the fear of calls."

The calls do generate staff discussion, at least, he says.

The decision to attach a disclaimer to a program may seek to be a simple one, for example, but it's not, according to Lawrence. Nature shows depicting carnivores eating other animals, or medical shows that portray open-heart surgery can profoundly offend certain viewers. After much debate, KUHT concluded that disclaimers themselves sometimes provoke calls because viewers get the idea that they should be offended. When the station does air a disclaimer, it is a generic one.

Tales of the City and Moll Flanders are among the shows that have stirred public sentiment and challenged pubcasters.

KUHT took a lot of heat for airing Tales of the City, not only because some were offended by the program's content, but because others were offended that the station ran an edited version of the miniseries. "We got a lot of mail and phone calls, particularly on one day," Lawrence explains. "Then we found out that a local talk-radio host told his listeners to call us and give us a lot of what-for."

At KCPT, Lozano had a similar experience when the station aired Moll Flanders, whose title character bares her breasts in her career of debauchery. The station tried to head off the onslaught with disclaimers both in the monthly guide and at the beginning of the program. Still, it braced for the complaints. "We're right here in the middle of the Midwest," she says. For some viewers "there is no way you can justify your decision to air it."

Lozano had a different experience with controversial programming while working at KMOS in Warrensburg, Mo. That station refused to air "Tongues Untied," afraid it would offend its rural community. Instead, it got many calls complaining that the station "didn't have the guts to air" the show, Lozano says.

At WGBH, Program Director Ron Bachman says he can't recall pulling back a program because of negative calls, but the station has certainly rejected programs it found inappropriate. Certain episodes of Are You Being Served? are not run because of "questionable ethnic humor," Bachman says.

At the same time, the station makes a point of running certain programming that may be objectionable to some if it serves its niche audiences. "You won't find too many commercial broadcasters willing to air shows about the gay community," Bachman says.

Give them an ear

Beyond the big-picture questions about mission and responsiveness, staffers often face the very basic question of how to deal with the caller who screams in their ears because they had the misfortune of picking up the phone.

Bachman says he ends up with "the really ticked-off calls." He tries not to get defensive. "Most of the time, people just like to express their opinions," he says. Lozano agrees: "You just give them an ear and tell them you appreciate their point of view. When you get calls like that, they've got their minds made up. It's not our job to dissuade them. We just let them know there's someone to talk to."

Viewers have different expectations of their pubcasting station than of commercial media. At Georgia Public Television, Marcia Killingsworth says callers expect a kind of "friendship" with the state network, and that's only right. "The future of public television," she says, "is in relationship-building."

The relationship takes many forms. It may be Frontline using its web site to let viewers share deep feelings about the recent broadcast of "Secret Daughter." It could be hearing out a viewer who copies the wrong number to Sewing With Nancy, and then rants at the station when she reaches a sex line instead. Mostly, as Killingsworth suggests, it's very personal. Killingsworth remembers how an old woman, a shut-in, phoned her or her boss twice a week, for years, until she died. The calls would start off with a question about programming, but move into conversation.

"She was the sweetest thing in the world," says Killingsworth. "We both knew it was important to her to be able to talk to us. We feel the audience deserves our undivided attention. ... Viewers feel vested in us, not only because they support us with their tax dollars. But because they're also vested in us as a family."


The writer, Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, is a freelance journalist and former features editor at Adweek. She teaches journalism at George Washington University and American University.

"A lot of people think of us as a public library, a resource for any and all kinds of stuff," Mudrick laughs. "It's not really a bad way to be thought of."


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