“Hi There… You’re On The Air”

Nov 1, 2016

The moment of greatest trust between a talk show host and a listener starts with a casual turn of phrase:  “Let’s take a call.”

What happens next can be the real beauty of a live program — A spontaneous exchange grounded in civility and mutual respect for each other’s intelligence.

Or… it could go the other way, allowing an off-topic caller or a bad phone connection to take over for a few merciless minutes.

As producer of JPR’s daily call-in program, The Jefferson Exchange, I often ask myself which topics and guests will turn our listeners into participants willing to share thoughtful perspectives on the air.

After all, that is the main reason we perform feats of air traffic control to put on a live show early each weekday morning, instead of taping interviews at the convenience of each guest. Real-live callers make these interviews more interesting and more reflective of what it means to live in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

There's a lot of air to go around and plenty of room for people with varying backgrounds and experiences to join in the conversation.

Making sure anybody listening can join the conversation is a hard thing very much worth doing.

But what makes a person pick up the phone in the first place?

To contemplate this question, I first considered our regular callers... Mark in Redding, John in Grants Pass, Ryan in Eugene... They are just a few among a loyal cadre of listeners who frequently participate via phone or email.

The one thing most of these regulars have in common is their gender.

In fact, 71 percent of calls to the Exchange during 2016 were attributable to male voices.

When we started keeping track of that about a year ago, it really had me scratching my head. Where were all the “lady voices”? Were women even listening? If so, why didn’t they chime in when the host graciously solicited calls a few times every hour?

Unable to answer the big questions, I began to reflect on our daily decisions and my own contributions to the program.

You might hear me on the air sometimes, since I’ve started hosting a few times a month and co-piloting a segment on Wednesdays with our regular host and all-around fearless leader, Geoffrey Riley. But my greater influence definitely lies behind the scenes, where I select nearly all of the guests, about 1,000 bookings over the last year.

As of this writing, 59 percent of those guests were men, and 40 percent were women, with gender nonconforming people comprising less than one percent.

I’m proud to say that those numbers reflect some strides towards balance in this particular category. In the last year, we’ve carved about nine percentage points off the disparity between male and female voices on the Exchange, both in our calls and our guests.

We’ve done this through a concentrated effort to create a more inclusive program, with lots of energy in particular going into rethinking a weekly segment comprised mostly of calls from around the region, formerly known as VENTSDay.

The idea is this: We throw out a topic or two and open the phone lines so that listeners can vent their opinions and swap personal experiences between 8:30-9, every Wednesday morning.

The problem with VENTSDay was that the phone bank tended to become a line-up of the same voices every week.

So, we began tweaking, gently at first. I joined Geoff on the air as a host.  Then we started to more carefully consider how a question is framed and who it will reach. For example, instead of asking people how they felt about abortion policy during a segment in May, we asked them about the impacts of unintended pregnancy in their own families.

Women called, and several declined to give even their first names and towns, for fear of being identified as they expressed regret about having children when they weren’t prepared to care or pay for them, or about what it’s like to have an abortion in the State of Jefferson.

Amanda in Medford did give her name, appearing in our call logs for the first time. She called to urge everyone listening just to “[be] there for people that you know, and [be] an ear for people who have experienced the process of abortion. There aren’t support groups when you live in rural communities and it’s really hard to find a group without an agenda.”

In another attempt to reach people who are unlikely to call in with their opinions, we post a survey each week to JeffExchange.org and then share it all over Facebook. To this end, I’m lucky to be part of several dozen community-based groups on Facebook, an inclusion that helps me break the feedback loop of my own social media feed. I get the privilege of regularly hearing from people I don’t already know, or necessarily agree with, and then I get to bring them all together through an open-ended, non-judgmental survey question. It’s a fascinating process every week, and I hope you’ll join in by following @JeffersonExchange on FB and Twitter.

We’ve also established a voicemail for people who aren’t on social media, don’t want to deal with a live phone bank, but can still drop off their opinions before the Wednesday program.

The topic changes every week, and that line is 541-552-6331.

The point of all this is definitely NOT to exclude anyone’s voice, especially those of our longtime, loyal callers. But, there’s a lot of air to go around and plenty of room for people with varying backgrounds and experiences to join in the conversation.

With these ideas at heart, we’re turning a new leaf on the Exchange in 2017, beginning with a name change from VENTSday to TwoCentsDay.

I’m looking forward to another year of those spontaneous exchanges grounded in civility and mutual respect for other people’s intelligence.

Speaking of which, we recently invited Marjorie Trueblood-Gamble of Southern Oregon University to try her hand at guest-hosting an hour, when both of the guests also happened to be women.

Marjorie did a great job during her very first time at the helm of a live broadcast, and the conversation managed to nab one more long-time listener, first time caller.

Shortly after I screened that call, one of our regular callers landed in the phone bank. He declined to go on the air with a comment, but wanted to ask me privately why I had only included women in this particular segment.

I couldn’t help but laugh, and thank him for taking the time to call.

That’s 1-800-838-3760, or email us, jx@jeffnet.org.

Emily Cureton is the producer and engineer of the Jefferson Exchange, heard on JPR’s News & Information Service weekdays, and online at ijpr.org.