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Storytelling tips and best practices

Get closer to your audience with an audio callout

• October 9, 2015

At Morning Edition we’ve had fun experimenting with audio callouts. Our listeners record their response with their smartphone’s memo app and then send them to us via email. We’ve asked listeners to share their stories on everything from the Paris “love locks” to the ambient sound of daybreak in their backyards.

The responses are intimate, funny — full of nervous laughter and those long, pregnant pauses. In the unedited recordings, you could hear the jangle of car keys and the whir of a tea kettle as they narrated tales during a commute or a work break. And the added beauty of voice memos is they connect us with listeners we may not have found through traditional reporting methods.

The WNYC podcast Death, Sex and Money inspired my interest in the art of the audio callout. Sometimes the team builds an entire episode from listeners’ submissions. They’ve asked people for their stories on cheating, living alone and, siblings, among others. I spoke to Death, Sex and Money Producer Katie Bishop to find out what the DSM team has learned after a year of audio callouts.

10 things to think about before composing an audio callout

Is this a story that needs listener input?

Are listeners likely to respond to the topic? Would you be inspired enough to spend a few minutes of your day recording your voice and sending it to a stranger?

Find the best platforms for the audio callout

There are the usual suspects (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) but think about other spaces that might have a higher response rate. When we wanted listeners to share their favorite Seinfeld line, we posted a note in the /r/Seinfeld subreddit. Bishops says Death, Sex and Money reaches out to listeners on air, on social media and through an email newsletter.

Make the callout specific

For example, in the Seinfeld callout, we asked people to describe the scene leading up to their favorite line. This made it easy for us to play around with mixing listener audio and Seinfeld audio. Also, don’t forget to let them know their recording could air on the show!

Consider phrasing

Bishop says DSM callouts are most successful when they ask listeners to simply “Tell us your story.” “It allows people to maybe take it in a more personal direction,” Bishop says. She prefers the phrase to other options like “we want to hear about ____” because it’s more gentle and inviting. “It tells people you don’t have to be an expert on the issue,” she says.

Point them to a destination

Morning Edition and DSM both tell listeners to send the audio file to a communal email address. That way, multiple people can have access to the responses. Plus, most people use email — young and old — so you’re likely to get more diverse stories. It also leaves room for much more detail than 140 characters.

No luck? Refine the callout and try again

If you have time, think about how you could be more specific and post the callout again. DSM just aired its piece about siblings, but Bishop says they’ve been asking for stories since February. After the team received emails from listeners asking if they could talk about their experiences of growing up without siblings, the team made the wording of the callout much more inclusive.

Verify what you can

Protect identities if necessary but always ask managers beforehand. Refer to the NPR Social Media ethics code for more guidance.

Make the audio clips “talk” to one another

“They’re not just random little blips of audio, they are telling a story, and there should be an arc and flow to that story,” Bishop says. Music breaks can help with pacing.

Thank your contributors

They did a lot of the work for you! And even though they’ve technically already agreed to have their stories broadcast nationally, it’s always good to give them a heads up about when it will air. If for some reason their story doesn’t air on the show, find other ways to share the good submissions. DSM shares snippets of listener contributions in its weekly newsletter.

Leave the door open for more engagement

Bishop’s team logs listener responses in a spreadsheet and keeps an email folder of replies by callout. Bishop says she sometimes passes on messages from listeners who want to reach out to an interviewee whose story touched them. “That is how you build community, having listeners respond to each other and hear each others’ stories.”


Kate Parkinson-Morgan is a former NPR social media intern. A version of this post originally appeared in NPR’s Social Media Desk Tumblr.