Kelly Riner is an assignment editor at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC. Kelly’s experience ranges from producing to working on the assignment desk. She also field produces and plans special projects. Kelly graduated University Valedictorian from North Carolina State University with a degree in Communication Media, and she has a Masters of Humanities from Duke University. She’s worked at WRAL for 14 years, and prior to that, she wrote for the Fayetteville Observer. Kelly also oversees the News Production Assistants at the station.
An internship or entry-level position at most TV stations will likely include a quick lesson on answering viewer phone calls. If you’re asked to help on the assignment desk, any assignment editor will gladly let you navigate your way through viewer calls starting on day one. There are those calls that are easy: people asking about programming, people wanting to know the high temperature for the day, or people asking about information included in a news story. The rest of the questions, well, they can be quite varied!
Within your first few days, you’ll surely have had your first “crazy caller.” You’ll most definitely have handled your first “angry caller.” And then there are those who call with story ideas and you won’t know if they’re legitimate, crazy, or a combination of both. Working on the assignment desk for 14 years, I’ve heard just about everything a viewer can say, yet I’m still taken by surprise occasionally. People have told me over and over again I should write a book about some of the wild things people say.
One day, I may. However, this blog is about how to handle these viewers. No matter what you may think of the caller, remain professional and calm. When a viewer is yelling at you, don’t raise your voice back and don’t get caught up in an argument with the viewer. You will not win, so just listen. Do not let your personal feelings, political persuasions, or views on a topic come out. Remain neutral. If someone begins cursing at you, politely tell the person you will be hanging up, and they are welcome to call back when they are able to talk with out cursing.
If someone calls in with a story idea, take their information. Be sure and get their name and telephone number. Also find out from where they are calling. If it is something a reporter will pursue, the reporter will need as much information as possible. Follow through, and be sure and tell the assignment editor or producer about the story suggestion immediately. If it is a tip about a crime or accident, tell the others on the desk, and immediately start making phone calls to confirm the tip.
As tempting as it may be, don’t make fun of viewers who call on social media. You never know who may follow you on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Remember you represent your station. You in no way want to call out someone and have them see it and then believe the TV station is making fun of them or mocking them.
Treat viewers with respect. Many have likely watched your station for years. They come to think of the on-air talent as friends and family. They feel compelled to call because they believe they know you. Sometimes they are older, sometimes they have challenges, and sometimes they live alone. It’s sad to think about, but people do call the TV station just because they want someone to talk to them. Be compassionate, and give them some of your time. Believe me, you won’t realize it when they call at the busiest time of the day or catch you just as your logging off to go home, but after a while, if a few days go by and you don’t hear from one of your “regulars,” you’ll start to worry about them. My colleagues and I have called nursing homes or people’s home numbers just to check and make sure some of our viewers are ok.
Bottom line, viewer phone calls will run the gamut. From some, you’ll get invaluable news tips that help you and your station win on breaking news. Some will make you feel like a punching bag as they complain about something on your air or some wrong-doing they’ve experienced. Some will make you laugh out loud. And some will annoy you every day with their crazy questions, their weird assertions about news stories, etc. But, remember they aren’t just random people. They are your viewers. They keep the TV station going. And along the way, some of those crazy viewers may just become a friend or great tipster. Be nice, help when you can, and treat them like you’d want to be treated. This part of your job is all about customer service.