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Podcasters & Radio Producers: We’ve Been Excluding Millions from Our Conversations

I just figured out a way to make listener participation far more inclusive and I did it by realizing how exclusive it had been.

Voicemail lines for listener feedback has been a staple of podcasts since the beginning and call-in lines for radio have been with us for decades. It’s time for an inclusive upgrade.

The Problem: Who are we NOT hearing from?

My anecdotal data is far from scientific, but it is illustrative of clearly-recognized, wider trends.

Fewer Calls Overall:

I’ve been producing my podcast since 2006 and I’ve had a listener voicemail line since 2009. Back then, it was normal to receive a dozen or more calls each week. Ten years later, receiving only two voicemails in a week is more normal, even as my download numbers increased.

Gender Disparity:

Here’s another trend, way more men call the show than women. Seriously, WAY more. And before you jump to conclusions, my latest demographics survey says the audience is statistically even.

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During 2020, I’ve received voicemails from 29 men and 11 women, nearly a 3 to 1 ratio. But when you consider that many people call in multiple times, it gets worse. 29 men have made 109 calls while 11 women made only 18.

Age disparity:

This one is harder to measure, for obvious reasons. That said, it is clear that voicemails are left, on average, by those in GenX and older. As an elder Millennial myself, it’s pretty rare to hear from people younger than me. And again, my demographics survey says that about 50% of my audience is 35 and under.

So, how much of an open conversation with the audience am I really having?

Generational Phone Phobia, the Socialization of Men and Women, and Other Communities We’ve Ignored

This article isn’t going to go into the details of the general downward trend of phone use, phone phobia/anxiety which disproportionately impacts younger generations or the tendency for women to not feel comfortable speaking their opinions in a variety of scenarios.

Nor do I have the expertise to detail the many other groups of people who you won’t hear from on a call-in show or voicemail line, such as those with hearing and speech impairment, those learning English as a second language not yet confident in their new tongue, those with accents that make them hesitant to speak up or even just those who need to write things down to get their thoughts straight.

So let’s take it as granted that these massive structural trends have something to do with the pattern we’re seeing in voicemail messages, make a point to no longer ignore communities of people who simply don’t or can’t communicate in a traditional audio context, and move on to a solution.

We Can Do Better

As podcasters and radio producers seeking to make a connection with our listeners (and those reading our transcripts), and helping them make connections with each other, if we stick exclusively with traditional voicemail and call-in lines then the biggest loss will be the perspectives we never hear and don’t even know we’ve missed out on.

But wait, why not just read emails from listeners? Because listening to someone read emails is boring. It’s a solid rule-of-thumb to do this as little as possible and if you’re going to do it, the best way is to hand off to a co-host who reads the message that you can then respond to. This helps break up the auditory monotony and signals to listeners that what they’re hearing is from someone else. It’s not ideal in any case, doubly so if you don’t have a co-host.

VoicedMail for the Otherwise Unheard

My proposal is that we give voice to the far more numerous and diverse perspectives we receive through emails and comments and encourage even more people to send in their messages. Huge portions of our audiences have things to say but just aren’t comfortable calling in to a live show, making an audio recording or think it’s even worth the effort to write in a message that won’t be shared.

“VoicedMail” is the term I have coined to describe the creation of audio messages from text sources using human-sounding text-to-speech voice technology and playing them on a radio show or podcast. Making this an additional communication option for listeners means that you will be able to share with your audience the perspectives of a range of people who never would have been heard from otherwise.

Speaking of giving options, you can also give people an option of what voice they would like to have represent their messages.

Software

Now, I’m not here to write an ad for any particular company, this is not a sponsored post and these are not affiliate links so please use whatever software works for you. But if you’re interested, I use Descript and their feature “Stock Voices” to make my VoicedMails.

The Response

After a month of offering VoicedMail, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Regular callers are excited that we’re expanding the conversation (no, they don’t mind the robot voices) and the VoicedMails have been rolling in, plus the promise of more to come:

“I love the voiced mail section. I’ve mentioned before that I’m autistic and can’t call, but would love to contribute. I’m so glad to have an option.” — Listener email

Not everyone who sends a VoicedMail tells me why they are choosing to do it, but the “why” really doesn’t matter — all that matters is they now have a way to be heard.

Unforeseen Benefits

Here’s the bottom line: accessible design benefits not just a few people, it benefits everyone. From closed captioning, to curb cuts, to automatic sliding doors, to text messaging — these are all modifications and communication tools that were originally introduced to accommodate people with disabilities. Today, these accessible features are so seamlessly integrated into our daily routines that they become taken for granted. When we design universally, all of society is rewarded in sometimes-unforeseeable ways. As custodians of what is known as an “intimate” medium where deep and thoughtful conversations are possible, let’s make sure that everyone is invited to the discussion. We are all sure to be better off for it.

Jay! Tomlinson hosts and produces Best of the Left, an award-winning, expertly-(and human!)-curated podcast of progressive politics and culture. Est. 2006. Contact: Jay@BestOfTheLeft.com

Written by

Producer and host of the Best of the Left podcast since 2006. Punctuator of my name with an exclamation point since 1999.

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