How do radio talk shows broadcast phone calls?

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How do radio talk shows broadcast phone calls?
Phone interfaces can route calls through an audio console. (console de mixage. image by Blue Moon from Fotolia.com)

Radio talk shows typically use specialised equipment to broadcast phone calls on the air. These devices are called phone interfaces or phone hybrids. Interfaces allow radio hosts to communicate with callers through in-studio consoles rather than through a regular telephone handset. Compared to holding a phone receiver up to a microphone, a professional interface provides better sound quality and a more convenient way for radio hosts to interact with callers.

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Purpose

Phone interfaces produce better-sounding audio because of their ability to separate incoming and outgoing audio. A regular receiver is more prone to "bleed," meaning that the two types of audio interfere with each other. Some phone interfaces help separate the two kinds of audio by continuously adjusting input and output volumes. For instance, the volume of a caller's voice may be lowered by several decibels while a radio host is talking.

Other Controls

A phone interface can have several other types of controls. All interfaces have a switch that deactivates the phone's receiver and instead routes the caller's voice through a different device. Some phone interfaces also have an auto-answer feature, which picks up incoming calls after just one ring. Automatic gain-control settings automatically adjust the volume if a caller's voice is especially loud or soft.

Regulations

The Federal Communications Commission requires that anyone who wants to broadcast or record phone calls notify all parties involved in advance. Some radio hosts continually violate the FCC rule by, for instance, making prank phone calls. If the FCC receives a complaint, it may fine the radio station. Some stations try to avoid complaints by obtaining permission from the recipients of prank phone calls afterward. People who call radio talk shows, however, need not give formal consent to have their voices used on the air. The FCC states broadcasts or recordings in those cases are customary.

Tape Delay

Radio hosts who conduct their shows live also often use a tape-delay system. That means the broadcast is not truly "live," but rather a few seconds behind. Delaying the broadcast by this short amount of time allows radio stations to mute or edit out profanity, if needed. Tape-delay systems often have a "dump" button that, when pressed, switches the broadcast from a delayed to a live signal, removing the few seconds of offending material. The system then gradually inserts pauses in the broadcast to restore the delay.

Legal Issues

The availability of tape-delay technology has led to increasing expectations that radio and television stations will use it. The FCC argued, for instance, that CBS should have used a tape delay during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, when Janet Jackson's breast was exposed. The FCC fined CBS £357,500. CBS is appealing the fine.

Pre-recording

Some phone conversations you hear during talk radio shows may be delayed by more than just a few seconds. Phone interfaces allow hosts to record calls, not just broadcast them live. Recording calls during a commercial break or before or after a show, allows broadcasters to edit conversations for time or clarity, or to remove stutters.

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