One of the most often asked and most difficult questions for podcasters is, “How can I take live telephone calls on my show?” People have resorted to all sorts of techniques to bring live telephone callers on the air, including connecting a cell phone to the mixer using a TRRS cable and even holding a phone’s speaker up to a microphone. Neither solution is particularly robust.
Radio and TV stations used to use four-wire telephone connections provided by the telephone company for maximum isolation between the caller and the station’s telephone audio. These connections were expensive and, thankfully, are no longer necessary, for several reasons. The first reason is that there are hardware solutions called digital hybrids that provide the same or better results using standard POTS (plain old telephone service) lines, which are cheaper and available everywhere. The second reason is that that are software or cloud solutions that provide excellent results and add features for managing calls that are not available with a digital hybrid.
If you have the budget, one of the best and most reliable solutions is to buy a digital hybrid, such as a Telos Hx2, add two POTS telephone lines, and wire it into your mixer. The Hx2 is a new generation device that uses digital signal processing to maximize the isolation between the caller’s audio and the host’s audio. It also includes algorithms to deal with cell and VOIP phone calls, which have higher latency and are more difficult to null. The Hx2 is about $1300, and two telephone lines with rollover to line two from line one when line one is busy, can be very expensive, from $40 to $100 per month per line. The price is high, but the results are good.
Most hobbyist podcasters want a good solution that is less expensive. There are several options. If you only need to take one caller for your podcast, you can use a VOIP service like Skype (with an incoming number) or Google Voice. Skype allows you to add a second caller to a group call, but that procedure is a good way to really create problems. Both services provide excellent telephone connection service, but they have some limitations. First, if you have a call in progress, a subsequent caller is transferred to voicemail. There is no way to cause the caller to receive a busy signal. Trying to manage voicemail during a live show is ugly. Second, there is no easy way to screen the calls. Both services require a mix minus from the mixer for best performance.
Most podcasts don’t get a lot of telephone calls into the show. However, some do. (One show that we produced a couple of years ago was hosted by a psychic. We had as many as 10 callers at once stacked up waiting to go onto the air.) When you have a large volume of calls, it is essential to have the ability to have the calls pre-screened by a producer. There are some callers who don’t need to go on the air, for any number of reasons.
Blog Talk Radio (BTR) may be the almost-perfect solution. Let’s get one matter out of the way at the beginning. BTR has been one of the most successful online broadcaster platforms in history. They have content producers in every genre and from all parts of the world. There is almost always something interesting being broadcast on BTR at any moment in time. However, BTR to date has been, in essence, a telephone conference bridge. The problem with it being a telephone bridge is that the audio is only slightly better than standard telephone quality. If a show on BTR is hosted by a person who is connecting on a telephone or if a listener is listening over a phone by dialing into the show, the telephone quality is not an issue. However, if someone is listening over the Internet with headphones or speakers, the BTR quality is a problem.
As an aside, BTR is releasing an HD service whereby the audio quality is on par with modern online streaming media. As more hosts learn how to use and actually implement the HD option, the stigma surrounding BTR’s quality will start to fade.
What a lot of people don’t recognize is that even with its telephone-quality platform, BTR is the perfect solution for taking calls into a podcast. Since the callers are on phones, the telephone bridge quality of BTR audio is no issue at all. It’s the purpose for which BTR was designed. Moreover, the BTR Studio has functionality not available elsewhere. When a caller calls in, the BTR dashboard allows a call screener (who can be anywhere in the world) to answer the call, talk with the caller, get important information, and label the caller in the dashboard for the on-air host. When the host is ready to take the next call, he looks down, reads the information on the BTR dashboard, clicks one button, and brings the caller on the air. The dashboard shows how long the caller has been on hold, which caller is on the air, and how long the caller has been on the air. Contrast “Let’s see who’s calling in” with “Merle is on the line and wants to talk about hiring podcast consultants to help him with adding boom and sizzle to his microphone. You’re on the air, Merle.”
You can have as many as 250 callers on hold at once on BTR. Each caller can hear the show audio while they’re on hold. Each caller dials the same telephone number to reach the show. Unfortunately, the number is usually not a local number, but with long distance now being free for most cell phone and telephone users, it’s not an issue. A lot of people probably don’t know which area codes are local any more.
After you’ve done a show using BTR as a telephone bridge, your show is recorded for future listeners on BTR and also syndicated as an episode on an RSS feed to all your other download-based listening channels.. If you want, you can edit your locally recorded show and then upload it to BTR to replace your live show. Then, future listeners will hear your show in high bandwidth audio. When the HD roll out is complete, this step will not be necessary.
BTR charges $39 per month for an account that includes the ability to broadcast up to two hours per day. That length is long enough for most podcasters. Also a little known fact is that, aside from the use of Studio, this plan also comes with an unlimited media hosting plan, RSS feed service, and embeddable audio player widgets to power streaming audio on your site and on your social channels, working as a hub of your podcasting operations. You can upload and host as many podcast episodes created off the system per month with no change in costs (or even using Studio) even if your show turns out to be a blockbuster with millions of listeners.You can get up to a three-hour block if you need more time, but that plan is more expensive. If you ever decide to leave BTR, your RSS feed is completely mobile in that the company will redirect it for you.
There are some BTR and YouTube videos on how to operate the Studio feature, and the BTR staff provide tutorials and are eager to provide assistance. It’s a little confusing at first, but the learning curve is very quick.
One of the podcasters I help is getting ready to take live calls, and he needs to be able to take multiple calls that have been screened. The radio station on which his show airs does not have the option to add phone lines because of cabling issues from its telephone provider, and it is limited to a very minimal Internet package, ruling out VOIP. The BTR Studio will allow the remote host to take and manage his own telephone calls. Blog Talk Radio is the perfect solution to this problem.