I do not condone Rush Limbaugh’s word choice and characterizations of Sandra Fluke. No woman deserves to be called a “slut” or ” prostitute” or any other derogatory phrase. I do not condone ex-WDAE morning guy Dan Sileo’s characterization of three African American NFL players as “monkeys.” Howard Cosell was fired nearly 30 years ago for pretty much the same thing. I also heard the “n” word un-bleeped on a syndicated show last week, which I do not condone.
So here are my questions…And answers.
Why is this happening? How is this happening? Who is to blame? Who is responsible? How does this impact radio? How should radio deal with it?
Talk radio is a tight rope walk. We ask talent to spend three hours a day entertaining, informing, dishing big opinions and driving conversations. We want hosts to “cut through the clutter,” “be passionate,” and “take risks,” while simultaneously protecting our company brands. This is hard to do and mistakes will happen. This is why companies provide a net in the form of board operators and producers. Talent need to rely on and respect these roles more — and the people in these positions need to speak up and take action when a talent crosses the line. Here is an idea; use the dump button…or tell the host they’ve gone too far. If you sit there and laugh with them like it’s a 1960s fraternity house, the content will likely degenerate. This isn’t the producer and board operators fault, but it is their responsibility along with the host.
What frustrates me is that radio is getting beat up as a dying industry everywhere I look and these outdated, racist, sexist, and irresponsible comments reinforce those claims and further suggest the medium is irrelevant and obsolete. The reality is radio has been and can continue to be a remarkable platform for lively debate and conversation about important issues and help to provide understanding. At its best talk radio is informative, entertaining, compelling, thought provoking, in-the-moment, interesting, fun and relevant. As an industry we provide the sound track to people’s life, we start conversations, we tell stories of triumph and tragedy to better understand the human condition, we care for and take care of our communities, and we create an invisible, powerful, connective tissue through the lives of our listeners which creates an amazing bond that has helped stations across the country in the past year alone raise millions and millions of dollars for good causes.
That being said, we are in a business that requires an understanding that things will get said that shouldn’t be said. Mistakes happen. This is talk radio. We will provoke at times and upset groups of people. As a PD it is my job to be calm in the middle of the storm. Programming decisions should never be made in the middle of a fire storm. It is our job (my job) to listen to the people complaining, listen to the actual audio of what was said, and then formulate my response. If lines were crossed –apologies should be made (as insincere as you may think he was, at least Rush did this). And then after everyone takes a deep breath, ask yourself a couple of questions; is this show representative of the kind of show you want on your station? Does it attract the audience you are targeting? Is the host chronically crossing the line ( your line, the FCC’s line, the community standards)? and if so, is the reward ( ratings and revenue) worth the risk? We are in the radio business and we need to make business decisions.
Finally, radio needs a shot in the arm and not another punch to the gut. Somehow, someway everyone who believes as strongly in this medium as I do needs to be actively promoting its awesomeness. 90+% of everyone (a totally made up stat) listens to radio. They are already believers in the medium, let’s remind them of it. Tell your friends why you love radio (#iloveradio) and I will do the same. Together we can rekindle people’s passion for absolutely free, wireless, instant information and entertainment available nationwide at the touch of a button…that is still legal to access while driving.
Focus. That’s how you get things done — including ratings. In this world of “I want what I want when I want it wherever I am” – it’s important you think about what you do and why you do it.
Do you know what your show is about? Not only specifically today’s show, but the show in general. What’s it about? What’s the listener benefit? How do listener’s use your show? Are you meeting their expectation every time you crack the mic?
Do you know who you are? What’s your personality? Go ahead, describe you in a sentence. Do you want to hang out with you? Are you unique, authentic, original? Do you fill a hole on the station, in the market? What should people expect when they tune into you? Do you fulfill that expectation?
Do you know what you’re talking about? Do you know why you’re talking about it? Do you know why you like this story? What attracted you to it? What are you going to do with it? What’s your point? What’s the payoff? What’s the listener benefit?
It’s not only about who’s talking and what you talk about, but how you talk about it and how it exceeds the listener expectation. Radio is fun, but it’s not only fun – it’s a business. One way to better ratings is to focus your show, focus your topics, and focus your personality.
I know what you’re thinking – Larry’s lost it. I know Oprah has become the manly man’s kryptonite, but love her or hate her; it’s undeniable that Oprah understands broadcasting and how to connect with an audience. In her Master Class series on OWN, Oprah passed along insights that apply to all of us in the industry.
- Whether she’s speaking to one hundred, ten thousand or a million people, Oprah seizes each as an opportunity to educate, inspire or uplift. She wants people to walk away saying, “I never thought of it that way.”
- Oprah is a collector of experiences. She uses these experiences to understand what she doesn’t know, so she can be a bridge for her fans. In turn, she shares and creates these experiences for as many people as she can. As a side note: one my fraternity brothers – a former wrestler and football player – was on Oprah’s Australian trip this year for “ultimate fans” and is now spreading the word of the power and mystique of the Oprah experience.
- Oprah goes out of her way to be a story teller. She puts a human face on stories and, though often extreme, finds the commonality between the person she’s interviewing and the people who are watching and explores it so everyone can learn and grow.
WHATS THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ME?
I believe these ideas hold true for sports and talk radio too.
- Every time you crack the microphone you have an opportunity and obligation to inform, educate, inspire, or entertain. You can help people think differently and motivate an army of fans with the sound of your voice. There is a big responsibility that goes with that.
- Experience life, share it with your fans, and look for opportunities to create experiences for others.
- Tell stories about people. Whatever it is you decide to talk about, put a face on it. Tell their story. And then search for the humanness in that story, the universal truths to which fans generally respond like courage, selfishness, camaraderie, sacrifice, pride, hubris, fear, success and failure.
As a news-talk or sports host, you have an opportunity to impact and influence people. Be cautious and conscious with this privilege.
Every day I talk to hosts who strive to model themselves after someone who is already successful. They say, “I want to be the next Rush Limbaugh, Dan Patrick or Jim Rome.” Newsflash: Those shows already exist. Success isn’t found in the shadows of giants, it’s found under the feet of the most creative, entrepreneurial, daring, vulnerable, honest, talented and motivated amongst us.
So, here are the Larry Gifford Media six keys to success for a talk host.
1. Be yourself, which is to be different than everyone else. Individual perspective and experience is the catalyst for creativity.
2. Be a trailblazer. Build your show around your talent and then hustle to sell yourself and your show every day to the listeners, clients, staff, and management. Figure out how you can be a personality on the radio station instead of the host of a show.
3. Be bold. Take risks. Don’t fear failure, learn from it. Surprise your fans.
4. Be open. Give yourself permission to be emotional, impassioned, and wrong. Be self-deprecating. Allow the listeners to know who you really are.
5. Speak your truth. Enterprise your own content. Notice what you notice in the world. Have opinions, perspective, and insight. Challenge conventional wisdom. Be informative and entertaining. (and self-deprecating).
6. Surround yourself with people you trust, people who will challenge you and people who make you better. And listen to them.
Dodgers radio play-by-play announcer Charley Steiner was seven years old when he first heard Vin Scully calling Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games while growing up in New York. Today, he is friends and colleagues with Scully and has dinner with him before every Dodgers home game.
“I pinch myself. It can’t be much cooler than this.”
In an interview with Larry Gifford Media, Steiner’s voice is filled with all the excitement of the same little boy who huddled around an over-sized Zenith radio in his Mom’s kitchen to listen to Scully’s poetic description of the Dodgers all those years ago. And at times, Steiner finds it hard to put what it means to him into words.
“It’s one of those things where I can’t tell you how lucky I am to have done what I’ve done, to end up where I have been and to have dinner with whom I have dinner. It’s…it’s…it’s….it’s Alice in Wonderland.”
“I freely admit I get to play pepper with Babe Ruth every day. It ain’t bad.”
Every Dodgers home game, Steiner, Scully, Rick Monday and Billy Delury sit down at the same table, in the same seats at the same time (“5:30, like clockwork”) at Dodgers Stadium. For 45 minutes, the four men talk about the issues of the day.
“Vin reads every section of the newspaper every day. So we will spend as much time talking before a game about life, about a political issue or whatever, as well as how well ‘he’ hung the curve ball in the sixth inning last night.”
Spending so much time with Scully has helped Steiner develop a wicked good impersonation of the Hall of Fame announcer. His voice jumps from the depths of his belly to the top of his nose and dances out of his mouth like ice cream cone dripping down your hand on a hot summer day. Imitation is the finest form of flattery and Steiner doesn’t hold back.
Steiner continues, “You know that old sports cliché: the game speeds up for young guys and slows up for veterans? The game comes slow to him. I mean that in the highest regard. His brain is working a mile a minute. It’s like Keanu Reeves’ character in Matrix, deflecting bullets in slow motion, that’s Vin!”
The lessons learned from Scully for Steiner reach far beyond the broadcast booth.
“I’ve learned as much off the air and how he conducts himself as I have on the air. There’s a sense of composure both on and off the air. There is a separation between the on-air persona and who you are and being able to leave that other stuff at the door when the game begins.”
On March 31st, Steiner will be in the booth as Scully opens his 62nd season as the voice of the Dodgers. Scully will call the first three and last three innings on Talk Radio 790, KABC radio in Los Angeles, with Steiner and Monday doing the middle three innings.
Charley Steiner on Vin Scully - Listen to Steiner’s comments on Scully
Charley Steiner Interview Podcast-40 minutes - Listen to complete interview with Steiner
We are more than 20 months away from the next Presidential election, yet yesterday there was Rush Limbaugh on the radio calming down panicked callers about a week-old story that Donald Trump may throw his hat into the ring as a Republican.
With all the assurance of a parent consoling a scared child, Rush’s words hugged his listeners, “Folks, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He hasn’t announced he’s running.”
Though you couldn’t see it, there’s little doubt Rush had a delightful glint in his eye and was wearing a cat-ate-the-canary smile. Rush knows the Presidential election will feed his show for years and he embraces it like a long-lost friend.
On the flip-side, before the Carmelo Anthony trade with the Knicks went down, speculation on sports talk radio was hot and heavy. As the trade talks lingered, the hosts got bored. I heard multiple hosts, locally and nationally, complaining that it was taking too long for it to happen.
One host said, “Can we put the Carmelo contract talk behind us. Just let me know where he’s going and when.”
Imagine if Rush Limbaugh took that attitude with politics;
“Folks, I don’t care who MIGHT be President. Wake me up when the election is over.” Said a Bizarro-World’s Rush Limbaugh.
A good rule of thumb is that once you start getting bored with a story, your audience is just getting interested in it. When the station is getting complaint calls, the P1s (heaviest listeners) are ready to move on, but the casual and new listeners are just starting to pay attention. Keep talking about it, exploring new angles, finding different discussion points, interesting guests and keep fanning the flames of speculation.
Never apologize for talking about a story so much. Never refer to it as “beating a dead horse.” Never stop playing the hit, because you’re bored with it. These lingering stories are the life blood of sports talk. The potential labor lockouts in the NFL and NBA are going to be stories that need to be talked about for months to come. These types of stories are sports radio gifts not albatrosses.
This is one of the times of the year when sports radio hosts like to go on the air and tell listeners that there’s nothing much going on in the sports world. I hear hosts calling this a “dead time;” right after the Super Bowl and before March Madness. When hosts do this they are not only turning off listeners and advertisers, they are telling them to go away.
Listeners are tuning into radio, in part, to escape the realities of their everyday life. No one wants to tune in to hear someone whine about how slow their day is going and babble on about nothing in particular. Strange as it is, this idea of a “slow time” only happens in the sports format. You never tune into a talk format and hear Rush Limbaugh droning on about how slow it is in Washington. I’ve never heard a rock DJ say, “boy this is a dead time for music, I really don’t have anything worth playing today.” Think about it this way, if you turned on CNN and they announced, “No real news today to report.” You would turn to another channel. Same goes listeners of sports talk.
Not only will announcing to the listeners that is a slow time for sports make your radio station more of seasonal listen than it already it is, it could also lead to less revenue. Advertisers are looking for the biggest bang for the buck. If I was an advertiser on a station and I heard a host lamenting about how it’s a slow time and there’s nothing to talk about, I would have to reconsider how I invested my ad dollars. I likely would cancel my order and place my commercials on a station that is excited about its content and is compelling fans to listen.
These are the days that hosts earn their money. This is when they prove their worth to a station and company. It’s a host’s job to make fans care about something. Regardless of what’s going on they have a responsibility to be creative, passionate and compelling. It may be a slower sports day than they like, but that is a YOU problem. Hosts need to work harder to find great story lines, tease them, develop them and pay them off.
Programmers, GMs and sales teams need to hold the hosts accountable to help drive ratings and revenue, not drive it away.
“A diamond is a chunk of coal
that made good under pressure.”
Every day whether you are a producer, a talent, a board op, recording a podcast, or editing audio – ask yourself these important questions…
1. Is this the best we’ve got?
2. Would I listen to this?
3. Is this relevant?
4. Are we playing the hits?
5. Is there a better, different, more impactful way to do this?
6. Does this live up to the Mission and Brand of my company?
If the answer is, “no” – what are you doing to change it, make it better, evolve it, and own it?
“It’s the little details that are vital.
Little things make big things happen.”
When I come across smart, successful people have can contribute to our conversation, I enjoy passing along their thoughts. Radio consultant Valerie Geller wrote the book “Principles of Creating Powerful Radio.” Her principles are worth reviewing…
· Tell the truth.
· Make it matter.
· Never be boring.
· Speak visually, in terms listeners can picture.
· Start with your best material.
· Story tell powerfully.
· Listen to your station but also check out other media – know what’s out there and what the audience is listening to and how they get their information and entertainment!
· Ask: Why would someone want to listen to this?
· Talk to the individual. Use “You.”
· Do engaging transitions & handoffs.
· Promote, brag about your stuff (and other people’s stuff!)
· Stay curious, relax, and allow the humor to happen.
· Be who you are on the radio.
· Take risks, dare to be great.
I love those principles. Use these as a guideline as you go about your daily tasks. Every day, whether it’s the NFL Playoffs or the dog days of summer, make certain you are passionate, relevant, interesting, engaging, curious, entertaining, informative, impactful, telling stories, teasing, taking risks, being creative, driving for results, doing everything it takes to make remarkable radio, acting with urgency, thinking differently and having fun. These are the things that separate good from great.