I’ve been thinking about how running a Presidential campaign is similar to being a radio personality. We are judged each day by listeners who vote for us by listening and against us by switching to the competition. We are running a never ending campaign for more listeners, more time, more engagement, more loyalty, more recall, and more ear space.
In radio and Presidential politics you only have about two years to make an impact once you secure the position and you may be moving on to something else after four years.
So what can we learn from dumpster fire of a Presidential election?
Actually, watching Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton provides great reminders to radio talent. Here are four that jump out at me.
Be Prepared. We all want to believe we have the talent and experience to “wing it.” We don’t. When the red light comes on you need to know what you want to say, what the intention or goal is for the break, and how you’re ideally going to execute it. It doesn’t need to be scripted, but preparing for each break will make your show smarter, sharper, funnier, and more listenable. Winging it leads to incoherent rambling, unnecessary diversions, and what I call “break degeneration.” That’s when a segment gets so far off track and meandering that even the hosts aren’t sure when or how to end it.
Embrace Showmanship. We are in show biz. We’re performers. Even candidates are performers on the “political stage.” This doesn’t mean you play someone you’re not. To cut through the clutter you need to be an enhanced version of you. The smarter, funnier, more clever and personable cousin of the person you are when you wake up in the morning. Yes, we’ve all been screaming about ‘authenticity’ for a few years. True authenticity can be inspiring, but more often it’s subdued and boring. Go ahead and be authentic to yourself, in your intentions and with your actions, just execute it with some gusto.
Be Empathetic. Do the show for your audience instead of for personal fame, local celebrity or a pay check. If you can emotionally connect with your listeners and demonstrate you “feel them” whether it’s through conversation, stories, life events, or personal vulnerability you will win them over. Empathy is the missing ingredient for both Presidential candidates. They’re not running for the highest office in the land for us, they’re doing it for themselves and the power that comes with it. It’s why so many people are voting against one of the candidates instead of for them.
Avoid Personal Attacks. Trump is a one man insult machine (that’s a compliment.) It’s a skill he’s honed over many years. Hurtling insults and personal attacks is psychological warfare for him. He believes it gives him the upper hand, intimidates others and gives him power. I believe that he believes it makes him more likeable. It might to some. Even if it does, and I’d argue it doesn’t, you dear reader are not God’s gift to “insult assault” like Trump. For mere mortals, personal attacks generally bounce off the intended target and the negativity is reflected back onto you. It can make you look childish, unprepared, less intelligent, reactionary, unstable, immature and like a bully. It is perfectly acceptable and expected to characterize and criticize behaviour and actions, but avoid attacking and insulting people.
These are just some of the radio lessons collected on the campaign trail. What have you learned? Use the comments below to share your takeaways.
Over the course of the last few months, I’ve had the honor and responsibility to help launch new News-Talk radio shows on air in Vancouver and Winnipeg. Not that I’d know, but it seems a bit like launching a space shuttle. A huge team, lots of planning, excitement, adrenaline, nerves, back timing, countdowns, someone is pushing a bunch of buttons, and there are always small adjustments along the way. (A gross over-generalization to be sure, but go with it.)
Below is a list of some of the adjustments that crept up through these experiences that are good reminders to all radio talent
- Improvisation rules apply. Don’t kill the premise of a discussion by dismissing it off hand. Add to it. Expand on it. Think “Yes, and…”
- When co-hosting it is okay to disagree, but it isn’t about “winning at all costs.” Respect each other, establish clear boundaries, and agree on the goal of each segment before diving in.
- Avoid personal attacks. This applies to co-workers and news makers. Characterize behavior and actions, not people.
- News is not a break from the show. News is what’s next on your show.
- Know the clock, respect the clock, and abide by the clock. They’re designed for maximum ratings impact and for clear separation of commercial competitors, repeat commercials and to minimize listener fatigue.
- Write and plan your teases into break. Avoid words and phrases like “after these commercials”, “we’ll be back”, “time to take a break”, “when we return.” Instead keep forward momentum with something like “coming up next…”
- Speaking of momentum, find ways to build momentum for each segment, each show and each day on the station. Build on stories, find the arc, explore new angles, and offer different perspectives.
- Be about something. Don’t just fill time.
- Avoid signing off at the end of your show as if there is nothing else worth listening to on the station.
- Root your on-air personality in authenticity, but remember it is show biz, so it should be an enhanced, more dynamic version of you.
If you are lucky enough to have a radio show you have an amazing opportunity. Your voice will travel through air, into ears and across the Milky Way faster than a space shuttle. It is an awesome responsibility to entertain and inform the public. The impact you make is up to you. You’ve been given the keys to high performance machine, what are you going to do with it?
This happened Monday night on TV in Vancouver…
Female Anchor: Did you guys see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on 60 Minutes last night?
Male Co-Anchors: No. Nah.
Female Anchor: (visibly shocked)
Female Anchor: Well, anyway…
I know point out bad banter on TV is like pointing at rain drops in Seattle, but there are important takeaways for radio anchors and hosts hidden inside this gem.
Be Prepared. As someone who works in and talks about news for a living it is imperative you take time to watch/read/listen to the things that your listeners are talking about that day. Not only does it make you more credible and authentic, it allows you to develop an opinion about it, reflect interests of listeners back to them, and it reinforces you commitment you have for your job and the product to you co-workers. Your team needs to be able to trust that you’re up to speed and able to carry a conversation or, in this case, what would likely have amounted to a 15 second banter.
Never Kill A Bit. With due respect to Nancy Reagan – don’t say “no.” Saying ‘no” always kills the bit or the banter. It stops conversation cold. It makes everyone on set look bad. Even if you haven’t watched/read/or listened — find a way to say yes and keep the conversation going. “Boy, everybody is talking about it today. What did you take away from it?”
Don’t Assume. Before you make assumptions that a co-worker must been up to speed on a story or event, take a minute off air to ask, “Is it okay if I ask you about…”
The main idea here is work harder to put you and your co-workers in a position to win every minute of every show even if it’s 15 seconds of banter at the end of the show.
There are a lot of remarkable radio shows in America and they each have found success their own way. Which means there are far more than eight things to consider when trying to build a show up, but this is a great start.
These tips ring true to me which is why I isolated them from original interviews I conducted with each of these hosts. All the conversations can be found on the Radio Stuff Soundcloud page.
Notice none of the talent talk about billboards, bumper stickers or social media. Great shows can benefit from those things, but bad shows cannot be made great with marketing.
And now, eight ingredients of remarkable radio shows.
Be consistent, but not predictable. “Show up every day, be prepared, and evolve.” Gene Baxter a.k.a. Bean of Kevin & Bean explains, “We’re not the guys, generally, that are doing the same bit we did 10 years ago or 20 years ago. We’re looking for new things to do and new things to talk about. As hard as it is to get young people to listen to FM Radio these days I think that’s why we’ve had some success bringing them along because we are still trying to talk about contemporary things.”
Be authentic. “There’s a lot of fake conservatives on the air, a lot of comedians disguised as political pundits, and I avoided the temptation to do that,” Tom Leykis remembers when he was offered an opportunity to be a conservative talker. “I chose to go my own road and that means to not lie about who I am, to not pretend about stuff, to say what I mean and mean what I say.”
Build a team you can trust. I chatted with Elvis Duran about this at Radiodays Europe this year, “Being surrounded by people who get the message and understand that what we do is monumental to so many people. The people we work with and support us are the most important people without them I could never see myself going to work every day by myself. I couldn’t do it.”
Strive to be interesting. ESPN host Colin Cowherd advises host to stop worrying about being right, “Just try to be interesting. It’s not about being right. Guys tend to want to be right instead of get it right. Just be interesting. Try to get it right. Try to find compelling topics that everybody can play along with.”
Everyone knows their role. The BJ Shea Morning Experience in Seattle has a big crew, but everyone has a job. “What I do right is not get in the way, because what I used to do is get in the way” BJ explains his job is to be the host – NOT the producer, “I would think that I have to run the show, I’d have to be part of the planning and I’m an attention-deficit mess. I disrupt everybody else. My ideas are good in the moment, in that manic, bi-polar high moment where, “Holy Cow! This is the greatest idea ever!” and my entire life I have ruined everything because I really shouldn’t be that guy. I should be performing. So, Steve truly is a producer. He is in charge of the whole show. If Steve doesn’t like it, it doesn’t air. And I would say probably – honestly – 10% of my ideas get used. And I give Steve a lot of ideas. But, I also empower him to say this is it. I’m kind of afraid of Steve now. It’s kinda cool. I’ve made Steve the boss of the show to the point that I don’t want to disappoint him.”
Appreciate the audience. “More radio hosts, especially new ones getting into the business, have to get back to basics, understand sports and connecting with their audience,” JT the Brick of Fox Sports Radio refers to sports talk, but his point is actually format-agnostic. “I think there is a big disconnect now between the super successful sports radio hosts who don’t go to any games, don’t meet their audience, and preach to their audience about how good they are or how good their show is or what they believe is the future of sports. Compared to the hosts, hopefully like I am, who continues to want to touch, and shake the hands and kiss the babies and meet these guys, because that is the connection I think you need to have.”
Create a show filter. A filter helps your focus on the right stories and influence HOW you talk about them. This may not seem like a formula for success for an active rock morning show, but BJ Shea swears it works, “The soul of the show is relationships. Whenever we’re talking about anything I’ll always bring it back to relationships and basically the key relationships are familial, you got your husband/wife, brother/sister, mother/father, and then that of course can translate into the work place. That’s the soul of our show, because it hits everybody.”
Remember radio’s mission. “I’m a radio personality,” says Tom Leykis. “I’m not here to get people elected or get people impeached. I’m here to generate revenue. So many people in our business now have forgotten what our mission is. My mission is to get as many people to listen to your station as possible and then to get advertisers to buy those ears and compensate us so were drowning in money.”
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The recipe for being a great talent on radio is really a witch’s brew; a pinch of this and a touch of that. Everyone I talk to seems to have a bit of the trade secret to share, but tragically there is no mysterious vault where the “great talent formula” is locked-up. From my experience at least some of it is gut instinct, DNA-related, or luck.
But, we do have the start of a recipe thanks to some heavy-hitters in the radio world who’ve been gracious to give time and insight to the Radio Stuff Podcast. So, here is the start of a winning blueprint for being a great talent.
Have something to say. “Point of view. That tops the list,” says former Saga Communications programming exec and Amplifi Media CEO Steve Goldstein. (audio) “There are a lot of good mechanics out there and they can make a DJ show work, but somebody who has a point of view and something to say that’s where personality comes in.”
Make eye contact with the listener. This is hard to manufacture if it doesn’t come naturally. It’s not actually looking into the eyes of your listener, but as Goldstein explains, “the ability to say, ‘I know who you are and I know what you’re going through.’ It’s tough.” This authentic connection to an audience is paramount to greatness.
Be hungry. The best talent are insatiable. “Everybody should be hungry. If you know what you want to do – do it. Be hungry and just get there,” says iHeartMedia VP of Talent Development Dennis Clark. (audio) He has worked with the likes of Ryan Seacrest, Elvis Duran and Bobby Bones and they all have this in common. “They’re hungry by just performing and doing a quality show and they just love the business of radio. I think a guy like Kane in D.C. or Fred in Chicago they really have a bunch of different places they’ve been to become better and better along the way and really grow their personalities and grow their acts. Same thing with Elvis, he went from Texas and New Orleans to Atlanta, Philadelphia and then finally New York. Ryan too, you know? If he could’ve been hired in any job in radio he would have taken it at the time when he was just starting out at Star in Atlanta.”
Be now. We live in a world of rapidly decreasing attention spans. Frankly, I’m surprised you’ve made this far into the blog. Being “now” is a mantra you hear from Clark a lot. “The one thing that is a demanding factor from our listeners in radio is what’s going on right now. What’s happening? What’s the latest? I need a friend right now, I need companionship. Whether its music or a talk show or a personality morning show or it’s a vibe or feeling or something like that – “now” is crucial.”
Social currency. I preach this to my clients. Social currency is a detail, a nuance, an observation, an opinion, a theory or a revelation. It’s radio’s equivalent of a meme. Something you include in your show because it arms your listeners with information that is sharable when they’re at work, play or home. Dennis Clark also talked about this. “Radio gives people such small talk pieces that they can take to their family at home and “oh, I didn’t know that about Taylor Swift” or “I didn’t know that about the New York Yankees.” So, they can hear things from people they relate to and bring it to their conversations.”
Create a partnership. Success at a radio station demands you to be on the same page with management. Media strategist David G. Hall believes trouble is inevitable if you don’t. (audio) “More often than not what happens is the leadership of the station doesn’t really know what the target is or they don’t do research. They’re not really sure who they are trying to go for. So, then they have a morning guy who’s not clear who he is trying to talk to and he goes on the air and does something that he thinks is pretty good and then he gets in trouble for it, because it is so far out of whack of the expectations of the manager – who never shared those expectations to begin with.”
So what does a talent do?
Hall explains, “The best thing to do is to ask for the expectation. Be really clear.” Hall suggests you ask the following questions of your program director and it will make a huge difference in how you go on the air and will really focus what you do;
- What do you expect of me?
- What is the target audience?
- Where are we trying to go with this radio station?
- Who are our competitors on either side?
- Who am I trying to take listeners from?
Storytelling. This is my addition to the list. Stories are an effective way to transport an audience and share important information and values. Learn to write and tell stories in short form and long form; from 140 characters to an hour-long production. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain and thus are better remembered than simply stating a set of facts. When we experience emotional stories it also produce two chemicals in the brain; Cortisol which focuses the audience’s attention and Oxytocin with makes them more empathic. (Watch a video on it here) It’s science people! If you’re not a great storyteller, practice becoming one.
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In the past few weeks I have talked a half-dozen or so smart radio people from around the world — men, women, talent, managers, consultants, and researchers representing all formats – and we all agree that “local” is a major differentiation point for regular old radio’s battle against internet streams and digital juke boxes. However, there is always a caveat. It depends on how you and your station breathe life in to the idea of “local.”
One of the best descriptions I’ve heard recently is being local in radio means “living and playing in the community you are broadcasting to and reflecting your experiences on air.”
It’s less about finding stories that happened in your city. (Ex. “There has been a shooting in the 1400 block of Elm Street. No injuries.” or “A local boy is growing his hair to raise money for a sick friend.”) It’s about the details you choose to share in small ways that signal to the listener you are one of them.
It’s the difference between announcing how cool it is your favorite band is playing at a local club or talking about how the last time you were at the local club you were reminded how awesome the acoustics are and you can’t wait to see your favorite band play there. It’s a subtle, but important difference.
I often explain to talent that local is less about location and more about sharing, reflecting and exploring those things that impact most of your listeners in an emotional, physical or mental way.