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Eight Ingredients of Remarkable Radio Shows

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.

RELATED: SEVEN INGREDIENTS OF GREAT RADIO TALENT

And now, eight ingredients of remarkable radio shows.

beanyellowtee (1)

Gene “Bean” Baxter

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.”

BJ and Larry

BJ Shea, Larry Gifford, Producer Steve

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.”

Tom Leykis in his Burbank studio.

Tom Leykis

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 Real Difference Between Colin Cowherd & Dan Patrick

Patrick v Cowherd 3It is well documented now that ESPN’s Colin Cowherd and DirecTV’s Dan Patrick have their differences. But, this article isn’t about which guy displays superior work ethic. This is about how truly unique and differently talented they are.

As background: I worked with both guys at the ESPN radio network in the early 2000’s. I arrived as a program director in Bristol, CT in January 2005. I oversaw four shows; Mike & Mike, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, The Dan Patrick Show and SportsBash with Erik Kuselias. At that time, Cowherd was still relatively new. He replaced Tony Kornheiser in 2003. Patrick’s show was the established show and evolving; Rob Dibble was let go in December 2004.

Creator vs. Reactor

What I discovered after working with both hosts is that they are different animals. Colin is a natural creator. He’s constantly writing, working on angles and metaphors, and figuring out where sports and life naturally interconnect. He would bounce ideas off of anybody who would listen. He’d come to my office and throw a few things at me, gauge my reaction, grab a piece of candy and be on his way. His goal is to provoke you, to make you think differently or as he told me in an interview on Radio Stuff, “be interesting.” He’s an extrovert who will talk your ear off.

Dan is a classic reactor. He loves hearing what other people have to say; friends, callers, producers, commissioners and then parse it for what’s interesting, find inconsistencies, and explore it further. He’s rather introverted, formulating thoughts, opinions and angles internally. He’s a collaborator whose opinions are often masked through his curiosity. In show meetings, we would stand around in the bullpen and throw topics and suggested angles at him. If you didn’t have anything to contribute, you weren’t needed. Even me. He would stand there, listen and react. When we started working together he would open each show with 5 or 6 big questions. His true opinions, suppressed for years behind an anchor desk, were apparent only by the phrasing of the questions. He’s evolved, but that is where his strength lies. That’s why guests, regular contributors and the “Danettes” are so valuable to his show. He lets them shine, because he loves reacting to them.

The difference is exactly how this “feud” has played out. Colin ripped Dan for his work ethic and Dan responded.

Creators and reactors are equally talented and valuable to a radio station. It’s more complicated than this, but in essence; Colin creates unique content, Dan curates unique content. Keep in mind, Dan’s ability to react is what makes him so effective during live TV broadcasts whether it’s the Super Bowl, the Olympics, or SportsCenter. Colin’s skill as creative opinion-maker allows him to be more of a character on radio which opened doors for him on TV, Pixar, and writing a book.

They’re both smart guys, they both have healthy egos (which is a critical element for their jobs), they both work at their craft and demand excellence around them, and they both are finding success beyond their radio shows.

It was an honor to work with and learn from them and I hope over time they can put aside this pettiness and be comfortable with each other’s success. There is plenty of room for everyone at the sports buffet.

I also discuss this and play audio of the feud in Episode 88 of the Radio Stuff Podcast.


Subscribe to the Larry Gifford Media “Radio Stuff” email and each Tuesday you’ll receive an email with all sorts of stuff about radio. Sign up here.

Radio Stuff “Radio News Quiz” – Week 2

Radio News Quiz 2The Weekly Radio Stuff “Radio News Quiz.” Each week in the Radio Stuff podcast I offer  up 10 questions about this week in radio news. You can listen to the quiz and answers here or read them below and click on links to stories to reveal the answers. Good Luck!

LET THE QUIZ BEGIN!

1. What superstar singer decided to release his first new song in a longtime on RADIO first this week? (A: Click here)

2.  At one point, he was the most listened to morning man in the U-S, this week his Spanish language show on SiriusXM was canceled. Who is he? (A: Click here)

3. The Mike Calta Show debuted this week on 102.5 The Bone in Tampa. What controversial host did he replace?  (A: Click here)

4. KIIS 106.5, the home of Australia’s Kyle & Jackie O, removed WHAT from the station website this week, but may face legal challenges anyway?  (A: Click here)

5. For 32 years, he’s been David Letterman’s band leader. At the end of this year Letterman is retiring, but this man promises to keep doing his radio show “Day in Rock.” Who is he? (A: Click here)

6. Over Labor Day weekend, Radio Station WDRC-FM in Hartford gave away hundreds of dollars away in a unique promotion. No one knew that a radio station was involved, until it was over. What did they do?  (A: Click here)

7,  What lightning rod ESPN TV host left his ESPN Radio Show in New York to join SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio this week?  (A: Click here)

8. Which interview conducted by Nick Grimshaw on BBC Radio 1 this week went viral? (A: Click here)

9. What former Playboy centerfold, who just married Donnie Wahlberg last weekend, now has her own show on SiriusXM titled “Dirty, Sexy, Funny?” (A: Click here)

10. For several minutes Scottish radio host Robin Galloway thought he was off air, he couldn’t hear his co-host and his producer feared for his job. What happened?  (A: Click here)

How many did you get correct? 

1-3 – A participation certificate

4-6 – A gold star!

7-8 – You’re pretty smart

9-10 – Way to go! (virtual pat on the back)

Building a Championship Radio Team

headphonesRadio Station war stories are like badges of honor. I know a guy who slept on a mattress in the radio station conference room – they called it a studio apartment. Really. I worked for a radio station where the Program Director and consultant came to blows in the hallway. Cops were called, the PD was arrested and fired. If you have worked in radio very long, you’ve likely worked in less than ideal situations; broken chairs, headphones falling apart, all the lights burned out on the console, carpet ripped to shreds, and paint peeling from the wall. We tell ourselves it doesn’t matter, “the only thing that matters is what comes out of the speakers.” But it does matter.

All of these big and little things influence the culture of the radio station. There is a reason BBC Broadcasting House, NPR and ESPN invest so heavily in the space, technology, ascetics, and people they have working for them. It’s because culture matters.

PETE CARROLL LOMBARDI 2It’s how Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, against all odds and all the critics, was able to take a rag-tag group of guys that nobody wanted and make them a Super Bowl championship team.

“I just wanted to see what would happen if you really took care of people, really looked after them. You helped them be the best than can be in whole different way than had been happening in the NFL. As we go through this process we count on a different relationship with our players by respecting them and helping them in every way we can we can ask them to do everything to the hilt; effort, time, off-season, workouts, rehab, everything. People don’t realize these guys have given great effort and given their heart and soul to it.”

What if radio stations behaved this way? Instead of treating employees like interchangeable parts in a machine, what if we treated them like unique, talent individuals? Imagine how different you would feel if your employer respected you and helped you in every way possible. You might even give your heart and soul.

And Carroll means every way possible. The Seahawks have dietitians, psychologists, yoga masters, spiritual leaders, personal trainers, counselors, life coaches, family assistants, travel pros, the greatest amenities an athlete could want and more. Most radio stations have an HR lady and a vending machine.

What happened in Seattle was intentional and Coach Carroll admits it didn’t just happen overnight, “The biggest turn in the philosophy was to make it clear to the players that we are here to support them and make them the best they can possible be. And make it clear to them that we’re going to do whatever it takes to allow them to have all that they deserve. That has come a long way to get to that point.” Carroll adds that the guys like being around, they feel good about it, and they’re trying to be the best they can be to stick with it because it’s a good place to be.

It is a fundamental shift in how you treat people and motivate them to work for you. But I’m here to tell you I’ve seen this work in big and small ways. I’ve been at radio stations that have moved buildings to brand new studios and seen employees’ attitudes and dispositions flip overnight. One day they’re sitting in a chair with a spring popping out of the seat and only three working wheels and the next they’re in a broadcasting palace. That means something. They feel invested in, taken care of, and respected. I’ve also seen the impact of a few new chairs, a couple cans of paint, and frank conversations with what the staff needs to have in order to be successful. It works. It really works.

It’s time for radio to start treating employees in such a way that it is clear that the radio station wants them to have all they deserve and is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Try it with small things first – like free coffee, an employee lunch, or paint a common wall red — and watch the culture of radio station shift before your eyes.

Ideas Are Overrated

“We’ve all got great ideas. Everybody on the street has an idea.”

– ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd

Colin-Cowherd-Interview-607x265

What’s the difference between a good show and great show? Topic development. At least that’s the case if you ask ESPN Radio Network host Colin Cowherd who discussed it at length in an interview with the Radio Stuff podcast.

“The one thing I’m really proud of is topic development. We love Wednesdays. Monday and Friday we’re trapped talking about football, but we love Wednesday shows. You come in and find a little blip on a transaction wire and we’re like, ‘that’s funny!’ and ‘that makes me think…’”   

4 KEYS TO TOPIC DEVELOPMENT ACCORDING TO COLIN COWHERD

Don’t worry about being right, be interesting.

“I take stuff from my kids, I take stuff from sit-coms, books, ideas. I always think – 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 find compelling topics that everybody can play along.”

Personalize the story

“I think how would I react? I think about that with athletes; Would I retire now? Would I take less money to be surrounded by better teammates like Kobe Bryant now? Because, we’re all human no matter if you’re rich or a school teacher or a basketball player or you’re a local dentist or a baker. We’re all human beings. Men have the same basic needs and wants and ego. Women have the same needs and wants. We’re all the same. It’s just some people have different economic stratus and different interests.” 

Put in the hours

“I think about my radio show a lot. Radio never leaves you. It’s not like being a garbage man where your run is done for the day and you’ve done it — or a mailman and then you go home and you don’t have to worry about it until the next day. Radio is with you almost like being a doctor. You’ve got clients, you’ve got things that are constantly swirling in your head and I write down notes several times a week.”

Get a producer who wants to produce

“A really good radio producer, to me, doesn’t want to be an on-air person. They want to be a producer. And they get really good at it. And they try to elevate the on-air person with good guests, playing to his strengths, playing to her strengths, staying away from weaknesses.”

LISTEN to Colin Cowherd on The Radio Stuff Podcast

How to Handle Host’s Controversial Comments

controversial

This week, Perry Michael Simon at AllAccess.com interviewed me for his “10 Questions with…” feature. One of the questions he asked lead to a more complex answer than I’m sure he was looking for, but it bears repeating.

What’s the best way to handle a host’s controversial comments — when is it best to unequivocally support the talent and when is it best to apologize or suspend or cut bait and run?

Well, I’ve encountered quite a few controversial on-air moments from dealing with Rush’s comments on Sandra Fluke to local hosts who get too graphic, push the envelope too far, or fail – offensively – at an attempt at humor. When I was at ESPN, Colin Cowherd used to say his job was to walk so close to the line each day that I’d be uncomfortable at times. He did his job well.

If I hear it and don’t get any complaints, my main reaction is to pull the audio, listen to it again, pull the offenders into the office, listen to the piece, have a conversation, and explain why I believe it was out of line. I usually offer suggestions on how it could be handled differently.

complainersIf you’re dealing with listener complaints it’s tricky. If you apologize too quickly, it shows a lack of faith in the product. If you’re too defensive it appears the station is deaf to criticism. While at KIRO FM, my GM Carl Gardner shared a great document with me on how to deal with listener complaints and I still have it. Here are the main points.

  • Take all calls seriously. Respond to everyone. You may learn something new about your product.
  • Don’t exaggerate and don’t let others exaggerate. People like to say, “we’re getting TONS of complaints…advertisers are cancelling business!!” – when, in fact, it maybe a handful of complaints or less. Seek the truth, don’t let people spread myths.
  • Resist the temptation to apologize, argue or debate. Listen carefully with empathy. Most callers just want someone to hear them out.
  • If something was said factually wrong — own it. If you were wrong – apologize. If someone is offended, explain the nature of some programs is to stimulate debate and discussion.
  • If you haven’t personally heard the remarks at issue, insist on hearing them yourself before responding. It’s impossible to respond intelligently to something you’ve never heard, in context, yourself. Many times what is ‘heard’ is taken entirely out of context.
  • Likewise, determine if the person complaining actually heard the comments or are responding to something they were told.
  • Don’t share every complaint with the air staff. Any show working to break through will be noticed and at times disrupt listeners and advertisers. Sharing every bit of feedback can have a negative impact on their confidence.
  • Believe in your product. Even though complaints can be uncomfortable, be confident and positive about your station, while remaining open to constructive feedback.
  • People will tell you they’re boycotting your customers and writing them letters – they rarely do.

Autopsy of a Cringe-Inducing Interview

sawatskyInterviewing is a passion of mine. I was taught technique and principles by John Sawatsky. Yes, that smiling, unassuming man in the picture is an interviewing assassin. He’s a former investigative reporter turned full-time interview guru for ESPN.

There have even been some ESPN articles about him and how he goes about analyzing interviews. (Check them out here… and here. They’re worth reading.) He also has several videos on VIMEO here.

All that to support what I’m about to say. In fact, some have already heard this, but it bears repeating. In Episode 2 of the Radio Stuff podcast (here), about 20 minutes in you can hear my autopsy of an interview gone horribly wrong. This blog post gives you a taste.

548946_525565484172149_2131648500_nThe interview was conducted by Guardian associate editor of music Michael Hann with Ginger Baker, the renowned drummer of Cream, Blind Faith and others. It was such a train wreck of an interview it inspired the Guardian to release a list of the six most excruciating interviews of all time. If you watch or listen to the Ginger Baker interview, your initial instinct will probably be that he is a real bitter pill and the interview went badly, because he’s a bad guest.

You would be wrong. Hopefully, I’ll convince you of that.

Here are some initial, basic Sawatsky principles of interviewing that I follow and preach:

  • You should always establish a goal for an interview.
  • Every question should move the interview forward towards your goal.
  • Every question should gather new information that gets you closer to your goal.
  • Questions should be open, neutral and lean.

ginger-baker-interviewThe interview, which was conducted on stage in front of a live audience, was part of a promotion for a documentary that was being released on Ginger Baker. Michael Hann’s (MH) first exchange with Ginger Baker (GB) went like this.

MH: In the film, your time in Africa was obviously very, very important to you. Was that the time when you felt most musically fulfilled?

GB: What? Who?

MH: Your time in Africa. It seems from the film to be very, very important to you. Was it?

GB: Why?

MH: You speak about the musicians and music with such warmth.

BG: Totally silly questions, really. (Applause, laughter) It was,… I just went there. I didn’t go there for any particular musical education or anything like that. I mean there were good years before I went there.  

See, I told you you’d think Ginger Baker is a little hard to swallow. Here’s why he’s not at fault. The question is closed, overloaded, includes remarks, and is rich with hyperbole. Let’s take it one at a time.

CLOSED QUESTION: Was that the time when you felt most musically fulfilled? When you ask a closed query, you are limiting the answer that the guest can give to either affirming or denying your own personal theory. Interviewers do this all the time: Were you scared? Did it hurt? Did you want to leave? And you’ll hear the guests say, “yes” and then rethink it, “no, I wasn’t scared, more nervous.” Better to ask, “how did it make you feel?” In this case, Ginger rejects the basis of the question outright.

OVERLOADED: When you are too broad with your topics it puts a lot of pressure on the guest and they often don’t know where or how to begin. In this case, what exactly does “most musically fulfilled” mean? You can even hear Ginger trying to find an entrance by asking “Why?” (Michael thinks that.) It’s too broad and big of a concept for Ginger to wrap his brain around.

REMARKS: These are superfluous statements that get in the way of the interview. In the film, your time in Africa was obviously very, very important to you. These are Michael’s impression based on what he saw on film, and how he interpreted it, but not something that Ginger has actually claimed. When you add remarks the guest typically will respond to your opinion on the subject rather than giving a genuine, personal response. There really is no reason to include a remark in a question.

HYPERBOLE: While you may be attempting to compliment your guest most people are not comfortable with over statements about themselves and will counter-balance the opposite direction in an effort to clear the record. In this case, Ginger responds to Michael’s “very, very important to you” and “most musically fulfilled” by first discrediting the question,”Totally silly questions, really.”  Secondly, he down-played the importance of Africa in his musical development, “it was,… I just went there. I didn’t go there for any particular musical education or anything like that.”  Finally, to drive home the point, he defended his career prior to the trip to Africa, “I mean there were good years before I went there.”

And that was just the first question. There’s more on the podcast. In the meantime, here are some more principles to get you started.

  • Have a goal.
  • Ask questions that are lean, neutral and open and avoid making statements or remarks
  • Ask one question at a time.
  • Be mindful of the words you use.
  • Listen to answers for follow-up.
  • Stay out-of-the-way of the guest. They are the expert, let them shine. Don’t use this time to prove to them how smart you are.

Disclaimer: there are no rules to interviewing, just principles. Most of the people considered as great interviewers ignore most of this and it will drive you crazy (Larry King, I’m looking at you.)

If you come across a murdered interview, send it my way. I’d love to perform another autopsy.