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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.

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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.”

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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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Beware of “The Line”

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Shan Shariff

“I just thought it was sick.”

Shan Shariff is host of The New School on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas.

“First off, I didn’t think it was funny at all. Sometimes you can maybe, maybe in my opinion, get away with some of that stuff if the bit is at least funny — but wrong. But, the thing I thought was it sucked. It was just a terrible, terrible bit. It wasn’t funny. I thought it was just disgraceful.”

He’s talking about the attempt at humor this week on a sports talk radio station in Atlanta. The three morning guys – all fired now – executed a bit about Steve Gleason, the former NFL player suffering from ALS.

Deb Slater and I talked to Shan in Episode 6 of the Radio Stuff Podcast (listen here). We also talked to Bean of Kevin and Bean from the “World Famous” KROQ in Los Angeles, Terry Jaymes of the nationally syndicated Lex & Terry Show and Terry Jaymes Alive podcast, and Fred Jacobs, President of Jacobs Media.

We all agree the bit crossed a line.

Ah, “the line.” Every talent deals with it. What is it? Where is it? How do you find it?

Shan can sense when he’s approaching it, “My show overall definitely flirts with the line a lot.”

“No one knows what the line is. The FCC doesn’t know what the line is.” Gene Bean Baxter has no doubt he’s crossed it –where ever IT is, “Well, of course, I mean I think something on our show crosses someone’s line every day.”

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Terry Jaymes

Terry just got off an apology tour, “I didn’t even know what the situation was. We had to go back and listen to it. When I heard it, I said, ‘oh, this is not good.’” It was a fleeting, over-the-line remark from Lex about a murdered transvestite. It was unplanned, unfunny, inappropriate, and, “It sounded very hateful.”

Enter Fred Jacobs, President of Jacobs Media.

“What is offensive is a moving target over time.”

Oh, isn’t that special? Imagine being a blindfolded tight rope walker, but every night as the blindfold is put over your eyes, they move the guide wire.

Even so, Fred believes talent should know where it’s moved to.

“Air personalities need to have a basic understanding of where the lines are, again with the proviso that the lines are often gray or even blurry.”

So, how do personalities deal with this blurry, gray, moving line of what’s acceptable?

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Gene Bean Baxter

“I think the lesson is that if you have a job like mine, or like the guys on the show in Atlanta, you are taking your livelihood in your hands – in my case 22½ hours per week, every time the mic is open —  it’s possible that you might say something that will get you fired. That is the hard reality of the truth.”

It’s also a sad reality for a guy like Bean who has been on the air for 24 years. And not a reality that is necessarily fair in his opinion,

“There aren’t a lot of occupations where you get fired for making a mistake. Think about it, a doctor can misdiagnose someone, a mailman can deliver a wrong letter every once-in-a-while, a policeman can shoot someone by accident – they don’t always lose their jobs over it.”

Shan tries to avoid being the edgy comedian, “I don’t make cancer jokes. I don’t make AIDS jokes. I don’t make tornado jokes. I don’t do that stuff.”

On the Lex & Terry Show it boils down to their intentions behind a bit, “We never set out, in our entire 20-years, to hurt anybody, to say anything wrong, or anything like that. We don’t want to be controversial. We never fight with other morning shows. All the regular schticky things they do…we’ve never done that.”

TIMES, THEY ARE A CHANGING.

Terry has seen a sea change over the past 20 years of hosting Lex & Terry, “It used to be you could say whatever you want, got fired and ended up making more money somewhere else. You don’t anymore.”

Fred Jacobs senses a change too.

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Fred Jacobs

“I wonder, given the point and time that we’re at societally and culturally, whether this kind of radio – the Howard Stern, Mancow stuff and how that proliferated even into smaller markets —  if that hasn’t maybe totally run its course.”

“Maybe people are just getting tired of the anger and tired of the humiliation. You know it even kind of rolls into the whole bullying conversation. You know whether it’s Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut or these guys making fun of a former athlete who has ALS, I just kind of wonder if that kind of bullying and humiliation, perhaps, hasn’t just run out of gas. And if that’s the case, maybe that’s a good thing.”

SO, NOW WHAT?

The responsibility for what radio is and how it evolves falls on everyone’s shoulders; talent, programmers, companies AND listeners.

Shan knows as a talent he is responsible, “I did send a warning to my producer, to my co-host, and our call screener. I just said, ‘look, let’s continue to push the envelope, be edgy, but let’s use this as a warning. I think it’s really good to have warnings that scare the hell out of you. And that one should scare the heck out of any single person that works in our industry.”

Bean dreams of a day when companies step up to support talent more in these situations. He doesn’t think the guys in Atlanta should have been fired.

“I was very disappointed a couple years ago when my own company fired Don Imus over his remarks. That remark was consistent with the show they had been paying him to do for years and years and years on that station. But, just because enough people got upset they fired him for that. I think they should have stood by him and said, ‘ look, this is the kind of show Don Imus does. If people stop listening to it then we’ll fire him, because it won’t be profitable for us anymore.’”

Bean also believes listeners play a role.

“If I tune into a show and I’m offended by something that I hear on that station, so what?”

He believes shows can have momentary lapses of judgment and still recover.

“If they have a good relationship with their listeners – they are going to forgive them for a misstep , are going to say, ‘Wow, that was out of line dude, but I know you because I’ve been listening to you for a long time, so come back tomorrow and do something better.’

Fred Jacobs is pointing to talent and PDs. He writes about is passionately and eloquently in his blog post, “Stupid DJ Tricks.”

“I think when you communicate well with talent – they understand you and you understand them —  the likelihood of this kind of thing happening lessens a great deal.”

MY CONCLUSION

Based on these conversations and my observations, radio is going through some growing pains as it evolves and redefines itself. The line is moving. It’s moving away from sophomoric humor, on-air bullying and sidekicks running around with underwear on their heads. It’s moving towards something that’s enriching, entertaining, enlightening, and empowering. And it’s moving, because listeners expect more, companies expect more and hopefully we expect more from ourselves.