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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.”

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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A Journey Into “Instant Unemployment” and How to Avoid It

steveBefore we get into this, I’d encourage everyone to read Steve Gleason’s guest column as Monday Morning Quarterback on SI.com and support the Gleason Initiative Foundation’s efforts to find a cure for ALS, if you’re so inclined.

THE LEAD IN

When I was PD at ESPN radio, Colin Cowherd would tell me his that his job is make me nervous at least once a day and my job is to trust that he knows where the line is. That works most of the time. But, as demonstrated by the guys in Atlanta, it just takes 2:10 to erase everything you’ve done up until that moment.

I get it, PDs ask a ton from talent: be funny, relevant, insightful, entertaining, credible, unique, distinctive, opinionated, memorable, edgy, but not offensive, and appealing to a younger audience — for four hours, live, every weekday. And don’t say “uh.” And break on time. And promote the ticket giveaway. And tease better. And…

That’s hard.

Talent will cross the line. It happens (see: Lex & Terry) . In most cases, I’ll defend the talent and I have in many cases. The Atlanta case is indefensible. It’s making fun of a guy who is dying a horrible death from an even worse disease.

RADIO SPITS THE BIT

update: Nick Cellini has deleted his twitter account.

Nick Cellini has changed his twitter bio to read “short order cook.” Nick was one-third of the Morning Mayhem on 790 The Zone, all of whom were fired yesterday for…this (Audio, transcript). Go ahead listen and read it before we dive in — context helps.

It’s a “stupid” gag they did about Steve Gleason, the former Saints player suffering from ALS. All three broadcasters; Nick Cellini, Chris Dimino and Steak Shapiro have apologized. Too little, too late.

Cellini tells AccessAtlanta.com that the dismissal is “a relief, really. The station is a sinking ship.”

Shapiro, who once co-owned the station under Big League Broadcasting also spoke out, “The ironic thing for me is that I’m an aficionado of the Saints and Steve Gleason. The bit was ill-advised.” He added the bit was not representative of the work they had done four hours a day for 16 years.

Dimino posted a long apology on facebook and realized, “how quickly a stupid and worse than that non thinking moment can change all of it (19 years in broadcasting, 30 years as a grown man, and 10 years of being a father.)”

HOSTS ALL A TWITTER

The bit had broadcasters across the country abuzz.

Rich Eisen (@richeisen) from NFL Network tweeted,

“I just heard the stupid ass Steve Gleason “bit” on the Atlanta radio station and it’s beyond appalling. Those guys deserved what they got.”

Mitch Levy (@kjrmitch), the morning guy on 570 KJR in Seattle had a string of tweets late in the day,

“While I’m sure that I’ve been over the line too many times to count, that’s about as mean-spirited & tasteless bit I’ve ever heard in radio. We all do and say things on-air at the spur of the “live” moment that we’d like to have back. But, this was a premeditated, thought out, pre-produced attack on a good man who’s losing his battle with perhaps the most vicious & senseless disease. Really had to image that someone at that station who was aware of the “bit,” didn’t say “stop” before it aired.”

Heath Cline (@heathradio) is the afternoon host at 107.5 The Game in Columbia, SC,

“How could anyone have thought this was going to be funny. Thing is, I know those guys are capable of much better. I’ve heard them do it. Baffled how they misjudged things so badly today.” This is a spattering sample of the reactions. There were also a lot of “OMGs.”

Another interesting perspective on the mishap comes from Chadd Scott, APD and host at 1010 XL Sports in Jacksonville who was fired from an Atlanta sports station in 2011 for tweets. He claims his negative tweets about Delta Airlines, a major station sponsor, lead to his dismissal. He tweeted when he heard the news yesterday,

“Feel bad for friends @NickCellini & @chrisdimino. I’ve been in their shoes & know what today feels like.” “I only ever “wanted” to work at 1 station & it wasn’t ESPN, it was 790 the Zone years ago & I did. That WAS such a good station.” “All 3 made big $ for failing station & bit gave 790 a reason 2 dump salary.”

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?

“What lessons are to be learned from this?” I asked on Twitter. Bean, from KROQ’s Kevin & Bean (@clydetombaugh) tweeted back at me,

“Morning show host truth: Your company has no opinion of anything on your show and probably doesn’t even listen. But, if somebody ELSE complains then it is easy for them to say it’s obvious what you did was wrong and stupid.”

How do you know when a bit has gone too far? Shan Shariff (@newschoolSS), the host of “New School” on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, responded.

“Larry, as you know, TOUGH question. Best answer I have is feel. If I wouldn’t even make the joke off-air to my buddies, I DEFINITELY wouldn’t say it on-air. What these guys in Atlanta did was just sick. Interesting side note: I actually sent this to my guys this afternoon as a warning to watch the line. We tend to flirt with it.”

The reality of the situation is, regardless of ratings or talent, most radio hosts walk up to around the “line” everyday. They are the stunt actors of radio willing to dive off the top of a building, walk through fire, or wreck a motorcycle to get a laugh, to get some ink, and to increase ratings. And we love them for it. From time to time, they’re going to cross the line. It’s going to happen. PDs need to be there more of than not. Truth is some will lose their job (See: Dan Sileo) and some won’t (See: Rush Limbaugh).

I’ve had to deal with many obscene, indecent, and profane incidents with varying degrees of controversy over the years. The hosts who I had to terminate are the ones who wander into at least two of these four areas: personal attacks, lack of filter, off-brand remarks, and negative intentions. Here are some ways to avoid your own “instant unemployment” in the future.

  1. Don’t Get Personal. Being edgy is okay (depending on your station brand), but know your target. Keep your sights on actions, decisions and behaviors and avoid getting personal. Nobody likes a bully. Attacking people’s traits, conditions, impediments, handicaps, etc. is just mean, not humorous. While there are some exceptions, people generally do not respond well when you ridicule or are disrespectful to someone who has been touched by misfortune.
  2. Appoint someone the “content filter.” One person on the show has to have 51% control and veto power on all content. If you don’t, no one on the team has the authority to kill a bit. If that person doesn’t green light the proposed piece, then re-edit, re-write and/or re-record it or trash the bit. Get it right before you air it.
  3. Be Consistent. Make sure the bit is reflective of your show and station’s brand. The Atlanta guys say this bit wasn’t what they typically do – so why do it? Be authentic to yourself and serve the expectations of the listeners.
  4. Have pure intentions. If your intentions are to honor someone with a parody, are all in jest, and in the spirit of camaraderie — listeners will pick up on that. If you’re vengeful, spiteful and trying to tear someone down – that too will come across. If you find yourself preparing a bit with a negative intention, might I suggest canning the bit? Otherwise, it’s likely to cost you your job.

Creating a “WOW! Factor” with Your Next Radio Event

Radio can be cool, fun, exciting, breath-taking, and memorable. Over the weekend BBC Radio 1 showed me something that blew me away, “Radio 1’s BIG WEEKEND!” Watch this and remember this is radio.

I wish it wasn’t a surprise that radio can pull off an event like this. KROQ does it  , WIP does it , others do it to, but it’s far more the exception than the rule.

Catherine & Jason Marriage Madness

Mike & Mike’s Marriage Madness winners Jason & Catherine. Photo by John Atashian.

As a radio manager, I’ve had a mix of hit and misses when it comes to events. I’m probably most remembered for Mike & Mike’s Marriage Madness at ESPN Radio. It was the NCAA Tournament meets “The Today Show Throws a Wedding.” It culminated in the ultimate sports fan’s wedding on the campus of ESPN, broadcast live on radio and TV during Mike & Mike in the Morning. It was big in 2006. Since then most of the internet has forgotten, except for some snarky barbs from the folks at Deadspin.  I’ve done others since like this and this.

Today, Inside Radio featured several big time summer radio events, festivals, and concerts.

When done properly, a radio station event is a bunch of hard work and logistics that brings together the radio station, the listeners, partners, and advertisers to help create a buzz around the station (internally and externally), reinforce the brand, build fan loyalty, raise incremental sponsorship dollars, and gives your radio station a story to tell.

Here are five steps you can take to create a radio event with a “WOW! Factor”…

1. Have a vision, a goal, a budget, and define success up front. Start with the biggest, best idea you have and revise the idea over and over again. Be realistic about costs and expectations. Keep the concept simple, but make the event memorable and remarkable. Remember to make it about the listener, not the radio station. Why are people going to show up, what’s the draw? And expect greatness. We can’t be great if we only expect to be good enough.

2. Create a pitch and sell it to everybody in the radio station. You, or someone on the staff who is passionate about the event, needs to OWN the event, but everyone needs to pitch in. You can’t do this alone. Delegate, delegate, delegate.

3. Details make all the difference. If you’re aren’t a detail person, get someone who is. The color of napkins, or the shape of a gobo, or the size of the ticket matters.

4. Be inspired. Don’t just copy another radio station’s event, however take notes, evolve a concept, personalize and customize what you see to make it reflect your radio station. Own the event, don’t lease it from another radio station in a neighboring town.

5. Make sure it tells a story to the listeners. What are you going to tell your listeners and what are they going to tell their friends? Tell them what you are going to do for them, tell them what you are doing for them, and then tell them what you did for them.