Creating Powerful Radio: Getting, Keeping and Growing Audiences

Highlights from this 2007 book:

* “The experimental test of whether this art is great or good, or minor or abysmal is the effect it has on your own sense of the
world and of yourself. Great art changes you.” —Art historian Sister Wendy Beckett

* Radio is an almost magical extension of the human spirit. It can “cry out” and make a listener feel, laugh, and think. Powerful radio rings true and evokes a reaction. It also makes the listener want to keep listening in the hope that this will happen again…

* One by one, the listeners are hunting for that connection, that powerful magic which is often missing from audio media today.

* First, the audience must care about what is said. It must matter to them. It must touch their lives. The content or topic must reach them in a real and true way. And the topic can never be boring, or the audience will tune out. Before anything goes on air, ask yourself:
* Is it relevant?
* Does it matter?
* Do you care?
* Do your listeners care?

* The key to personality radio is, logically, having a personality. This means having a rich, full life and drawing on all of your experiences. How you relate to life is how your audience will relate to you. The best broadcasters are great observers of life. They filter what they see going on around them through their unique creative process, and send it back out to the world. They talk about what they see, notice, think, and feel. They share their real selves. They mention what irritates them, what excites them, what saddens them. They react honestly to the news, current events, and the music they play. They are good storytellers.

If an air personality is doing the job right, audience members will feel that they are being addressed individually. The words “Hello, everybody” or “Good morning, St. Louis” will likely not be heard. The listener should feel that the person behind the microphone is like a friend. The air personality won’t seem like a star but more like someone they would know in real life—a person with daily struggles, life experiences, and problems. Humor helps. You don’t have to be a funny person to recognize a funny moment. This is a key element in creating powerful radio.

* n  Speak in terms your listener can “picture.” Use details. Describe the little things so your audience can “see” what you are talking about.
n  Always start your show with something very interesting. This ought
to be obvious but often isn’t.
n  Tell the truth. Listeners can tell when you don’t.
n  Never be boring. If you are bored, your audience will be too.
n  If something big or important is happening today, go with it. It
may be a pain to change your program or reschedule a guest, but
it’s worth the trouble.
n  Listen to your station, even when you are not on (and check online
n  Make your program matter. Use your own life as a show resource.
Always answer: “Why is this on the air? Why should someone
listen to this?” Would you talk about this OFF air?
n  Bury the dead. If a topic is overdone, drop it.
n  If you are live on air, anything goes! But anything pre-recorded
should be perfect.
n  It’s okay to brag about your stuff—if it’s good. Promote it.
n  Brag about other people’s stuff. If another host on your station had
a “magic moment,” talk about that too.
n  If you don’t know something, it’s okay to say so. Actually, audiences love it when they sense that you are like them.

* If you’ve ever listened to a talk show that seemed to have a slow start, but then picked up after the interview or calls began, you were likely listening to a reactive talent. The minute the host can “react” off of the callers, or interview guest, generating for him or her, the show comes alive.

Many stand-up comedians are reactors. Although they might seem to be generative—after all, they’re standing up doing a monologue in front of a live audience—in reality, if you put those people in a studio, alone in a room, without that live audience generating for them, they may be less colorful. Reactors work best with other people in the room to spark their creative energy.

* Generators have a lot of ideas and energy. They take huge risks and worry about it later. They have moments of brilliance. They
sit alone in a room, and their minds overflow with ideas.

* If you are looking at a reactive talent, you will notice that he or she is quick with a story, a memory, an imitation or a line for any topic you could give him or her. But you must lead the reactor by giving that first push, that suggestion, or a good opening. Leave the reactor alone in a room with no external catalyst for the show, and he or she is miserable. Reactors may do
brilliant interviews, or pick things out of the newspaper that are unique, but they need some kind of initial stimulus to begin the process.

* Generators are scarce. Most people are reactors.

* People do not like to get up in the morning. They are tired, groggy, and do not feel like hopping out of bed on a dark, cold winter morning if they do not absolutely have to.
People feel that from the moment the alarm rings to the moment they get to their jobs, they are on their boss’s time, not their own. Many people do not love their jobs and there is resentment of the morning rush. Because of this, humor on the radio in the mornings is especially important. If you can make a bunch of grouchy, groggy people smile or laugh when they don’t feel like moving, you can keep them listening!

* When you listen to the radio, you notice people who sound spontaneous. They make their work look natural and easy. It seems these people never make a mistake on the air, or, if they do, you hardly notice, or the show takes an unexpected twist and gets even better.

Then there are broadcasters who seem pained and uncomfortable when things go astray. It can make you very nervous to listen to people reacting to a situation that way. How can you make sure you sound like one of the naturals?

The difference between accomplished professionals and talented neophytes is that the seasoned air talent always give you the feeling that they are in control, no matter what happens.

* Finally, hire smart people. And when you find yourself looking for work, try to find the smartest people you can and work for them.

* Principles of management:

n The employee’s behavior is functionally related to the way you treat them.
n People don’t resist their own ideas.
n People will live up (or down) to your expectations of them.
n You must know the individuals you are trying to motivate.
n People will change only when they think they have to.
n Productive activity that is ignored will tend to decrease over time.
n Achievement and recognition are the top motivators at all levels.

* People care about things that are close to them physically, emotionally, spiritually or intellectually. They care about the security of their jobs, the education of their kids, the health of their parents, the cost of their homes, their favorite celebrities, etc. They care about the consequences of the decisions their leaders make. They want the answer to the question “What does this mean to me?”

* A writer who was supposed to meet her husband at an appointed time showed up hours late. He was rather upset when she finally arrived, but she offered this explanation: “I’m so sorry, but I was riding the bus and when my stop came, the people sitting in front of me were right in the middle of a story, and I just had to hear how it ended. I couldn’t get off the bus!”
Sparked by this story, she wrote a book that was then turned into a movie. She became fabulously famous and wealthy, all because she overheard a conversation on a bus that she could use as material.

* An effective “bit” on the radio includes:
n Statement (headline)
n Elaboration (details)
n Kicker (climax and punch-line).

* Broadcast consultant and program director John Mainelli says: “Entertain informatively and inform entertainingly.”

* Put the fun back in your voice. Practice reading children’s stories or trashy romance novels aloud in an exaggerated manner.
Work with a mirror by the mic. Do not worry if you look silly or stupid. The sillier you look, the better you will sound. If there is emotion on your face and in your eyes, we will hear it in your voice.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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