Hey NAB – Steal This Slogan!

Set aside what you or I might think of what Rush Limbaugh offered his 15-million listeners each week, we should laud him for what he taught us the last three decades:  that our win comes from compelling talent and the content they offer fans.

When radio was investing millions of dollars in “AM stereo” (remember that nonsense?), Rush resurrected radio stations left for dead because he was bold, different, irreverent, relevant, and fun.  They didn’t care that he was on AM!  While I’ll leave any reflection for another blog on where we’d be had we invested that money in developing talent, Rush was connective in a way few have, and reminds us that it’s not just your music mix of Today’s-Best-Variety-Hot-County-Relaxing-Favorites that gives you a lift to #1, it’s your people.

Peggy Noonan said in the Wall Street Journal this week that Rush “created a community – an actual community of, at his height, tens of millions of people who thought along with him every day and through that thinking came to feel less like outsiders in their views.”

That’s what we do each day with our talent.  They are the face of your brand.  In a world of loneliness that few will admit, made even more challenging by the pandemic, talent (real human beings on your radio station) reach out and touch listeners’ hearts and souls, and make them feel less lonely.

This should be the slogan the NAB uses when extolling the benefits of radio to listeners and advertisers:  Radio – We Make You Feel Less Lonely.

Our greatest strength is that intimacy.  It’s our ability to have a presence on-air and do content that is the ultimate #metoo for people who think they are by themselves.  One listener tunes in and understands they do have a friend, the person they’re listening to on the radio.  That’s the Power of Personalities.

This is why I coach the talent I work with to share those parts of their life that prove to the audience they are just like them – to be honest, genuine, and real – because that’s what works.  From their sense of humor or a shared sense of compassion, the audience wants to know they aren’t alone, and that the people on the radio will always root for them – then they will root for us back with their continued listening.

We do this by understanding the audience, their life and lifestyle, but also with what is going on emotionally in their world, then connecting that to what is going on emotionally in ours.

A shared vulnerability allows for a terrific relationship, much like you or I have in our personal lives, where we want to be around each other more often.  If we develop and nurture a relationship with listeners this way, they’ll become fans.

I never really connected with Rush’s content, but I was always aware of him because of it.  There were millions who left saying, “this guy speaks for me”.

Listen to your talent through this prism for a few days.  How can you coach them to level up so they, too, create bigger communities of fans that feel less like outsiders in a world where so many feel as though they are on an island?

We burned millions of dollars trying to make AM radio have parity with the sound of FM many years ago.  Rush proved we were focused on the wrong thing.  The answer to our ills was staring us in the face all along:  have great people on-the-air, who do the right content, and listeners will get addicted.

Can we make investments moving forward to help our personalities get even better so they get even bigger?  So listeners won’t feel alone?  Our talent are our boldest point-of-differentiation.  Do that, and our ratings and revenue issues will fix themselves.

Steve Reynolds For the Entire Hour On the Next Larry King Live

I can relive the memory like it was yesterday, despite happening in 1998.  Larry King invited me on his CNN show to talk about talent coaching.  We’re cooking along with Larry being his inquisitive self when he took a commercial break.

“Welcome back to Larry King Live.  Our guest tomorrow is Quincy himself, Jack Klugman.  A few celebrity birthdays before we continue with talent coach extraordinaire Steve Reynolds.  Carol Channing is 84 today.  Happy birthday to the Flying Nun, Sally Field, who celebrates her 72nd.  Famed game show host Gene Rayburn turns 81.  Batman Christian Bale is 47 today!”

Larry must’ve read my body language because, when he pivoted back to me as his guest, he asked why I recoiled.  It’s then I shared with Larry that no one really cares about celebrity birthdays.  Whether they’re dead or alive.  I suggested that, as content, this was a list with information and absolutely nothing about it is engaging.

There were audible gasps from the floor crew.

Larry pushed back further, saying he always read the list of birthdays when he did overnights on WIOD-AM, Miami.  He claimed that everywhere he went people talked to him about it.  I demurred, telling Larry we need to be better than that with our content selection.  Maybe this worked in 1966.  Today, not so much.

With that one, short exchange, Larry abruptly went to another commercial break.  As I watched an ad for Depends play on the studio monitors, I was quickly whisked from the set.  Larry called Jack Klugman to get his take on what I had just offered and asked that he tease this week’s Odd Couple and his appearance that next night to fill the rest of my hour.  I was limo’d back to the Fairfax, Virginia La Quinta Inn.

Nothing above this sentence is true.  I made up the entire story.  I’ve never appeared on Larry King Live, although I did see him in person at one of Joel Denver’s WWRS conventions and thought he was shorter than I would have imagined.  The picture above was doctored, too, for humor purposes by my friend Kris Rochester, who does mornings at WIVK, Knoxville.

Some people wish for their professional legacy to find a cure for cancer or to develop time travel.  Others work for world peace or to end child starvation.

My legacy in radio?  To rid shows of irrelevant features like reading a list of birthdays (whether they’re famous or local – because no one cares that Timmy Smith in your market is six today, except his grandparents, who may or may not be listening).

I also wish to nix content breaks like This Date in History and telling the audience things like it’s National Doughnut Day.  I scream at the radio every single time I hear something like this.  There is no strategic benefit to the show doing content this weak.

We are better than that to connect with and entertain the audience.  I challenge all of us to reach higher when deciding content choices.

The audience comes for content.  And every single thing coming out of those speakers to them is content.  They are evaluating all of it:  is this of interest to me?  Does this matter to my life?  Am I being entertained?

What’s strong content?  These three always work:  whatever is going on now in the news/pop culture (remember, pop = popular), stories about your life so the audience can get to know you and see you are just like them, and stuff happening locally.

All three of those have a strategic win to position the show as relevant and local and the talent as real and relatable.

Your show might not be dabbling in these specific features noted above, but evaluate all of your content choices:  are they substantive?  Do they reflect the moment and connect you back to the audience?  Are they interesting to them?  Do you gain an important image from their choice?  Do they fit and matter to building your brand?

The only birthday that really matters is mine and I hope next November 6th to tune into dozens of radio shows and hear every one wishing me well.  See, you don’t care, do you?

It’s to be seen which will happen first:  that cure for cancer or my ridding radio of stuff like this.  We need to encourage shows still doing irrelevant content like birthdays to level up.  Because being relatable and real and doing epic stuff with it is the only way we’re going to make more listeners passionate for what we do.

Let’s let someone else worry about world peace.  I need fellow warriors who’ll help me take on things like celebrity birthdays.

Can I count on you?

Steve Meets Genie, Gets Five Wishes

A program director asked me an intriguing question in December.  If I had five wishes for things that could help talent grow their shows, what would I ask the genie?

As a former talent, my reply was, “I only get five?”  Typical talent, right?  Trying to figure out how to make the break longer!

So, I rubbed the bottle, the genie came out, and here is a short list of what I wished for.  This list is partial because I have lots of wishes.

  1. I wish talent no longer trolled social media looking for affirmation. This is really hard, because these are loud voices and we tend to put great weight on those we hear from, often making content decisions based on the few who react to us.  Our content strategy should guide all.  Neither the super positive nor damning negative comments represent the mainstream (most of whom we will never hear from).  Stop letting all of that affect how you choose and do content on the show.
  2. I wish shows would inventory all that they do and have a healthier list of things listeners can only get from them. These are called “points-of-differentiation” and critical to separating the show and station from everything else out there.  I hope we have a longer list at the end of this year than at the beginning.  More listeners will turn us on because we’re much different from everyone else.
  3. I wish personalities would figure out ways to involve other talent on the station in their show. If we elevate them around our content, then they will elevate us on their show.  And everyone’s profile and ratings will go up.
  4. I wish we’d stop focusing on small things and worked harder developing big things. Changing out music beds on a feature will have much less of a positive impact on our images and perceptions than coming up with a new, highly entertaining one.  Putting yourself in the middle of a big pop culture or local story is way better than just talking about it.  Big things cut through and we need more of that.  Doing more epic shit creates an electricity about the show.
  5. I wish we would choose more of our content to reflect the moment. To be about whatever is going on now (verses something more evergreen, that could be done anytime).  But to also know that it’s what you do with these “now topics” that keeps fans coming back every day out of a fear of missing something.  Create more of those points-of-differentiation!

These are the things I talk with my shows about now and I love these conversations.

New shows I work with know I like to ask provocative questions and challenge them in ways that make all of us think strategically.  The shows I currently work with are used to it – many enjoy the exercise because we find when we talk on this level, we end up with a much better show than our competitors, with greater creativity.

If you find any of my wishes interesting, it might be great to engage your shows on them, too, so everyone can level up.

I’d love to know your wishes for talent – send them here if you have any.

Coming Up Next, An All-New Phone Prank!

The day after the horrific Newtown shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, I remember waking up wondering Howard Stern’s take.  So, up to Howard 100 I went on Sirius XM and sure enough, that’s what Howard was talking about.

I can’t remember how long the segment went (I didn’t actually care).  But I do remember it was as insightful, engaging, and interesting as Howard and his team always are.  He made points, shared his thoughts, and asked questions of his team that lead to a provocative conversation.  Howard, Robin, and the show filled my immediate need to hear their perspective.  They were, on that day (as they are on all days), quite relevant.  Their content matched the moment.

I realized then that this is the relationship I want every radio talent I work with to have with their listeners.  I want the audience to wake up, and be curious, wondering the perspective the show has on whatever is going on in the world on that day.

True, it’s generally about some sort of frivolous topic:  who didn’t get a rose on The Bachelor, the Sex and the City re-boot, or the NFL playoffs.  But last Wednesday’s attack on the US Capitol forced an all-consuming topic that every American knew about and galvanized around.

I listened to fifteen shows last Thursday (some live, the others recorded).  Most mine, some our competitors.  Just to see what everyone was up to when I dialed in.  I listened to each for an hour.  That was much more than what the typical fan would give a program.  I wanted to see if I had the same experience around this topic with them as I did with Howard on Newtown.  I wanted to see how relevant each show was to meet the moment from the previous day.

Almost all the shows did something (or several things) around it.  Sharing their shock or take on what they saw (reflecting back what the audience felt).  Some found people who were actually in the Capitol at the time to get first-person storytelling (riveting).  One got on their preacher for his perspective (quite inspiring).  Another a therapist on how to talk with kids about it (appropriate).  Nearly all felt comfortable tackling the topic, because that’s where listeners were when they tuned in.

But others were a head scratcher:  One talent did a four-minute break about how she could eat an entire 16” pizza in one sitting.  Another show asked for callers on their topic of the day:  tell us about the argument you had with your delivery person.  A host went on about how he could never say the name of his maid correctly.  One did their generic relationships bit about first kisses at wedding receptions (tongue or no tongue?!?).  And finally, more than one kept telling me to not go away because they had “an all-new prank phone call coming up in the next fifteen minutes.”

This might have been okay content on an average day.  But last Thursday, they were missed opportunities.

One of radio’s greatest strengths is its ability to shift quickly to be relevant.  Relevancy is derived from the topic – it’s whatever is going on right now – it’s a critical image to own and something the audience is looking for when they tune in.  For shows that miss that mark, the audience shrugs its shoulders on that day and continues its search for relevancy.

There are a few standard push-backs when serious topics like what happened in Washington last week come up.  Here they are and here’s how I reply:

  • “We don’t do politics” is the one most often used. My reply is:  fine, but do you do humanity?  What if you tackled the topic and prepped in a way where politics never entered the conversation?  Both the blue and red teams were horrified with what they saw at the US Capitol.  Go be human and connect.  Get the audience to care what you think by that shared humanity.
  • “Listeners are looking for an escape from the topic.” No, they’re not.  They might be looking for an escape from the seriousness of it, but we all want to be around whatever is going on right now – it helps us feel connected to the world.  So, go be that, in the most human of ways, and the audience will lean in.

On a typical day, the topics are light and frivolous.  But then there are days when they aren’t. One of my biggest lessons as a talent coach over the years is that we must continue getting our personalities comfortable to go there by exploring what they think so they can be themselves and be honest with the audience.  And move the audience to care about them.

We can reduce their fear of the topic by also teaching them how to do this, so the program continues to radiate their wattage and defines who they are as personalities, so listeners wake up each day wondering what they think.  It’s easy to say things like the DC uprising should be a topic on the show.  It’s harder to show them how it can be done.  That’s why we teach.

Relevancy is not an elusive concept.  Be about “the now”.  That’s one way we’ll make more radio fans.

Being Large To Be In Charge

Any show I work with gets the same question each December as we evaluate our year:  what do you remember about our year of shows?  What specific things did we do that stood out, moved the needle, advanced our strategy, and deepened our relationship with the audience?

I figure if they can recall it, it mattered to them and probably cut through with the audience.  Here’s some of what came up:

  • “When we developed an idea to send 50 lunches to first responders as a thanks for what they were doing because of Covid and our listeners helped us send 500.”
  • When the protests happened, and we wondered what life is like from the African-American perspective in America and a Black pastor came on and talked to us so compassionately we cried.”
  • “Adding that new funny feature at 8:15.”
  • “When I admitted to the audience I was getting a divorce.”
  • “Asking listeners to help us raise $50,000 to buy socks for homeless people in our town due to the cold winters and they donated $158,000 instead.”
  • “Understanding that Covid made people feel alone and we reminded them they weren’t alone with us in their lives.”
  • “Developing a relationship with the doctor coordinating our state’s Covid response so that she would feel comfortable coming on our show every week to update and calm our listeners.”
  • “One of our co-hosts taking a stand on the BLM movement and the audience reacting heavily about it on social media – some against, but most for.”
  • “Coming up with that new interview feature for social media that made more people aware of us.”
  • “Getting behind the campaign encouraging listeners to shop local during the holidays because we want to support ‘the little mom and pops’ who make our town what it is.”

What’s a common theme of the above?  They’re all big things.  And big is remembered.  By both talent and listeners.

In the twenty years I’ve coached shows in every sized market, no one has ever suggested something small that was a nuanced change about the program.  I ask this question each December to continue the teaching process.  To remind talent that yes, we have to get the little things correct.  But we also must differentiate ourselves with big things to stay top-of-mind, so listeners keep coming back for more.  Being large means you can be in charge.

My friend Jon Coleman wrote in a recent blog about how big things move the number to the left of the decimal point in ratings and smaller stuff changes the number on the right.  The shows I work with move the number on the left by doing things that get them noticed and create talk.  Read Coleman’s “How to Move the Ratings Needle” here.

Whether we’re asking the audience to join us in helping organizations in need or creating new, fun content to take listeners away from the stress of their world, being memorable without violating fit for your brand is always an advantage in a marketplace where radio is “safe”.  We need to spend more time developing these things, too.

Big stuff cuts through, being boldly different is remembered, and believing you can will create deeper authenticity.  And all of it makes for more passionate fans who will spend more time with the show.  This is what the personalities I work with spend time prepping on.  Because what we do with our content choices is completely in our control.  Groomed by curious talent who use that trait to come up with something to do with A-level topics that intrigue the audience.  That’s a powerful differentiator in an industry where we can easily be perceived as just like everyone else.

Chat with your premiere talent and ask what’s top-of-mind from their previous year of content.  See what you get.  Then focus them on doing bigger things that will positively impact their images and make more listeners return out of a fear of missing something.

I believe in talent’s ability to prove radio’s limitless power to create fans who are excited for what we do and to positively impact clients who trust us with their marketing and advertising dollars.

We get to make a great painting each day.  The epic content we place on that canvas gets us there.

Satan Meets His Match

With an interest to do a year-end ad, Match.com could have done one that was fact-based – listing the number of people they matched, how many of those couples are still together, and how effective they are at finding that special someone for everyone who joins.

Or they could have done something timelier, funnier, and more relevant.  Which is what they did.

Millions have viewed and shared the Satan ad online.  It begins at the start of the year, where Satan meets his match (her name is “2020”) then revels in what a dumpster fire things have been for everyone.  It’s very funny and memorable.  Its core attribute, though, is its relevance.  Every one of us thinks this was our year, too.  Looking forward, it ends with the tagline:  Make 2021 your year.

I’m always talking with shows about how important it is to be a reflection of whatever is going on right now.  Simply put, if you were to re-air the program your show did today in a few weeks, would it feel old, stale, and out-of-touch for those listening?  If the answer is “yes”, that’s a good sign because it means the content choices today were relevant to listeners’ lives.

This is why Match.com’s Satan ad works.  Anyone watching is nodding up and down because this is their life at this moment – we are thinking (and experiencing) it.  The absurdity and humor are the sticky parts to make it memorable.

One of our many strengths as an industry is to reflect back to the audience what is going on in their lives for connection.  When listening to shows, I screen how much of our content feels evergreen and if the topic could be done anytime, by anyone.  Was it something to do just to eat up time?  Or is the show in touch with what’s going on in the world right now and using those topics as content to do fun, interesting, contemporary, and unique things that no one else could do?  That’s relevance.

Sure the Match.com ad won’t age well down the road.  But, that’s the point.  That ad makes a connection with the audience (pun intended) and makes you laugh so it’s remembered because it’s about right now.  Affirming those images separates it from all the other dating services and, if you’re looking for love, you join them because they’re top-of-mind.

Doing a great radio show is a strategic process.  Encourage your talent to know the topics happening right now and to swipe right, using them to create relevant and entertaining breaks that makes the show meet the moment.  Visit our Hot List page here for a weekly starter list of those big topics – sign up your talent to get it each Sunday (that’s on the page and it’s free).

Tackling these topics from the talent’s point-of-view defines them.  Then doing epic shit with the Hot Topics creates a vibe where listeners will return each day out of a fear of missing something.  We look for relevance in every brand we interact with.  Your audience does, too.

Doing so makes your talent, their show, the radio station, and our industry matter to the lives of our listeners which means more occasions for higher ratings.

A Provocative Question With Little Time To Go

Truly great shows meet the moment.  They are exactly where the audience is for topics and tone.  Think 9/11, Covid (when it was new), or something fun like when the first American Idol was chosen.  Every show reflected the mood of the audience with tailored content for where the listeners were at that time.

There are other examples over the years – most not serious, some quite frivolous.  When your show is there, that’s called being relevant.

Here’s a provocative question I’ve discussed with every show in the last week:  what the hell will our show sound like on November 4, the day after the election?

There are three potential outcomes:  Trump’s reelected or Biden wins outright.  Or…we won’t know.  Under each circumstance, what content will your show do that Wednesday, how will you do it, and most importantly, how do you want the audience to feel when they listen that day?

With the one-year anniversary approaching of the Boston bombings many years ago, I proffered this question to two shows I work with in Boston.  We had to be on that topic on that day because that’s where the audience would be.  I asked the shows one month out this question so we could do appropriate content that day.  I did not feel that doing our usual Hollywood features, trivia games, and relationships-advice phone topics would be a match.

When I asked the Boston shows what emotions listeners would have and how we could reflect back that we were feeling that way, too, we settled on showing pride for the city – for what everyone had been through in the previous year and how they had emerged.  Someone on both calls said they wanted the audience to be feel Boston Strong again.  Knowing the importance of the topic and how we wanted listeners to feel made crafting that show easier.

Great shows happen at the point of wonderment in any relevant topic from your talent.  That’s when they are their most authentic and grounded in honesty.  And you stand your best chance that listeners will be interested and intrigued, too.

I would never presume to know how your show will sound on November 4, because I am not familiar with your brand and your talent.  But each show I work with has a game plan depending on what happens on election day.  I love strategies; my shows do, too.  Now, all we’ll have to do is wait and see and then execute the appropriate game plan.  And here’s the best part:  not one game plan we came up with at any show has anything to do with politics, Trump, Biden, or the issues.

Have you engaged your show on what they should do that day, too?  Or will you wake up that morning with the audience consumed by one topic and your show doing its standard fare instead?

Planet Reynolds: Masculinity 2019 – The Best a Man Can Be

Planet Reynolds: Masculinity 2019 – The Best a Man Can Be

Planet Reynolds: The “It Factor” – Ten Ways to Tell If You Have Lightning in a Bottle

Planet Reynolds: The “It Factor” – Ten Ways to Tell If You Have Lightning in a Bottle