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.