Practice Makes Permanent

Many of us read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of a complex skill.

Which brings me to show prep.

Back in the day, personality-driven shows could get away with winging it.  No longer, though.  The audience’s expectations, along with their A.D.D., won’t allow any show, new or tenured, to make it up as they go along.

I was asked recently to talk with some Audacy brand managers about the growth of talent.  Audacy is making a greater commitment to growing their people.  In the Q&A, their wonderful personality, Katie Neal, asked how to make a show more creative.

Well, you have to put in your 10,000 hours.  But an X Factor to making those hours valuable, and my answer to her question, is to surround everyone with more curiosity.  Creativity and curiosity are tied together, as I’ve discussed in this blog before (Steve Uses the “C” Word).

Prep isn’t sitting around a room, throwing out a big topic and then asking, “What can we do with it?”  Prep is marrying your elusive wonderment against a topic and engaging others to truly come up with angles that are memorable, different, and can’t miss.

In the last two weeks there are two examples with shows I work with that inspire me:

  • I had a Curiosity Zoom with Lexi and Banks, KUBL, Salt Lake City. In our chat about the Will Smith-Chris Rock story, it was noted that everyone was curious if the whole thing was faked.  That’s when we all wondered what a body language expert would say if they just watched the video.  So, they found one.  It was a fascinating break around the big topic.  The body language expert shared he thought the whole thing was staged based on what he saw.  Memorable, different, and can’t miss.
  • There was no bigger topic than the Final Four match-up between Duke and UNC if you live in the Triangle. We couldn’t do enough around this story line.  Chatting with the morning show Kyle, Bryan, and Sarah, WRAL, Raleigh, someone said that it’s always the next day in Australia.  So, they called a friend there the day before the game to ask who won, claiming it had already been played there.  He said UNC.  Most listeners got the joke.  A few didn’t.  And one called the program for clarification.  The laughter continued.  Memorable, different, and can’t miss.

These two treatments of those two big topics happened because I have curious people on the shows who are forever falling down the rabbit hole, reading about it all to further stimulate their fascination.

Curiosity needs to be nurtured.  Are we doing enough for our talent to do that?

I am so lucky to have been around shows over the years who always practice their curiosity.  In almost every instance, that curiosity has become permanent and part of the ethos on how those shows prep.

Look at your program.  Do you have curious people?  And are they surrounded by even more curiosity?

You want a show that’s memorable, different, and can’t miss?  Go find people like that, who channel their inner 8-year-old, and question everything, with an insatiable appetite to learn more, more, and more about everything.

Then watch what happens to the creativity of the cast and your show.

That ain’t a bad way to spend those 10,000 hours to becoming epic.

We’re Gonna Need Better Prizes

I worked with a show many years ago that was, to put it politely, “ratings-challenged”.  The program director and I knew the issues were rooted in relevance of content, not being local enough, and a lack of unique treatment of those content choices to stand out.  But what we do is people management so we’d regularly enroll the show’s principle players in finding a solution that would improve things.

We’d ask the talent what fixes the larger ratings issues so they could take ownership of the right path forward.  And each time we would get back the same answer:  we need better prizes.

The show didn’t last much longer.

Our long-term wins come strategically.  Where the show thought that manipulating listenership and getting contest players to come back to the program was the answer, developing images is always the smarter choice.

Have we identified the right content is the first question.  Then how we do that content to endear ourselves to the audience is the key that unlocks the door for increased engagement with fans.

This show consistently played to the two percent of game or contest players when being much more concerned with the perceptions of the other 98% just tuning in, looking to be entertained, was more important.  Where we’d preach that how we gave out whatever prize we had was the smarter putt, they stayed hyper-focused on the quality of the prize.

Who’s Wheel of Fortune really doing the show for?  Those three contestants spinning the wheel with Pat and Vanna?  Or those of us sitting on the sofa trying to figure out the puzzle, looking to win nothing?  It’s always about us, the larger group they want watching.  Go time the opening of Wheel.  From the moment the show starts until the first letter of the first puzzle is revealed (that’s when the show is about the viewer), it’s less than thirty seconds.

Think of those 98% when doing your content (contests, games, or not).  What messages are listeners walking away with about your show?  A concept I consistently talk with talent about is doing their content for the person least interested.  If those fans leave knowing how real you are; identifying with the story you just told; vicariously playing along with the game you have the prize for; understanding how different and relevant you are; laughing and having fun, then you’ll find your win.

There are tactical things every show can and should do to extend listenership.  But the truly long-lasting wins come strategically.

“We’re gonna need better prizes” solves nothing.  Coach your show to process how those you will never hear from, the other 98%, are reacting to what you’re doing.

Advocating for their win advances all efforts for your win to becoming an epic brand.

Great Shows Don’t Happen by Accident

No standout show or talent in radio got there by guessing at it.  The Ryan Seacrests and Howard Sterns of our industry ascended to iconic status (iconic:  great ratings, tons of revenue) because there was a strategic process in place to get there.

Does your show have one?  More importantly, do your talent have the three elements necessary for that strategy to work?

A new year brings me new clients.  Because what I do is a boutique service, looking to pay a higher level of attention to fewer shows, I evaluate any potential program around three key elements.  These attributes indicate if those on the show, the ones we’re pining to be Seacrests and Sterns, are a cut above the rest of the market to get there.

Those three areas are their Aptitude, Attitude, and Work Ethic.  Let me touch on each as you think about your talent, hoping they can make a difference building your brand.

Aptitude:  simply put, do the people on the show have talent and a capacity to be bold, gigantic personalities fans crave to be around each morning.  Are they fun/funny?  Do they have a natural interest in what’s going on in the world and a perspective on everything current with no fear to share it?  Can they be vulnerable with their life and honest with the audience?  Are they self-confident and curious?  Are they electric to be around?  Will they get involved locally to generate great content for on-air and social media that can be done in unique ways?

Attitude:  are they positive team builders who put all others above themselves?  Can they lead unselfishly?  Do they figure out how to get stuff done and innovate around speedbumps that appear on the road to great execution of relevant content?  Or are they the types who tell you how something can’t be done or why it won’t work?  I call these the “if only…” people.  If only I had this it would work.  Nope, we create our own path and success.  Great attitudes drive wins.

Work Ethic:  gone are the days where talent could show up, be pretty, and get great ratings.  Because of the competition for listeners’ time, we must work at this (in a word:  prep) and earn it every single break.  Identify the right content, develop a treatment of that content which makes it memorable, and hunker down to pull it off.  I can tell if a show prepped or is winging it when I listen – you can, too.  We no longer have that grace to get this done.

Every talent needs to be coached up (even Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are coached up).  Having great aptitude, a superior attitude, and an unparalleled work ethic are the foundational elements of personalities who are difference-makers.

We need talent to help set us apart.  Leaders help groom these attributes in personalities to get them there.

Couple that with a strategy that fits your people, and your win will never be accidental.

Work hard at it and it might even be epic.

What Kind of Conversationalist Are You?

Just before Thanksgiving I had surgery.  A few weeks ago, I got together with some non-radio friends, and one asked how I was doing.  Thirty seconds into my update, the other person interrupted and proceeded to tell me, over the course of several minutes, about his last three surgeries. The focus never came back to me and my story.

Have you ever listened to a morning show where they’re talking to a guest, only for someone on the show to quickly seize the spotlight back to talk about themselves?  People being interviewed hate this and it ain’t good radio.

I think I know why this happens and will share that in a moment.

Truly great radio is a conversation the audience not only eavesdrops on, but feels they’re a part of, too.  As I share with talent, terrific breaks are dialogues, not monologues.  And it’s our job to create those dialogues.

An astute personality I work with recently asked how to protect a conversation from becoming one-sided.  The answer is simple:  be curious, ask questions.  Then listen.  Because the answers draw that person out, make them the center of attention, and their story comes to life and gives you that dialogue.

Had the person above opted to ask me questions about my surgery, my recovery, and my life around all of it, the focus would have been on me, and I might have told an interesting story about the experience that could have engaged and entertained everyone in the room.  I believe I had that story but was prevented from telling it because the other person so badly wanted to talk about himself.  Had I had that chance, he would have laughed at the name the nurse called the surgeon behind his back!

You fix this with prep, inquisitiveness, and an endless supply of questions (not statements) that make the story and its details come to life.  By being genuinely interested in the person and their subject matter.

Great storytelling lives in the twists and turns that magically appear when curious people draw them out.  The talent’s role in these interviews is to wonder a lot and wander freely around it.  That’s where awesome storytelling happens.

I don’t fault the person above for cutting me off.  I know why he did it and it wasn’t for egotistical reasons.  He was looking for connection points with my experience:  you had surgery, so did I, we have something in common.  The mistake happened when he did it, at the beginning.  His stories should have come after mine.  Then we would have had that great conversation and I could have returned the favor with all my interest in him.

There’s a terrific article a smart program director shared called What Kind of Conversationalist Are You?  It’s short but powerful and talks more about this.  Find it here and engage your great talent to be even better communicators as you continue coaching them up.

That’ll push them further down the road to becoming epic for your radio station.

PS:  My friend and 2021 CMA Country Broadcast Personality of the Year, Cody Alan, has written a book called Hear’s the Thing.  It’s all about his story and how he became one of radio and TV’s best interviewers.  Chapter 8 should be required reading by all personalities who want to be even better at the art of conversation.

Expectations Are the Thief of Joy

I’m an Apple guy and just ordered their new MacBook Pro. It’s received stellar reviews and it’s time to update my laptop, so I placed my order.

One thing Apple gets better than any other of the hundreds of brands I interact with is that they know they’re not in the technology or computer business. They’re in the experience business. I’ve always said that about those of us in radio, too.

The laptop is backordered, and I was told it wouldn’t be delivered until December 23. Then Apple did what Apple does. They managed my expectations to bring me joy. Over the last couple of weeks, as I’ve checked on the status of the order, they’ve consistently moved the delivery date up. As I write this, it’s December 9. Where all other brands are having “supply chain issues” and delaying deliveries, Apple is heightening my anticipation as they always do so I stay joyful and gush about them as I’m doing to you.

Teasing is important in radio. But not for the reason most of us believe. It’s near impossible to extend listening as people have lives and those lives will always win out over them giving us another quarter hour. What great teasing does is set the expectation that listeners will miss something great if they tune out. So they get a sense they won’t be in on something special, so they come back to the show for more of that joy.

Often, I hear shows offer no teasing. That ain’t good. Many times, I hear something bland and unimaginative (“coming up next, our Hollywood Report” or “in six minutes, we’ll talk about when I took my dog to the park”). But when we tease intriguing, connective, relevant, entertaining content, being done in a way our competitors cannot, we bring joy to the break and set the audience to return for more of it the next day.

Worse still, I continue to hear stations and shows tell me that I need to do things like tune in Thursday at 7:20 for a “major announcement”. Only to find out that three days of hype led to the morning show telling me Maroon Five will play at the civic center in the spring and that we have family four packs/win ‘em before you can buy ‘em tickets starting on Monday. Yikes. Half the audience shrugged, the other half yawned, and all of them felt duped.

Expectations are the thief of joy indeed. The more you tease the same thing, the higher the expectation and greater chance of less joy.

Listen to your show. Ask if they are on the very best content available on every single day. Because it all starts with content and everything they do is considered content. Is it substantive and strategic? Does it align the program and cast with an image important to developing a relationship with the audience? Then, is it being done in a way that fits and both heightens expectations and delivers it to bring joy to the audience receiving it?

Our customers (listeners) want happiness. It’s in our control and epic if we bring it to them. But first we must set the right expectation and then deliver on it.

Oh wait, the MacBook Pro is now coming December 2…

When Will My Show Make Money?

Program directors and talent wonder the same question: when will we get ratings? Managers and sales folks ask a different question: when will the show help me make money?

The trajectory has always been the same to answer both questions:

Content leads to…

Images which lead to …

Perceptions which lead to…

Ratings which lead to…

$$ Revenue $$

Doing the right content in the right way leads to positive images, which give you the right perceptions, which then generate ratings, which results in revenue.

It all starts with the right content.  Remember:  everything you do (everything!) is content to the audience.  Are you making the best content choices all the time so they stick around or come back?

This trajectory applies to every show, and any format.  Patience plays a critical role, but being strategic about your content, based on the age of the show and its relationship with the audience, informs the strategy.

Guess at that content and who knows where you’ll land?  But have that right game plan and add in the patience noted above (it’s very important to be patient because you cannot move this along faster than the audience will allow) and you’ll make lots of money and might even become epic.

Grading Your Morning Show, Giving It All C’s

I’ve spoken before in Planet Reynolds about the foundational elements every show needs to be strategic:  what is the show about (its “plot”)?  What is your game plan for character development?  Is the cast focused on earning the right images to drive loyalty?  Does the show have significant benchmark appointments, that cannot be duplicated, which will drive occasions back to the program?

I talk with new shows about the “need for C’s”.  A subjective metric to assess if your show is on course.  These are the Four C’s every talent and show should work on, around the framework above, to assure they’re strategic.  How would you rate your show in each of these areas?

  1. Connection.  Despite social media, the internet, and all that texting, human beings, at their core, desire connection.  Human to human contact is essential to developing a relationship.  I recently joined Clear so I can get through security lines faster at airports.  From registering to finishing my account at their kiosk to the security line, I was accompanied by an actual human being.  Ever call a customer service number, only to sit through three minutes of pressing “1” for this and “2” for that before you get a person who can help?  I bet you’re not happier after all of that.  Connection is one of radio’s superpowers.  The audience wants to connect with your talent, and they must work on that purposefully when doing the show.
  2. Companionship.  We learned during Covid, with everyone sequestered in their homes with their small circle of family for over one year, that companionship is critical.  Companionship fosters a deep relationship.  Think of those in your personal life you’re close to.  They provide you companionship.  Deep inside, so many listeners feel alone.  Scrolling Facebook a million times a day doesn’t fix that.  We can, though, by reminding the audience that, wherever they are in life, they aren’t alone if they hang out with us.
  3. Content.  This is how we accomplish numbers one and two above.  We engage with certain websites because we’re looking for content.  We turn on a TV show because we want content.  Pop open Facebook, Instagram or any other social media app?  You’re looking for content.  Same for your audience.  They’re looking for content, too.  Are you on the best content in each break on every day?  Or is it irrelevant pablum the audience shrugs their shoulders at?  The right content affords connection and companionship.
  4. Comedy.  Life sucks, so make people laugh.  In the two decades I’ve coached shows in North America and Europe, there is one constant:  no show wins without solid humor images.  Not laugh in a set up/punchline kind of way.  Not in doing wacky “radio bits”.  Listeners want to be around genuine, fun people.  Yea, there are days the news or pop culture cycle compels us to be serious – those are outliers, and we must respect them – but go have fun and people will wanna be around you.

The Four C’s:  Connection, Companionship, Content, and Comedy.

It might be instructional to ask your show to grade themselves in each area on a 1-10 scale, with managers doing it, too.  Compare those grades and see where you match.  Any disparity gives great programmers an opportunity to influence their show with yet another strategic conversation about their growth.

I’d be interested to hear how that turns out so let me know.

Because grading your morning show and giving them all C’s might just keep you on the path to being f’n epic.

Start at the End

Years ago, one month out of the first anniversary of the Boston bombings, I decided to engage the two shows I work with in that city around what our programs will sound like that day.  I received back, as is sometimes the case, silence.  When I was on the air, I was the king of never planning.  I usually worried about large milestone shows like this the day before.  We don’t have that luxury any longer because of the competition for listeners’ attention.

I engaged both rooms in an exercise instructive to help develop our content.  Instead of brainstorming certain pieces of content (what phone topic can we do, who can we interview, etc.), I asked everyone this question:  if a listener tunes in that day, what do you want them to feel after the break is over?  What happens at the end of the content?  If we know that, we can work backwards to craft great breaks.

That focus – what emotion do we want the audience to experience listening to us – changed the conversation.  Because one of the many great things about radio is that we determine how our customer feels when they take delivery of the product!

I cynically suggested to the Boston teams that we re-live that day, angering people.  Or maybe offer that they be weary of folks on the streets with backpacks, frightening listeners.  Both were obviously rejected.  I again asked the question: what feeling do we want listeners to have when we’re done?

Then the answer in both rooms:  “We want them to feel ‘Boston Strong’.”  Yup…everything after that got easy.

With the milestone twentieth anniversary of 9/11 approaching, I ask you the same question.  What content will you do, and what emotion are you going for the week of September 11th to be where listeners are?

Some shows will grab all that low-hanging fruit:  let’s ask people where they were when they heard?  Let’s talk to someone who was on a plane that day!  Maybe re-run audio from TV!  All of that is twenty-year old content.  Is that good enough for your fans?

Every show I work with was engaged on this a month ago.  Each has a game plan for unique, local content, all in our efforts to make our fans feel the right emotion so we connect with them, and they remember us.  Because we figured the feeling first.

This proves that to start at the end is quite helpful in crafting the right content for days like this.

What’s your ending?

Start with that, and you’ll be epic the week of 9/11.

Steve Uses the “C-Word”

Four score and seven years ago, I was interviewing for a job at a classic rock station in Washington, DC owned by Westinghouse (now you know why I said “four score and seven years ago”).

During the interview, the program director said he was going to throw out some topics and wanted me to say whatever came to mind.  The entire list was comprised of things going on in the news/pop culture at that time.

I didn’t get the job but have never forgotten the exercise because it was so fascinating.  In my follow-up with the PD, he shared that he wanted to see how informed I was about each topic (they were both serious and silly) to assess if I had a perspective that would be interesting on-the-air.  He said if I could be interesting in his office, I could do it on a show, too.

Time for the C-word.  It was a test of my curiosity.

Having a wonderment about the world around you and a curiosity about the topics of the day is a quality that separates the good from the great talent.  A natural curiosity leads you down new paths and makes you not only interesting to listen to, but more creative, too.  The talent I work with who perform at the highest levels are all naturally curious people, who are always acting on that by discovering new things about whatever is going on.  That makes them interesting to listen to.  Because they are always exploring the topics to learn more.

I use the exercise above with every applicant I interview for a job – I want to get a sense of their wonder outside of their circle.

If I’ve ever done a call with your morning show, you know I use a version of the interview technique above at the start of each conversation.  I casually ask the show what they think of a current topic or I share mine to see what happens.  True, I am making conversation to reconnect with all, but I am also looking for organic content.  I want to see if the room lights up.

Which leads me to Bill Cosby!

I had my weekly call with John and Tammy at KSON, San Diego the day we were shocked that he was being released from prison.  Many shows default to “we can’t talk about that” (which is rooted in a fear of the topic because they don’t know what to do with it).  The KSON show gave us natural, organic content around the Cosby story, all instigated by their curiosity.

John and Tammy were outraged and had a zillion questions about how that could happen.  Click John and Tammy’s logo to the right to hear what they did.  The topic was top shelf and they got all their questions answered from someone who could, which is excellent content for any radio show.

My friend Bruce St. James, who does mornings at WLS, Chicago, is incredibly smart (a good talent trait), but also quite curious (that’s what makes him smart!).  I happened upon this tweet the day the Cosby story broke, which said it all.  Bruce was also curious about how Cosby could be let out, so that fueled his breaks.  And the audience naturally took the trip with him.

I once worked with a talent who sat around all day watching Netflix.  He was incurious about everything and didn’t last long on the show.  The audience made its mind up on him quickly.

If I’m curious, it’s because of my mother.  Lillian was an exceptionally restless person, always wanting to know more, more, more about everything.  She made me watch TV shows that would make me think, compelled me to read magazines and newspapers to form an opinion, and to gravitate to people who were entirely different from me because that would provide a world in technicolor which might make me a more curious person.

Do you have curious talent doing your show?  People fascinated with everything going on and a desire to explore all of it?  How can you make them more curious?  It’s what we work on with every show I am lucky to touch.  My goal is talent who are bold, daring, and interesting so they stand out as one-of-a-kind.  We must access each of those traits because curious people lead to more creative, unique shows.

I’ve long wondered if curiosity is nature or nurture.  Maybe it’s a little of both.

Come to think of it, I guess I’m curious about curiosity.  Maybe I should explore that…

Go foster with your talent a more curious environment about everything.  Then you’ll be epic.

Hope You Had a Nice Vacation…I Really Don’t Care

There’s a show out west I don’t know but like as a listener. I’ve never met the people doing the program. As fate would have it, the anchor pinged me on Facebook wanting to set up a Zoom to say hello.

As a fan of their program and student of personality radio, this was an easy yes.

When we connected, I wished the anchor a happy birthday. He asked how I knew and we both said in unison, “Facebook!” I had listened to part of their show that morning to prepare for the call. I asked, quite sardonically, if he’d talked about his birthday on the show that day. Hoping for one particular answer, he looked in the camera and said emphatically, “No.” When I asked why, hoping again for a particular answer, he said, “Because no one gives a shit.”

We both went two-for-two.

I’ve talked in Planet Reynolds before about celebrity or local birthdays and how the audience, at best, shrugs at this as content. Same thing for your birthday. The audience just doesn’t give a rip. Unless something spectacular happened, like your spouse got Chris Martin from Coldplay to call your cell to surprise you and you have that audio.

Ditto your summer vacation. Unless something drama-filled happened while you were away, and the story is off-the-charts engaging, the audience doesn’t want to hear about it because it isn’t about them, it’s about you.

As co-workers come back to the building, imagine this: you’re walking down the hall and Karl from engineering passes by. You ask Karl how his vacation was (courtesy question, right?). Karl stops to tell you where he went and what he did with the family while at Disney. Say it lasts four-minutes (the length of a typical break). There are zero drama-filled stories to keep your interest. You might stand there and nod, but what are you thinking? Quietly inside you’re impatient, wondering when this will be over as you have important things to do. Because it’s not about you nor is it entertaining. All you want is to escape the conversation with Karl the engineer.

If that’s how you’d feel in that scenario, wouldn’t the audience feel the same?

The audience comes to the show for content – the win comes when you make your show about them. Talking about yourself is good because you must reveal who you are for character development. But, the listener must be able to relate to or see themselves in that story – that’s how you connect. Not everything that happens in your life is strategic character development.

Any topic on the show can start from your perspective to define who you are, but we have a very small window to connect and entertain because there is so much choice. Unlike your chat with Karl where you’re trapped for those four minutes, the audience can just hit a button and find something that works for them.

There is a truth that has stood the test of time. If I am around you and focus all of my time getting you to talk about you, I’ll leave a more important person in your mind. We must treat the listeners like that, too, so they keep returning.

I left the Zoom with the show out west respecting them more because they think like listeners.

Let’s make strategic content decisions that ultimately elevates our audience, because our content makes them the focus. They’ll then carry us to the win.

Go be epic and you’ll make more fans.