On the day of Queen Elizabeth’s passing, several personalities asked what they should do to cover the story on their show the next day. The answer varies based on factors such as audience expectations for the show and where the personality is in their Personality Success Path. But what was curious to me was how many shows used the term cover the story. It’s not that they should avoid talking about the story. They should absolutely reference it and build content around the topic if it fits. But do it in a way that doesn’t give the audience homework.
Homework? What? Okay, follow along. Step outside the radio world and it’s easy to see that listeners aren’t paying much attention and won’t work very hard to figure out what is on the air. After commercials and playing a bad song, confusion is the #1 reason listeners tune out. It’s up to personalities to ensure it’s easy to understand or they move on to something else.
Every listener tunes in with certain expectations. Maybe it’s to hear a favorite song or a popular feature. The further from their expectations, the higher the risk of tuning out. That doesn’t mean you should never get outside of audience expectations. It simply means that the payoff must be greater than the risk.
This is not just a radio thing. The same rules apply to all forms of entertainment. Jerry Seinfeld calls it giving the audience homework.
Seinfeld And Carvey
Seinfeld’s Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a glimpse into the creative process of popular comics. In the Dana Carvey episode (2018-episode 6), Carvey asks Jerry to help him with a joke he was struggling with. Dana ran through the setup but he wasn’t happy with the outcome and doesn’t know why.
The joke is about how humans age. Carvey’s punchline is a pivot to how a cat experiences the aging process:
A cat would say, I used to get 17 hours of sleep. Now if I don’t get 19, I’m a total wreck.
Carvey quickly critiques his own joke. He says:
It’s not bad. But was 19 the right number? Would something else have been funnier?
Seinfeld responds with a brilliant observation. He liked the payoff but quickly identified the problem.
Giving The Audience Homework
Jerry broke down the joke quickly and efficiently. He tells Carvey;
It’s way too long a setup. And when you talk about consciousness, I’m already confused.
In other words, why are you talking about this? How did we get here? What is the context? It seems so random to the audience. Without providing context, they don’t hear the payoff. They’ve moved on, either physically or mentally. So expectations must be created by putting the storyline into context.
Carvey immediately understands the point. He says,
That’s it. I gave the audience homework.
Entertainers must make it easy to understand. For radio performers, that applies to contests, games, promotions, and segments on the air. Alan Burns once told me that everything on the radio should be designed as if it were being explained to a third grader. It has to be clear, tight, and simple.
Here’s Seinfeld’s advice to reconfigure the setup:
You need an in. What’s the funniest way to bring this up? Like this: What I like about having a cat is the amount of time we spend just staring at each other. That gets a little laugh there. You’ve now set the scene of me and the cat. Now we’re there.
A simple line creates context.
Here’s the audio of the conversation:
This is such a simple solution. Establishing a relationship between the storyteller and the cat adds context to the payoff. It answers the question, “How did we get here?”.
For more details, check out the Mastering The Set Up seminar here.
So let’s get back to the question of how shows should cover the story about the death of Queen Elizabeth.
Think about the Seinfeld/Carvey example. For most shows, the answer was:
Don’t try to cover the story. It’s not what you’re for. Within a few minutes of her death, everyone knew the story. Trying to cover the story puts you in competition with every news organization and talk show in the world. How can you win anything taking that path? The question should be how use the story as a reference point within the context of what listeners expect from your personality and show. Then add perspective and find a way to make it fit your show. Figure out what you want to say. Then figure out how to get in. Just like Jerry helped Dana.
And do it in a way that doesn’t assign the audience homework. Keep it simple.
Simplicity is not effortless. It is a difficult skill to master. It’s easier to add words, thoughts, and ideas. But that makes it more complicated. And complicated is never as effective.