How To Avoid Familiarity Bias When Coaching Talent

How To Avoid Familiarity Bias When Coaching Talent

by Tracy Johnson

If you’re like most people, you’re a human being. How’s that for an opening line that is inarguable? And being human means you’re biased. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you human. But when it comes to coaching air personalities, familiarity bias is a real thing, and it’s one of the most difficult challenges to overcome.

Familiarity Bias? What’s That?

Familiarity bias is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.

In social psychology, this effect is sometimes called the mere-exposure effect. It has been demonstrated with many kinds of things, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, pictures of faces, geometric figures, and sounds.

In studies of interpersonal attraction, the more often a person is seen by someone, the more pleasing and likeable that person appears to be.

In the investment world, familiarity bias is the tendency to invest in stocks or bonds that we’re familiar with, regardless of whether those equities represent the best possible option. There is comfort in having your money invested in a business that is visible to you. It makes stocks like Disney or Coca Cola feel safer.

Familiarity bias has a strong influence on what you buy. You have an iPhone, and when the new MacBook comes out from Apple, you buy it. Yes, they’re great computers, but are they that much better than other machines? Probably not. But your familiarity with the brand helps convince you that it’s the best choice. You’re biased.

Familiarity Bias in Programming

The same thing happens when program directors and music directors make decisions every week. You love (or the) an artist or genre of music. Or you grew up listening to a particular type of music. Therefore, your judgement is biased for or against a certain song when evaluating merits for airplay on your station.

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It also happens when managing air talent. And this is where it gets really tricky.

It’s difficult to evaluate or critique a personality when we LIKE them personally or know them well off the air. Familiarity adds a context to their on-air performance, which distorts how we hear it. The opposite is also true. If you personally don’t get along with an air personality, it’s impossible to avoid hearing them through that lens.

This loss in objectivity can cause problems, but bigger issues arise when programmers refuse to acknowledge the bias.

Familiarity Bias: Personal Relationships

As a consultant and talent coach, it happens to me, too. The best evaluation is always the one that happens before the first meeting with the talent. Once there’s a relationship, perspective is altered.

Recently, I was working with a show that had just hired a new producer. My feedback to them was that he was on the air way too much, didn’t have much to say and needed to be pul back. In fact, I suggested that he be an off-the-air
producer for the foreseeable future. Then, I met him for the first time. And he is charming, smart, clever and enthusiastic.

The next morning, he didn’t bother me on the air. In fact, there were a couple of comments that were funny! But only after having met him the day before. With the advantage of familiarity, he was performing in a different context. I had to remind myself (and the station) that it was going to be hard to meet each of the station’s 125,000 listeners!

Familiarity Bias: Great Attitude

Working with a client station, we had an air talent that had transitioned from co-host (responder) to her own show, it was clear that familiarity bias was at work. After 30 days, the show sounded like a train wreck. I mean, it was hard to find anything positive about it. The PD had told me the show’s launch was going great, getting momentum and was already talking about expanding the show to accommodate more talk and build in features.

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Both the PD and GM were shocked at my evaluation. They couldn’t believe it. I asked them what caused them to feel that the show was off to such a great start. They said:

  • She’s so passionate and has so many great ideas. (Yes, but that doesn’t mean it sounds good on the air).
  • She’s really knowledgable, has a great vision for the show and is really committed. (Yes, and I know a lot about baseball, but they still won’t let me to pitch for the Yankees).

They were both victims of familiarity bias. Their personal relationship and experience with the person was blinding them to the very clear problems that were on the air. They only saw/heard the potential that could result from her very positive off-air attitudes.

Familiarity Bias: They Suck

It also works the other way. I’ve had many situations involving talent that were difficult to manage. They were a handful internally and off-the-air, and familiarity bias caused the local staff to project negative opinions on their performance.

In one situation, I had to practically beg the management team not to make a change in the morning show (they would have gone across the street and taken the audience with them) because they were so tired of the baggage that only happened off-the-air.

We agreed to give them six months to turn around their attitude, or the change would be made. I worked with the show and the station in two ways:

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1. Convinced the show that they don’t know everything, can improve in some ways, and should give the management team some respect by being humble and listening to their feedback.
2. Went out of my way to highlight the great moments on the air to management (and there were many great moments).

The result was that the negative familiarity bias was neutralized (somewhat) because the show demonstrated what was perceived to be a better attitude. Combined with regular feedback about how great they sound, the six month deadline came and went and life went on. Bullet dodged.

Battling Familiarity Bias

The bias is unavoidable. It exists. You have it, and so do I. Acknowledging it is the first step toward avoiding mistakes that it could cause. Knowing that it’s there allows you to challenge yourself with hard questions about the actual performance and behavior.

But it can still be difficult. That’s when an outside opinion can be valuable. Many times, I’m hired by management that’s having trouble “seeing the forest for the trees” or “I think there’s something wrong with my morning show, but the PD thinks they’re great.”

The objective input can be a wake-up call to evaluate performance in a new way that you may be missing because of your bias.

Author: Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.

For more than 30 years, Johnson has been developing on-air superstars that attract fans, retain audiences and generate revenue.

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