6 Ways to Determine How Long a Break Should Last
by Tracy Johnson
Finding the right combination of music and talk is a non-scientific task. Break length and music count are issues nearly every programmer wrestles with.
And, it’s one of the most important decisions to be made.
In fact, one of the first questions I get from virtually every client is:
How much music should the morning show play?
This is almost always followed by:
How long should their breaks be?
There’s no standard answer to these questions, of course. That’s like asking how long a song should be, or the ideal length of a movie. It depends!
Knowing when to tighten or loosen the leash is difficult!
It is true, however, that air talent on music stations must earn the right to more talk. This privilege is not a bonus granted by the PD or GM. It’s an invitation from the audience, and it is earned over time. When content becomes more of an attraction that music, increase the talk, and reduce the music. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Here are 6 general guidelines to help you figure out the right mix for your station in any situation.
How Long Should Your Breaks Be?
In sorting it out for your station or show, understand that the length of the break isn’t nearly as important as the pace of the break.
In sports, Major League Baseball has obsessed over shortening games. Baseball officials are applying pressure on teams, umpires and players to “speed up” the games.
The emphasis is on the wrong syllable.
Taking all of the “downtime” out of baseball shortens the average game time by 7-8 minutes. In a three hour game, does 7-8 minutes matter?
This isn’t really about length. It’s about the pace, momentum and energy of the game. Making the game more exciting should be the goal. In radio, we often do the same thing. We’re worried about length, when our emphasis should be on the experience.
Tight And Short Are Not The Same Thing
There’s a big difference between being tight and length of break.
Being tight is eliminating needless words and streamlining focus. We don’t tighten the break in order to shorten it. We tighten it to improve the pace of the break, provide focus and make it easier to understand.
Shorter is simply, well, shorter. And shorter isn’t always better.
Tighter and Shorter are not the same
Where does your show rank? Which quadrant are you in? And what steps are you taking to bring more balance to your delivery?
And for programmers…this is important:
When you critique talent, choose your words very carefully. A comment like, “I love this because it was short” is deflating, with misplaced emphasis on an aspect that carries limited impact. It’s stifling.
Compare that to a comment like, “I love that break because it was tight. It was focused. It moved forward.”
PD’s often emphasize how long breaks last, but audience’s aren’t screaming for shorter talk segments. It’s not how long you talk: it’s the momentum, pace and energy – the entertainment value delivered to keep the audience from being bored.
Don’t shorten it. Make it more exciting! If that makes it shorter, so be it.
But every programmer wants guidelines. The right answer for you depends on the strength of your show.
Here’s a starting point.
6 Tips on Break Length
The length of your talk breaks depend on many variables. But the most important consideration is the stage your brand is in with your audience.
Stage 1: Introduction
If you’re a new show, in a new market, on a new station, or on a station that’s just changed format, play more music! Use the popularity of the songs as an introduction to your personality.
Try for 12 songs if you can. If not, go for 10 or 11. If you’re playing a lot of commercials and can’t get that many on, think about editing songs to increase the music count (see below). On the air, focus mostly on the basics. Sell the position, the station and introduce a few key features.
Inject your personality into every element by ize-ing each talk opportunity. That’s adding relatable content that helps you localize, energize, supersize and personalize material. the more you connect in these ways, the faster your personality will gain traction. Get more details on how to do it in my seminar on demand My Solo Show Can Beat Your Team Show.
Stage 2: Familiarity
As the show becomes more familiar, let out the leash a bit. It’s too soon to add more talk breaks, but you may want to lengthen what is acceptable in existing breaks.
If your station is establishing a music image, or is in a tight, direct format battle with a strong competitor, don’t let them get an advantage because you’re talking too much. Still, as familiarity increases, likability will follow. And audience tolerance increases.
In this scenario, target at least the same amount of music as the competition. If they have strong personalities and talk more, then play more music until your talent becomes more familiar and well-liked.
Usually 8-10 songs an hour is required to gain a meaningful advantage music advantage.
This may vary depending on the station’s history and your presence in the market, but if it’s a music challenge, make sure your show competes.
Stage 3: Growth
As the show evolves to becoming a listener habit, take advantage of a growing strength. In this stage, your talent is gaining momentum and could experience rapid growth if you manage it properly.
If your ratings are equal to the station’s overall share, it may be an opportunity to take a leadership position by relaxing restrictions a bit more, particularly if research indicates momentum for the talent.
Gradually remove songs over time, increasing personality content. Be sure to monitor ratings response and research the audience for perceptual changes in the show/station.
Stage 4: Like
If the show outperforms the station by 10% or more, it’s clear that the audience really likes your personalities. Now is the time to evolve toward less music/more personality aggressively.
Be careful to avoid doing it suddenly, but move aggressively. The faster you go from Like to Love, the better.
Relaxing the music count to 5-6 songs is appropriate, and you can edit the songs to allow more time for personality as well.
When the show consistently outperforms other dayparts by 15-20%, take another step and drop to 4-5 songs per hour.
Stage 5: Love
When the audience truly falls in love with the talent, go all the way. You have potential for domination.
If preference and ratings indicate more than 20% above the station, drop the music.
It doesn’t make sense to play less than four songs an hour. That’s not enough to hold a music listener and it gets in the way of those coming for the personalities.
This is the time to transition and become a personality-driven show.
Get Details on the 5 Stages of Growth With My Personality Success Path Here
Adjusting Break Length
Whenever making programming changes, do so gradually. As you adjust music count, make slow changes. They’re not as shocking as a large change. Removing one song at a time will insure a smoother transition for talent and the audience.
An effective method of increasing personality while maintaining song count is to edit songs. If you can remove 45 seconds from each song, you save 7.5 minutes every 10 songs! That’s huge. You can add personality and still play the same number of songs. If the songs are edited properly, it won’t be noticed.
Regardless of song count, maintain a high personality presence by taking advantage of each opportunity within the format. Use song intros to relate to listeners. A frequent presence on the show adds more time for listeners to get to know you. And they have to get to know you before they can fall in love with you. That’s part of Romancing The Listener.
As you reduce song count in the show, place higher scrutiny on each song. Play high testing, mass appeal songs and avoid unfamiliar, weaker testing titles.
Finally, don’t overthink it.
Seth Godin nails it:
“Too long.” You’re going to hear that more and more often. The movie, the book, the meeting, the memo… few people will tell you that they ran short. Shorter, though, doesn’t mean less responsibility, less insight or less power. It means less fluff and less hiding.
When in doubt, leave it out. When a friend sends you a video on YouTube, what’s the first thing you look at? How long is it? Do I have time for this? Is it worth my time? Your listeners are asking themselves the same thing about your show.
Tighter execution almost always results in shorter breaks.
Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.