Reinventing a Great Radio Show

Reinventing a Great Radio Show

by Tracy Johnson

You may not think of Halifax, Nova Scotia as the source for great personality radio, but something amazing has been taking place there. Bell Media’s heritage Hot AC C100 is a great case study for reinventing a great radio show. They’ve replaced legendary talent, updated the show and continued their impressive run of dominance.

The Bell Media property has long been a leading brand, but when changes to a long-standing cast take place, it’s common to see listener erosion.

C100 Case Study: The History

Three years ago, the show featured Brad, Peter and Moya. Host Brad Dryden was the relative newcomer, with more than 10 years on the show. Dryden was replaced by market veteran JC Douglas. In 2016, Gwen Watt was added as show producer, with a limited on-air role. When Moya Farrell retired at the end of 2016, Melody Rose was imported from the company’s Fredricton, New Brunswick station, Capital FM.

Today, Peter Harrison is the show’s lone constant. Harrison has been on the show for 33 years.

Maintaining this level of success through massive changes requires strong management, company support and of course, great talent. Market Manager Trent McGrath has been the steady hand at the wheel, and with Muir’s day-to-day leadership, the show has emerged stronger and better.

How have they done it? I asked those most responsible:

Program Director Brad Muir, the show’s mastermind.

Peter Harrison, the 33 year old veteran.

Melody Rose, a newcomer to the show, in her early 30’s.

JC Douglas, the host of the show.

Gwen Watt, Producer and on-air contributor.

This case study provides insight into what makes personality radio great.

Reinventing a Great Radio Show: The Cast

TJ: The C100 Morning Show has been completely reinvented over the last three years. Peter, with 33 years at C100, you’ve been impacted the most. Tell me about it.

Peter Harrison

Peter: It’s true, the cast has changed and while I miss the folks who have moved on, the end result has been fantastic. Change can do one of two things: leave you feeling miserable and pining for the way it used to be, or it can invigorate you, give you a new lease on your life/career.

The changes on our morning show has done the latter for me. I think change is hardest for the audience, but we’ve been very careful in reinventing the show so the changes are as comfortable as possible to people who have been listening literally all of their lives.

I wish these changes weren’t happening during the third act of my career and what I mean by that is I honestly believe we have something very special here and I would love to see it last for many years to come.

JC is the quarterback. He’s smart and funny, but his strength, like any good quarterback, is distribution. He’s very good at allowing each player shine and takes pleasure in it. To carry the football analogy through, he knows the playbook inside and out. He’s a former PD and knows how important organization is to making sure the basics get covered. He can run with the ball when he wants and can tell a great story.

Melody Rose has only been here a few months, but has so much natural talent, it’s astounding. She brings a feminist approach to radio that we need. It fits our audience perfectly.

Our producer, Gwen, joins us on the air for many of the breaks every morning. She’s is one of the funniest people I know and is often delivers the laugh that gets us out of a break.

 

JC: Peter is the rock. Peter really IS the C100 morning show. He’s the funniest one, the smartest one.

You need something to get super dramatic, you give it to Peter. He’ll hit the perfect tone. I’ve tried sentimental and I bawl like a baby in the first thirty seconds.

Peter brings his A game every day, every break. And that’s the mark of a real pro.

Besides doing a wicked 90 second newscast. A few people have told me that I bring out some of Peter’s better on-air qualities, and I think it’s nothing more than laying the foundation and then allowing him the moment. We have a pretty good sense of each other’s timing, I know exactly when he needs a straight man to lob him a line. I just get the hell out of his way and he blasts it out of the park.

Replacing a Market Legend

TJ: Melody is the newest cast member, replacing market legend Moya Farrell as the main female presence on the show. Those are big shoes to fill. What is that like?

Melody: Well, there is no replacing Moya, but stepping into her position has been easier because of the amazing way C100 made the transition. They gave Moya a beautiful on air swan song, and allowed listeners time to say goodbye, and wish her farewell in retirement. It was a touching celebration. So, when I started, there was no, “Hey, what happened to Moya?” or, “Why can’t Moya come back?” I

Of course, there are other little things that happen when you replace a legacy: being called by the wrong name – by listeners AND coworkers, being referred to as “the one who took over Moya’s job” or the “new Moya”, but all of that can be expected. I know it will take some time, and even then I am sure some listeners will call me Moya years from now.

 

TJ: Melody, of the three main characters on the show, you’re the youngest. And you’re the main woman on the show. Aside from those obvious attributes, what do you bring to the personality mix?

Melody: I bring emotion, passion, and opinion. All of us are entertainers at heart with theatre backgrounds, and we’re all storytellers, but each has a unique point of view. So we complement each other well.

I am the age of our target demo and view the things we talk about through the lens of a 30-something female, with the kind of humor, self-deprecation, honesty, and vulnerability that is unique to me.
JC: Melody stepped into some wildly large shoes when Moya left, but she too is a pro. She has ten years of experience performing with a national TV show touring company, so she understands live performance.

Her Hollywood 360 reports are the work of a consummate professional, you’d never know she’s only been in radio for just a couple of years, and she knows how to build a compelling break.

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She’s never afraid to take a stand. She’s very brave on the air. We’re still getting to know each other and she’s still finding her role a bit. It’s tough when you have two veteran alpha males in the room, but she’s made an impression in just three months.

Preparation & Planning

TJ: Show producer Gwen Watt and host JC Douglas are the official cat herders of the show. How do you make sure everyone is ready to play?

Gwen: The biggest challenge is managing the vibe in the room. As a team, we work well together and get along incredibly well, but even so, we’re 4 different humans with very different life experiences, in a room together for 5 hours, sometimes with too little sleep! The daily question is always what needs to be done to make everyone feel great and do the best possible show that day.

JC: It is a pretty social group!  We enjoy each other’s company, so it’s easy to get distracted. I try to take the plan Gwen’s created and make sure the next break and next half hour is fully road-mapped before we get too chatty. But it’s four people with a pretty single-minded focus, so rounding them up isn’t difficult.  There’s a lot to be juggled, but one of the great things about this team is that no one lets anyone else sound stupid. So if we need help with anything, all you have to do is ask and everyone pitches in.

 

TJ: This is one of the best-prepared shows I work with. What’s the process like?

Gwen: As soon as we’re off the air, we do a debrief, talk about the best breaks and things that didn’t work.  Then we spend 30-45mins to collect new ideas we’ve gathered. We pitch ideas to each other, talk through potential angles and pick the breaks for the next day

Then I update the show schedule in a shared Google doc by slotting content in the breaks and details where features are scheduled.

I spend the next hour or so lining up callers for the next day if we need them (The show makes very effective use of contributors/ringers to enhance breaks when needed).

Then I write and schedule social media posts for the show the next day. Staying ahead of the show schedule lets me get a lot of those tasks finished so we don’t have to think about them during the show. That’s particularly helpful because of the dual role (Gwen has an on-air presence as well as producing the show).

We’re in constant communication the rest of the day and night. We call, text and email daily, and use a closed Facebook group to communicate and share ideas, and pictures of puppies!

 

JC Douglas

JC: It’s an amazingly democratic show. Nothing gets changed on the show schedule without all four buying in. We don’t commit to anything without talking about it. Everyone’ is involved in all decisions, even if it’s basic show content. My job is “final call” but with input from the rest of the team.

Gwen is all about the team. She has a wicked work ethic and is so unselfish about the show. Gwen embraces her producer’s role with a fresh perspective. On the air, she brings a great Millennial perspective, is incredibly bright and funny as hell in a very hip way. The show is better because of her both on and off the air.

Performance: The Host

TJ: One of the most impressive things about the show is how much content is on the air, while still playing a lot of music. And it never gets slow or bogs down. JC, as the quarterback, as Peter describes it, how do you do it?

JC: Why, thank you! Well, that’s just discipline. The goal is to play plenty of music with relevant chat. Both are important. We make sure to regularly hit with top-of-mind topics our target relates to.

Plus, we have some killer benchmarks: Tough Love With Siri and Melody’s Breakfast Kids give us consistency and structure. Making it all fit is my gig, with some nice flexibility from our (PD) Brad (Muir).

I’ve never done so much editing in my life. I edit audio, trim scripts, and even self- edit while ad libbing. It’s all about editing, baby. We hear some morning shows going long form and it just sounds so self-indulgent and undisciplined.

Programming C100 Mornings: Talk vs. Music

TJ: Brad, how do you balance talk vs. music? Songs are important, but this show is high-profile. What’s your philosophy?

Brad: We’ve always believed that content is king. A 2-minute talk break can feel like 10 minutes if it’s boring or not relevant. But no one walks away from a highly engaging and entertaining conversation. The show is built for shorter, disciplined breaks but with drop songs. The morning show has the flexibility to go with something if they feel it’s working. It can be hit or miss sometimes but one big hit outweights the smaller misses. We subscribe to the philosophy of “Make sure what you are saying is more entertaining than the song you could be playing”

 

TJ: Melody, your improv skills are one of the first things that first impressed me about you. How do you apply that to what you do on the air?

Melody Rose

Melody: From the moment I started in radio, I recognized it was like performing a scene. The only difference is you’re performing as yourself. But there are still obvious beats, goals, objectives, actions, and emotions. When the ball is dropped you can feel it. Nearly everything I learned in my Acting degree has applied to my role on the air. From an improvisational standpoint, changing from a 2 person ‘scene’ (from her previous morning show in Fredricton) to a 3 or 4 person ‘scene’ has challenged me in new ways: I have to listen differently, jump on opportunities differently. Even knowing when it’s right to participate or if you’re just being selfish is much harder in a four-person show. But it’s exciting, and I expect it will be a career-long learning process.

 

JC: This group takes the science of radio more seriously than anyone I’ve worked with. We leave room for gut, spontaneity and immediacy, but we are learning how to apply learning to the art, and we take that very seriously.

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We’re obsessed with hooking the listener in seven seconds, being inclusive, entering a break through the listener’s interest rather than being inwardly focused, finding a great exit point and resetting each break. We don’t just hear it and forget it. We really learn it, and revisit these things constantly.

The daily post-mortems are times when we remind ourselves if anything’s being overlooked or getting away on us. You have to find your own weaknesses and fill the holes.  We’ve seen dial tests that scared the hell out of us. When we have exhausted a topic and were no longer adding it with new angles, they’re gone. We’ve internalized that, and it’s made  big difference in our performance.

The Intangibles

TJ: This has been great, but summarize the essence of the show. What makes it tick? 

Peter: Trust. Trust is the most important element of any successful morning team. If there isn’t 100% trust, you can hear it on the air. I know that if I steer a break in any direction, my partners trust that I’m not leading them to a dead end and they’re capable of making it work. Trust means knowing we will never do anything to hurt one another or the reputation of the show. We also genuinely care for each other. We are each other’s biggest fans.

There is another important element involved in making this particular group of people tick and that is that we are all performers outside of radio. All four member so the team have a theatre background and continue to perform on stage in various ways when we’re not on the air. I think that gives us an advantage in the way we emotionally connect with our radio audience

Brad: We are blessed to have a team that is as thirsty to learn and grow as they were when they first got into the biz. We don’t shy away from open, honest discussion about the show, their performance, what worked, what didn’t and why. That’s key, and it’s another indication of trust. There is a great sense of respect with all players on the show. And that extends to me as PD and our GM, Trent McGrath. Creating that type of environment has led us to a great spot. Not all shows have that.

TJ: Plus, Peter could run for Mayor of Halifax and win in a landslide.

Peter: I’m not sure about the “landslide” thing but my roots run deep here. My wife and I have three grown kids and being a part of their lives means being a big part of the community. I volunteer with a local hospital to help them fundraise and offer them PR advice. There are dozens of opportunities to host events throughout the area, so that’s become a priority. And, I still perform music on stage. It all adds up. Plus, my entire career has been with one radio station. You stick around long enough and you start to take root in your community.

Halifax is a small city of about 430,000, but in many ways it’s more like a small town. Everyone tries to be local but we are small-town-hyper-local. With the exception of Melody, we all spent our entire lives here. We went to the same schools, universities, churches, games, parties, weddings, etc as our listeners and that gets reflected in the content of our morning show.

The Future

TJ: The industry is struggling to find new, young talent interested in personality radio. You’re your show has two young Millenials as key players. What advice would you give for young personalities?

Peter: Don’t let anyone tell you about the “good old days” of radio. This is the golden age. There has never been a time when so many tools have been at your disposal to help you make great radio.

There is inspiring talent making great radio right now. Listen to it, learn from it and don’t give up. Cue the inspirational music swell.

Brad: Always look for new and fun ways to entertain and separate the show from all competition. We’re highly focused on staying relevant with a sense of youth and vibrancy.

Melody: I can’t give advice for someone else, but I’ll share what worked for me. I networked while in school. I contacted the PD I wanted to work for before school ended and asked him to track my progress. And guess what? I am now working for that PD (Brad). I sought advice and help everywhere I could get it. When I got my first job at Capital FM (Fredricton), I always looked for ways I could grow and get better. Every air check, every meeting.  set goals and made specific plans on how to achieve them. I was driven.

But, I had no patience. I still have no patience. When I started out (less than two years ago), I wanted to know everything now, feel established now. I tortured myself feeling that I wasn’t good enough. I compared myself to others, and that is a slippery slope.

Be aggressive. Pursue your goals. But realize that a great morning show takes time. Building a brand takes time. Getting to know your cohosts takes time. Building trust takes time. You’re allowed to have that time, and need to give yourself time, and trust that with talent and persistence, it will all work itself out.

Although, even if I gave past me, or present me that advice, she probably wouldn’t listen because she’s so friggin’ stubborn!

 

 

 

 

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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