How to Perform With the Conscience of the Listener

How to Perform With the Conscience of the Listener

by Tracy Johnson

The first thing I teach clients is how to increase ratings by hanging onto those listeners who already like you and are listening. It’s the single fastest way to increase ratings. We do this by trying to better understand the conscience of the listener.

It seems obvious, but tune out is the biggest cause of ratings loss. The problem is that we don’t usually appreciate the serious damage tune out costs. How about this: Air personalities lose up to HALF of the audience of their audience by violating the six most common causes of tune out. 

Think about that. Can you afford losing 40% of your listeners in a break? Sure, you can’t avoid all tune out, but it can be managed.

In the seminar for solo show performers, I demonstrate that one of the primary advantages of solo shows is the ability to lock into the audience in a close, personal way without worrying about a cohost taking a break off topic.

Multiple personality shows often end up performing for one another inside the studio, causing the audience to feel like outsiders. That’s why a key skill is performing with the conscience of the listener.

This concept is the ability of a personality to sense how the listener is actually hearing the break. It includes many aspects of on-air performance. I review several key points in the Content Superhero series, where I explain What Causes Tune Out.

Conscience of the Listener? What’s That?

With a keen awareness of how the audience actually hears a break, performance almost always changes immediately. The conscience of the listener means sensing when they are bored. You can feel when a segment starts to drag and needs to move forward.

Many air personalities don’t realize how important this is, and tend to underestimate how much it disturbs listeners. It actually comes up in focus groups. In one session, the moderator asked the group what causes them to switch to another station or turn the radio off. After the first two obvious responses (“Commercials” and “A song I don’t like”), one of the panelists said this:

When the DJ’s on the air talk to each other instead of talking to me.

There it is. Self-absorbed, inside references that sound as if the show is living in their own bubble puts up a virtual wall between listeners and talent.

There were no followup questions for the panelist. None was really needed. When listeners fee they are outsiders at a party for insiders, it’s a problem.

Responding to Listeners

When conversation turns internal, excluding the audience, listeners notice. And not in a good way. But the conscience of the listener extends to how air talent reacts to callers, too.

You might also like:  Content Superhero: What Causes Tune Out

As human beings, we’re taught to be polite, especially in one-on-0ne conversations. A phone call feels like a personal conversation, even though listeners are on the air strictly for the entertainment value they contribute. This is another time to focus on how the audience is hearing the segment.

Talk host Mark Levin has an abrasive and aggressive style, as demonstrated with his lack of patience with a weak caller. It’s not unusual to hear Levin berate the caller, then hang up. This plays to Levin’s unique character, but also demonstrates that he’s moving the show forward by performing with his listener’s perspective firmly in mind. 

I don’t recommend going out of your way to be rude, but it’s better to be short to a single caller than boring thousands of listeners.

Personal Stories

Pick any show with multiple cast members. Listen as if you have never heard them before. You’re brand new and know nothing about them. Do you feel like an outsider? How well do you understand their references? Do you know who each of the players are?

Most shows perform as if the audience knows far more about them than they really do. They make the mistake of assuming that listeners know the names of their spouse, that they have kids and pets, and what they do in their spare time.

That may be true for the show’s biggest fans, but new listeners, casual listeners and secondary fans often feel left out because they just don’t get it. And it’s not their job to get it. It’s the performer’s duty to make sure listeners feel welcome and included.

When delivering content, especially personal stories, it’s critical to set a context so the story makes sense, and not just for those high TSL P1s.

For example, if you tell a story about something that happened in your family, it’s important to provide a short background to help new listeners understand. This is where other cast members can help. Each member should learn to respond to a personal story as if they know nothing about the story.

A switched-on cohost will slow down the story with a well-timed comment or question that clarifies details for the listener. For example:

Host: I threw down my number one ultimate best, two minutes of parenting ever yesterday.

Cohost: That’s saying something. You’ve been a parent now for what, six years?

This response demonstrates that the host is a parent of a six year old. It brings the listener into the conversation without bogging down with details.

That’s taking on the conscience of the listener by allowing listeners to catch up, kind of the way a television episode opens with highlights of previous shows. It reminds viewers what’s happened so they can understand the new episode.

You might also like:  What Causes Tune In

It doesn’t have to be obvious, nor should it be a tune out for long-time listeners. Be clever and creative and response rates will soar.

How to Develop Your Conscience

It’s not hard to develop this skill because all radio people tend to be immersed in their own world. We are so caught up in what we have done, are doing and are about to do, it’s hard to adjust to what listeners actually experience.

You can do it, though. Here are three keys to becoming more proficient in performing with the conscience of the listener:

Preparation: Mentally rehearse the flow of a break. Identify potential trouble points or areas that would be confusing to an uninformed or new listener. Then plan how to respond if and when problem arise.

Review: Air check regularly (and critically) with the audience’s experience in mind. Listen to a break, an hour or a show through the experience of a brand new listener. When would you feel excluded? Where do you stop caring? At what point would you tune out? What would cause that tune out?

Improvise: Develop your improv skills to keep breaks moving forward. Take an improv class or series. It’s a great way to learn to interact with partners while considering how the audience is hearing it.


If you know the audience, it’s not hard to get into the mind space of a listener. But it takes discipline to put it into action each day and each break. It is hard to develop the conscience of the listener.

But whether you’re a solo show or part of a cast, learning to turn attention to the audience experience outward changes the way you come across on the air. And that can be a very good thing!

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