by Tracy Johnson
You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for”? It has applications for radio personalities, too. Especially when it comes to open breaks.
Open breaks are segments on a show that have nothing scheduled in advance. The segment is “open” for a personality to create original content.
In contrast, a segment that includes a pre-defined, scheduled element would be a “closed” break. For example, a newscast, entertainment report or a regular feature would all be classified as closed.
Talent always seems to think open breaks give them more time to entertain. Many times, they feel that features aren’t really part of their show. Some even perform as if features are in their way
That, of course, is a mistake. I mean, James Corden doesn’t act as if Carpool Karaoke is preventing him from entertaining, does he?
Still, there’s a mindset that more open breaks are better. But they’re not.
When a radio show is relatively new, or inexperienced, the programming team usually imposes tighter restrictions on the show. There are limits on length of breaks. The show usually has at least one or two primary features that provide structure and build anticipation.
As the show evolves through the audience engagement cycle, it becomes more established. As a result, listeners are more attracted to the station because of the show. That’s normal in the development process.
So, well-meaning programmers assume that more open breaks is a good idea. After all, the show is working. And open breaks are what the “big boys” do.
So let’s change our show and open it up! Uh oh.
This is where many shows stall. And in some cases, they go backwards.
Open talk breaks are more risky than personality-oriented features. Great features provide a context. Audiences become familiar with the feature and know what to expect from it.
Established, anticipated features are also highly promotable. That increases the chances of promos driving tune-in.
Of course, you should never overload a show with feature after feature. That would be like a diet consisting of only Deep Dish Sausage Pizza. Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but I digress.
All shows need a balance of structured, anticipated features with open breaks. The combination is strong. Features provide structure and listener anticipation. Open breaks provide spontaneity and the opportunity to relate naturally. Too much of either tilts the balance too far one way or the other.
But it happens almost every time a station experiences success with talent. They want to open more talk breaks and get rid of popular features.
There are three reasons adding more open breaks can damage a show.
More content. Adding more open breaks means more original content. By itself, that’s not a bad thing. Finding topics is not hard. Most shows have far more material than they can use.
But creating great, A-Plus material is hard. What percentage of your show would you classify as really, truly great? 20%? 25% maybe? That would be a great break, difference-making break every hour.
If you remove a feature and create an open break, the new material must be truly great just to maintain the current percentages. In almost all cases, that one extra break per hour isn’t as good as the existing content.
Almost by definition, it will be at least slightly worse. Think about it:
If you currently generate content for 10 open breaks per show, then add two new open breaks, you’re adding 20% more open breaks. And those new segments will be the 11th and 12th best content.
Is that really better than the feature you’re replacing? Wouldn’t it be better to increase the truly “A” features and reduce open breaks by 20%? Wouldn’t that be stronger content?
Preparation. Most shows are already stretched, and don’t invest enough time in preparing content deeply enough to be truly great. That’s one reason most shows have more B and C material than A and A-Plus content.
What happens when you add 20% more open breaks? I doubt talent increases preparation time by 20%. So the quality on all open breaks decline.
I know this isn’t exactly a fair statement because preparation time goes into features as well. But building a great open break demands more time to be truly great.
Adding more open breaks increases the pressure on time for prep. So not only are you removing a potentially strong feature, you’re diluting the quality of the rest of the show.
Moving the Cheese. When you change the formula that produced success, your audience will be affected. And, while adding more segments may seem like a good idea, it may also change a winning recipe. That’s true by adding a new segment, but doubly true if you’re also replacing a popular feature. Or if you’re replacing a couple of songs with longer segments or more frequent segments.
Don’t assume more of a good thing is healthy. More is not always more. Sometimes more (open talk) is less (appealing).
If you have great features on your show, don’t replace them. Please. Especially with open talk breaks.
However, if you have weak features, replace them immediately with a better feature. That’s how Disneyland manages their content. And it seems to work for them.
Here’s how to find your sweet spot. Answer these questions:
That is a balanced content grid. And it allows talent more time to make those 8 breaks terrific. And they have time to write promos, teases, hooks and shine a brighter spotlight on everything they do.
There’s nothing wrong with open breaks, but be careful what you wish for. Those features aren’t there to hide your personality. They’re in place to accent it. To make it more prominent.
Use every break as an opportunity to shine, whether designated an open break or not.
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