The Danger of Too Many Open Breaks

The Danger of Too Many Open Breaks

by Tracy Johnson

There’s an old saying: “Be careful what you wish for”. It has applications for radio personalities, too, especially when it comes to open breaks vs. segments with planned features.

Open breaks are segments that have nothing scheduled. It doesn’t mean an unplanned break. Planning and preparation are even more important in an open break. Rather, it is “open” for a personality to create original content.

On the other hand, a segment that includes a pre-defined, scheduled element is a “closed” break. New content is created to fit into a content container such as a newscast, entertainment report, contest, game, or feature.

Talent seems to think open breaks allow more time to demonstrate personality. Many feel features aren’t as much a part of their show as an open break. Some even perform as if features are a distraction.

That, of course, is a mistake. I mean, James Corden doesn’t treat Carpool Karaoke like an annoyance, does he?

Evolving The Show Over Time

When a radio show is relatively new, or inexperienced, the programming team typically imposes tight restrictions on the show. It’s common to impose limits on the length of breaks. This is good programming, especially for shows in Stage 1 or 2 of the Personality Success Path.

It’s also smart to develop at least one or two primary features to allow the audience to get to know the personalities within a consistent structure.

As the show matures and the relationship with the audience grows, listeners hopefully become attracted because of the personalities. That’s normal in the development process.

Over time, programmers and talent often assume that more open breaks are a good idea. After all, open breaks are what the “big boys” do.

But there’s a risk of too many open breaks.

The Risk of Open Breaks

Open talk breaks are riskier than personality-oriented features. Great features provide context and familiarity.

Established, anticipated features are also highly promotable, increasing the chance for promos to successfully drive tune-in.

And, best of all, those features can attract new listeners to the show. Even the most dominant, well-established personalities attract less than 60% of their own station’s cume to their show.

The key is balance.

Overloading a show with too many features is paralyzing. That would be like a diet consisting of only Deep Dish Sausage Pizza. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but it’s probably not healthy. Delicious, yes. Sorry. I digress.

Radio shows need a balance of structured, anticipated features and well-planned open breaks. Too much of either tilt the balance too far one way or the other.

Here’s how open breaks can damage a show.

Managing More Content

Adding open breaks means creating more original content.

More content is not a bad thing. There are plenty of things to talk about. Most shows have far more material than they use.

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But creating great, A-Plus material is hard. Think about it. What percentage of a show is really, truly great? 20%? 25%? Maybe.

Assume a show has four personality-oriented breaks in an hour. Two of those are anchored with a strong feature. Replacing one feature performed each hour for original, organic content results in an extra break that almost always will be weaker than the rest of the open breaks on the show. And it’s almost certainly not as good as the feature it would replace.

It is almost always at least slightly worse.

Think about it:

If there are 8 open breaks per show (two per hour x four hours), adding one new open break per hour (4 in all) increases original content by 50%. That is a lot of new content to create.

Is that really better than a popular feature that is being replaced?

Wouldn’t it be better to increase the “A” features and leave open breaks alone? or even reduce them by 20%? Would that be stronger?

The Preparation Dilemma

Most shows are stretched thin and don’t invest enough time in preparing content deeply enough to be truly great. That’s one reason most shows are filled with B and C material rather than A and A-Plus content.

So what happens when more open breaks are added? I doubt preparation time increases by 50%. The same amount of time spent preparing is now spread over more open breaks. And the quality of each segment is compromised.

So not only does a potentially strong feature disappear, the quality of the show is diluted.

Moving the Cheese

When the formula for a show changes, the audience is affected.

Adding open segments may seem like a good idea.

But it may also change a winning recipe. This is doubly true if the feature being replaced is popular.

I’ll never forget the first time I worked with a particular show. They had been performing the same feature every day at the same time for over 8 years and desperately wanted a change. But first, we looked at the ratings and discovered that quarter-hour was the highest-rated period on the entire station. So, I told them:

Let’s try to burn the feature out. Instead of taking it off, we’ll make listeners sick of it. Let’s run it every hour on the :10s.

They thought that was a great idea. Each of those quarter-hours rose, as did the overall performance of the show. 7 years later, we still air it every hour.

Finding A Balance

This isn’t just about the value of winning features. It’s more about creating great moments in personality radio.

Don’t replace great features. Please. And especially be cautious if you replace strong features with open talk breaks.

However, if the features are weak or average, replace them immediately. Start by looking for a better feature. That’s how Disneyland manages its content. Each attraction is a feature. It seems to work for them.

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Here’s how to find the sweet spot:

  • Identify the one daily, entertaining, appointment feature that is a strong anchor for the show. Is it perfect? If not, try to improve it. Then schedule it a lot. Like every hour.
  • If the primary feature is well established, identify, and develop a second one. Perfect it. Then play it a lot. Like every hour.
  • If there are more than two regular features (not counting information features like Entertainment News), get rid of all but the best two.
  • If not every hour, program those two great features at least twice each per day.  That’s 2 features x 2 airings = 4 breaks/day.
  • Now schedule information features where they belong. If there’s one information element per hour x 4 hours = 4 breaks/day.
  • Count the remaining open breaks. Most shows have four breaks per hour. In a four-hour show, that’s 16 breaks. That means 12 closed breaks and 4 open breaks.

That is a balanced content grid. It’s a strong core structure. There are defined containers to pour personality into and enough open breaks for personality to shine. And there’s more prep time to prepare 4 terrific open reaks per day.

Conclusion

There’s nothing wrong with open breaks. Personal stories and organic content is how listeners will get to know and fall in love with radio personalities.

But be careful what you wish for.

Use every break as an opportunity to shine, whether designated an open break or not.

 

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