Four Things Stephen Colbert Can Teach You About Radio Performance

Four Things Stephen Colbert Can Teach You About Radio Performance

by Tracy Johnson

The Colbert Report was drawing to a close. Stephen Colbert was only days from replacing David Letterman as host of his late night talk show. I had the chance to be in the audience for a live recording of the show and it was a non-stop lesson for radio performers.

As a fan, it was great just to be there, but I learned the importance of setting a positive tone for the performance of a show. Most of us know it matters, but this experience put an exclamation point on it!

Colbert’s producers and handlers prepped the studio audience in great detail to create energy.

They invest a ton of time and attention to detail, including these four key things.

Stephen Colbert & The Studio

It was late summer, hot and humid in New York. But it would have been nice to have a jacket. It was cold.

This is partly to offset the heat generated by cameras and lights, but a producer told me it was to keep everyone alert. A warm studio is too comfortable, but a cool studio keeps performers and producers sharp. That also goes for the audience and production team.

A cool studio adds energy. A warm studio can make you sleepy. In cold-weather climates, it’s easier to turn up the heat, pour another cup of hot coffee, and snuggle in.

But that may not be best for your performance.


In the studio, producers play a music mix of high volume, high energy alternative music. Everything is uptempo and melodic, and it’s all positive. There are no depressing songs or depressing lyrics.

It pumps up the staff. And I learned another secret: They keep it loud enough to discourage chatting about anything that isn’t necessary. It’s hard to talk over the studio’s soundtrack, so only important details about the show are discussed.

It adds to each team member’s focus.

This electric environment helps everyone stay upbeat before and during the performance. Interestingly, as soon as the taping ends, the music is turned off and everyone leaves in silence.

The show is over.

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Stephen Colbert: Meet Your Audience

When Colbert comes out, he physically forces energy.

Before the show is taped he explodes on stage in full sprint, circling the set three times. Colbert slaps high-fives on the entire stage crew and several fans in the audience.

The stage manager gives the audience visual cues to maintain applause while the music surges at an even higher volume.

Remember, this is before the show begins. This is how Colbert prepares to perform.

Stephen then answers questions for a few minutes. Someone asked why he does this. His response:

This is how I warm up. I’ll answer questions until I feel there’s a good connection with the audience and I’m ready to go. Sometimes it’s just two or three questions, but sometimes it takes 15 or 20 minutes.

When he’s “feeling it”, the session ends. He jogs to his desk on the set and the show begins immediately. It felt like watching a football team getting pumped up before kickoff.

But that’s not all. Following each commercial break (they break for exactly the length of the commercials), Colbert spends 30-60 seconds focusing his energy. He visualizes the next segment. He drums on his desk, bobs his head in time with the music.

When he’s ready, he comes out of a self-imposed trance, gives the cue, and launches the next segment with enthusiasm.

Prepping The Audience

Before the show starts, a floor manager emphasizes how Stephen feeds off of the energy of the audience. It’s wasn’t to make us feel good. He repeats it six times. 

At one point, he said:

Stephen Colbert is, at heart, an improv actor, and when you laugh, applaud, get loud, he gets better. So this show depends largely on you, the studio audience.

In other words, the studio is Colbert’s haven of high energy and positive vibes. Outside problems and distractions melt away and positive energy is directed into his performance.

Colbert’s Lesson For Radio

Colbert performed 1,447 episodes of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central.

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A daily show is a grind. It’s repetitive. And there’s no doubt that it’s a challenge to “bring the A game” every day.

It’s the same with a radio show. The studio environment is important to performers. Every personality has a personal responsibility to the team to pay attention and focus without distractions. It matters.


Every personality can apply these tactics daily. Do whatever it takes to create a high energy, positive environment. That’s another lesson from Improv that applies directly to radio shows.

Producers:  The single most important responsiblity is to help the talent to perform without distraction or fear. Make it fun by keeping everything focused and positive.

Air Talent: It’s your job to set a tone for the team. For solo shows, the team is the entire programming staff. Make a rule to ignore personal baggage and deliver audience expectations each day.

Management: Help talent stay positive. Absorb station problems so it doesn’t affect the performers. Be a good listener. Help them stay locked into what’s really important: the next show and the next break.


Responsibility To The Show

How To Become a Morning Person

Take Your Audience To Disneyland EVERY DAY

Lessons For Radio Shows From Improv

Producing is a Management Job

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