Four Things Stephen Colbert Can Teach You About Better Radio Performance
by Tracy Johnson
As the Colbert Report was drawing to a close, I had the chance to be in the audience for a taping of The Colbert Report in New York. As a Colbert fan, it was great just to be there, but I learned some things that can help you. Specifically, the importance of setting the right internal tone during the performance of the show. In fact, there are four things Stephen Colbert can teach you about radio.
Colbert’s producers and handlers prepped the studio audience in great detail and it was clear that the overwhelming goal was to create energy.
There’s a ton of attention to detail, and it all contributes to the show’s production.
It’s kept cool, almost cold.
This is partly to offset the heat generated by the cameras, lights, etc. but it is also to keeps everyone alert. That goes for the audience, the performers and the production team.
A cool/cold studio adds energy. A warm studio makes you comfortable, almost sleepy. In cold-weather climates, it’s so much 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, loud alternative music. Everything is uptempo and melodic, and it’s all positive. There are no depressing songs. No depressing lyrics. It pumps up the staff, and is loud enough to keep them from chatting about anything other than the show. It adds to their focus.
This electric environment that 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.
When Colbert comes out, he physically forces his own energy. Before the show is taped he warms up the audience. But he doesn’t just walk out and start talking. He explodes on stage in full sprint, circling the set three times. Colbert slaps high-fives on the the entire stage crew and several fans in the audience. The stage manager gives the audience visual cues to maintain the applause while the music plays at an even higher volume.
Remember, this is before the show begins. He’s preparing to perform.
Stephen then answers questions until he is ready to go. Someone asked why he does this and he said,
This is how I warm up. I’ll answer your questions until I feel we have a good connection with the audience and I’m ready to go. Sometimes it’s just two or three questions, sometimes it takes 15 or 20 minutes.
When he’s “feeling it”, he ends the session, jogs over to his desk on the set and the show begins immediately.
Coming out of each commercial break, Colbert spends about 30-60 seconds focusing his energy, mentally preparing the next segment. He drums on his desk, bobbing his head in time with the music. When he’s ready, he comes out of his self-imposed trance, gives the cue, and launches the next segment with enthusiasm.
Prep The Audience
Before the show starts, the floor manager emphasizes how Stephen feeds off of the audience’s energy. Not just once. He repeats it six times.
He’s an improv actor, and when you laugh, applaud, get loud, he gets better.
In other words, the studio is a haven of high energy and positive vibes. All outside problems and distractions melt away and the positive energy is directed into his performance.
Colbert’s Lesson For Radio
Colbert performed 1,447 episodes of his Comedy Central show. A daily show is a grind. It’s repetitive. It’s routine. And there’s no doubt that it’s a challenge to “bring it” every day.
It’s the same with your radio show. You can apply each of these tactics to your own daily performance. Do whatever you can to create a high energy positive environment.
If you’re a producer, your most important job is to set a tone for the talent to perform without distraction. Your job is to keep the talent focused and positive.
If you’re an air talent, it’s your job to set the tone. Make sure everyone on the show can ignore personal baggage and deliver audience expectation each day.
If you’re a program director, absorb station problems so it doesn’t affect the performers. Be a good listener, helping them stay locked into what’s really important: the next show, the next break.
Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.