Here’s Why Lists On The Air Are a Waste of Time [audio]

Here’s Why Lists On The Air Are a Waste of Time [audio]

by Tracy Johnson

A popular tool for online publishers to attract clicks is creating lists. You see them everywhere: The Top 7 Reasons to Dump Your Mate or 14 Ways to Organize Your Life are great for that medium. Lists work online because they’re concise, easy to scan, focused and helpful. I use them in my online marketing. But reading lists on the air is a waste of time.

Typically, a radio show finds an interesting list and think they can just read it, along with their comments on each item on the list. The really creative shows sometimes add their own items to the list.

Then they invite listeners to call and comment. Even if you have funny lines, it’s still a bad idea, and it’s lazy radio. It’s an example of going for the Low Hanging Fruit.

There are many problems. I should probably start a list. Wouldn’t that be ironic? You see, lists are common. Show prep sites are full of them. But in personality radio? They’re a giant yawn. Radio is a unique medium. You have to convert them into stories.

Lists Don’t Work Because The Audience Doesn’t Feel Involved

A key principle in storytelling (and every break you do on the air includes storytelling principles) is crafting content in a way that gives listeners a stake in the story. That’s rule #16 in Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling.

But with list-y content, stories can’t develop. It becomes hard to follow because there is too much going on, and listeners often feel disconnected from it. That’s because they don’t have a stake in the list. And when the audience doesn’t feel involved, they usually tune out. If they don’t have a stake, they won’t care. And that’s recipe for losing attention, no matter how well the list is executed.

They’re Informational

Lists don’t work on the air because they’re designed as facts. They’re information, and listeners don’t react to information. They respond to emotion. When you present the list as a comprehensive, authoritative compilation, it sucks the imagination and emotion out of the break.

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Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the Top 100 rock albums of all time is certainly credible. Your show may even have some great thoughts about it. Or you might debate the merits of those albums in the Top 10. But the list is still informational and not emotional until it’s injected with color and emotion.

Wouldn’t it be more powerful to choose two or three choices from the Top 5 and ask your audience to choose one and throw away the other two? This changes the way they hear a break. It turns it into a personal, emotional break.

Convert a List From Info to Emo

Figuring out how to use lists properly can make a huge difference. Here’s an example from Virgin Radio In Halifax. The source was a list in Cosmo of the top 10 things guys find hot in a woman. This may be relevant and even amusing, but we knew it wouldn’t get traction because it’s too broad. There was nothing to make the audience feel anything.

A better way was to choose two of the list items and create a debate:

What’s hotter in a woman: One who can cook and clean or is good at managing money?

This approach is more specific, gives listeners a stake in the break and is easier to talk about in more depth.

Here’s how it sounded with Turk, Rachel & Alex:

Isn’t this a lot more engaging that just reading a list?

When you narrowing the choices from many (a list of 10) to a few (2-3), it compels the audience to choose a side. They become emotionally involved. It creates conflict or friction.

The List-Maker Gets All The Credit

When that hot new list of the Top 10 Places to Live comes out in Money Magazine each year, personalities read the list and comment on each location. Nice content, but it’s not sticky. The conversation usually turns into taking shots at the magazine for getting the list wrong.

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And who gets the benefit? Money sells more magazines or gets more clicks on their website. Even if listeners are entertained, they quickly forget about you, even though they remember how cool it is to live in Savannah. They may even make a mental note to check out the list to get more details. In essence, it’s a free commercial for the magazine.

Why would you want to transfer credit for your content the original source?

That attention should be yours. It should be on your personality, show and station.


The art of content curation is to convert interesting topics (information) into stories that come alive through your personality brand. That demands more time in preparation to find the emotional essence of each topic.

Lists are a great source of topical content, but that’s where the show prep process begins. Mine that list for the most compelling aspects that fit your brand and turn it into unique content that shines the spotlight on your show.

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