The 6 Biggest Causes of Listener Tune Out: How Many Are You Guilty Of?

The 6 Biggest Causes of Listener Tune Out: How Many Are You Guilty Of?

by Tracy Johnson

If a radio station could reduce listener erosion, that station could sustain ratings without marketing, promotion or increased costs. Keeping your existing listeners tuned in is the most dependable way of creasing share. The problem is listeners do tune out.

It’s just like retail: Shops usually have enough shoppers. If they could convince current customers already in the store to buy more and get them to come back more often, what would happen to their sales? Exactly.

In radio, we can’t prevent all tune out. But the most important thing you can do to improve your ratings is maximize your existing “customers”. And research shows us there are clear steps we can take to improve in this area.

We’ve found six things that contribute most heavily to lost listening. The list is not a generic list like “stop playing commercials, shut up the jocks and play bigger hits.” It’s things you can actually use to improve your radio show. And you can start doing this tomorrow.

6 Things That Cause Listener Tune Out

The list is in no particular order. They’re all critical. They all cost lost ratings. And they all need to be addressed.

Lack of Attention

Radio is often a passive listening experience. It’s on in the background, acting as a soundtrack to other activities. When anything disrupts the current listening experience, it’s an invitation to exit.

Simply, tune out happens because real tune in never occurs. When we fail to earn their engagement quickly, at the beginning of a break, they perceptually tune out. Your content exists only in the background.

The audience tells us to “Get to the point”. That’s good advice, and it happens with a fast and powerful hook. And you only have 7 seconds for that hook to resonate. That’s right. If you don’t get a listener’s attention in the first 7 seconds, they’re most likely tuned out mentally. And that’s the first step toward physical tune out.

So get that hook in quickly, then advance it with a sharp set up that sets up the rest of the break in a line or two.

Content Out of Context

The audience listens very little.

As a result, listeners don’t understand nearly as much as we like to think. They don’t know your spouse’s name. And they don’t understand how to play that game that’s so common for you. Nor do they remember (or didn’t hear) that break setup 20 minutes ago.

Most haven’t heard this game or that feature. Or if they did hear it, they have forgotten it. That TV show or movie you’re talking about? Most haven’t seen it, even if it is #1 this week. Talking about it as if your audience has seen it causes tune out.

Plus, many have tuned in just in the past few seconds, after you’ve executed your clever hook and Set Up. They don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

That’s why game shows like Wheel of Fortune still clearly explains the rules and how to play the game, even after decades of being on. It provides a context for the audience so they’re included.

Listeners are not going to work hard to figure out what you’re talking about. It’s easier to tune out and find something else.

It’s your job to make it clear, plain and simple. That’s annoying and repetitive. It’s also important.

Slow Pace

Breaks that don’t move forward lose attention quickly. And lost attention is very difficult to regain.

Understand that pace has nothing to do with how long or how fast you talk. It has everything to do with moving the storyline forward. A break that evolves and keeps moving forward is exciting. One that stays in the same place is boring. And attention is lost.

Listeners do get bored easily and quickly. When they do, they tune out. Sometimes the tune out is physical, pushing the button. But it also can be that they just aren’t hearing you. They keep the radio on, but aren’t paying attention. You’re relegated to the background. Physical tune out is a killer, but mental tune out is also deadly.

Each host must develop a keen sense of the listener’s conscience and perform accordingly.

Not Enough Payoffs

Hopefully, you’ve planned a destination (Pay Off) for each break. But knowing where you’re going is not enough if it takes too long to get there and your audience has no rewards along the way.

Our studies prove that listeners constantly evaluate entertainment (every 30-40 seconds), making subconscious decisions as to whether it’s worth their time and attention. That sounds heavy, doesn’t it? It is.

A comedian doing an 8-minute set can’t rely on one great joke at the end. He or she would lose the audience before getting to that amazing punchline.

It’s the same on the air. You need to plan mini-payoffs, dropping audio bread crumbs to keep them engaged.

Confusion Causes Listener Tune Out

When listeners are confused, they bail out. And they’re easily confused.

One of the most common things that causes tune out is confusion by too many voices on the air. This is especially true if the voices are unfamiliar. And, regardless of how long you’ve been on the air, most of your audience is unfamiliar with all of the cast members. That’s why name-tagging is an important skill. It makes it easier to follow conversations. This connects names with voices and builds familiarity with individual players.

When personalities talk over one another, it drives listeners crazy. This shows up in dial tests and in focus groups all the time.

And when we quickly change direction or topics, they can’t follow along. And you pay the price.

Confusion also happens when you refer to content they just don’t understand. This can happen inside a single break or when continuing a discussion from earlier in the show. Personalities often continue a conversation without letting new listeners in on the topic. When there’s no context, listeners feel left out. They don’t get it. They’re confused. And they leave.

Don’t make references to things that happened earlier in the show or yesterday, unless you reset the discussion clearly. They didn’t hear it and they don’t get it. So they tune out.

Avoid jokes or comments about something said even 10 minutes ago. The audience turns over frequently. And even if they had the station on, they probably don’t remember it. This is particularly true with guests or interviews. Frequently reset who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about.

Make everything about now. When listeners feel left out, or not included, they leave. And when you refer to something they weren’t there to hear, they feel left out.

They Don’t Care

Listeners are greedy and selfish, actually tuning in to get something from you. It’s not so you can give them. That’s an important distinction.

When we perform from our own perspective, they can’t relate. And when they don’t relate, they tune out. Inside references are one of the biggest offenders in this area.

The audience counts on you to make them feel good. To validate the choice they made to tune in to your show at this time and on this day. When they tune in, what are they getting? Something that attracts them? Or something else?


How much is listener tune out costing you in ratings? A lot.

You see, there’s a cost of listening to the radio. They don’t pay with cash, but they do with time and attention. When personalities violate these six causes of tune-out, the cost of tuning into your show increases.  When the cost becomes too high, it’s common to see erosion of 40-50% during a short, 3-5 minute break.

Can you afford to lose half your audience?

You can prevent it. Want to know more?

Check out Content Superhero, Chapter 1: What Causes Tune Out?

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