Every personality is looking for a magic formula that multiplies quarter-hours. Broadcasters obsess about tricks to manipulate the rating system, earn more occasions of listening by teasing and play The Rating Game. But there’s a tactic that is so simple, it’s almost like a magic trick. Mastering it can turn a single quarter-hour of listening into several.

And the good news is every personality can do it.

The Origin

I once worked with an immensely talented talk show host on a conservative political talk station. He was one of the most prepared, intelligent, and dedicated personalities I have met.

But the ratings were weak, audience response was minimal, and he struggled to get phone calls.

One day, this personality plopped onto the sofa, sighed, and complained:

I have to get out of middays. Nobody ever calls! It’s exhausting doing a three-hour talk show without anyone to talk back to.

I asked him if he really thought the problem was the time slot. He was convinced that the problem was the type of people attracted to talk radio were simply not available to call during the day.

It’s a fair point. Most of the audience would more likely be available to call during drive times. But that didn’t explain why some hours would go by without a single call coming in. None.

The Problem

He was shocked when I told him that if I were a listener I would never call his show, and most likely would only listen for a very short time. He didn’t understand because he knew that I was a fan of his show.

I explained:

Each hour starts with an 8 to 10 minute monologue. You identify the topic, state an opinion, and support it with a very well thought out, detailed argument. Then listeners are invited to participate. The phone number is given clearly. But there’s nothing left to add to the conversation. If I agree, you’ve already made each point in the argument. If I disagree, I’ll sound stupid because you’re smarter than me and have already won the battle. And since the entire package was laid out in the first few minutes of the hour, why would I keep listening?

He paused, then said:

I get it. I have to dumb it down if I want to engage the audience.

The host didn’t have to dumb it down, exactly. He needed to remember the reason to exist. It’s to engage and entertain the audience, not win a debate.

The Magic Trick

The host adjusted the format. The new formula:

  • Introduce a topic.
  • Make a strong, polarizing statement.
  • Invite listeners to participate.
  • Put on a dissenting caller telling him he’s an idiot.
  • Go to commercials.

The result: Listeners are immediately provoked. Those who disagree piled on to tell him why he was wrong. Listeners who shared the point of view called to argue with haters. And the host navigated through the extremes, making his point over the next 45 minutes.

The phone lines lit up. And as this talk host learned to manage the argument in bits and pieces, listeners stayed engaged as he learned to build momentum toward each commercial segment.

He still won the argument, but it took three or four quarter-hours instead of one.

The Point

Many personalities make the same mistake. This happens with shows that thrive on conflict (like the talk host) and mainstream personalities on music-based stations.

They introduce an interesting topic and immediately want to win an argument rather than enhancing the story and enticing the audience to become emotionally involved.

Remember the primary goal for every segment should be to get listeners to stay tuned or come back for another segment. The magic trick makes that possible in at least three ways:

  • Build suspense by stretching stories and use cliffhangers like this.
  • Entice listeners through talk segments by inspiring curiosity by making them wonder what will happen next.
  • Delay resolution to create more anticipation for the outcome.


Please don’t mistake this as a recommendation that word economy doesn’t matter. It does. And the content must be on point. Each segment must be focused and efficient. But there’s more to it.

Telling an interesting story involves creating anticipation and expectation.

Think about how to lead the audience into active listening to become invested in each segment. That’s the magic trick that leads to higher ratings.

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