What You Need To Know To Deal With Sensitive Topics [audio]

What You Need To Know To Deal With Sensitive Topics [audio]

by Tracy Johnson

At a time when everyone is talking about politics, you’re not. Maybe management has issued an order that it’s off-lmits. Or you don’t want to deal with complaints. Or you don’t know how how to deal with sensitive topics on the air.

President Trump is all over the news, as you know. But it’s not only news. There’s a strong reaction in every aspect of life on every continent. It’s everywhere. And it’s controversial. Political battle lines divide the extremes and emotions are high.

Sounds like a great opportunity to impact the audience and get attention for your brand. Look what it’s done for Saturday Night Live. Ratings are higher than in more two decades. And the more they lampoon Trump and his administration, the higher they soar.

On the other side of the aisle, conservative outlet Fox News ratings also have climbed by 35% in the past year. Fox now out-performs left-leaning MSNBC and middle-of-the-road CNN combined. Fox’s presentation is personality-oriented talk shows with a right-wing point of view.

There’s ratings gold in the content. But what can you do? What should you do? How can you approach these lightning rod topics without blowing up the equity in your brand?

Should You Deal With Sensitive Topics?

Knowing if you should deal with a topic must be addressed before discussing how to deal with it. As marketer and blogger Tim Ferris puts it:

Brands don’t like being irrelevant or out of touch with culture, and when a culture is divided and polarized—it puts pressure on the brand to become or stay relevant. But in that rush to relevancy, brands are going to have to answer some key questions or risk being out of touch with what they actually are.

The first step in defining what to talk about is to know yourself, your show, your station and your audience. There are some personalities that should avoid it completely.

But only a few.

The key is to find an entry point that fits your brand. Start by analyzing your personality brand profile and show vision statement. Your station has a personality, just like people. And air talent also has a personality brand that represents core values.

Not all brands have put in the effort to identify what guides those brand values. In other words, the core values may not be aligned with the listener. This goes beyond demographic data. It gets into psychographic and lifestyle information. This is covered in the webinar on demand Build a Target Audience Persona.

If you don’t know for sure, a little research can provide insight. You could throw together a quick online survey and gather results in a few days.

Be Topical

But here’s the thing: You do’t have to take a political stance to use the topic. Is reflecting what’s happening in the world a part of your brand? Is commenting on pop culture an integral pillar of your appeal? If so, it’s time to figure out how to deal with it.

Once you’ve determined that ignoring the topic is a mistake, figure out how to address it by finding an angle.

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Deciding to address a controversial topic doesn’t mean you have to be controversial. Or even take a stand on either side.

Great personality radio is about telling stories. If those stories are about relevant topics, so much the better. But understand that topics are not stories and stories are not topics.

Yet we use those terms the same way all the time. What’s the difference between a topic and a story?

Case Study: Rick Roberts

I once managed a personality on a conservative talk station. Rick Roberts claimed that, as a master storyteller, he could perform a four hour talk show on any topic. It was a matter of finding the right entry point or angle.

To drive home the point, he pointed to the door and proclaimed that he could do an entire show on “that door knob right there.”. I Challenged him on it. The next morning, he delivered one of his best shows ever. His topic was a door knob. But the story he told wasn’t.

He explored the doorknob from a variety of perspectives:

The mystery of what is on the other side of the door. The only way to discovery is by turning the knob.

How your life can change by choosing to turn one door knob and not another.

Has the fear of turning the knob cost you great moments in life?

When did you fail to experience greatness without taking chances- by opening doorsl

That it’s scary on the other side of the door and the door knob holds power.

It was an emotional show, with listeners adding stories from their lives. They talked about making bad decisions, often crying over a love that got away. Or imagining the chain of events that turning that knob might have set in motion. Four hours. One topic. And it never became stale or boring.

It was all about a door knob. But not really.

The door knob was the topic. It was the means to find a story. Rick’s stories were about hopes, dreams and regrets. It was nostalgic, emotional and impossible to turn off.

Case Study: Virgin 96

In Montreal, the morning show on CHR station Virgin 96 had decided they’d approach a personal topic.

Morning host Freeway Frank had started a new diet. He had recently become a pescatarian. To reveal character traits, he and co-host Natasha decided to talk about it on the show.

The typical way to address the topic (Frank has a new diet) is to explain it. That would lead to conversation about a pescatarian diet. They could talk about how he’s feeling and how it’s changed his lifestyle. But that’s boring. Nobody cares.

So we brainstormed the topic to find the story hidden inside. Natasha claimed that Frank was driving everyone crazy with his weird vegan diet. Yes, she called it vegan on purpose.

The result was a story about “That guy at work that drives you crazy”. The diet was the topic. It was only an entry point. This topic isn’t controversial, of course, but it demonstrates the point.

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Find Your Entry Point

In both examples, the topic wasn’t sensitive or controversial. But the point is that they are shining examples of finding a story inside the topic. If the on-air execution were about a door knob or diet, it would have been a disaster. Major tune out. Instead, each show found a much more interesting angle.

But when those topics are the launching pad to mine a story, there’s great potential.

That’s why it’s a mistake for shows refuse to talk about certain topics. Usually the banned topics are emotionally-charged. Isn’t that what you should be addressing?

There’s nothing wrong with any topic. It’s all about how you treat it. That’s where the art comes in.

If you’re struggling to find an entry point for a topic, dig deeper. Be creative in the show prep process.

Your Show and Trump

This brings us to dealing with how to talk about Trump.

Some shows have addressed the political climate with a sense of humor. You could create a feature or game, such as:

Who said it, Trump or (other celebrity, such as The Bachelor, Chance The Rapper, etc.).

You could rebrand the classic feature Two Truths and a Lie, changing it to “Two Facts and an Alternative Fact”.

Many shows play highlights from late-night TV shows. This, too, could be re-branded as a Trump Smack-Down. Gather the 3-4 best jokes and let listeners vote on the best.

Find someone to play a role as a local character that calls each day. They could rant and rave with an extreme (and humorous) point of view. Your “caller” can say things you can’t! And it only matters that it happens on your show.


It’s easy to avoid a controversial topic completely, but that’s a cop out. It’s lazy and it could be hurting you.

Most personalities that have chosen not to deal with it haven’t found their story. That story is out there, hidden inside the topic.

Disclaimer: Be sure you have an understanding with management about your approach. They tend to not like surprises on things like this.

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