by Tracy Johnson
The most successful performers today break many rules cherished by radio broadcasters. Online personalities produce YouTube videos that are technically sloppy, not slick. Podcasts are longer than the content merits. The stories meander, sometimes aimlessly. Twitch broadcasts go on and on about little or nothing. It’s generally undisciplined, raw and lacks polish. Yet personalities on many of these platforms attract huge audiences. If they were on a radio show, I wonder how many new era new media superstars would be coached into performing to a template.
Performing to a template happens when an overly strict format clock is designed. Personalities are instructed to fill each opening with content.
This can be a good policy for new shows, inexperienced talent and personalities that haven’t earned the trust of a program director. But the goal should be to grow as quickly as possible. Talent must evolve if they will become meaningful, difference-making personalities.
There’s nothing wrong with templates. That’s what format clocks are. Every show should be disciplined. Many artists become skilled by learning from the structure of a template.
But great art doesn’t come from learning with paint by numbers template. Large fan bases and loyal, passionate fans don’t happen by coloring inside the lines.
The other extreme is just as dangerous. Turning air talent loose to do whatever they want results in an undisciplined, unstructured performance. This occasionally turns out brilliant art, but usually results in chaos.
So where is the sweet spot? How can broadcasters develop personalities that lift and sustain a brand without sending the audience running for the exit?
Before racing to remove all restrictions and pattern a radio show after your favorite podcast star, realize that radio shows are a different creative challenge than podcasts, Twitch channels, and other digital media.
The biggest difference is reach. Most radio stations draw an audience from a local market. Therefore, they must reach a larger percentage of the audience than online competitors. A podcast about Menopause has narrow demographic appeal, but with an entire population without geographic boundaries, a large fan base is possible.
Sure, radio’s audience via the online stream is potentially limitless, but the core appeal is (usually) local. And the business model is restricted by geography.
The solution lies somewhere between raw, unfiltered chatter and super-tight, structured personalities performing to a template.
Here’s how to increase potential by removing the training wheels.
Gather information, prepare in depth and deliver content in a spontaneous, conversational, unrushed presentation.
I call it Prepare Tight, Perform Loose.
Guidelines and standards are critical. Even a master painter is restricted by the size of her canvas. Personalities must also have boundaries. But performance should never be a slave to the structure.
Programmers should work to develop personalities that curate content and build a show around three principles:
Gather: The first step in show prep is hunting and harvesting topics.
Find material that fits the personality brand, appeals to listeners and is powered by personal observation and passion.
This is the most important filter for what makes it to the air. But that’s just where show prep starts.
Organize: Slapping a topic on the air doesn’t work, no matter how relevant it might be. If winning personality radio were simply about information, radio would be easy.
Topics must be processed so personalities “own” the material. Organizing material into ideas that becomes stories is the most critical part of the show prep process.
Improvise: With deep preparation and a plan for each segment, personalities can perform spontaneously, reacting “in the moment”.
This is the art of working with what you have gathered rather than gathering what is needed to fill open breaks. In other words, it’s making the template work for you rather than vice-versa.
Again, templates are not a bad thing. New shows and inexperienced talent in Stage 1 (Introduction) and 2 (Familiarity) of the Personality Success Path need more structure.
But as personalities develop a following, advancing to Stage 3 (Growth), programmers must adjust. This is one of the biggest problems in personality radio today.
Some PDs are overly protective of a formula when a show starts to get traction. They lack the vision to grow a show or talent.
Others are afraid of affecting a music image by expanding talk segments or allowing talent to talk more frequently. The fear is valid. It’s scary at first. But as talent becomes a primary reason to listen, those songs are nearly as much of a turn off as commercials.
Programmers are so obsessed with clock restrictions they impose arbitrary time limits on talk breaks. They allow 2.5 or 3-minute segments, and that becomes the primary standard by which success is measured.
There comes a time to take off the training wheels.
Personality is the future of radio. But not just voices talking on the air. Radio needs real, authentic personalities sharing personal stories and experiences.
For stations that have strong personalities, nurture their growth. And start now.
Here are some tips:
Enforce Prepare Tight, Perform Loose. The more freedom to improvise, the more important show prep becomes. The tighter a break is prepped, the easier it is to be spontaneous. Find that balance.
Adjust Rules and Guidelines. Communicate the most important aspects of the station’s clock structure. Then trust talent to execute. Allow creative authority to make adjustments, but provide oversight to guide their growth.
Coach. Unleashing talent on the audience requires more time in coaching. Coaching requires a different kind of communication. Coaches encourage and nurture strengths, work toward mutual goals and inspire great performance.
Give Up Control. The more proficient personalities become, the more freedom should be granted. This does not relieve the show of responsibility for preparation. Quite the opposite. Just don’t do it all at once. Do it in stages.
For broad guidelines of how and when to relax talk restrictions, go here.
What sets radio stations apart from all other media outlets? It’s the people that talk on the air. Imposing too many restrictions is restrictive and results in a show that sounds tight and technically flawless, but lacks warmth.
Radio needs interesting air talent. When we find those personalities, we need to bring out the best qualities in them. Develop those on-air superstars.
Take off the training wheels. Let’s ride!
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