Reacting to NOW

Reacting to NOW

by Tracy Johnson

You’ve probably noticed, but the world moves fast, and information is coming at light speed. In a world where your listeners have access to breaking news and instant updates before that next talk break comes on, reacting to now is more and more important.

When that big moment comes along, how you respond in the moment can be the difference between creating a moment your audience remembers for years, or being lost in the noise.

When the audience tunes in and you’re talking about yesterday’s story, you sound out-of-touch. Because everything that happens today is bigger, faster and more high-profile. And the story turns over in hours, if note minutes. It’s constantly changing.

And it’s not just in those big news events, either. It’s the same in sports, celebrity news and politics (Thanks, Mr. Trump).

How can you keep up and compete, especially when so many personalities are voice-tracked or recorded in advance?

Reacting to Now: Just Do It

When something happens that truly affects your audience, you have to react immediately. Don’t wait for a meeting or plan to talk about it tomorrow. It’s too late. 

Especially in times of a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster, you have to take action quickly.

You may feel like you’re flying without a net. That’s okay. If you wait, you miss out That doesn’t mean you should be reckless or careless, of course. Nor does it mean you must (or should) try to be on top of the breaking story with up-to-the-second updates.

Reacting to now means have an emotional reaction that connects with your audience.

Saturday Night Live is known for topical comedy sketches. They adjust segments on their weekly show to reflect the current news and pop culture events. Not the news from last week. The news from last night.

Lorne Michaels has been the driving force of the show since it’s debut in 1975, and he knows the pressure of reacting to now. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, He says:

Knowing the deadline is real. That focuses people’s thinking. We don’t go on because we’re ready. We go on because it’s 11:30. There’s no getting out of it.

Sometimes you have to fly without a net.

Reacting to Now: Compete In Your Own League

With the news cycle moving so quickly, and social media spreading information even faster, how can you compete? By understanding and changing the game.

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Don’t worry about being first or fastest. You will lose. You can’t win the story. But you can win by playing in a league of your own. That starts by knowing who you are and who you are for. That makes it easier to have a perspective that will resonate with your audience.

But then you have to create content with a point-of-view that is relevant to your audience’s expectation. That was on full display in media coverage of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

CNN, of course, was carrying live coverage around the clock, tracking the storm with updated breaking news alerts. The cable network specializes in being the source of live, timely and updated information. Regular programming was suspended for round-the-clock coverage.

But financial television network CNBC’s coverage was much different. They focused on the financial impact of the storms on the local economies, stocks that were likely to benefit from rebuilding the communities, the financial risk to insurance stocks and how cancelled flights will affect airlines’ business.

Meanwhile, flip over to ESPN and there was regular discussion of how the major league baseball pennant race and playoffs were impacted by moving the Astros home series to Tampa during Hurricane Harvey and how the Tampa Bay series against the Yankees was switched to New York’s Citi Field. They aired special features about the difficulty of athletes playing a game in other cities while their families were home dealing with the disasters alone in Texas and Florida.

What Is Your Unique Angle?

Each of these media companies successfully covered the event through their unique angle. It made sense to their audience, and allowed them to stand out for specific reasons that enhance their brand. And each told their stories with sensitivity, emotion and proper empathy.

Here are some ways your station could react to the storms, depending on who you are, and who you are for:

Station that targets adult women: Instead of collecting money for disaster relief, or simply promoting the Red Cross number, how about a diaper drive to send to moms who have lost their homes?

Christian stations: Telling the inspiring stories of heroes in the storms or talking to those who are in the storm but have found comfort and have a message to inspire your audience because of their faith.

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Alternative stations: How about a concert with local artists coming together quickly to raise money for music programs in schools that have been destroyed in the path of the hurricane?

Of course, the hurricanes were dramatic events. Not every event is on the scale of 9-11 or a major disaster. But you can take the same approach to everything that happens.

Don’t Program to Ratings

If you’re so focused on manipulating the audience to maximize meters, you’re going to fail to capture the moment. Reacting in the moment to stand out requires a different kind of focus. You’re becoming a part of the story. That has ongoing perceptual value. It’s part of growing deep roots in your community.

That might cause some listeners to tune out. And if they have a meter, you may lose a quarter hour. That’s part of the cost of doing business and making a difference. Personality radio programmed spontaneously isn’t perfect or precise. But it’s authentic and meaningful. And it causes the audience to fall in love with you.


When important events break, try not to get caught up in trying to be the source of updated information, unless that’s what your audience comes to you for. Instead, find your angle and provide enough information to support how you tell your stories.

On the other hand, recognize those topics and stories that have no expiration date. That applies to most of your material. Don’t rush these topics on the air. If it’s not time-sensitive, take your time to develop your stories more deeply.

But either way, do it with flair. What’s your unique perspective? When something happens, how will you respond? What will you do to inspire the audience?


Author: Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.

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