Personality Radio and the Spirit of Improvisation

Personality Radio and the Spirit of Improvisation

by Tracy Johnson

What is the most important trait of an air personality? It’s being likable. Genuinely likable. A spirit of likability transcends everything else. And likable people are good-natured. Good nature is also the spirit of improvisation.

Improv is one of my favorite skills for radio personalities. Even with the talent of amazing improv pros like Tina Fey, Drew Carey, Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, or Amy Poehler, there’s always room to improve.

Regardless of format, improv training empowers air talent with the ability to reach higher each day. It’s one of the most valuable investments folks can make.

Here’s why.

The Spirit Of Improvisation is Good Nature

Perhaps the most important benefit is improv teaches personalities to the value of a good nature, which leads to being likable.

Keith Johnstone says it best when talking about the ability to get along with cohosts through the skill of  Listen and Respond.

Johnstone says improv is:

An Exhibition Of Good Nature.

This book is considered by many improvisers to be gospel for improv. I highly recommend it. You might say Johnstone is the improv whisperer.

Johnstone is the author of IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theater. The book is a great read if you’re interested in theater, but has applications far beyond that. It has something for everyone in a position of influence or persuasion. That includes sales, teachers, and yes, even radio personalities. The book cultivates the creative power of a child to help adults capture the power of performance. You should get it.

Always Say Yes…And

Stephen Colbert said this to a graduating class in his commencement address:

You are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

What are we saying “YES” to?


What are the offers?

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Offers are all around.

On-air, every single line delivered is an offer. Improv teaches actors to accept each offer and build on it. The goal is to advance the conversation. This Listen and Respond skill is key to spontaneous performance.

Great personalities prepare each break in great depth. They have a keen sense of the essence of a break and have designed it with a specific goal in mind. Then they perform spontaneously, able to adjust to circumstances.

One of the first improv lessons is that every line spoken changes the current reality. Each actor’s responsibility is to say “yes” and contribute to that new reality. It’s not about hanging onto an agenda or forcing a line. It’s about advancing the scene by building on the new reality.

More on how to use YES AND on the air here.

Spirit Of Improvisation: Pass The Ball

Another goal for improv actors is to set up a cohost for a great line. The goal is for the audience to have a great experience, not command the spotlight. I call this a For The Show approach to personality radio.

Keith Johnstone was asked, “What do you do when somebody else on stage is doing something wonderful?” His answer?

Stop being wonderful.

Let it happen.

Watch a great band perform. They throw a solo to the guitar player. Suddenly, he or she starts to do something wonderful. The rest of the band doesn’t stop playing, just like you don’t stop listening and engaging and having fun. But the rest of the band plays a supporting role. They continue to vamp underneath, playing simple supportive chords that enhance the shining moment.

This can happen when a show performs with a team-first approach.

No Roadblocks

The two things that kill road trips also kill stories on the radio: Dead ends and detours. In learning to advance a topic and pass the ball, improv actors quickly learn to avoid these barriers.

Dead-end comments are lines to which there can be little or no response. It kills momentum. This happens a lot when a personality responds to a rhetorical question with a definitive “yes or no” reaction. The conversation is over! Done. There’s nowhere to go with it. Dead-end comments bring stories to a screeching halt.

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Detours take a break off the intended path. This happens when a personality is thinking about what they’re going to say rather than listening to what is happening on-air.

Both are show killers. Improv can help your show overcome both issues.


Getting into improv helps personalities in many ways, but the overall benefit is talent can finally stop broadcasting and start performing. Improv can unlock character traits and spontaneous reactions that lead talent to new heights.

That’s the spirit of improvisation.

Tina Fey on Deep Preparation for Relaxed Readiness

How Improv Teaches Radio Shows Teamwork

How to Use Yes And On Your Radio Show

A Library Of Improv Skills for Radio Personalities

Active Listening & Free Association: Key Improv Skills for Radio Performers

Creating a For The Show Attitude

Dead Ends and Detours Destroy Momentum

Key Improvisation Skill: Raise The Stakes

Improv Games to Improve Performance Skills


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