The Science Of Why Listeners Reject Talk

The Science Of Why Listeners Reject Talk

by Tracy Johnson

When the microphone turns on, listeners tune out. Or so they say. It’s become an accepted rule in broadcasting, especially since listening is measured with meters. But have we figured out why it seems listeners reject talk?

The problem is the programmer perception that talk is bad. Another issue is that some of the talks on the radio actually is bad. And then there’s how radio has positioned personality over the years (decades) to suggest that “less talk” is a benefit.

But it goes deeper than that. It gets into science.

Analyzing the Problem

To find a programming advantage, program directors dig into data, pointing at M-Score statistics that show meters tuning out as spoken word continues.

They focus on responses to research questions asking things like, “Would you like stations that play more music with less talk or more talk with less music?”.

The results point to a bias against personality. But what do you think they’re going to say? The question is flawed. What if it were phrased like this: “Do you like funny entertainers having a good time on the air?”

Then management watches focus groups, listening to fans complain that “All DJs talk too much and never have anything to say.”

The conclusion is an audience bias against air personalities. But a scientific explanation is available, and it’s fascinating.

Humans Are Wired To Reject Talk

Psychologists that study the brain have shown humans process information in channels. As long as the input comes into the brain in different channels, it’s easy to process multiple things simultaneously. That’s why we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Those activities are processed in different channels.

It turns out that music is processed in a different channel than foreground activities, like reading or having a conversation. That’s why you can write a report or study a presentation with music in the background. It’s processed on different channels!

But the spoken word is processed in the same channel as foreground activities. When trying to concentrate on driving a car in an unfamiliar area, it’s difficult to have a conversation with someone in the car.

Two activities in the same brain channel compete for attention.

Test The Theory

You can test this.

Put on headphones and listen to an aircheck, talk show, or podcast while trying to read a novel. Either you have no idea what you hear, or you’ll miss what happens for a few pages.

Now put on music, and it’s all good.

But wait. What about multitasking? Haven’t we learned to manage multiple activities at the same time?

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Of course, as long as the tasks are processed in different channels. If the information is on the same channel, all we can do is switch quickly from one stimulus to another.

It’s literally impossible to process two things simultaneously on the same channel.

Assuming most of the audience is doing something else while listening, spoken word content on a music station creates a potential problem.

Listeners Reject Talk-So Should We Shut Up?

What does that mean for radio stations? A lot. When music is replaced by talk, the brain is stimulated in the same channel as the foreground activity. It’s a battle for attention only one can win.

That causes stress.

And humans are conditioned to relieve stress. So one or the other has to go. They can continue to focus on what they were doing or switch attention to talk. They can’t do both.

To relieve the stress, guess what loses? It’s easier to change the channel or turn off the radio because they can’t just stop working.

The easy programming fix would be to remove what causes stress: Tell the jocks to shut up.

Sure. Seems easy enough. But that’s not a great solution. We can’t remove all distractions. Soon enough, spoken word comes on the radio and there’s no way to avoid it: Commercials.

Furthermore, removing or reducing talk may reduce brain stress, but it makes radio brands disposable. What’s the point of stripping it to the point that stations are basically streaming services with commercials? We lose that battle 10 times out of 10.

There’s a better solution.

Accept The Challenge: Compete For Attention

When the microphone turns on, radio stations enter the high-risk zone. Listeners are forced to choose spoken word content or relieve the stress by turning the station.

So rather than caving to a more music/less talk approach, win the battle by making each break count.

Here are three things to win a Top Of Mind Awareness (TOMA) challenge.

Start Strong

Most breaks start with an air personality rambling through the basics as fast as they can. It’s basically unintelligible to a listener, partly because the talent is rushing and partly because they’re not paying attention.

It’s just noise. They can’t figure out what’s going on, even if they are interested. Slow down, execute the basics and be creative to make an impact.

Personalities are in a battle for attention. Use all weapons to win. Listeners don’t really reject talk. They reject boring.

Capture listener attention in the first 7 seconds or the battle is lost. Lose attention in the first seven seconds, and it’s almost impossible to get it back later in the break.

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In that case, the longer you talk, the greater the brain’s stress. And that stress will be relieved. That’s when the audience concludes “All they do is talk. It drives me crazy.

Make It Matter

Nobody has patience for weak or even average content. You won’t tolerate a boring blog post or slowly paced TV show. Consumers demand action, and they have increasingly high standards to measure entertainment.

Prepare every break to resonate. Make it matter. Stop mailing it in, even that first break of the day at 5:35 am.


There are many reasons radio has lost listeners’ attention. There are compelling reasons why listeners reject talk, but the solution isn’t to shut up or shorten talk segments. We can’t waste their time with pointless or uninspired chatter, either.

Create great content that causes listeners to pay attention to. The goal should be to relieve brain stress by causing them to ignore their foreground activity.

We can do it with great talent, a commitment to planning, and boldness to break through the barriers that hold us back.

Do you need help in this area? That’s what I do. We develop on-air superstars. For more information and to get started on your station, click here.


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