The Science Behind Why Listeners Reject Talk

The Science Behind 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 ever figured out why it seems listeners reject talk?

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

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

Analyzing the Problem

In an effort to find data that provides a programming advantage, program directors dig deep into data, pointing at M-Score statistics that show meters tuning out as spoken word breaks continue.

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 seem to 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?” Would the answer be different?

Then management watches focus groups from behind the two-way mirror, listening to station fans complaining that “All DJs talk too much and never have anything to say.”

The conclusion is that it there is an audience bias against air personalities. But the actual cause may surprise you. And, it is likely to change how you respond to the problem.

A scientific explanation is available, and it’s fascinating.

The Human Brain Is Wired To Reject Talk On The Radio

Psychologists that study the brain have shown that human brains 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.

Now, it turns out that music is processed in a different channel that most 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 in different channels!

But the spoken word is processed in the same channel as foreground activities. For example, 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 air check, talk show or podcast while trying to read a novel. Before long, you’ll realize that either you have no idea what you heard, or you’ll miss what happens for a few pages.

But put on music, and it’s all good.

But wait. What about multitasking? In our over-communicated society, haven’t we learned to manage multiple activities at the same time?

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Of course you can multitask, as long as the tasks are processed in different channels. If the information is in the same channel, all we can do is switch quickly from one stimulus to another. It’s literally impossible to do both simultaneously in the same channel.

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

Listeners Reject Talk-So Should We Just 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 in a battle for attention that only one can win.

That causes stress.

And humans are conditioned to relieve stress. So one or the other has to go. The individual is faced with a choice. 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 usually loses? It’s easier to change the channel or turn off the radio, because they usually can’t just stop working.

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

Sure. Seems easy enough. But that’s not a great solution, really. We can’t remove all of the distractions. Before long, spoken word comes on the radio and there’s nothing you can do about it. Commercials.

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

There’s a better solution.

Accept The Challenge: Compete For Attention

A better approach is to understand this brain challenge and win the battle for attention.

When the microphone turns on, we enter the high risk zone of the break. Listeners have to make a choice. They can turn their attention to your 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 by becoming more Top Of Mind.

Here’s are three things you can do 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 enough to give their attention to you, even if they wanted to. Slow down, execute the basics and be creative to make an impact.

Personalities are in a battle inside each listener’s brain channel for attention. Use your weapons to win the battle. They don’t really reject talk. They reject boring.

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Prepare a Great Hook

If you can’t capture listener attention in the first 7 seconds, you won’t win the battle. And when you lose the first seven seconds, it’s almost impossible to get attention later in the break.

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

Every single break should start with a compelling hook.

Make It Matter

Nobody has patience for weak or even average content. You won’t tolerate a boring blog post or a 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 5:35am.

Sure, you can make it sound fine without much thought. After all, you’re a smooth DJ. But that doesn’t win this war.


There are many reasons we’ve lost listener attention on radio stations, but we need to take a different approach to entertaining listeners. Sure, you can find evidence that listeners reject talk, but that is going to kill you in the future.

Ultimately, the answer isn’t to shut up or shorten talk segments. But we can’t waste their time with pointless or uninspired chatter either.

The answer is to create great content that causes listeners to pay attention. How can you get them to relieve that brain stress by ignoring their foreground activity?

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

Do you need help in this area? That’s what I do. Let’s talk about how we can work together to win the war for listener attention.

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