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 a programmer perception that talk is bad. Another issue is that some talk on the radio actually is bad.

But it goes deeper than that. It gets into science. To find a programming advantage, program directors dig into data, pointing at M-Score statistics that show meters tuning out as spoken word continues.

Then they point to research responses to question like this:

Would you like stations that play more music with less talk or more talk with less music?

What do you think they will say? The question is flawed. What if it were phrased like this:

Do you like to hear 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 that listeners hate all talk on the radio But there is a fascinating scientific explanation for it.

Humans Are Wired To Reject Talk

Psychologists that study the brain have shown humans process information in channels. If the input enters the brain in different channels, we can process multiple things simultaneously. That’s why we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

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 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.

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.

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

When two elements enter the same channel, we become stressed. And humans are conditioned to relieve stress. So one or the other has to go. They can continue to focus on the foreground activity or switch attention to talk. They can’t do both.

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 the cause of stress: Tell the jocks to shut up. But that’s not a great solution.

Removing or reducing talk may reduce brain stress, but it makes stations disposable. There’s a better solution.

How To 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.

Here’s how:

Start Strong: Most breaks start with an air personality rambling through the basics as fast as they can. It’s basically unintelligible, partly because listeners are not paying attention. Capture listener attention in the first 7 seconds or the battle is lost and it’s almost impossible to get it back later in the break. In that case, the longer you talk, the greater the brain’s stress. And that stress will be relieved.

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.


There are compelling reasons why listeners reject talk. We can’t waste their time with pointless or uninspired chatter, but the solution isn’t to shut up or shorten talk segments. The goal should be to relieve brain stress by winning attention over their foreground activity.

We can do it with great talent, a commitment to planning, and being bold.

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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