What Causes Tune In

What Causes Tune In

by Tracy Johnson

Most radio stations are not aggressive enough. Attracting listeners to become loyal fans of a station or radio show demands a creative approach to recruiting those listeners. It’s not a simple matter of eliminating things listeners don’t like. It’s finding the things they could love. We need to do a better job of attracting tune in.

It makes sense that the two simplest ways to increase ratings are to reduce listeners tuning out and increase tune in. Most programmers spend most of their time on the first part of that equation. And it’s true that the fastest way to increase current ratings is to get rid of things that send listeners to the exits.

We obsess about cleansing the station of things that might be running the audience off. But not nearly enough time developing and promoting things that make brands more appealing.

Coleman Research President Jon Coleman puts an exclamation point on that point:

I think that PPM may have caused radio programmers to become slaves to in the moment and lose track of what really builds ratings… what really builds ratings is not eliminating every possible tune out, but rather offering emotion-evoking reasons people can love the station… When we reduce tune outs all we do is maybe save a quarter-hour. We don’t build loyalty. People don’t come back to a station tomorrow because of a reduced tune out today.

Coleman is right on target. But what can you do on your station now? Six things.

What Causes Tune In

In the Content Superhero study, Strategic Solutions Research and I evaluated hundreds of audio segments from radio personalities in many formats and markets. We found six specific things that cause listeners to tune in.

After you’ve protected the station from the things that cause tune out, use these as building blocks to drive new listening and build a fan base.

Established Features

With listener attention so hard to get, and even harder to keep, specific branded features have a place on most radio shows. Everyone knows that the audience is more distracted than ever, and radio stations are less important in their everyday lives. That’s why Top of Mind Awareness (TOMA) remains such a critical factor in attracting regular tune in.

I found the same to be true in my detailed study on millennials and their radio listening habits. They are attracted to special events that are specifically branded in ways that help them remember.

For a radio show, establishing key features, then naming and curating them as a mini-brand is a key to success.

If you’re not sure about the value of a great feature, check with James Corden. Carpool Karaoke has made him famous. It’s one feature on his late night TV talk show. Named Features put content into a frame that’s easier to understand. You don’t need many features. Just one great feature can set a show apart and even drive it to #1 if it’s curated properly and promoted to make it famous.

There are several key factors in building a feature:

  • Lock in specific times. It doesn’t work to move a feature around, hoping to expose it to a larger cume.
  • Involve the talent. Personalities should view features as a content container, not a disruption.
  • Promote it aggressively. Remember, it’s a mini-brand, and brands must be promoted.
  • Worry about burning the feature in, not burning it out. Great features should be on-a lot.

Expectations + Surprise

Each listener comes to a station for specific reasons, usually to be put into a particular mood. Whatever mood the radio station represents, be sure to deliver those expectations.

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Consistency is important, and the audience must be able to count on your brand each day. Fulfilling the audience expectation is half of the equation.

But that doesn’t mean you should simply repeat the same things over and over. It’s important to be consistent, but it’s deadly to be predictable. To attract tune in, we must find ways to surprise and delight the audience every day and ideally, in every break.

Finding a balance of being familiar, yet surprising, is key.

Familiarity creates a sense of anticipation in listeners. In Content Superhero, we showed the power of familiar features. Research conducted with dial testing technology (respondents turned the dial up when they like what they were hearing, and down when they didn’t like it) showed clearly positive reactions when a familiar feature came on.

But as the personalities surprised the audience with great content and unexpected moments inside the feature, response kept growing and growing.

Contests & Games

Contests are different from promotions. That’s another topic. We’re talking about contests & games listeners can play along with, whether they’re a contestant on the air or not.

Games are the G in my GIFS strategy of building a winning radio show. Each game should be performed for the audience, not an active participant.

A game can be as simple as asking a multiple-choice question going into a stop set, and delivering the answer coming out. Entertainment Tonight does this with their celebrity birthday feature every night. With the right question, you get play-along, and increase chances of an additional tune in after the break.

Games on the air work because they appeal to a primal emotion: greed. Greed isn’t just about winning money or prizes. It’s about making the listener feel great about themselves.

That’s why game shows screen contestants to find enthusiastic people, but also to find contestants likely to solve a puzzle just after the viewer at home gets it. That makes viewers at home feel great about themselves. The viewer feels like a winner.

And you can design games on the air to play to greed. Radio games like $1,000 Minute and other interactive games are highly popular and research well because they’re fun to play along with, and fun to listen to.

A Fast Start

With so much competition for listener attention, we can’t afford to waste the audience’s time. Attention spans are shorter than ever, and listeners will tune out quickly unless we capture their attention immediately.

That’s why getting a break off to a fast start is so important.

Listener attention is at a peak when listeners are engaged. That’s the best time to keep their attention, and the time you’re in the greatest danger of losing it.

It’s impossible to over-emphasize the importance of the hook. If listeners aren’t captivated in the first 7 seconds of a break, it’s almost impossible to keep them. Psychological studies have proven that in 2001, human adults had a 14-second attention span. But life has changed. Today, their attention is just 8 seconds.

That means that in the first 7 seconds, you will either get them, or lose them.

But you have to prepare hooks to have successful hooks They must be:

  • Clear, focused and specific. Listeners won’t work to figure out what you’re talking about.
  • Interesting enough to inspire curiosity.
  • Don’t be afraid to be big and over-the-top. This is show-biz. Think of your hook the way magazines write headlines on the cover.
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Emotional connections are everything on the air. Listeners don’t make rational, reasonable decisions. They choose stations because of how they feel. Authentic personalities that show their heart make connections that lead to repeat tune in and loyal fans.

Making emotional connections happens in large and small ways, but it starts with personalities that are willing to be vulnerable. That could range from championing a cause to simply showing your personality when telling stories. 

It means something different for each personality. Maybe it’s showing a heart for animals or children. Or maybe you have the ability to share intimate details from a personal relationship or experience. Authentic emotional connections could happen through telling other people’s stories in a feature like Hometown Heroes.

It could be as simple as sharing personal feelings and observations (with perspective) of everyday life. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic, long-form break that leaves the audience crying.

This takes time and practice. And it’s important to demonstrate authenticity without forcing it on the listener. Always perform based on your stage in the Personality Success Path.


The sixth, and most important, thing that causes listeners to tune in is being funny.

Nothing beats a sense of humor on the air. Nothing.

The ability to make listeners laugh is the one thing that rises to the top in every research project. Generally, the audience uses radio as an escape from everyday life. Make them laugh and they’ll come back over and over again.

But being funny is hard. And not everyone is naturally funny.

Fortunately, everyone can learn how to be funnier. And, fortunately for some, a funny show does not depend on individuals with funny lines. You can have a funny show by creating funny situations.

If you need more funny on the show, you can import it. There are a couple of great features that will work for most stations. Check out The Phone Jibba, a daily prank call feature and Ask Alexa, also a daily interactive feature.


It’s true that the fastest way to move the ratings needle is reducing tune out. But listeners do tune out, no matter what. They tune out when commercials come on or they hear a song they don’t like. Or maybe because another station is attracting them for a specific reason. And it could have nothing to do with radio. Most tune out happens because they have other things to do.

To experience true, sustainable ratings gains, focus on what causes tune in. Lock in on these six causes of tune in, and you’ll be amazed to see quarter hours soar.

Photo credit: freepik.com

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