Details on how to execute great stunts that get attention for your radio station

Radio has long been known for performing outrageous, attention-getting stunts and practical jokes. Throughout the history of the medium, broadcasters have implemented tactics that have captured the public’s imagination.

Orson Welles’ classic War of the Worlds may have been the first radio stunt, and probably was the one that had the most far-reaching impact. Another legendary event was Chicago DJ Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition night in 1978. That promotion rallied his fan base and put Dahl in the center of attention.

But stunts don’t have to just be spectacles, and they don’t have to be over-the-top to be effective. There are many ways to use them creatively. Done well, stunts are one of the 6 paths to creating emotional connections with listeners.

Stunts Need a Purpose

For example, the Ice Bucket Challenge is basically a stunt that organizers used to raise awareness and money for a cause (ALS). This campaign captured the public’s imagination and, using social media, spread to nearly every man, woman and child in the United States.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is an example of some of the basic principles that make stunts successful. First, stunts have to be simple and easy to understand. The premise is easy to communicate: Challenge someone to dump a bucket of ice over their head. They have 24 hours to do it or donate $100 dollars to the ALS foundation. It was also easy to do it. Everyone could participate, which is a key part of a successful stunt.

Every summer, Nathan’s Hot Dogs puts on a hot dog eating contest on the 4th Of July. It’s a fun event, and the purpose is to simply call attention to their hot dog brand.


But even if it’s for a good cause like ALS, for a stunt to spread, your idea should cause listeners to want to be a part of it in some way. Participation may be active, as in the Ice Bucket Challenge, or a spectacle, like Kyle & Jackie O’s Extreme Challenge stunts. The KISS-FM/Sydney Australia duo conduct a series of promotional events with listeners playing a game. If the listener wins the game, they get cash or prizes. If not, they must accept the consequences of the Extreme Challenge. By organizing the stunt with a listener in the center and inviting listeners to the payoff, the show creates drama and anticipation in the story.

As you build in layers of participation, make sure the call-to-action is easy and immediate. In the Ice Bucket Challenge, the 24-hour deadline creates an urgency, and the publicity snowball grew quickly. To be part of Dahl’s Disco Demolition, you just had to buy tickets to a White Sox baseball game. Simple.

Many times, stations mistakenly focus their attention on an event that is so outrageous, it’s either hard to believe or impossible to imagine participating. It’s not about creating the biggest or most disgusting spectacle, but creating a fun atmosphere in a surprising and unexpected way. Surprise makes the event noteworthy, and that inspires discussion.

Sometimes the stunt is more of a spectator event, like the hot dog eating contest. This can work by taking the audience out of their comfort zone. Just be careful not to be too far there. Once you step across that line, you run the risk of repelling your listeners or generating negative feedback.

What’s Your Story?

Stunting just for the sake of doing something is usually a mistake. There has to be a reason, and the reason should be part of a story that’s told through the stunt. When you add theater and staging, the stunt takes on a life.

Stories cause listeners care (when the story is told well), and provide a trigger that put the stunt into context.

Many years ago, bungee jumping became a craze in the U.S. It was topical and top of mind. Everyone was interested in doing it, or talking about those doing it.

My morning show, Jeff & Jer, took advantage of the opportunity by staging a stunt through a story. It started with a segment on the air about listener’s greatest fears. During the topic, Jeff revealed that he had an intense fear of heights. This primal fear became the trigger that turned into Jeff facing his fear and performing a jump with hundreds of listeners watching, listening and encouraging him.

When he finally made the jump, listeners were cheering, crying and congratulating him because they had a stake in his story. The story made the stunt much more interesting than just saying,

Hey Bungee Jumping is popular. Let’s go do it.

Sometimes, stunt opportunities happen by accident and it can be spontaneous. I still remember a stunt in 1989 featuring Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Jim Rooker. The Pirates were playing in Philadelphia, and took a 10-run lead in the first inning. Bored, Rooker commented:

If we lose this game, I’ll walk home.

The Phillies rallied and won the game 15-11. The next morning, Rooker started at home plate and began a 13-day, 320 mile walk to make good on his promise. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, the streets were packed and he had raised nearly $100,000 for charity. It became a story.

On the other hand, staging a stunt without a story is a recipe for failure. Or at least it makes it difficult to succeed. If it’s only for shock value, it’s not likely to resonate.

I once worked with a very talented show that had an idea to have their sports reporter perform his report in a public location naked. In a planning session, I asked, “Why?” The answer:

He’s willing to do it. Everyone will talk about it. And it gives us a chance to be local.

The audience had no stake in the storyline. It could have been something as simple as paying off a bet for a contest or game on the air. And it would have been been better if the personality had resisted doing it. The fact that he wanted to do it came off as a little creepy, and didn’t engage the audience emotionally. The stunt was a miserable failure.

Why Do Stunts?

Well, for free publicity, of course. But everyone is doing them. How can you know for sure if it’ll work for you?

The fact that there’s so many others doing anything possible to get attention today means one thing: You have to be great or your stunts won’t be noticed. But don’t let that scare you off. Let it inspire you.

Your stunt idea doesn’t have to be completely original. Don’t stress about that. Instead, put your energy into how you tell the story. ,

When deciding whether or not to make stunts a part of your character mix, remember that everything you do contributes to your personality brand. Too many could lead to an image you don’t really want. Make sure stunts add to your character, but not define it.

Use stunts to gain attention, but most personalities should be careful to avoid letting them become the primary reason to listen to the show. They can, and often do, become habit forming. Many shows have started a downward spiral trying to think of new, outrageous ways to shock the audience instead of focusing on how to entertain them once they’re attracted.

Think of stunts as a marketing function, not a core part of your content. They’re like a weekend sale. It may spike traffic to the store for a few days, but when prices return to normal, you have to have a strong customer base to survive.

When considering the Why Do Stunts question, another factor is where you are in the audience engagement cycle. Every personality goes through five stages of development.

Stage 1: Introduction: You’re new to the market. Stunts can be used to gain attention and make a statement that you’ve arrived. But be very careful that they fit your desired personality brand. First impressions are important, and a stunt that doesn’t fit who you want to be can be hard to overcome.

Stage2: Familiarity: This phase is a great time to stunt, but it may be even more critical to choose the right stunts in this phase. The audience is starting to recognize your name, and impressions you make will stick with you more.

Stage 3: Growth: As you build momentum, a stunt can put you over the top. In this phase, your audience is becoming more excited about your show, and it’ll be easier to get participation, if it’s a public stunt.

Stage 4: Like: As they begin to like you, be very careful to nurture the audience relationship. In this phase, you’ll probably stunt less, but each should be higher impact. And you may want to create stunts that have different goals or outcomes.

Stage 5: Love: Stunts aren’t necessary in this phase, even if it’s something you’ve built your brand around. This is the time many shows introduce new characters to become the risk-takers while the main personalities act as ringmasters.

Planning A Stunt

There’s nothing quite as exciting as when a well-planned stunt gets your audience excited. it takes on a life of it’s own. And, when powered by social media, it can spread quickly. But it’s important that the stunt does what you want it to do, and that comes from planning.

Whether you’re staging a big event or a small one, planning a stunt can be the difference between success and failure.

Attention to detail will help you avoid embarrassment and increase the chances of staying out of trouble! The radio station (now off the air) in Sacramento could have avoided most of their issues if they had thought the consequences of their Hold Your Wee for a Wii promotion. That’s the contest where a listener died from water poisoning! It’s a good example of stunts gone wrong, mostly because they failed to think it through.

Prepare The Outcome

Part of the planning should be defining a vision for the stunt’s outcome. A goal adds the elements that allow you to tell your story with drama to reach the conclusion.

Once you decide to take on a stunt like suspending the morning show from a crane to get food for the homeless, set a goal. Just putting them up for three days to “see how much they can get” won’t generate nearly as much interest as setting a target. With a specific goal like “We’re staying trapped on the crane until we get donations of 100,000 pounds of food” establishes a goal and adds interest.

Another way to set a goal is with a finish line “or else”. For example, “The show must raise $25,000 to grant the wishes of critically ill children by this Friday at 10am or they’ll lead a parade down Main Street wearing only their pajamas and playing The Bunny Hop song a kazoo.”

Stunts Gone Wrong

Planning a stunt in detail should reduce the chances of problems, but you can’t protect against every possible problem. Keep in mind that the line of good taste is an ever-changing line. Listeners, public officials and activists are more sensitive than in the past, and are quick to criticize. That may not be a bad thing, but it can spiral out of control. And short-term notoriety can limit long-term success if you don’t manage it properly.

The best stunt I’ve been involved with was Whirl Til You Hurl, a roller coaster marathon on an ancient wooden roller coaster on the boardwalk of Mission Beach in San Diego. The campaign generated over 300 pieces of television publicity locally in 13 days. Everything was perfect. So we decided to do WHirl TIL You Hurl 2. And everything went sideways. Why? We hadn’t thought it through. There was no contingency if the contestants all decided to stay on. 66 days later, we finally ended the promotion, with some hurt feelings and negative publicity.

On the other hand, some public outrage can be a positive, if your target audience loves you for it. I’ll never forget the stunt on 99X/Atlanta when Leslie Framm lost a bet and the pay off was to have her pinky finger cut off. The show took you right to the edge, and many thought it went too far. They included the sound effects of a power saw and created a powerful emotional response from the audience. The beauty of the stunt is you were left thinking it actually happened, but didn’t know for sure. The public was outraged, but their target audience was intrigued and Leslie became an even bigger celebrity because of it. In this case, the negative publicity was indeed a positive.

When a stunt starts to get out of control, get it back on track quickly. Fix small problems before it becomes a major issue. If it is generating negative publicity, don’t point fingers. Immediately take responsibility and outline your plan to address the problem.

Getting Promotional Buzz

The goal of promotional activity is to become more top of mind. In short, to create promotion buzz for your brand. Do it right and there’s a tremendous payoff. That’s one reason it makes sense to invest budget and resources in the stunt.

Design the campaign to start quickly and apply all of your resources to get the ball rolling as fast as you can. Everything moves faster today, and your stunt will have a relatively short shelf life, so it’s important that it be established quickly or the campaign may end before your audience has figured out it’s even happening.

Make sure the stunt is both believable and sustainable. This is key in getting coverage from other media. Making it believable goes beyond just “Is it real?”. This gets back to the importance of detailed planning. And, be sure to build in some layers of entertainment. This adds the element of surprise and keeps momentum in the “story”.


Stunts can be a great way to attract new listeners to your show or add more dimension to the character brand already established. Need some ideas for stunts? We have a ton of them, including this list of stunts that might work for a character on your show or station.

Angie Poirier

Angie Poirier
Morning Personality, Majic 100
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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Air Personality, C100
Halifax, Nova Scotia

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Daniel Britt

Daniel Britt
General Manager/Program Director, Joy FM
Winston-Salem, NC

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