Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Causes Radio Personalities to Generate Great Content?

Clients often ask me which of the Fourteen Traits Inherent in the Best RadioPersonalities is the most important and predictive of success on the radio. That’s a very difficult question. It’s usually unwise to isolate any of the Fourteen Traits because each tends to modify or reinforce others. Multiple traits contribute to a personality’s appeal to listeners, ability to create content, and perform on the radio.

When it comes to creating distinctive and powerful content, high level Curiosity is the key driver. The constant urge to ask questions fueled by an insatiable desire to know generates the raw material necessary to produce truly life enriching content. Really good questions prompt answers loaded with learning and discovery that can be shared with listeners.

It’s also important to note that great questions are often the product of the traits of Awareness, Imagination, Experience, and Courage. The more a personality hears not only the words in an answer but the thoughts and feelings behind the words (Awareness), recognizes how thoughts and feelings, experiences and ideas connect to new and more interesting subjects and ideas (Imagination), has “been there and done that” (Experience), and has the Courage to ask any question at any time, the better the questions.

Here’s what these primary content generation traits sound like in action. It’s a three minute portion of Howard Stern’s recent 70 minute conversation with Bill Murray. You’ll hear only Howard’s questions from the first 10 minutes of the interview with some answers for context. Listen to how quickly and excitedly the questions flow because of Howard’s genuine Curiosity and excitement to know everything about Bill Murray. He can’t help himself. Each answer seems to fuel his drive to go further and dig deeper into Murray’s life and discover what makes him tick. Listen for Howard’s Awareness of Murray’s thoughts, feelings, and attitudes and how this knowledge informs and inspires his questions. Notice that Howard’s Imagination and Experience help him connect to the events in Bill Murray’s life, speculate on how they’ve affected him and explore how they’ve shaped his values and beliefs. Listen for Howard’s Courage to ask a person he reveres any question that pops into his mind.

Howard Stern’s listeners constantly marvel at what he reveals about his guests as well as what they learn and discover about the ups and downs and ins and outs of life. These magic and memorable moments are all products of Howard’s amazing Curiosity enhanced by his Awareness, Imagination, Experience and Courage. Howard is not alone. These traits are the foundation for the great content created by all the best radio personalities.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Framework for Evaluating Talent

Nothing is more important to the future of radio than finding and developing distinctive, appealing and enduring on-air personalities. Predicting a prospective air talent’s ability to attract and hold a substantial audience is far from an exact science. I know. I’ve been doing it for a living for nearly 30 years.

My “ear” and batting average for predicting success have improved greatly over time. I’ve developed an informed sense of what it takes to make it on the radio. The result of creating the Authentic Personality method, working with some of the best  – Rush Limbaugh, Kidd Kraddick, Jeff of Jeff and Jer, Johnny Vaughan – and worst talent in radio as well as constantly studying gifted artists – songwriters, authors, screenwriters, and creators of TV shows.

A few years ago, a hugely frustrating experience compelled me to codify what I’d learned about evaluating talent and predicting success. I was helping a program director in a top 25 market identify hosts for a startup talk station. We settled on a lineup we really liked. Before making any hires, the COO of the radio group asked to hear each of our choices. The PD pushed play on the first demo. Ninety seconds in, I kid you not, the COO told us, “he’s not our guy”. We asked him to explain. He repeated, “He’s not our guy. Let’s move on”. Yikes!

I was determined to develop a more reasoned approach to evaluating talent. One that would go beyond a superficial and subjective reaction to an aircheck or demo. I wanted to create a framework to have a meaningful and productive conversation about why a prospective air personality will succeed or fail. This led to identifying what my experience, research, and study told me are the Fourteen Traits Inherent in the Best Radio Personalities and the primary predictors of success on the radio. 

I look for the presence or absence of the Fourteen Traits in the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the prospective personality in every contact I have with him or her – listening to live shows, airchecks, and demos as well as telephone and in-person conversations. I spend plenty of one-on-one time with each prospect comparing the personality I hear on the radio with the one I meet off-air. I frequently discover personality facets and untapped potential that isn’t being revealed or exploited on the radio.
Fourteen Traits Inherent in the Best Radio Personalities

I’ve separated the traits into three categories. Personal, content, and performance. The personal traits predict listener appeal and talent motivation. The content traits predict the ability to generate distinctive, appealing and memorable content. The performance traits predict the ability to present attractive content with impact.

Personal Traits

Ego Drive

The best believe in themselves. Some wear it on their sleeve; others hide it with an outward humility. But all believe they are talented and ought to be on the air. They think they’re funnier, smarter, more entertaining, more insightful – and if they didn’t, they couldn’t open the mic every day. This self-confidence can be shaken by bouts of self-doubt and fears of inadequacy, but they have the ego strength to regain their self-confidence.


The best have a sense of purpose beyond themselves, beyond fame and fortune. It can be as simple as “making people laugh every day” or as profound as “helping parents raise strong children.” It’s difficult to spend time every day with someone who is concerned only with themselves. This sense of mission helps make the air personality real and durable over the long term.

Work Intensity

The best work hard. Their work dominates their life, and they think about it a lot. Their show is the default setting in their brain; if nothing compelling is happening at the moment, their mind drifts back to work. They naturally connect all of their experiences to their show and ask themselves, “might this be content I can use on the air?” Most are also diligent about preparing for their show, according it the hours needed for a superior performance.


The best have a fundamentally positive outlook on life. They laugh and smile more, grouse and whine less, and are more flexible about dealing with change. They are likable and truly care that others like them, which is essential to creating a durable relationship with listeners.

Sense of Humor

The best have the ability to find what is amusing or funny about almost everything, including themselves. They find humor even in the most serious subjects and issues. They don’t take themselves too seriously and often enjoy self-effacing or self-deprecating humor. Most have a mischievous streak in them, enjoying good-natured teasing, harmless pranks, and playful tricks.

Content Traits


The best are keenly aware of their surroundings and highly receptive to sensory input – everything they see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. They notice what’s going on around them and pick up on other peoples’ attitudes and behaviors. They are good listeners, hearing not only the words but the thoughts and feelings behind them, making them especially effective with guests and listeners.


The best are curious. They ask questions about almost everything, acquiring more knowledge and information than do most others. They think “fast on their feet” and change direction quickly. Curious people are almost always very intelligent people (especially if their questions are good!), but know that the reverse is not necessarily so – that intelligent people are curious.


The best naturally recognize how thoughts and feelings, experiences and ideas, connect or can be combined to form new and greater images and ideas. Simply, they connect the dots in ways that few others do – and then they go off on tangents to invent new and interesting radio content. Without imagination, content tends to be very ordinary; competitive battles today require more.


The best have “been there and done that.” They may have lived in many different places, traveled extensively, or held a variety of types of jobs. Often, they have faced adversity, dealt with pain, and experienced success and happiness. They know a lot, whether through formal education, reading, or the school of hard knocks. All this experience helps them deal with a broad range of subjects and connect with the diverse audience.

The best are wired a little different. What might produce conventional thoughts in others prompts distinctive, interesting, even peculiar, lines of thinking in these people. Their strong opinions are more likely to grab attention, remain in the listeners’ memory, and cause listeners to talk about the air personality to their friends.

Performance traits


The best say more, using fewer words. They have extraordinary clarity of expression. They paint powerful word-pictures. They have a special ability to take complicated subjects and turn them into simple, concise concepts easily understandable to a radio audience. They have a natural flair for dramatic presentation, and frequently produce “theater of the mind.”


The best are emotional, demonstrative, and passionate. They are this way on-the-air, around the office, and during a job interview. They can’t turn it off. They have strong feelings about almost everything in life and they express their emotions readily. This trait might make them challenging to manage, but on the air, it gives them a range of expression that’s essential to a durable relationship with listeners – they can be serious or flippant, sensitive or carefree, laughing or crying.


The best don’t live with a wide range of fears, and they don’t naturally second-guess themselves before acting. They have the courage to express their real thoughts and feelings, try new things, venture into uncharted territory, take chances. They believe “it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than to seek permission.” This can make them more difficult to manage at times, but coaching an air personality without courage is an even more difficult management assignment (“it’s easier to tame a wild stallion than to kick some life into a dead horse”).


The best temper their courage with judgment. They sense the limits, whether in show prep or when on the air. They monitor their performance, even while they’re performing. They’re in the middle of it, literally and figuratively, but at the same time they’re listening to it and making it acceptable and appealing. This doesn’t mean they exercise perfect judgment 100% of the time.

Monday, January 5, 2015

“Serial” Wisdom

I first learned about “Serial” the podcast from my Twitter feed. It was a day I was thinking a lot about the future of radio and audio entertainment. I was feeling pretty pessimistic. The current crop of news and talk programming on radio wasn’t giving me much hope. The headline style news delivered by most radio stations has become a commodity available on demand on multiple platforms. The superficial reports of common crime, ordinary human misfortune, politics and political process that dominate the radio news menu aren’t distinctive, interesting or relevant to the lives of most listeners. Talk programming is limited to conversations about sports and politics from a conservative political perspective. Digital audio initiatives from radio broadcasters are primarily repurposed radio programs offered as podcasts. The lack of imagination, innovation, and variety in audio content created by radio broadcasters left me feeling depressed about the future of the business to which I’ve dedicated most of my professional life. 

It took hearing one episode of “Serial” to completely change my mood. It rekindled my love of audio entertainment and my belief in its power and appeal. It took me back to the experiences that made me fall in love with radio and audio entertainment. I remembered listening to my first Seattle Rainiers baseball broadcast. I’d never been to a game or met any of the players, but Leo Lassen’s enthusiasm, excitement, and colorful descriptions allowed me to visualize them in my mind. It felt like I was right there in the stadium. I remembered Lan Roberts, the morning personality on KJR, and his fascination with and belief in UFOs. His vivid descriptions and recorded sounds of his midnight experience waiting for a UFO and its passengers that he expected to land in a field east of Seattle were unforgettable. My imagination allowed me to see what he saw and feel his anticipation and then disappointment when it didn’t happen. It was magic. I felt that same sense of magic listening to “Serial”. 

It’s no accident “Serial” has attracted so much media attention and millions of listeners for each of its 12 episodes in just three month’s time. For creators of audio information and entertainment content, especially journalists, news reporters and storytellers of all kinds, there is so much that can be learned from the success of season one of “Serial”. Here is some of the wisdom revealed by the producers of “This American Life” and Sarah Koenig’s experiment in “audio storytelling”: 

·    The ideal length of a story should be determined by the time it takes to tell a complete story that is meaningful to its audience. Sarah Koenig decided it would take nearly 8 ½ hours and 12 episodes to meaningfully tell the complete story she chose for season one of “Serial”.
·    Humans have an insatiable appetite for “truth”. We have a natural yearning to know and understand what is real, honest, and true in our lives. It’s what attracts us all to solving mysteries. It’s the goal and fundamental appeal of great journalism. It was the search for “truth” about the murder of Hae Min Lee and the trial of Adnan Syed that was a primary attraction of “Serial” season one.
·    Crazy curiosity and imagination are essential to great journalism and meaningful storytelling. The “truth” is often found beneath the surface. Sarah Koenig’s insightful, incisive, probing and seemingly endless questions produced the fuel for her truth seeking and storytelling. Her imaginative ability to connect the dots of what she learned from her questions revealed and lighted the trail to the “truth” and exposed the meaning of her story.
·    Listeners love participating in the search for “truth”. Sarah Koenig shared her process in every episode. It’s not something journalists usually do, but Sarah did and others probably should. She constantly revealed her questions, theories, suspicions, speculation, doubts, frustrations, conclusions, successes and failures. It made her storytelling far more interesting and real. It allowed listeners to follow along and contribute if they so desired. Which they did providing some perspectives and details Sarah would likely not have discovered on her own.
·    Journalists and news reporters are often trapped in the current “news cycle” when determining what is news. If it didn’t happen in the last 24-48 hours somehow it’s no longer news. How about adopting some new guidelines to define news. If it’s new or unknown to you or your audience shouldn’t it be considered news? Sarah Koenig discovered all kinds of stuff that was new, interesting, and meaningful to her and “news” to her audience when she began examining a murder that occurred in 1999.
·    News reporters frequently focus on events and often miss the related stories. Events are episodes in stories. Events are obvious and easy to report. Stories not so much. Hae Min Lee is murdered. Adnan Syed is arrested and charged with the murder. Adnan Syed is tried and convicted of the murder. Adnan Syed appeals the conviction. The appeal is denied. All events with obvious conclusions. All reported in 1999. Along comes Sarah Koenig in 2013. She examines these events and notices the untold story of a trial where “something went wrong”. A story that reveals and explores imperfections in our justice system and mysteries of life and human behavior.
·    News consumers want more than a quick superficial headline summary of complex and controversial stories. The main facts of these stories and opposing soundbites are available on demand on every smart phone and computer from multiple sources. “Serial” demonstrated the desire for and appeal of complete stories that provide context, analysis, informed commentary, insight and a sincere search for the “truth”. The real meaning of these stories to listeners.
·    Human behavior is a subject with universal appeal. Why do people think and feel the way they do? Why do people do what they do? These real-life questions and mysteries are things every human being wants to answer and solve. Season one of “Serial” examined and tried to understand all kinds of human behavior in every episode.
·    Vivid, concrete, descriptive language and sound is essential to effective audio storytelling. Words and sounds that allow listeners to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, feel and fully imagine what is going on. Sarah Koenig’s use of language and sound is masterful and makes full use of the “theater of the mind”. Witness this reaction to Adnan Syed after her first in person meeting with him: “The thing you can’t miss about Adnan is that he has giant brown eyes. Like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that actually strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic. I know.”
·    Audio entertainment isn’t going away. Its shape, size, and delivery methods are changing but not its appeal. It can’t be ordinary to compete in a world addicted to “screens”. When done well, “Serial” showed us what it can do. This experiment in “audio storytelling” delivered by podcast attracted a larger audience than many prime time television programs. Lots of people reported replacing their television viewing with listening to Sarah Koenig tell her story “week by week”.
·    Audio is a superior method for storytelling. It compels the listener to use his or her imagination in the “theater of the mind” to participate in the telling of the story. This creates unequaled intimacy and connection to the story and a uniquely personalized experience with the story.
·    Contrary to conventional wisdom among radio broadcasters and PPM data from Nielsen, consumers of audio entertainment don’t all have ADD. They are discerning. If what they hear is not interesting or meaningful, they discard quickly. Enrich their lives and they will definitely listen longer than 10 minutes per “occasion”. The average run time for an episode of “Serial” is 42 minutes.

The Big Questions for Radio Broadcasters

What business are you in? Does your business have a future? These seem like fundamental questions radio broadcasters should be asking themselves right now.

Time spent listening to your AM and FM radio stations is declining precipitously each year. This is particularly true among young people. They’ve grown up in a world of visual stimuli and conditioning addicted to “screens”. They love music, but have minimal attraction to or experience with AM and FM radio. Advertising revenue for AM and FM radio is flat to declining.

There are shiny new high-tech competitors everywhere. Mobile phones and the Internet are sucking up massive amounts of consumer time and attention. Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, and other services and apps offer continuous music customized to listeners moods and tastes as well as individual songs on demand. This competition is becoming widely available and easily accessible in cars where the majority of AM and FM radio is consumed.

You’ve had a virtual monopoly on the distribution of audio entertainment since the invention of the radio. The range of content delivered by your radio stations has narrowed considerably with the advent of television. For the past 50 or 60 years music has been the primary form of audio entertainment provided by your AM and FM radio stations.

Two things made radio broadcasting such a great business the past 50 or 60 years. The monopoly on audio entertainment distribution and not having to create the vast majority of the content it distributed. The music industry took care of that at very little cost to radio broadcasters. It was a sweet deal, but technology has changed all that. The distribution monopoly is gone. Now what?

So, back to the big questions. What business are you in? Does your business have a future? Bob Pittman’s decision to rename his company iHeartMedia started an interesting conversation about the answers to these questions. He says the new name “reflects the company’s success in becoming a one-of-a-kind multiplatform media company and our commitment to being the media company that provides the most entertainment to the most engaged audiences wherever they go, with more content and more events in more places on more devices.” Bob and his company backed that up last weekend by staging a huge “event” in Las Vegas called the “iHeartRadio Music Festival”. It featured live performances by many music superstars. Fred Jacobs joined the conversation offering the opinion that “radio broadcasters have simply got to become multimedia content creators and distributors”. So there you have it, the future for radio broadcasters is the business of “multimedia content creation and distribution” as well as the “event creation” business.

This vision for the future seems perfect for radio broadcasters who create precious little content of any kind. It makes total sense to go compete with everyone in the entertainment business. Sure, why not? Go take on Disney and Live Nation. You have all kinds of talent and experience creating video entertainment. You’ll be great at creating and promoting massive concert events. This is the kind of stuff your current customers have come to expect from you. You have lots of resources ready to commit to these enterprises. They’ll no doubt drive lots of additional listening to your AM and FM radio stations. Like Nike says, you should “just do it!”

Yikes! Let’s get real. What’s wrong with the business you’re in right now? What’s wrong with the audio entertainment business? Doesn’t it have a future?

Audio entertainment is unique and powerful. It involves the consumer in creating the experience it provides. Sound generates pictures and emotions in minds and hearts. The effect is deeper and more memorable than anything on a screen. When you hear someone laughing or crying you don’t need to see them to fully experience their joy or sorrow. Music can change your mood instantly. The sound and the lyrics create a vibe. Music is mind altering, heart penetrating, and memory making. Audio entertainment can be consumed while you’re doing other things like walking, running, driving, or making love. Audio entertainment will never go out of style. Americans spend more than four hours per day with audio entertainment according to the “Share of the Ear” study from Edison Research. Audio entertainment has an enduring future as long as great audio entertainment is created.

Radio broadcasters are in the audio entertainment business. Why not stay there? Why not focus your limited resources on creating extraordinary audio entertainment? How about being really good, even exceptional, at something rather than average or mediocre at everything. Your current consumers are predisposed to using and appreciating audio entertainment. Why not concentrate on creating new audio entertainment content that surprises, amazes, and delights them. Hire gifted artists who love creating content for the theater of the mind. Create content in all shapes and sizes and distribute it on the platform that fits it best. That’s a future that makes sense for radio broadcasters.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Listen to the music. Share the vibe. Make a connection.

The other day a fellow talent coach invited me to listen to one of the morning shows he coaches. It plays lots of music. More than 50% of the total program time, including commercials, is devoted to music. The morning team has just 8 to 12 minutes per hour to present content it creates. I’m thinking to myself, wow, that’s not much time to make a connection and establish a relationship with listeners. I started feeling sorry for the morning team until I realized the big opportunity it completely ignores. The music.

This morning team is totally disconnected from the music in its show. When the music was on the morning team was gone. All I heard in and around the music was station and show imaging, mostly prerecorded. It was like two separate shows all morning. There was the “music show” (more than 30 minutes per hour) and the much shorter “personality show” (8 to 10 minutes per hour). The two shows weren’t connected in any way. There was nothing distinctive about the “music show”. It sounded much like what you’d hear on Pandora.

The big attraction to music is how it makes you feel. The sound and the lyrics create a vibe. Music is mind altering, heart penetrating, mood changing, and memory making.

Music creates a huge opportunity for radio personalities to connect with their listeners. It’s all about the shared experience. Listening to the music with your listeners. Immersing yourself in the songs. Doing a little research. Reading the lyrics. Paying attention to how songs make you feel and sharing the vibes.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I’ll bet you won’t forget this song or the vibe Johnny Vaughan shared with his listeners on the “Capital Breakfast”. It’s no wonder it was the number one morning show in London and the audience loved the experience of listening to music with Johnny.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Don't ask. Don't tell.

There was a big brouhaha last week in Milwaukee. It exposed the realities of achieving the journalistic ideal of "objective" news reporting. It shook management at local broadcast news organizations to their core. It threatened the reputation they've long cultivated for providing "unbiased" news reporting and endangered the trust relationship with listeners and viewers.

All the noise was about the revelation that staffers in the newsrooms of each of Milwaukee's local broadcast news organizations had signed petitions to recall Wisconsin's governor. Talk about a big oops if you're trying to maintain a reputation for "unbiased" reporting.

Management went into immediate damage control mode. Here's a sampling of their responses:

 "Until they (those involved) leave the station, they are not going to be allowed to cover anything related to Scott Walker (the governor)."

 "We want you to know that we consider this a serious issue. We are in the process of dealing with it internally. Our reputation of being a fair and unbiased news source is of paramount importance to us."

 "Station policy prohibits overt political activity. As journalists, our folks know that they must remain totally unbiased."

One television station reported that "many employees" defended the petition signing. They told management "it didn't feel like a political act, but instead felt similar to casting a vote". Management disagreed saying, "Voting is private. Signing a petition is not".

I get it. It's okay to vote because no one, including management, will know how you voted. It's not okay to sign a petition because your bias will be on display for everyone to see. This sounds like the news media version of "Don't ask. Don't tell." Hide your bias and your objectivity and ability to deliver unbiased reporting will not be questioned by management or news consumers.

Milwaukee isn't the only place where "Don't ask. Don't tell." is practiced. Whether it's conscious or unconscious, the policy seems to be alive and well in most major news organizations. It's likely a significant factor in the increasingly contentious relationship between news consumers and the news media. The latest Gallup poll reports a record 57% of Americans "have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly". Ouch.

Maybe it's time to get real about what it takes to deliver on the ideal and promise of "objective" and "unbiased" reporting. It requires reporters to somehow erase from their reporting any influence of their life experiences, personal feelings, and instinctive reasoning understanding that humans do not reason entirely from facts. We all view facts differently based on our life experiences and personal feelings. It's nearly impossible for reporters to eliminate the influence of these things from their reporting. It's not human.

Paul Harvey recognized the difficulty of achieving real objectivity and decided to acknowledge the problem when he chose the name for his news broadcasts. Here's how he explained it:

"I think anyone worth his salt is for or against certain things. It's going to come through if only in the selection of what goes on the air and what goes into the waste basket. So it seems more honest for me to call it 'Paul Harvey News and Comment'. That way listeners know they're getting their news from my perspective."

Paul Harvey decided it was more important to be trusted than attempt to achieve the nearly impossible journalistic ideal of being "objective". It worked pretty well for him. 

A recent poll conducted by Boston's Suffolk University revealed that Fox News and Bill O'Reilly are the most trusted names in news. It's clear from this study and other recent research that news consumers want to know exactly where their news source is coming from; transparency not "objectivity" equals trust. 

So, wouldn't it be better for reporters to reveal their biases rather than hide them? Wouldn't it be better for managers at major news organizations to recognize the biases of their reporters and make assignments accordingly with the goal of reporting from multiple perspectives that might come close to delivering on the ideal of "objective" and "unbiased" reporting?

Hiding your bias doesn't make it go away or enable you to be objective in your reporting. So, why do it?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Checklist for repeating content

Radio personalities often ask if they should repeat content during their shows. Repeating great stuff can help ensure that the content you present is consistently the best it can be. Repeating stuff just because you don't prepare enough content to fill your show is not a good idea or healthy habit to form.

Here are three simple questions I recommend personalities ask themselves to guide their decision:
  1. Is this my best work today?
  2. Is it better than the content I've prepped but not yet presented?
  3. Is it good enough and complex enough that listeners who've already heard it will appreciate hearing it again and, importantly, likely hear something "new" and interesting that they missed/didn't hear the first time around?