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.
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.
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.
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.
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.