Thursday, July 2, 2015

We're All Born Creative

From a very young age we all have a quiet little voice in our heads that comes from somewhere deep inside. It whispers unique and amazing thoughts and ideas to us. In the beginning, we all hear these ideas, get excited, and do something about them. Unfortunately, the bigger and more unusual the ideas, the more resistance we encounter when we try to bring them to life. Eventually, most of us stop listening to that quiet little voice, dismiss its thoughts and ideas, and just try to fit in because it's too damn hard to do otherwise.

The most successful radio personalities and great artists of all kinds never stop listening to that quiet little voice in their heads no matter how tough it gets. I just watched an interview Charlie Rose did with James Taylor a couple of years ago. He talked about how hard it was for him early on in his life.

"I was born with a difficulty of being in my own skin. Living in human society I just ran into trouble. I think everybody does to a greater or lesser extent. I did feel as though I was born on the dark side of the Moon and that I didn't have a place in this world when I was 15."

James Taylor's troubles living in this world inspired that quiet little voice in his head to help him write some amazing songs. Here's how James described the process to Charlie:

"I don't really feel as though I write songs. I feel as though I hear them first and remember them and get them down. It's such a mysterious and subconscious process that I couldn't really say that I wrote those songs. I just channeled them or they happened to me first. There is a sort of lightning bolt kind of moment when you're visited by a song and you get, hopefully, as much as you can. Sometimes it's a whole song, but sometimes it's just a fragment. Then you have to collect those fragments and often later on you sequester yourself and hide away somewhere and work 'em."

That little voice in James Taylor’s head reacting to the suicide of a childhood friend named Suzanne, the failure of his early band “Flying Machine” and his struggles to overcome drug addiction helped him write “Fire and Rain”. James paid attention to the thoughts and feelings that flowed from these experiences that rang his emotional bell. He listened to that little voice in his head expressing his joys and sorrows. It helped him create a song that produces a powerful and memorable emotional experience.

The best radio is all about creating meaningful emotional experiences for listeners. If you’re a radio personality or anyone involved in creating radio content, don't stop listening to that quiet little voice in your head. It's your genius. It will provide the material that will cause your listeners to laugh, marvel, or understand something meaningful and important and help develop a lasting emotional connection with you. Write down everything it says no matter how weird, nonsensical, or fragmentary it may seem at the time. If you don't write it down you'll forget it. Then, like James Taylor, spend time with the stuff you collect. Work it and shape it. Figure out what you were born to create. Build it. Publish it. The world is waiting for you to make a difference like James Taylor has with his songs.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What Radio Personalities Want and Need Most

It’s not easy being a radio personality. They work in relative isolation far from their listeners. They can’t see or hear them. Most radio studios don’t even have an outside window. The only immediate feedback personalities get on their performance is from those working with them in the studio. If they work alone, there is no feedback in the moment.

Oh, radio personalities get plenty of delayed reaction to their work, but it often does more harm than good. The phone lines light up or they don’t. Texts, Tweets, Facebook posts, and emails deliver all kinds of mixed messages. Some are glowing with praise and love. Others state clearly and unequivocally, “you suck!” After the show, the confusion continues. An enthusiastic PD might proclaim he loves a bit the personality hated, usually without offering specifics about what made it so good. Later, the GM weighs in saying, “I didn’t get that phone segment you did in the 8 o’clock hour and I don’t think it was relevant to our listeners.” Problem is the personality thinks it’s the best thing he did all morning and his followers on Twitter and Facebook seem to agree. This is the real world of a radio personality where everyone has an opinion on what they do and the opinions are anything but unanimous.

It’s no wonder even the most successful radio personalities with consistently high ratings can be very insecure. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a personality in Los Angeles 25 years ago. It was shortly after I began consulting his station. It was our second or third meeting. We were still in the “getting to know you” stage, sizing each other up. He had just signed a five-year no cut $850,000 per year contract. A well-deserved reward for his talk show being number one in its time period. Yet, he seemed as anxious and insecure as a guy with no ratings or track record of success. 

I had to know where his fear was coming from. It was incomprehensible to me. I asked him if he ever imagined the success he was experiencing. In a moment of complete candor he told me, “I had no idea I’d ever achieve this kind of success on the radio. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t really understand why people listen to me.” So then I asked him how he felt about the future. He answered, “I’m worried I could lose it all just the way I got it, without knowing how or why or when it might happen.” Wow! Talk about an epiphany.

My experience in Los Angeles that day and with hundreds of radio personalities ever since has made me realize that good coaching is not only hugely important to a personality’s development, but also vital to their well-being. It’s not easy being a radio personality. 

Every radio personality I’ve ever met wants to get better, no matter what their level of talent or stage of development. They’re hungry for constructive feedback and ideas that will help them learn how to be the best they can be. Deep down, every radio personality wants a coach. Here are the things they want and need most from that coach:

·         Someone who “gets me” and “believes in me.” This is the foundation of a coaching relationship. The coach must be able to regularly and consistently recognize and articulate what makes the personality special and appealing to listeners. Most importantly, he must be able to demonstrate why he believes the personality will succeed. Nothing inspires and motivates a personality more than a coach who believes in him and can explain why. Nothing helps a personality overcome their doubts and fears and set aside all the confusing and conflicting opinions about their work more than recognizing their own strengths and fully understanding what makes them appealing to listeners.

·         Someone “I can trust and respect”. Trust is a function of genuine concern about the well-being and best interests of the radio personality. It’s about being honest at all times. Radio personalities can spot BS and manipulation a mile away. They hate it. There is no relationship without trust. Respect is earned by demonstrating an ability to help the radio personality recognize, refine, and more effectively present their best ideas on the radio. In other words, by helping them acquire the skills and techniques that will make them better. Trust and respect flow from showing that you truly care and can help them be the best they can be.

It’s not easy being a radio personality, but a good coach can make it much less difficult and far more satisfying.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What inspires and motivates successful radio personalities and great artists of all kinds?

I've been coaching radio personalities and studying gifted artists for over 25 years.  I've been privileged to work with some remarkable performers like Kidd Kraddick, Jeff of Jeff and Jer, Rush Limbaugh, and Dr. Laura.  I've observed successful songwriters, authors, screenwriters, and creators of TV shows.  I've learned a lot about where great artists get their inspiration and how they create.

I've discovered successful artists across the media spectrum -- those who've created hit songs, blockbuster movies, best selling books, top-rated TV shows, and the most listened to radio shows -- are guided by a common force I've come to call "The Artist's Secret".  It has three elements.

  1. Instinctive Reactions.  The source of their ideas.  The inspiration for what they create comes from inside.  It begins with the artist's instinctive reactions to what they experience in their own lives -- spontaneous, raw, uncensored thoughts and feelings triggered by what they see, hear, taste, touch, or smell.   
  2. Audience of One.  Everything these artists create is designed to appeal to and satisfy an audience of one -- themselves.  It's all about what makes them laugh or cry, marvel and understand.  They create stuff that they truly enjoy, stuff that turns them on and rings their emotional bell.    
  3. "I Matter".  The artist's belief that their thoughts and feelings matter.  The belief that creating stuff that reflects how they think and feel matters and can make a difference in the lives of others.  These beliefs fuel the courage and passion to create and provide the creative juice that produces original ideas.  They also supply performance energy, enthusiasm, and excitement.
I've collected many examples over the years to illustrate how "The Artist's Secret" has influenced extraordinary artists and their works.  Here are three of my favorites.  As you read these stories about Mel Gibson, John Lasseter, and Howard Stern, look for the Instinctive Reactions, the Audience of One, and "I Matter".

Mel Gibson

We all know by now that Mel has battled addiction and obsessive behavior most of his life.  What you might not know is that he is a devout Catholic Christian. When Mel was 34 or 35 he arrived at one of many difficult turning points in his life, struggling to live his faith. It inspired him to create the blockbuster movie "The Passion of the Christ".  Here's how he described the process in an interview conducted two weeks before the movie was released.

"Every seven years you change pretty profoundly.  I wondered, what's my life about?  I started looking into things that I had knowledge of, but really hadn't fully explored.  I read all the Gospels, read the New Testament, read the Old Testament.  I started to go through all that just trying to maintain myself.  I would imagine what was that like, really?  You're talking about the single event that probably influenced civilization as we know it now.  It’s created our laws, behavior, and the knowledge of good and evil.  It's influenced art and literature.  It's affected every possible aspect of anyone's life, whether they know it or not, it has.  This is big stuff you're dealing with.  It's absolutely everything.  I don't think it's ever been told as it should be.  It suffers in accuracy, accuracy as far as the Gospels go, accuracy as far as the extent of the sacrifice and the torture involved.  Make no mistake about it, this (movie) is graphic and my aim is to profoundly change people with it.  I know it's not gonna be everybody's cup of tea, but it's the way I want to present it.  It speaks to me that way and that's all I know.  My hope is that anyone who goes in and can manage to stay through it and can suffer through with it, that they are changed when they leave."

Mel was experiencing a "profound" change in his life, "just trying to maintain myself".  The Instinctive Reactions started to flow.  He began to wonder, "What's my life about?"  Searching for answers he read the Gospels, the New Testament, the Old Testament.  The descriptions of Christ's suffering and death generated strong thoughts and feelings.  "What was that like, really?... You're talking about the single event that probably influenced civilization as we know it... It's created our laws, behavior, and the knowledge of good and evil... It's absolutely everything... I don't think it's ever been told as it should be.  It suffers in accuracy, accuracy as far as the Gospels go, accuracy as far as the extent of the sacrifice and the torture involved."  Then he began to create a movie for an Audience of One.  A movie that reveals what Mel learned from this time in his life because of a belief that "I Matter" -- a belief that his thoughts and feelings can make a difference in the lives of others.  "Make no mistake about it, this (movie) is graphic and my aim is to profoundly change people with it.  I know it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea, but it's the way I want to present it.  It speaks to me that way and that's all I know."

John Lasseter

John is Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studios.  He’s the principal creative advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering. Many consider him the present-day Walt Disney. John is the creative force behind the growth and unparalleled success of Pixar.  He's also the creator of "Cars" the movie.  Here's how he describes his creative process on the "Cars" DVD.

"Cars is a very personal story to me.  Not only is it inspired by my love of cars, not only is it inspired by my dad, who is a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership, but it's inspired by something that happened to me in my life.  I directed Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Toy Story 2.  By the time I was done with Toy Story 2, it was 1999.  Nine years had passed.  We had had four boys and my wife said, 'John we've supported you in making all these films and the building of Pixar and all like that, but you better be careful because one day you're gonna wake up and your boys are going off to college and you will have missed it.'  So, I took the summer off.  My wife and I bought a used motorhome.  I wanted to stay off the interstate highway system and travel America.  And you know what happened, we got so close as a family.  It changed my life.  I came back knowing what I wanted this movie to be about is a character discovering what I discovered -- that the journey in life is the reward.  I started thinking and all of a sudden the story just started coming out.  It's got to be about a race car.  I imagined this being the personality of a character -- it's like nothing else matters but achieving it as fast as you can.  Winning.  Getting that championship.  I thought this is the perfect character to all of a sudden be forced to slow down.  That's what this character needs to discover.  And so we started taking and merging the two worlds of the automobile that we loved so much -- racing and Route 66.  We all discovered something we weren't expecting.  You know, it's just like life.  You start down the path not knowing where it's going to lead you, but you enjoy the ride."

Did you recognize the elements of "The Artist's Secret" in John Lasseter's story?  They're all there.  Instinctive Reactions to a life experience.  "My wife said, 'John we've supported you in making all these films and in the building of Pixar and all like that, but you better be careful because one day you're gonna wake up and your boys are going off to college and you will have missed it'.  So, I took the summer off.  My wife and I bought a used motorhome.  I wanted to stay off the interstate highway system and travel America.  And you know what happened, we got so close as a family.  It changed my life."  Audience of One and "I Matter".  "I came back knowing what I wanted this movie to be about is a character discovering what I discovered -- that the journey in life is the reward... It's got to be about a race car.  I imagined this being the personality of a character -- it's like nothing else matters but achieving it as fast as you can.  Winning.  Getting that championship.  I thought this is the perfect character to all of a sudden be forced to slow down.  That's what this character needs to discover."

If you want to experience and truly understand "The Artist's Secret" get the "Cars" DVD and watch the "Inspiration for Cars".  It's amazing and powerful.

Howard Stern

Howard is widely known to have more than a passing interest in sex. Some years ago, actor Mickey Rooney was on the interview circuit.  I don't remember why, probably a book or movie promotional tour.  Howard wasn't interested in the book, movie or whatever.  He wasn't concerned that most of his audience would not know Mickey Rooney.  Howard creates his show for an Audience of One with a belief that "I Matter".  Somehow he learned Mickey had slept with many gorgeous starlets of his time.  Howard's Instinctive Reaction to this revelation, "How did that ugly little runt seduce all those gorgeous women?"  Howard had to find out for himself.  He invited Mickey to come on the show.  There was an obligatory reference to the movie or book at the end of the interview, but the vast majority of the conversation was devoted to finding out how that “ugly little runt" made it with women Howard couldn't imagine being with.  It was extraordinary guy radio whether you knew Mickey Rooney or not.

Radio personalities who embrace "The Artist's Secret" distinguish themselves from everyone else on the radio.

When they start to notice and record their Instinctive Reactions to all their personal life experiences the magic begins.  An abundance of original ideas that reflect the full range of human emotion comes into view.

Fearlessly creating and presenting content for an Audience of One -- the stuff that turns them on, the stuff that rings their emotional bell -- gives them the best chance to relate to their listeners.  Human beings share the same set of emotions no matter what their status in life.  We all feel love and hate, fear and anxiety, joy and sadness.  Emotion is the universal human connector.

When radio personalities come to believe, "I Matter", they become originals like Mel Gibson, John Lasseter, and Howard Stern.  They acquire the courage and unlock the passion to create fresh and new ideas that reflect their own thoughts and feelings.  Their performance energy, enthusiasm and excitement seemingly have no bounds.  They establish an emotional connection and bond with their listeners that is nearly impossible to break.  They become the best they can be.


Monday, March 9, 2015

How long does it take to develop a top-notch radio show or know if it's going to succeed?

There are lots of variables to think about. Here are some questions to consider in order to come up with a realistic answer:

  • Let's start with a reality check. How much time do you have to reach what ratings level? If you work for Bonneville or Hubbard you probably have more time than if you work for Cumulus or iHeartMedia? If you’re a GM or PD, it doesn't really matter what you think is reasonable if your boss has other ideas. Find out what the bosses realities are. That's your reality. If you don't think the bosses ratings expectations are reasonable, better let him or her know up front. Matched expectations are good for job security.
  • How long has the show been together? How long have the participants been doing radio? Malcolm Gladwell and others who study success have found that it usually takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness at anything. That would be 10 years for a four-hour per day show. How long did it take Howard Stern, Kidd Kraddick, Rush Limbaugh, and other radio stars to achieve greatness? Based on what I know, the 10,000 hour rule fits these stars pretty well.
  • Will the show receive regular and effective coaching from a coach who recognizes and can articulate the talents, strengths, and most appealing personal traits of the individuals on the show? Coaching focused on perfecting talents and strengths and highlighting appealing personal traits will significantly speed up the development process. Nothing slowed the development of the superstars of radio, true originals, like Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Larry Lujack more than bad coaching from PDs and management that didn't recognize and support their unique talents and strengths. Each was fired multiple times. All were told to fit into some current standardized success model and be anything but themselves. They refused. Each had his own instincts and ideas about the kind of show he wanted to do.
  • How distinctive is the show, really? Be honest. Is the stuff it produces unconventional and memorable? Is it markedly more interesting, meaningful and fun than the alternative? Does it truly stand out from other radio shows and other entertainment options? Small differences get little attention and produce slow growth.
  • Does the show have intellectual and emotional range or is it a one trick pony? Does it produce serious and substantive content one minute and frivolous and funny stuff the next? Does it make you laugh and cry? Does it deliver real insight? Does the show make listeners lives noticeably better each day? How? The more the show matters and truly makes a difference in the lives of its listeners the faster it will grow.
  • How much of the actual content of the show is created by the show? In other words, how much time each hour does the show have to connect with its listeners? If the show is primarily music, it's going to take longer for the show to gain traction.
  • How well is the overall station performing? Does it deliver significant cume to sample the show or will the show have to generate its own cume and sampling? Obviously, this will be a factor in the speed at which the show grows.
  • How well does the show fit the worldview, lifestyle, and sensibilities of the station's audience? The better the fit the faster the show will connect with the station's listeners. How well do you know the people on the show? How well do they know themselves? What do they really know and care about? What are their values and beliefs? How does the stuff in their hearts and minds match up with the stuff in the hearts and minds of the station's listeners?
  • How long will you believe in the show and its potential? This may sound like a funny question, but it's not. What happens when a couple of PPM monthlies don't meet expectations? Do you stop believing? I've seen it happen over and over. When you stop believing, the show stops growing. I've yet to meet a radio personality that doesn't sense the moment his or her boss stops believing. Fear takes over. Creativity suffers. Survival mode begins. The minute you stop believing, the game is over.

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.