June 7, 2011
A self-confessed Talk radio junkie since the age of seven, Valerie Geller worked at Talk radio stations such as KOA, KTAR, WPLP, KFI and WABC before launching her own consultancy, Geller Media International. Her firm now consults over 500 stations in 31 countries with personality and news and talk radio throughout the world, while Geller has somehow found the time to author four books, the latest of which is "Beyond Powerful Radio - A Communicator's Guide to the Internet Age for News, Talk, Information & Personality," available from Focal Press. Here's a kernel of what she has learned about this ever-changing business.
You've had a long, successful career in News/Talk radio (and other formats) to train and coach personalities to grow their audiences. You've worked with some of the top names in Talk radio. What's changed? What kind of impact has the PPM had on News/Talk programming?
The new book: "Beyond Powerful Radio - A Communicator's Guide to the Internet Age," goes deeply into this. What's been interesting is something we've known it anecdotally, but now PPM proves it: If audiences are bored, they leave. If they are engaged, they stay. We now can SEE just how short the average listener's attention span is ... and how fickle they are. Check out the book website.
Click here for pic of book.
Not surprisingly, PPM has shown that News/Talk listeners also enjoy a variety of stations and other formats. PPM shows that not only do they listen to their News/Talk or public radio station, many also love Jazz, AC, Classical, Country and Top 40 ... in fact, News/Talk listeners are all over the map musically.
By and large, PPM has been very good to News and Talk stations, especially when there are a lot of "newsworthy" events going on -- the killing of Osama bin Laden, the nuclear disaster in Japan after the earthquake, the tornadoes, floods and all the crazy weather ... people have been tuning in more frequently. Obviously audiences need the news when big events are happening, but the real trick is keeping an audience when the news isn't as "exciting," and you still have to find and personify relevant stories and issues and keep your audience listening.
Talk show hosts, broadcast news journalists and commentators have to be story junkies, because if the stories are good - and are presented in an interesting way that the listeners identify with - they'll listen longer. But to be frank, it takes time, talent, skill and training. Powerful storytellers. There's also an element of magic, alchemy and luck.
What are the hot button topics for Talk radio today -and how have they changed over the years?
PPM bears out that people listen to issues that involve THEM. Humor always works, but most people will listen to issues about their health, money or topics or stories that appeal to their emotion. About seven or eight years ago, a new topic category emerged: Transformative topics - how to make your life better, hence the success of Oprah, Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura -"Get out of Debt" (Dave Ramsey), "Learn Your Computer" (Kim Komando) and all the do-it-yourself fix-it shows.
But radio is most importantly about human connection. There are no boring stories, only boring storytellers. Most topics will work as long as they hit truth, involve the listener and aren't boring. In Talk radio, as in all of radio, our job is to serve the needs of the audience. You introduce and characterize a topic or issue they already care about, you inform and entertain them with it, and you'll grow your audience.
Should News/Talkers change their style if they move to FM ... and if so, how?
I don't think they should change their style at all. Create powerful radio that's compelling. If the content is relevant, listeners come no matter if it's coming out of the FM band, the computer or their mobile devices. They don't care. Audiences want personalities who are smart, have humor are naturally curious about people (and life) with a wide range of interests. That works for this format (or any format), whether the station is on AM or FM.
The Powerful Radio Principles work in every language on any station. They are: 1) tell the truth; 2) make it matter; and 3) never be boring. If you do those three things, it won't matter where you are on the dial. You'll have an audience. The goal is to get the listener to care about what you're talking about ... and you do that by asking: "Is this authentic?" "Would you talk about this OFF air or is it 'manufactured'?" Before anything goes on-air, ask: "Why should someone listen to this? What's in it for the audience? Do you care about it? Will this entertain or inform people?"
But getting back to your question specifically, News/Talk is moving to FM for a variety of reasons. AM isn't as accessible as it used to be. There are cars that don't even have AM any more. The other reason is that music, which used to be a staple on FM, can be heard elsewhere, be it Pandora or an iPod.
What's unique about Talk radio is that the format is based on interaction and having strong personalities -- and if you can't get this programming easily on other sources, then FM Talk succeeds. Talk on FM should have happened years ago, though now you need to have an online and Internet brand as well, as it adds to your listening base, and that's something new and very exciting to expand the audience for Talk programming.
How would you advise local personalities to compete against the syndicated giants?
All four of my books teach techniques to grow audiences whether it's syndicated or local. It has to be GOOD. Content is king. The latest, "Beyond Powerful Radio - A Communicator's Guide to the Internet Age" (Focal Press 2011), as well as earlier books such as "Creating Powerful Radio: Getting, Keeping and Growing Audiences News, Talk, Information & Personality Broadcast, HD, Satellite & Internet" are basically a road guide for how to make radio compelling, including sections on topic selection and integrating all media to reach as many people as you'd like to reach. The book has an emphasis on training personalities and offers proven techniques to become a powerful storyteller, like a Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern.
Anyone with a great track record has to be a really good storyteller, a good listener and have a sense of humor. To be able to perform at that level, it takes a lot of hard work. One of the curses in this business is that since most everyone can talk, everyone thinks it is easy and ANYONE can do Talk radio -- but it's a whole different story once you get in a studio and try to do it. The great ones make it look easy ... and it takes a lot of working on your craft to develop a skill and your talents. And you can only develop that through practice; it takes a lot of hours to understand and beat the curse that makes it look so easy.
Although it may appear like an "overnight success," in truth, many successful Talk shows didn't just start out in syndication. The true stars in Talk built their success organically, in one or two markets. They essentially plant the seeds to their success there and then grow. Every show needs time to develop and attract a big enough following to even attempt syndication. Granted, there are a few already-personalities from other media, such as TV or politics, who start with a syndicated show, but it's better "not to open on Broadway" - if you start locally and develop success, it may take time, but it sticks. It's usually always better to grow from the bottom up.
What do you tell local Talk personalities who come to you to ask when should they know that the time is right to even attempt syndication?
I get calls every week from personalities in all formats who would like to syndicate their shows. But networks aren't interested until you can prove you can get an audience. One way to do that is with the Internet; there you can put up a website and basically do your own syndicated radio show online. If you can develop traction and build a listener base, not only are networks interested, it's easier to attract sponsors! If you can find and develop your own audience, which means taking the time and hard work, it can pay off. One of the other benefits of the Internet broadcast or podcast: You have an opportunity to "narrowcast" for a niche market, yet still reach a large but extremely targeted audience of people who share similar interests.
With so much syndication, where can Talk programmers find and develop the stars of tomorrow?
I advise programmers: Look everywhere from online blogs to comedy clubs, in addition to people working in other markets. But it's still important to listen to the CDs and Mp3s sent to you. I listen to everything I get. Looking for talent takes time (and finding talent IS a talent!), but people who have talent will get an audience. Some stations are now using the Internet as new "overnight shift;" allowing new or younger staffers to become content creators for the web and to put their own content on the station's site. That allows listeners to sample new hosts and DJs and respond. It's an ideal method for stations to try out new talent - you can literally test them before you "buy."
How can a local Talk personality can develop his or her own voice -- and not sound like a clone of the biggies?
The key -- and this goes for any successful artist in any field -- be yourself. Find your own unique voice. A musician can easily learn classical training and structure, but that musician doesn't break through until he or she finds "their own unique voice." You may be able to survive by imitating others, but you're not going to be star until you find and develop your own unique voice.
As obvious as it sounds, the secret to personality radio is to have your own personality. There's only one Rush, one Laura, one Oprah, one Howard, one Glenn Beck. These people all broke through because they were being themselves. The highest praise any personality can get is when total stranger meets you on the street and says, "I feel like I know you ... although we've never met." That only happens when you are yourself; it doesn't happen when "trying on hats," or to quote Lorna Ozmon in "Beyond Powerful Radio," "It never works being Frankenstein -- cobbling together your style from pieces of others."
How aggressive a digital strategy should a News/Talk station adopt?
The Internet is two-way conversation; Talk radio has always been interactive, but many people in radio still use it as a one-way medium -- to broadcast ... just putting out information. Again, this is ironic in this format since Talk radio has always been the most interactive of all formats. Successful on-air hosts are responsive to their audience; they now use online to continue the "communal conversation" with their audience. Be properly involved; take the time to pay attention.
While it's important to spend money on a webmaster who can extend your brand on the Net, listeners HATE it when stations use their websites to cram a bunch of spots down their throats. Too many stations post a slew of ads, maybe a calendar of events and some slapped-up bios -- and never update. The website is a "living thing." It needs to be interactive and updated. You want people to return to your site day after day, so you need to post interesting content, start conversations and involve listeners, so people feel a connection to the station.
Word-of-mouth is still the most powerful promotion. When people are connected to a station, be it on-air or through its website or social media, they tell other people about it. People find good stuff; Krispy Crème donuts did some advertising, as did Starbucks, but the way the majority of people found those products? Through word-of-mouth. Again, that's the best brand promotion or advertising: You do something good on the air; people hear it and tell their friends.
You can grow your audience ONLY if you have people on the air your listeners want to spend time with. It needs to matter, be unique and entertaining and interesting, (and for News/Talk -- credible) over a consistent period of time. By producing quality content, people find it ... and they'll let a million people know. That's how teens find out about new music; one or two kids hear it, it starts slowly, it goes viral and suddenly you have a "Friday."
How does one notice stale content or talent burn-out before it shows up in PPM/ratings?
Believe me, if YOU are bored, it is boring! I've worked with hosts from all over world in 31 countries ... music personalities as well as talk. Never be boring! My books have sold over 100,000 copies globally and have been translated into several languages -- and the bottom line message works in every language and in every country again: "Never be boring!" Make it matter.
Throughout the world, listeners tell us the hate: When a presenter or host obviously doesn't care about what he or she is talking about, they're not invested in the subject. The topic feels laborious or sounds manufactured to fill time on the air. This is NOT an acting job. It has to be real. It's a conversation and a relationship. Talk hosts and their producers need to be trained to pick the topics they feel strongly about or would talk about in real life, with people off-air -- not because it's "in the news, so we should talk about it..." Again, there are no boring stories, only boring storytellers ... interested is interesting... If a host is interested, it works. If not, it gets boring.
Talk show hosts and producers have admitted that if they don't really care about a topic, they never do it with then same passion than when they talk about something they really care about. I've worked with a lot of hosts who believe that if you would not speak about something off-air, why put it on radio?
I work with a model that's 100% effective and has been developed over years of working with successful talk show hosts. Here it is:
- FOCUS: Finding your topic. Does it involve the listener's health? Heart? Money? Transformation? What are you talking about ... and what's the hook or angle?
- ENGAGE: Before anything goes on air, ask: What's in it for listener? What can a person take away from this? They give you their time; what do they get back ... do they learn something ... or least get a laugh?
- Position/Opinion? What's your position or opinion on this? How do your views color the tropic? Why do you think this way? What got you there? This is what makes you interesting. If you haven't thought about the subject or formed an opinion, you likely don't care about it ... and if you don't care, how can you make your listeners care? Every time you open the microphone, imagine a sign above mic says: "Why should I listen to this?" Or "Here's WHY you need to listen to this..."
- STORYTELLING -- Storytelling illustrates the topic. There are several chapters in the new book, "Beyond Powerful Radio," that teach proven methods to develop and strengthen your storytelling techniques
After Focus and Engage ...
Then the final element of the Powerful Radio Method:
How does the use of Twitter fit into the News/Talk programming paradigm?
Twitter is essentially "citizen journalism" ... and it's a great potential tool in getting stories broadcasters would not have other ways of getting. But with Twitter and social media, we've gone from the limited scope of just using journalists to gather information and news to a whole world of eyes and ears.
Again, tweets can get in to places journalists cannot go or haven't discovered. Twitter can be and IS a valuable resource. It's changed the news business. However, if a News station is taking stories from Twitter or other social media, you still must vet them carefully to make sure their credible. Your credibility is your brand, so if you use content from a Tweet, check ... double-check ... and triple-check. Twitter has created a whole new world for News/Talk with more good than bad -- but it's playing with fire. It can warm you; it can also destroy you. Be aware of protect against the potential for putting out wrong information that can inflame and ruin your station or brand's credibility.
Finally, what keeps you going and how long do you see yourself involved in radio?
It's not just about radio; this work is about people, stories, life, connection and communication. I never get tired of it; what radio does, at best, is hold up a mirror and reflect life. Training people to learn techniques to get, keep and grow audiences is my business. I've been very lucky in my life to have come across methods to help broadcasters successfully do this and have shared these techniques in the books. Whatever the medium -- speaking live, on the radio, over the Internet, TV or any other medium -- it is a joy to help people by training them in techniques to be successful at it and I love doing it.