January 19, 2016
It may have taken a while, but it seems that radio's powers-that-be have come around ... again ... to the importance of compelling personalities on the radio. Steve Reynolds believes that high-quality air talent separates not only a station from its in-market competition, but more importantly, differentiates itself from the growing digital competition of streaming services and Internet radio. That also explains why he personally consults with eight popular morning shows in the top-10 markets. Here, Reynolds offers a preview of the "10 Secret Things Every Successful Personality Does" session he will give at the Worldwide Radio Summit on April 14th - and offer his insight into other issues impacted successful on-air talent.
Your session at the 2016 Worldwide Radio Summit concerns "10 Secret Things Every Successful Personality Does." Have those 10 things changed over the years?
They've basically stayed the same with the addition of engaging people on social media. The 10 things that make for great radio shows are centered around being entertaining and strategic - in the end that always wins. Certainly there are additions, with all the competition radio is facing, but you're a brand to a lifestyle audience. Today, we're competing against social media and very impressive TV and cable breakfast shows. They're making a sincere effort to create relevant content to steal our audience. Look at local TV stations and what they're doing with weather and traffic and doing interesting things around the biggest topics of the day ... what implications does that have? It tells me we have to be even more relevant, more compelling, and more entertaining to stay top-of-mind and create tune-in. The 10 things really haven't changed. They've just evolved to keep up with the competitive threat.
Has PPM been detrimental to or changed those 10 secrets ... and has the use of Voltair changed anything?
The PPM is a measure of experiences. When we lose meters, we ask why. Did those listeners turn the station off because they pulled up to the Starbucks, or got to work, or were they simply bored with content that was no longer working? I'm an advocate of research -- focus groups and dial testing. That indicates to us at what point in the break we lost them and why.
The level of prep that's required for an entertaining break is higher than it ever has been. That's because everyone today has a short attention span -- barely 10 seconds. That's how long you get to capture listeners' attention and imagination ... and you'll only renew that for another 10 seconds if you're good.
An analogy I share with talent is when we receive a link from a friend that says something like, "This is the funniest YouTube clip you'll see all week." If you trust that person, you'll click on that link - but if it's 11 minutes long, you'll probably say 'Not now, maybe later" ... and that "later" rarely comes. But if you send me a clip that's short, I'll click play. If the clip doesn't grab me in a few short seconds, I'm gone. Breaks are like that, too, for listeners. Many times when I make these analogies - connecting the dots to how talent react in real-life situations like this - they're convinced that they must evolve to stay relevant.
I help make talent understand how the audience consumes a show, so they can tailor it to fit their lifestyle. They have to realize that listening to radio is like watching TV with a remote in your hand. If a channel isn't entertaining, people simply change the channel and make that decision in a very brief time. If that's how we treat television, why would we believe that our audience would treat us any differently?
The PPM does nothing more than measure experience; how good that experience is to the listener will ultimately assure our success. We need to purvey credible images to make people bond with and be entertained by us. That's how PPM has been a great service for radio; it has forced everyone to get better and grow their game.
Are those secrets the same for syndicated or voicetracked shows?
Ultimately, all the audience cares about when it comes to a radio show is what's in it for them - it's being entertained with relevant content of the day by talent they know and care about. I don't think the audience cares whether the show is local or national. Howard Stern taught this to us ... there's Howard, who has always been unique and fun, and Infinity goes and syndicates him, and we all saw what happened. The most entertaining show always wins. As fate would have it, some local radio shows competed against Howard by essentially focusing on being local only - and that rarely, if ever, worked because they weren't as entertaining as Howard.
Being local is a strategic and viable intellectual argument, but being local will never beat national unless it's entertaining. Being local is a compelling point-of-differentiation. But if it isn't laugh-out-loud funny and the syndicated show is, you won't win as big. The ultimate, though, is to be entertaining and local, being in places the syndicated show never could get to. You have to own the lifestyle images in your market ... develop content and humor based on what's happening in the community. The audience wants to know you're just like them, but fun. If you live there and use that as a foundation for content, that recipe works the best. Many companies in radio are dedicated to live, local, relevant and fun personalities. I applaud this as a talent coach.
I love competing against national shows, especially with local shows that entertain and engage their listeners, with talent who get out of the studio to do what national shows can't do - meet listeners - that's retail politics and it works. Being on the street, meeting and engaging listeners one-on-one, always beats million-dollar ad campaigns; I always tell personalities to get out and get more involved in the community and the audience will reward them with more quarter-hours.Should personalities of local shows change their content if they decide to syndicate - and if so, how?
The content has to change slightly when you do a national show. Obviously, you have to be on the biggest topics of the day in pop culture, but you still can't ignore things that happen in your community - especially if it's something that impacts your listeners and who you are as a person. Say you take a subject, be it national or local, and discuss it from your perspective ... draw ideas and possibly inject humor into it, if appropriate. But also don't worry much about being on a serious topic if everyone is talking about it. I want the audience addicted to a talent's take on things; to wonder what the people they know and wake up with think about what's going on.
The real key to consider is that listeners want to be around familiar people when they wake up, people who are entertaining and relevant to them, whether they're local or national. If your breaks are reflective of what's going on in the community and the life of the listener, it's even better.
There's a cliché that show prep is essentially your life. But how do you know which parts of your life are on-air worthy and which parts aren't?
Not everything is of equal weight. You've got to ask yourself a few questions to ascertain whether or not an experience you had or are having should be brought to the air. The first to ask is if the actual story is relatable to others. Listeners have to see themselves in your experience, or could see themselves in it. The best content is from real life, and the audience needs to bond with talent so they end up caring about that experience. As an example: You went to a grocery store and realized at the checkout line that you left your wallet at home. Listeners can imagine themselves in that situation. We live in a world where we naturally gravitate to people just like us. If the story does that, then this is a good thing.
If that doesn't apply to the story, then you must ask if the experience is so extraordinary and intriguing, listeners would be interested in what happened. An example of this is meeting Taylor Swift backstage at one of her concerts. Not very relatable, but certainly intriguing. The average listener could never see themselves in that situation, but they would be interested to know what that was like.
You must have a definable point of conflict to provoke listeners. Conflict and drama make things entertaining. There also has to be some emotion attached to the story. We are wired as humans to connect with others. Relatable stories with drama, details, with twists-and-turns, and a destination are very memorable.
The first 10 seconds of the break are critical. My friend Jimmy Steal at Power 106/Los Angeles has always believed that you start at the end of a break to frame things. I love this philosophy because it makes the very beginning of the break the most impactful and arms the audience with enough information to stay. Tell people the destination first. Then tell the story - you had an argument over a parking spot and the yelling led to cops being called. Then it really got ugly. When you put that destination up front, listeners will be more inclined to give it their undivided attention ... to hear the details that come next. We are asking listeners for their time - every second counts and determines if they'll stay for the next few seconds.
Not all content is created equal, though. A lot of talent think anything is fair game, but if it's too personal and private, such as you got so drunk, you were sick all night in the bathroom, then you must consider if it's appropriate.
The most successful shows have the highest images of authenticity. If you reveal yourself to the audience and are always honest with them, they'll want to wake up with you. I always tell talent that the audience will care about your show when they care about you. It's in your control, with the content you do and how you do it, to make them care. You can't win if the audience doesn't care about you.
How should a morning show get out of a bad bit? Should they always have a plan B at the ready?
Look, morning show hosts are constructing art every day. I expect there will be breaks that don't work; that's the nature of some of them. What we have to ask is why the break didn't work. If it's because the chemistry wasn't there or the calls didn't come, I understand and would want the show to bail quickly. But if it's because of lack of prep or poor communication amongst the team, then we'd have a separate issue that needs to be addressed.
I want air talent to use show prep that is strategically based on building the program's positive images and communicates its plot, which help develop a stronger relationship and loyalty with the audience. No successful sports team wins championships without a game plan. That applies to personality-based radio, too. No great show can be done without prep. That said, I expect every show to have the occasional fail. We learn not only by doing more of what we do right, but by seeing how and why things didn't work, too.
Social media has become an integral part of any air personality profile. How should one balance one's on-air and social media efforts?
I'm a purist who believes that, ultimately, what comes out of the speakers is most important. That said, social media has been great for personality radio by offering more places to build a relationship with the people who listen to their show.
However, one of the challenges I find with some talent on social media is that they believe they should use the platform to manipulate or coerce the audience to turn them on because they have a prize to give out. Those kinds of posts really don't matter - they end up being clutter on your fan's news feeds that eventually get ignored. Most just roll past that stuff. If you do the same to entertain your fans on social media as you do on-air - by conveying positive images and sharing valuable, entertaining content, they'll then take your content and make it their content - and they push it out virally, to broaden your reach. The cost of that is not as much in dollars as it is in time. I don't know if you can ever do enough of it on social media, but the mistake we make is when we post with the wrong intent, instead of posting things that always affirm what the show is about.
Look at what scores for Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, James Cordin, and the other nightly talk show hosts. Mean Tweets, parents telling their kids they ate their Halloween candy, music stars singing their hits using toddler instruments, and Carpool Karaoke not only score on-air for these stars, they gets tens of millions of views on social media because they're so fun and unique that people share them.
Shows need to have a social media strategy that is in alignment with their program's plot, but also develop ideas and content that listeners would use to broadcast to their audiences, too.
It's fair to ask in everything we do: What is the strategic objective in our doing this? Same goes for social media - what was our purpose in this post? I hope every answer always fuels the growth of an important image.
Be it in social media or on-air, there always seem to be instances when the personality says or posts something that essentially puts his or her foot in their mouth, which prompts various stages of outrage from listeners and the media. What's the most effective way to rectify such incidents?
Just be honest with your audience. If it's a genuine mistake and the audience trusts you, all they're looking for is a sincere apology -- and nine times out of 10, that's all you need to do. Sometimes, that controversy is good for a show because it stands out and creates talk. But in those instances where you're really wrong, just apologize, acknowledge those who reach out, and move on.
In general, what would you advise a morning team on the right time to move to another station ... and is going to a bigger market always the right move?
The short answer is, nowadays, that doesn't happen very often. When you and I were young in this business, the goal for almost every air talent was to advance and graduate from small market to the next-sized market, to make their way to the majors. That stepping-stone approach isn't mandatory any longer. We just watched Spencer Graves go from mornings in Wilmington, DE to mornings in St. Louis. He didn't need the extra steps to get more experience, as was the case with talented young personalities such as Karson and Kennedy, who went from Memphis to Boston.
Many of our radio companies are starting to believe that talent can complement and add to their brand, so they have talent coaches teach them how to grow their audience base.
We obviously have harmed ourselves over the years by depleting the talent pool. We went through consolidation and started to cut jocks under the belief that the expenditure of live talent in overnights and weekends wasn't worth it. At some point management reached an "oh, oh" moment, where they finally realized that you need talent to get better ad rates and to personally tell people how good the advertisers' products were. On some level, there has been a course correction.
When I worked in Indianapolis, a recent addition to the morning show was a 20-something promo assistant who wore red pants and a white T-shirt to every promotion, whether he was hanging banners, setting up remote equipment, or spinning the prize wheel - he was hysterical. I asked why this guy wasn't on the morning show. He's there now and he's a significant addition because he's a star.
Great, fun people are everywhere. If not at the station, then they're certainly working at a coffee shop, grocery story, barbershop, waitress at a local restaurant, or fixing air conditioning units. If you're open to engage people as you travel through life and your community, you'll find naturally entertaining people. If you figure out how to get them on your station, the audience will move towards them, too.
Finally, are you still bullish on the future of radio?
I'm very bullish on our business. Radio is used nearly every day by everyone you know.
Ever since Coleman came out with its Image Pyramid, developing personalities is critical to positive brand growth of every radio station. Interesting, relatable, fun talent always lead to higher ratings and more revenue. Today's radio owners and managers are smart and sophisticated enough to know that if they don't have credible, entertaining personalities on their brand, they'll end up being their competitors -- Pandora and streaming services -- with more commercials.
Talent build trust and are the face of the brand, even determining its value. Look at the late Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Elon Musk (Tesla) - personalities who were/are the face of their immensely successful brands.
Podcasting is a great example of talent working. If they're not boring, the audience will flock to them. It's the free-market system at its best. Our challenge in terrestrial radio always remains the same: Build your brand, find terrific talent, and make a commitment to growing your people in a positive work environment and the win will come in ratings and revenue.