10 Questions with ... Dana DiDonato
July 26, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Well for the past two weeks I've been unemployed! It's the weirdest thing to not be doing mornings for the first time in 14 years! We are basically doing a show at my kitchen table until we find a new radio home.
For 11 years I was the morning show host on WBLI in Long Island. For the last three years, I've loved every day of being half of Dana and Jayson in the Morning. I began my career in Roanoke, Virginia at WXLK with the crazy-talented Danny and Zack, then did two years in Greensboro, NC at Entercom's WSMW with the nicest guy in radio, Wicker in the Morning.
1) You're hosting a panel at the Morning Show Boot Camp - Women In Morning Radio: Perception vs. Reality. What motivated you to tackle this subject?
My motivation was a combination of curiosity and a desire for our community of women in morning radio to feel connected, empowered, and equipped with truth from our peers. It feels lonely when you're wrestling with thoughts about your own career and you're not sure if other people are thinking the same thing as you are. I thought we would benefit from hearing from as many women (and men) as possible.
My hope is that false perceptions shift and we will gain new insight about subjects that we usually don't talk about. If someone leaves the panel with a new perspective on women in our industry, or if a woman who was discouraged feels validated, or if we connect with peers because of our common ground, then the panel will have been helpful.
2) What are some of the obstacles you've faced in your career as a female morning host?
My biggest obstacle has always been ME. I am the most insecure person I know. I've gotten better as I've matured, but 11 years ago when BLI gave me the opportunity to host the morning show, they believed in me more than I believed in myself.
I never thought about my gender as an obstacle in hosting. I didn't have time. I was too busy every day trying to do better than I did the day before, so that everyone involved with the decision to give me the opportunity would be glad they gave me a shot.
This piece of wisdom is also helpful for women in general. A mentor and consultant once told me that as a woman you have to be careful of tone of voice, always. She said that when a woman gets loud (even if it's not in a "yelling" sort of way, just loudness in general) the audience subconsciously thinks about their mother yelling at them during childhood and they don't like it. The audience will then associate that feeling with you. So for me, it was important that I trained myself to speak in my lower register. I've never forgotten that lesson. Thanks, Lorna!
3) While some progress has been made, we have a long way to go to achieve "gender parity" in mornings. What action do we take to get there?
How does everyone know what everyone is making in morning radio?! I don't know what anyone makes! This is one of the most hilariously challenging things about being a morning personality. There's no pay scale, there's no website you can go to in order to see what people with your experience level, market, and job title make. (Unless there's one that I don't know about!)
In morning radio I believe it's less about "women getting paid less than men" and more about "What's your role on the show and what is it worth?" Not all roles have the same monetary value. If you're in a second chair/co-host position, as a man or a woman, you have to consider what you bring to the show and ask the question, is what you bring worth the same as what the host brings? In some cases, the answer is probably yes, for those true "partnership" situations, but in other cases the answer is no. That's not based on gender.
The most important thing is to know your worth and then to ask for it. No one is going to give you money that you don't ask for. I've always known that going in to discuss my salary I need to feel good when I leave. I base this feeling on not what other people make, but knowing the work I provide and its value to the radio station.
4) You were a constant on the BLI morning show for 11 years with an assortment of male co-hosts. As a host, what makes your co-host and other team members valuable to you?
What I've learned from working with talented men over the last decade is that on-air talent isn't enough. You need that of course, but in order to have value to the host, you have to have additional unique skill sets that will help elevate the team and the product you're able to produce.
In my last situation at BLI, our team was thriving because each person on the team was excellent on air but also in their off air roles. Jayson (my co-host) has a keen understanding of our demo and the content that worked well on our show. Additionally, he's passionate about approaching social media in new creative ways. He is also video-minded so he is always thinking of ways to extend our brand visually. John Online, our 3rd chair at the time, is a genius director and video editor and will run with bit ideas and take them to funny creative places. My producer at the time, Puffy, has sick organizational and managerial skills, speaks the digital/web language fluently, has sharp graphic design abilities, and is a master at production. Having a well-rounded team, where everyone appreciated and respected one another's strengths allowed for a daily stress-free, healthy environment that lacked ego and fostered team-growth. I valued each of them so highly because of their passion and daily commitment to our show.
5) It is a stigma in morning radio that the role of nurturing the team - taking care of their "radio marriage"- falls on women. As a female host, did you find that the role of "nurturing" the team fell on you?
I did have the role of nurturing my team over the years, but I never looked at it as a negative thing I had to face; I looked at is as a privilege. As a host, you have the responsibility to set the tone in the studio.
I have given a lot of thought to the concept of "radio marriages." I've experienced dysfunctional ones that ended in "divorce" and I've had extremely healthy, functional radio "marriages" that I've committed to fully and experienced the same level of commitment from my partner.
Aside from sex, when you think about what makes a REAL marriage with your husband or wife function, I've found four things are vital: trust, respect, humility, and selflessness. The same four are the secrets to building a successful radio marriage.
6) Women are socially conditioned to be accommodating, nice, and polite. Is there a temptation to laugh when things on the air aren't funny? Or an expectation that you as the female will laugh most often?
Ya know what's hard about niceness? It can be a very syrupy, fake sweetness. Politeness is something we are told we "have to be," so sometimes those actions don't always seem to come from an authentic place. Success in morning radio comes from authenticity.
I have a rule for myself when it comes to morning radio: Every day I come in ready to laugh. That is literally why I got into this business. I listened to NY radio growing up and every morning I heard everyone on the shows having a blast.
I want to laugh and thankfully I was blessed for 11 years at BLI with very funny co-hosts, who in turn made me funnier. Coming in ready to laugh allowed me to be a better host.
I wanted my co-hosts to connect with the audience, to tell great stories, to shine in their roles. I knew it was my job to do everything in my power to set them up to be funny and if something was funny we laughed together. Thankfully, each evolution of my BLI shows was filled with laughter on a daily basis.
When someone on the show throws something out and it's not funny, my hope is, that person is self aware enough to know, "Oh that wasn't funny." If you really care for the people in the room and have self-awareness, there shouldn't be the awkward tension over who is laughing, who won't laugh, and who "should" laugh.
7) You're encouraging other morning hosts to take a survey that asks a series of questions, one of which is, "What has been your biggest challenge in the morning radio industry?" What has been your biggest challenge?
There have been so many unique challenges during different seasons of doing morning radio. One that I recently overcame was a personal issue that affected my job. I have always cared obsessively about what "people" think. All people. I have always been a "people pleaser" who never wanted anyone to be disappointed with anything I did or said. Imagine that pressure combined with being on a microphone doing morning radio!
One of the reasons I have had success in overcoming this self-imposed challenge is because of my amazing morning partner, Jayson, who I was blessed to do a show with for the last three years. Not only was he one of the best examples of on and off air vulnerability and transparency, he also allowed me as a host to trust him completely on air.
One thing I found to be challenging as a host ... I would be setting everyone on the team up, making sure their characters were coming through, and I would lose myself. My best performance as a host has been over the past three years when Jayson, as a partner, decided to set me up and didn't just allow me to set him up. We have a very unique, special partnership.
8) Who were your mentors?
My ultimate mentor has always been and always will be Danny Meyers (WXLK). Danny taught me without knowing he was teaching me what a great host does for the rest of the people on the show. He did everything he could to set us up to shine. He would toss us a great story so we could react and have the "out." He came in ready to laugh every day. He has true passion for morning radio and does it so well. I could write for an hour on my love for him so I will make myself stop.
9) What are your favorite show prep sources?
Our lives provide a ton of content. We keep notes of awkward things that happen that we can turn into on-air segments.
I recently had an amazing 25 year-old female, Olivia Bensen, assisting in producing at BLI. She had this brilliant, natural ability to pick amazing content. She checked tons of websites and pulled the most demo-friendly, interesting stories that we recently used daily. Who better to choose stories for your audience than someone who IS the demo?!
I also love Girl FM and Wise Brothers is on point with The Complete Sheet, Delicious Audio and Studio Think Tank as well.
10) What's the most unbelievable on air bit that you've done?
I don't know if it was the MOST unbelievable thing I've ever done, but years ago we were in-between producers and I needed extra help that day. I knew a spot where day laborers hung out (usually to get construction gigs) so I sent one of our guys to pick someone up and I made him our producer. There was a language barrier but he still did better than some of the people we had hired in the past. Abraham ... best use of $100 ever.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be what I am (or was two weeks ago!). CRAZY! Right!? I woke up every morning and turned on Z100, PLJ and KTU and thought people like Scott and Todd, Elvis and Elliot, Ru Paul and Michele Visage has the best jobs in the world. I wanted to be a part of what sounded like a party every morning. I'm thankful every day that I have had the opportunity to host the party. I'm currently in major "party planning mode."
What's the biggest gaffe you've made on-air?
I spilled a liter of water into the board when I was at WSMW. I was doing a spot, and as Italians do, I was talking with my hands and I STUPIDLY, CLUMSILY, EMBARASSINGLY knocked my open-topped sports bottle over and actually heard a GLUG as freezing cold ice water poured into the board. We turned on the mics at 6a, heard a crackle, lights blinked, and the board shorted out. We had to broadcast from a tiny production studio and I still remember Larry the kind engineer standing in the studio with massive fans and some sort of blow dryer, cleaning up my mess. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank iHeart's amazing Michael Bryan for not firing me in that moment.