Morning Radio Revisited With Tracy Johnson

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

I had the opportunity to spend an hour with one of the best programmers in America recently.  Tracy Johnson is also the author of two books written to help morning shows and programmers. He is the master at developing talent and recently published a 112 page updated guide to developing on-air superstars. Tracy was kind enough to allow me to share some our discussion and I started by asking him why he felt it was necessary to update his book.

Well the first one came out in 1998 and the second one came out in 2001 and so, 14 years since that first book came out and the principles in it are pretty much timeless and they’re really good principles in the art of communication, but I felt like the execution of it is far more difficult now than it’s ever been in the past and a lot of the examples that I used in those first two books are dated. They go back into the 90s and even some might stretch back into the 80s and a lot of the personalities and programmers that are using it now don’t have a point of reference to it. So, “Morning Radio 1”, it sold out of 3 printings, and instead of just going to a fourth, I decided to update it, and in fact, kind of practice what I preach, that editing is always good. I shortened it and made it a quicker, easier read for both talent and for programmers and focused it a little bit more on the air talent, rather than on the programming side.

So how has the world changed since you wrote those books?

In just about every way. The industry has changed a ton in the past 10 years, especially with consolidation and PPM coming into play in the larger markets, and talent isn’t getting a whole lot of time from programmers and management anymore. A lot of times there’s very little training that’s going on and in the instances where there is some training and attention from the programmers, they’re reacting a lot of times just by telling the jocks to shut up, and I don’t think that’s the right solution. Also the audience has changed a lot too. Their communication is a lot more personal, with social media. There are more entertainment outlets, and the audience is responding differently so it is harder to get attention, to retain attention, and to keep that audience over a period of time is much more difficult than ever before.

So what strategies should radio stations be looking at in this new world?

We have to be disciplined about evaluating everything from the outside in and not from the inside out. We need to be listener focused. Doing it’s hard. Remember,  the audience isn’t paying as much attention as we’d like them to and they’re not listening as long as we assume they are. So we need announcers who are creating content and creating breaks that make the show more important to an audience, There is the hook, the setup, the dress up, the payoff, and the blackout. Most shows that I hear are pretty good at setup and dress up, but getting into the bit quickly, and capturing the audience’s interest is a real weakness. To use a newspaper term, we bury the lead. I heard a show last week – a very popular show, a #1 show in a very large market that I was working with – and it took about 2 and a half minutes for them to get to what they really wanted to say, and in today’s world, where the audience is distracted, they’re on their mobile devices a lot more, and there’s a lot of other entertainment options, they’re just not going to be as generous with their time if you’re burying that hook 2 minutes into the break.

So, what are the biggest challenges that announcers are facing today?

I think there are three; The first is time and resources. And that’s for the entire industry, not just the personalities. Nobody has enough time. There’s too much to do. We want to be competitive in Twitter, we want to be competitive with a social media presence on Facebook. A lot of times personalities are trying to maintain their own websites, they have production responsibilities, they don’t have producers anymore, it’s been cut from the budget, and yet, the expectation is just as high, or perhaps higher, than it’s ever been. Often times we end up doing a lot of things average, and average doesn’t cut through anymore. All too often tomorrow’s show is not prepared properly and we try and wing it and that will not work.

The second is perspective. We need to see the world as it is and not as we think it is or would like it to be. Radio tends to be a very self-absorbed industry. Again, it’s a matter of being outside of our bubble and living in the audience’s world and to really program your show and to realize that listeners won’t change their lifestyle to listen to us, so we have to figure out how to prepare and present a show that fits into the audience’s lifestyle. 

The third thing is taking a strategic approach to the show. We have a tendency to be very tactical with knee-jerk reactions, and we want to figure out what we’re going to do and what we’re going to say before we figure out who we are and how we’re going to present the show – what character, what role – and what the show’s going to stand for. I think that shows need to step back first and really understand the audience and how their show will fit that target and, again, put all of the pieces, all the mechanics together based on that. The world moves so fast and the expectations are so high and we want to see results happen so quickly that a lot of times we’re spending all of our time hurrying through a lot of tasks rather than equating tasks to support a strategy.

How do announcers take show prep and turn it into content that connects emotionally? 

I think the first thing is to be bold enough in your character and personality to really cut through and that’s hard. One of the things that happens, especially if the talent is answering the phone themselves or is on email themselves, is we don’t like to be criticized. A lot of times, if you’re going to stand for something, if you’re going to take a bold stand, and be a real personality on the air, it’s going to cause some people to have an issue with that. In radio, we like to eliminate all the negatives, so if somebody calls and complains, we want to take off whatever it is that they’re complaining about. We get a research project back and we want to take off all the things that people say they don’t like about us or something that they like about our competition better, or the sales manager comes in and says that the car dealer that he just talked to didn’t like what you said this morning about (fill in the blank) and the first thing we want to do is eliminate those negatives. But, by eliminating those negatives, we take away a lot of the positives with it. A lot of character, a lot of the personality. So we end up in the zone of mediocrity, and I think that zone of mediocrity leaves us to be vanilla and we end up not really connecting with anybody and that keeps us from really cutting through all that clutter and creating those “can’t miss” moments.

Announcers also need to learn how to prepare better. Most shows either don’t know how to prepare properly or they take short cuts. I even had a show a few weeks ago that told me that they can’t have a preparation meeting because they never know what they’re going to do the next day and they want to make it completely spontaneous when the mic goes on. That’s ridiculous because you end up with a mess on the air. We want spontaneous responses, but spontaneity that happens through very deep preparation. The only way you can get some of those moments is really preparing and how you’re going to take that content and turn it into something that is unique to your character, unique to your personality and has been planned to the point where you’re not going to be surprised by anything that might happen. You’ll be prepared for every contingency but then you’re able to present it spontaneously.

So once a morning show understands their target audience, how do they go about developing a character profile that’s going to appeal to that audience? 

You have to understand that your on-air character has to be based on your real life personality and it’s something that we just can’t fake. Start by exploring different  values and morals and ethics and attitudes and  personality quirks and hobbies and traits of each personality on the show. Figure out what they are all about in real life, including the positive, the negative, the vulnerabilities, and the character flaws. A lot of times, the audience gets to know us through character flaws and that can be some of the most empowering and charming things about a personality. Another important aspect is being willing to exaggerate those character traits. Once you identify what they are and what you want to be known by, exaggerating that on the air to make them memorable, and then learning how to take those exaggerated moments and turn them into moments on the air that make sense to the audience.

 You’ve mentioned that Program Directors are multitasking and time starved these days and not spending enough time with the morning shows, in particular. What are the things that PDs should be doing to really move the needle with morning shows? 

5 things. The first one is really hard because it’s counter-intuitive, and that’s to take the emphasis off of ratings. Not that ratings are unimportant; they’re very important. But a lot of times we criticize or critique a personality based on ratings results that are completely out of their control. The personalities can’t control how a station is marketed, promoted, what promotions we do or what promotions and what our competition does. Personality can’t do anything about that. They can’t control any of those things. They can’t control the sampling of BBM or Arbitron. As a result, sometimes we get a kiss from the ratings service and sometimes we get penalized if things don’t go our way, and neither is necessarily reality and I’ve seen a lot of cases where the talent get credit for ratings that they don’t deserve, and I’ve seen a lot of cases where the talent gets blamed for ratings that is unfair. So instead the PD needs to focus on the things that will cause the audience to respond, to react and to care about the show, because if we do great radio, over the long term, the ratings are going to take care of themselves. That’s easier said than done when the PD’s job is depending on that next quarter’s performance or his bonus is based on that. But the more you can remove the talent from being worried about what’s coming out of his mouth and what impact that’s going to have on ratings, the more natural and freer they’re going to be to really perform, so I think that’s one of the most important things. 

Second is to be the talent’s biggest fan. Coaches always defend their players, even if the talent is wrong. That doesn’t mean you’re constantly telling them how great they are, it just means that you have to care and want to be on their team, and they have to know you’ve got their back. You’re not working against them. 

Along with that comes #3, which is to focus on positives. I call it catching them in the act of doing something good. Radio personalities are like puppies. When you’re training a puppy, and you give the puppy treats for doing things that you want them to do, they’re going to do those things for you more. And if you catch the talent in the act of doing something good and you reward them for it, tell them how great they are and tell them how much you like that, they’ll keep doing those things.

Next is to focus on one thing. Not 10, or 5 or even 3, but one thing. If you can fix one thing on a show each week – and that’s a reasonable goal – you’ll fix 52 things a year, and if the show has more than 52 things wrong with it, then you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands. A lot of times, as programmers, we don’t spend enough time with the show or critiquing the show or thinking about the show because everyone’s in a time crunch, and when we do sit down and review or evaluate them, we’ve got 10 pages of notes and we want to go over everything and have it all fixed the next day. It overwhelms the talent and it’s very difficult for them to execute any of it. 

The last thing, maybe the most important, is to let them know that what they do matters, and that’s spending time with them. There’s no short cuts on this. Let them know that you’re listening. Don’t focus on the mechanics and breaks, but focus on their personality and that what they’re doing is making a difference, not only on the radio station, but making a difference in people’s lives, and that puts a little bit more of a priority on what they do. They take it a little bit more seriously and they take some responsibility for that.

Next month we’ll talk about morning shows, what they need to do to get noticed, what most shows are not doing today, and we’ll touch on a lost art that is more important today than ever before. Tracy also expresses some strong views on the difference between a DJ and a personality. For PD’s or anyone faced with the challenge of building a new morning show you’ll want to read how Tracy went about doing this and some of the tricks he uses. Tracy also touches on how to go about finding talent and the best places to look. All this and more next month. In the meantime I encourage anyone behind the microphone or in the PD’s chair to invest $20 and buy Tracy’s new book which is called “Morning Radio Revisited” and you can buy it on Amazon.