Morning Radio Revisited with Tracy Johnson – Part 2

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour with one of the best programmers in America.  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 this month we continue where we left off, talking about morning shows. If you missed part one of the article, you can find it at

I asked Tracy what are some of the things that a morning show can do to get noticed and improve?

Prepare, plan, and look for ways that you can create a response or an emotional connection with the audience every single day. The easiest way to start with that is to find one thing each day that could be the “did you hear” moment. “Did you hear Jeff and Jen today?” What one thing has the potential for listeners to tell someone else about the show? Make that a highlight and really develop that.

Next they need to tease and promote much better. We need to create more expectation, more drama in everything we do. When I talk about teasing and promoting, I don’t mean just saying the words, but really building some drama and building some expectation to it, almost using that promo or that tease as content disguised as a promo. Don’t take any breaks for granted. More than ever, I think that every moment matters and every break counts, whether it’s at 5:15 in the morning or 7:30 in the morning, right in the middle of what we always considered prime time. We’re always forming audience impressions and if we can just create more habit of tune-in, and we’ve started thinking about how if we get somebody who happens to tune in and it’s 5:15 in the morning, that’s an opportunity to convert them into being a listener in several more quarter hours during the day.

Talent needs to step outside the box and not think about just competing with other stations, or competing to be the best on the radio, but competing for attention and again, that comes down to understanding what the audience’s lifestyle is, what’s important to them, what they’re thinking about and connecting with them. For example Stunt Man Stu on Magic 100 in Ottawa is one of the best I have seen at self-promotion. I follow Stu on Twitter, and on Saturday night a few months ago when the Canadian lottery went over $50 million, Stu tweets and he’s holding up a lottery ticket and says, “I just bought the winning lottery ticket. I’m going to give $1,000 to everybody who follows me on Twitter. Forward this to all your friends so you can share in the winnings.” He had 1,400 people who started following him because he activated his audience to start telling other people about it. So we have to be smart and think differently, that we’re not just thinking about how we’re going to talk about the lottery Monday morning on the show, but we’re involved in what’s happening in people’s lives, and promotion and leading that community of listeners is a commitment that happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Think like a celebrity, not like a personality; not like a disc jockey.

The art of storytelling seems to be becoming a lost art for many young DJs today. Any suggestions on things DJ’s can do to help develop the lost art of storytelling?

I agree with you, Chris. You don’t hear many who are very good at it anymore. One of the tricks that I teach people is to practice telling stories to children. If they have any kids of their own who are ages 4 to 7 especially, or if they’ve got nieces or nephews or if they’ve got friends who do, or if they can go to some school classrooms and tell stories to them.  Because kids don’t lie, and they’ll find that when they tell stories to kids, that they have to have a compelling hook, they have to establish that hook pretty quickly or you never get the kids’ attention (and it doesn’t matter how good the story is if you don’t capture their attention immediately). They react to details. It’s not that Red Riding Hood is walking through the woods and she is going to Grandmother’s house. You have to describe what she’s seeing, what she’s feeling, and what’s happening around her. So, being very descriptive, exaggeration is absolutely a big part of storytelling and I think a lot of times we get too factual and not enough imagination goes into the way that we tell stories on the air. Using colourful language is also important. If you do that with kids – and I don’t mean telling them stories that they already know, or reading them stories, I mean making up a story – when you do that with a kid, you can tell right away if you’ve got their attention. They lock in on your eyes and they’re asking questions about it. And if you get boring or if you don’t know where you’re going with it, you don’t have a destination, you don’t have a payoff, you don’t have a punch line, and start wandering all over the place, they start looking around the room. They’ve got other things to do. There’s a lot that goes into storytelling. I hear a lot of, especially multi-voiced shows, that take a story off topic a lot of times, where again, it comes down to preparation in most cases, where somebody on the show doesn’t know where the bit’s going and they’ll pick a detour and the main hostess doesn’t bring it back on track again. So, a lot of it’s just discipline.

So what are the biggest mistakes that you hear announcers make these days?

I think the biggest one is egocentric. The show is all about me, I, us, and not enough about the audience. I’ve got a saying that the audience doesn’t care about watching your home movies unless they’re in them. A lot of times you hear personalities and it sounds like you’re listening to home movies or showing me pictures of your vacation, where I don’t really care about what you’re talking about. Even if I care about the topic, you’re presenting it in a way that only matters to you. I sat in on a focus group a few months ago and the question was, “what is it that drives you crazy about radio personalities,” and a woman said, “I hate it when they talk to each other instead of talking to me.” It came right from the listener’s mouth and it could not have been put better. I think a lot of times we get so caught up in talking about what’s happening in the studio, what’s happening in our lives, we leave the listener out of it. That does not suggest that the listener doesn’t care or your personal perspective and your take on a story and your personality is unimportant. It’s absolutely important. But the listener is listening to get something from you, not so you can give them something. Bridging that gap between what they’re listening for and making an impression on them with your personality is a real art.

There are lots of DJs working on the radio today, but very few of them are real personalities. So, how does somebody who’s a DJ go about becoming a personality?

First off, stop thinking like a DJ. I encourage my talent to think like a celebrity that happens to have a radio show. So the next question is, what does that mean? The difference between DJs and personalities is a balance between content and style. The formula for great radio is equal parts content and style. Content is, say you were building a house, the most important thing you can do is to make sure that the house has a solid foundation, you pour the concrete, everything is square, it’s all up to code, you put the frame in the right place… that’s the formatics. That’s the DJ stuff. Those are the things that you could polish your skills and improve on. The style part of it is your personality. It’s how you say things. It’s how you do it, not what you do. I hear a lot of shows that are either strong on one or the other, where either you’ve got a very undisciplined personality who doesn’t care anything about structure, or you’ve got a show that’s very precise and that’s mechanically very well executed but doesn’t have any flair. There’s no decoration in the house. They haven’t customized and personalized it. You can get equal balance in that, so you got excellence in the framework so it make sense to the listeners, and you’ve got the personality and style being applied to it – that’s a winning formula and I don’t hear too many that have both. I hear a lot of them who have one or the other. Usually a personality or a show is strong on one side or the other. If they’re strong on the content side, then that’s a DJ. If they’re strong on the style side, then that’s a character. You want personality, which is a good blend between both.

Tracy, you’ve built lots of morning shows over the years – some from the ground up – any suggestions to help those who may be faced with the prospect of building a new morning show?

Several things. Patience first. It takes time for a show to be known. It takes time for the audience to decide whether they like you or not, and once they do start liking you, it takes even longer for them to fall in love, so my best recommendation is to figure out what you want the show to be and what role you want it to play in the strategy of your station. Then go find a cast that will accomplish that and I didn’t say go out and hire DJs to make that happen, but to cast it and a lot of times a PD doesn’t really know what they’re looking for in a show. They don’t know what that character and personality is that they’re casting and they go out looking for entertaining personalities and then wonder why the show might not work. I would approach it the way a director or producer casts a movie or a screenplay, where you’re looking for very specific parts. The roles may change once they come into place, but you’re looking for a cast to execute your radio show. That means starting with a strategy and having a structure. Then the third part of that is to make sure that everybody on the show knows the role that they play and how the team is going to win as a result of the combination of those personalities and those characters. I’ve got a saying, it’s FTS – For The Show. Everything we do has to be for the show. Team has to come first because those personalities individually can’t be successful unless the team is.

Any tips for announcers on how to go about crafting more compelling teases?

I think teases are one of the weakest areas of most shows right now. First of all, spend some time in it. Teases are content. A lot of times we can just throw them away and say, “Battle of the Sexes is coming up in 15 minutes.” That’s not a tease. Never tease a feature. I often hear a show tease, “your Hollywood News is coming up at 7:10. Find out the latest that’s happening in Hollywood.” I can get that anywhere.  Tease me with something. Tease me with the content. I’m interested in J-Lo or the Kardashians or Justin Bieber. I’m not interested that you have a feature called Hollywood News. So put that content up front and let me know that it happens to be inside of a feature called Hollywood News on the back end of that. We get it backwards. We want people to think that we’re important because we have this feature, but we’re only important in terms of the content that a feature might contain. Also be very specific, be very compelling, learn from Entertainment Tonight. They have great teasers – in fact most of their show is teasers, but they do a great job at teasing and promoting. Also be more creative with it. Don’t just make teasing an afterthought.

One of the criticisms leveled at radio is we’re doing a very poor job of attracting talented people to the business, especially talented on-air personalities. What do we need to do differently to encourage people to look for a career in radio, as opposed to elsewhere?

I think we need to be more fun. I think we need to be more open and more creative. Creativity is everywhere. If I’m a young person now, it’s hard to go in and get a job on the radio. The first thing any Program Director wants to know is what’s your experience or what are your ratings in the markets you’ve been in and they go, “I’ve never been on the air before. I’ve got this podcast and leading a community of respondents on my blog. I’ve got all these followers on Facebook. I know a lot about this or about that.” “But yeah okay, but you don’t have any radio experience.” I’ve found it’s easier to teach someone who’s very talented and very creative and very charismatic how to be on the radio than it is to teach someone with a long radio track record how to be entertaining. We need to step outside the box and find the entertaining, creative people and make it fun and make it sexy and make it exciting, and show them how they can be stars by being on the air, because you still see too many people pulling out their card who have that same passion and desire. You ask them what they want to do and one of the last things they say is “I want to be on the radio.” We need to change that. We need to make it a destination for entertainers again.


If you are on the air I hope you found some practical ideas you can put into practice next week to improve your on air performance and help you relate better to your audience. If you are a PD I hope Tracy’s two part article will also inspire you to work with your talent and help them get to the next level.