Given my 30+-year connection to radio, I sometimes write posts about the lessons people in others fields of entertainment can learn from radio. Some of those are very explicitly about radio; others aren’t, but any radio broadcaster would recognize the connection. Let’s reverse directions and talk about what radio talent should learn from other entertainers.

When I was very young, one of my mentors, Cynde Slater, made me burst out laughing when she used the term “tough love”. I don’t intend for parts of this to come off as harsh as I know they’re going to, but there are some stark realities surrounding your career in radio, and you need to face them openly and honestly if you’re going to thrive in the future. Please consider this a little tough love from someone who cares. A lot.

Lesson #1: Suspend disbelief.

One of the mindless tropes that regularly makes its way around the business is that you have to “be real”. You do have to be real. Real good. Real compelling. And yes, real believable.

I’ll avoid mentioning that when some celebrity talks about “keeping it real”, you typically mock them. Instead, I’ll remind you that you’re a performing artist.

You already know that the content that works best, that connects with your audience, is the content that is the most compelling. Content that is very “real” is often very compelling. On the other hand, if you’re blowing off great material because it isn’t “real”, you’re only hurting yourself. Again, your role is to be a great performer, so perform.

Throughout your life, you’ve watched great performers who made you believe in their performance. If you watch today’s Big Bang Theory, do you believe that, in real life, Jim Parsons is a supergenius physicist with massive social skills issues? Of course not. In the ’90’s, did you think that Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer were involved in an on-again-off-again romantic relationship? Ditto Ted Danson and Shelley Long or Kirstie Alley in the ’80’s?

Those performing artists made you, through their performance, suspend disbelief. You bought into their performance. You didn’t have to. You didn’t it because they were believable, not because they were “real”.

At this point, you’re saying to yourself, “Sure, but radio’s different. People think these are the lives we really live.” Remember those words the next time you polish up a bit you’re doing or feature a character who doesn’t really exist on your show.

Let me share with you the words of an exceptionally astute broadcaster, one Walt Sabo. Many years ago (hence the semi-dated reference and use of the past tense in the next couple paragraphs), at Don Anthony’s always fantastic Morning Show Boot Camp, Walter told a room full of America’s premiere morning talent the following: “Your audience goes to sleep at night watching Jay Leno or David Letterman. Then, they wake up with you. In their minds, you are the exact same thing as Leno and Letterman.”

Paychecks aside, he nailed it. Do you believe that the Leno or Letterman you saw (or still see) on-screen was the “real” Jay or Dave? Yes, there were many elements of reality in there, and you know there was was some unreality in there too. Sometimes – and this is true of each of us – the real you just isn’t all that interesting. When you have to, portray a slightly fictitious version of you.

One also might note that those particular performing artists – Leno and Letterman – always did what? They prepared. They never took the attitude of, “Hey, I’m live without a net!” They held pre-show meetings. They planned. They rehearsed. Speaking of which…

Lesson #2: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. 

It’s the most evergreen joke in show business because it’s always been true. If you’re radio talent, you’re a performing artist, and you’re working in show business. If you think the business part of that equation isn’t important, do this: (1) look at your paycheck, (2) celebrate the fact that you still have a paycheck – many of your peers, who are just as gifted as you, don’t, and (3) recall that the existence and size of that paycheck are determined by your perceived contributions to a business.

If you’re using the excuse that you shouldn’t (1) bring your entire show into the loop regarding content you’re going to air and (2) actually run through this stuff with them, get over that lame “I want to get your natural reaction” excuse for what is – be honest with yourself – a justification for laziness. Do you think that your peers in entertainment don’t prepare and don’t rehearse? Ever been to a television table read? If radio is always “live without a net”, what’s the closest comparison? How about live theater? Would a stage actor get in front of audience without knowing her or his lines?

By now, you may be thinking, “No, my performance is more like improvisational theater!” It isn’t. The whole proposition behind improvisational theater – from the audience’s perspective – is that it’s unique because it’s improvisational. The whole proposition behind radio is that you’re going to be compelling and relatable…usually in very short bursts. The audience doesn’t know or care whether you’re improvising, and no you’re not going to do a better job unprepared than you would if you were actually prepared, particularly if you’re under the PPM gun and need to keep your breaks extra tight.

If the biggest names in entertainment all need preparation to succeed, you do too. Said differently, no matter how great you are, you’re greater when you’re prepared.

Here’s one more tale from Boot Camp. The morning show I was managing was on fire.  At a panel, one of our cast members asked a prominent comedian who had just landed her first big TV role this question: “We have this signature bit that is so big that it’s nationally syndicated, and if I go to a party and someone finds out who I am, they immediately start reciting their favorite punch lines from the bit verbatim. I know how important the bit is for us, but I have a problem. I’m one of three people who writes the bit. We rehearse it over and over. Then, we go on the air, and I’m supposed to laugh hysterically at it. At first, it wasn’t hard, but we’ve been doing it for years, and I’m tired of it.”

The comedian’s response went something like this: “If your audience loves it, don’t ruin it for them. If it’s paying your bills, don’t ruin it for you. You’re a performing artist. Perform!” Enough said.

Lesson #3: Tension matters.

You already know how important tension is to building great content, so make a point of creating it whenever possible.

If you think there’s no tension between the talent on your show, look closer. Find some tension. Manufacture it if you have to.

The flip side of that is the following question: if you have a show with two or three co-hosts and any number of supporting players and none of you can offer up a differing point of view on something, why have a dialogue about it? At minimum, have the one player with the most compelling version of your view monologue about it. Before you even get to that point, however, ask yourself a question: if you can only come up with one unique point of view about a topic, is it really compelling enough to make it on the air?

And on that note…

Lesson #4: Be unique. 

Again, I know you know this, but do you realize what “unique” means in the media convergence era? Radio talent has always stolen liberally from talent in other markets – a former coworker of mine used to say, “Steal from me, and you’ve stolen twice!” – because, well, if no one in your local market had heard what you were doing, then as far as your audience knew, the material was new and unique.

Guess what local market you’re operating in. Hint: it’s not the one that Nielsen defines as your MSA or TSA (assuming you still have a TSA). At this point, assume that your audience has heard lots of content on lots of radio stations.

Does that mean that, if it’s done in a market 2,000 miles from, you shouldn’t do it? Of course not…if it’s great.

It does mean that if you’re doing the same old cliché material that’s been on the air forever – think “Battle of the Sexes” – you might want to find a way to freshen things up a bit. There’s a reason why Crazy Ira & The Douche are so funny. You really don’t want to be the, er, butt of that joke.

Lesson #5: It’s showbiz. Put on a show.

Last, but hardly least, whatever you’re doing, make it special. You’ve walked into studios so many times that you don’t really notice how special they are any more. The next time you can offer someone a tour of your station, do it – and watch the look on their face. The broadcast console, the mic, the VoxPro, etc. that you take for granted will be magical items to your guest. To any listener who doesn’t have the privilege of walking into a radio station on a regular basis, the air studio is a magical place where extraordinary things happen.

Listeners have that feeling because performing on the radio seems like a magical thing. Don’t ever disabuse anyone of that notion. In fact, help bring that notion to life…every moment you’re performing.

Whether you’re doing an eight-second speed break over a song intro or a talk show, make it feel like magic. Make it exciting. Make it feel like a show. Don’t ever let anything you do feel like, look like, or seem like everyday life.

Because – guess what – listeners are right. A radio studio is a place where you get to have a ton of fun and do absolutely ridiculous things that most people only wish they could do. It’s magic.

Great entertainment makes us forget about everyday life for a while. Great entertainment makes us suspend disbelief. Great entertainment takes us to places that we would otherwise never go.

Your audience thinks radio is magic. Your audience expects magic from you…all the time. Every time you step in front of a mic, a listener, or an entire audience, make magic. You don’t accomplish that without being committed to doing everything you can to make magic happen.


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