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The Traits of Great On-Air Personalities

There is a realization of the value of on-air talent of late. It’s not like air talent haven’t always been critical to the success of a radio station, but until the acknowledged recognition of music services as a competitor, they were for the most part undervalued. I’m not talking to their salaries, but rather to the difference they make and the part they play in building success for a radio station.

The use of high-profile on-air personalities isn’t a new trend to radio. The glory years of radio, 1960s-2000, had many big names on the radio known for generating big ratings. It is fair to note that erosion began following the deregulation of the ‘90s, but the rapid large company consolidation of the early 2000s found many air-talent being eliminated. One would think that the best of the best would have been retained, but that wasn’t necessarily what happened. The decision was often about eliminating the expensive talent.

The competition twenty years ago was other radio stations. Napster launched in June 1999. The iPod debuted in 2001. The precursor to podcasting, audio books, became big business when Simply Audio Books launched in 2003. MTV was already filtering in non-music video content by 2010 and stopped airing music videos in 2015. Those competitors were an important contributor to the drip-drip-drip of the TSL (time spent listening) erosion radio has been suffering over the last few decades.

The DSPs brought a new level of competition to the battle for ears. Music lovers can turn on the “radio” and get their favorites with or without commercials. It depends on what service you’re subscribing to and whether you want talk or not. What I find most interesting is the debate of whether we call “radio” radio or not. SiriusXM uses the word “Radio.” Apple markets “Apple music radio stations” as a definition, albeit not a name. You ask any listener and they use the word “Radio.”

Radio has to focus on attributes that lead to someone listening to a specific station versus a pay service. Being “Free” isn’t enough. We’re living in a world where two designer coffees can cost one month’s subscription to the basic service of a DSP. Radio has had many opportunities to lower their commercial load in an effort to attract bigger ratings. Hasn’t happened. The load has to be carried by creating great content. Radio stations need great talent. Be they local or syndicated … they need to be great.

Listening habits have changed and afternoon drive, in many markets, has a significant available audience. Some stations have a greater opportunity in non-AM Drive dayparts. Thus, when I note great air talent or creating great radio, it can be any daytime daypart. The pandemic accelerated these changes.

One of the consistent traits of successful stations is employing high profile, engaging, entertaining, enjoyable personalities. The anchor or co-hosts are intelligent, topical, understanding of their audience’s lifestyle and connected to the community in which they broadcast. They’re local sounding regardless of where their show originates from. Smart Program Directors take advantage of the availability of syndicated or voice-tracked talent to update and localize the station identifiers and promotional messages.

The best performing shows are fun, funny, positive and encouraging and overall entertaining. The shows are fast paced and provide audio adrenaline to the audience. It should be obvious that there are many moods that radio tries to set for an audience. If yours is a “relaxing” station, then you on-air talents approach will be more subdued, but it doesn’t mean that it cannot be fun or pleasant.

Great talents stand for “something” and they’re true to that “something.” One of my favorite tactics is to play for talent the scene from Bull Durham when Kevin Costner’s character explains what he believes in to Susan Sarandon’s character. What do your talent believe in and are they genuine? Social media has eliminated the ability to portray an on-air role that isn’t real.

They are continually doing show prep. Everything that they see and/or hear comes back to an evaluation of “Does this fit with what we do on the air and should we do it?” They see the forest for the trees. Meaning that they aren’t so close to the everyday chores that all they see are those. They understand that the basics and formatic’s are important to getting rating credit, but they don’t focus on that at the expense of the shows content. They don’t allow the basics to stifle creativity.

The very best talent map their shows. There are buckets which the talent drops into them the content of the show. These buckets contain Hot Topics and Cold Topics. Hot Topics are perishable. Cold Topics are non-perishable. Hot has to be used today or its old news. Cold can be used anytime today or in the future. Lock-in where your containers will air. It enables you to know that you need 6-8 great segments across a three or four hour show.

They use various “camera angles” and change the view on regularly mentioned items. Talent Coach Tommy Kramer taught me the theory of Camera Angles. Example; anything that will be repeated throughout a show is presented differently each time. The view of the topic changes every time you revisit that same topic.

The very best talent, and their producers if they have them, track social media to determine what’s trending. That allows them to be able to follow what their local community is talking about on any specific day. There are various tools and show prep services that can provide similar situation.

Great on-air personalities are always thinking of their audience. They’re focused on creating a good mood for the listener as an important reason for the audience to listen daily. They’re driven. They’re focused on the goal. They’re always looking for ways to accomplish that goal. They’re focused on continually working to evolve their program. Smart broadcasters will not only look for and hire great talent, they’ll provide them with the tools they need to be ever evolving and improving their performance.

The value of entertaining, informative, engaging and personable talent should be obvious.

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