OPINION: Very few people manage to do radio presenting very successfully. World-renowned radio consultant/ trainer Valerie Geller points out in her book, ‘Creating Powerful Radio’, that the biggest problem with radio is that everybody thinks they can do it, and it’s easy.
And that is because we all talk, it’s something we do all the time. So, the belief is, that radio is simply talking into a microphone, and it requires no experience, training, rules, nothing. Radio is actually an art and a science that isn’t just about opening your mouth. It actually requires skills and talent. So, thank you 702 for your wonderful Friday stand-in show, which perpetuates this myth.
There was an article recently on this website, (I saw it via Facebook) by 5FM station manager, Justine Cullinan, in which she discussed the 5FM and Metro FM listenership trends resulting from the 90% local music quota implemented by Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Justine wrote that the listenership on 5FM hadn’t really been affected much by the Hlaudi-fication of radio. Besides the phenomenon that it takes two to three years for people to change their listening habits, I think that the majority of whatever 5FM listeners are left, are still listening, because they have a connection with the 5FM brand and to the presenters, to a lesser degree, and the music doesn’t play as huge a role as one might assume.
I commented on Facebook, “Radio stations live and die according to the strength or weakness of the breakfast show, and then the afternoon drive. People in general and specifically 16-25 year olds at LSM 8-10 (5FM’s intended target audience) will download the music they like. It’s far less of a phenomenon now that people depend on radio stations for their music. So, why would you listen to a radio station, if you’ve downloaded your own music already? The answers is, if the radio presenter is relevant, entertaining and engaging. Sadly there are very few, maybe even zero presenters that have those attributes.”
Gareth Cliff once said to me, “Radio is like a wall. The bricks are the music, and the on-air personalities are the plastering and paintwork”. At times, especially towards the end, when I was on 5FM with Gareth, I felt that we were the bricks, and the plaster and paint were flaking really badly, put up by some really amateur fly-by-night contractors. But Gareth still had listeners, four times more than his predecessor, Mark Gillman. So how did Gareth hold onto listeners, and grow listenership?
It’s a conversation, not a show
There are numerous attributes that a radio presenter should have, but I’ll deal with the most important first, and that is authenticity, being conversational, good story-telling, and being relevant. It’s all about engaging with the listener; there has to be a relationship between radio host and the listener. It’s a ‘conversation’, it’s not ‘a show’.
It all comes down to, ‘What’s in it for the listener’, or ‘It’s all about the listener’. Radio trainer, Rob Vickers, would suggest to his trainees to take a photo of somebody close to them into the radio studio with them. “Pretend you are only talking to that person in your life, your spouse, partner whatever.” Radio is an intimate medium, it’s a one-on-one relationship with a listener. You are talking to that one person. Most listeners on drive time are alone with the radio on. You don’t use collective language, words like ‘listeners’, ‘all of you out there’, and ‘we’, should never be uttered. The key word is ‘you’. You are always talking to one person, so you say ‘you’ most of the time. For example, “What do you think of 20% as a pass mark for mathematics?”
When a radio presenter says, for example, “Thabo, Andrew, Johan, Cynthia, hold on, I’ll get to your calls now”, who is he/she talking to? That presenter is talking to the callers on hold that wants to come on-air. That is completely irrelevant to the thousands of listeners. You don’t talk to those five callers on hold; you must be talking to and engaging with the thousands of listeners. And don’t get me started on the presenters that do a “Hello, how are you?” with every caller. The latter really grinds the radio experience down to a halt, and it basically excludes the listener completely. The listener needs to hear interesting engaging content, not multiple episodes of “Hello, how are you?”
When you sit down with your friend over a beer/cup of coffee, you don’t say, “Welcome to the show, I’m with you from four to six”, and then run a menu of what you’re going to talk about for the next two hours. You don’t thank your friend for joining you either. He/she is your friend, and you enjoy each other’s company, there’s definitely no need to be thanking anybody. It also makes no sense to run through a menu, at 4pm, when half your listeners might only be switching on their radios at 5pm.
An intimate relationship with the listener
Authenticity is crucial. Are you going to be friends with somebody who is superficial, and doesn’t tell you anything about themselves, and doesn’t have an opinion on anything? You might very well do so, but I wouldn’t think you have a very close intimate relationship. And radio is just that, a close and intimate relationship with the listener.
Sure, there are some competent DJs that do music countdowns, or daytime music shows, for the background. They are generally just voices with some info or anecdotes on the music. There’s nothing wrong with that; those time channels need to be filled up, it’s mainly radio in the background, wallpaper. Not everybody can be, or wants to be a drive time DJ. It takes a very special person to be open and honest with their lives. Many people stay superficial with their personal friends, so to go on the radio and open up to potentially hundreds and thousands of people is definitely not for everybody.
I knew a DJ who had a vasectomy and the listeners never knew about it. There was another DJ who was married with a child. The listeners never knew about that either. Of course it was their prerogative to keep that private, but then don’t expect to get close with the listeners, and grow an audience. Imagine your friend not telling you that he’s had a vasectomy. Imagine you have a friend, and he keeps his wife and child a secret from you. That’s not a friend, that’s a stranger, and it’s rather bizarre.
The most successful radio DJ on earth is Howard Stern of New York. Howard’s listeners know when he masturbated, what he masturbated to, what he ate that morning, and when he had coitus with his wife. Howard’s 30 million listeners know everything about him. Howard talks about his childhood, everything. He also brings in the rest of his team into the conversation. Howard’s listeners know that his sidekick, Robin, was molested as a child by her father. More recently, their listeners know that his one producer JD never ever washed his bed-sheets.
Howard’s been doing it for 40 years, and Howard is still improving. He has a work ethic that would make Hitler poo in his Volkswagen. Yes, ‘work-ethic’. Believe it or not, you have to do preparation for a show. Stan Katz used to always say, “You need to do one hour of preparation for every hour you’re on air.” Maybe you don’t stick to Stan’s exact formula, but it’s a good guideline. I used to arrive at work at 20H30, for a midnight to 4am talkshow, and I was relatively successful. I won’t talk about the presenter that used to be walking out the lift towards the studio, as the intro music to his show was starting. His show always sounded exactly the same, it wasn’t going anywhere. It was a great shame, because he’s a very warm, talented, funny guy.
Weaving entertaining stories
You have to be relevant. You have to be tapped into popular culture; you have to be in touch with what is affecting your listener’s lives. Recently I heard a DJ taking calls for over 30 minutes on ‘Scary Halloween stories, what is the scariest story?’ It was a competition he had to do. But he simply could have taken care of it within five minutes and moved on. This DJ would never ever sit down with his friends in his lounge, and talk about scary Halloween stories. So why the hell would you do it on the radio? Gareth Cliff would have taken two callers, and ended the terrible competition within three minutes, and then woven a tirade of an entertaining story on how the neighbourhood kids are the most ungrateful annoying brats that screwed up his evening and upset his dog, and how he never got sweets when he was a child. The client then actually gets much better value for money, because Gareth has turned their shockingly irrelevant boring competition into something worth listening to.
A really talented presenter can turn an irrelevant competition into something entertaining and relevant. Most people can relate to the reality of Halloween kids, whether it is from personal experience or from TV and movies. But ‘scary Halloween stories’, what is that?
The ability to be a good storyteller can come naturally, but it’s something you can learn as well. It’s all about “painting a picture with words”. Here’s a very simplistic example. Take a traffic report. You can say, “There’s a stationary truck on the M1 south, near Marlboro Drive.”
Or you can say, “A stationary truck on the M1 south, at Marlboro Drive, as you make your way through the Buccleuch Interchange, heading from the Midrand side, through Sandton, towards the city. Also putting pressure on the N3 north, from Marlboro Drive, affecting you from Edenvale towards Sandton. The N1 North concrete highway is also starting to back-up, as you approach Rivonia Road, coming from William Nicol.”
What version is more informative, engaging, helpful? Do I have to answer that? Yes, it seems like a very long-winded description. But, it’s peak-hour traffic, and this is a major highway. Rather leave out less important traffic problems, and focus on the major ones anyway.
Have you ever heard a radio presenter say, “I just gave birth with my first child, and wow, I don’t want to go into the details, but it was quite an experience.”? If your friend sat down with you over coffee, and just said that, without any more details, wouldn’t you want to make her new baby an orphan immediately? It’s frustrating; it’s really bad radio.
You have to tell a story. You have to weave the intricate details, and include your opinion. How often have you heard a presenter say, “This is the topic I want to discuss now”? You would never sit down with your friend over coffee, and ever say that. So why do it on radio?
Context is crucial
A very good example I’ll never forget from Geller’s book; Valerie overheard a reporter chatting to her mother on the phone, describing a burning building she had just been to and reported on. The journalist went into deep descriptions and details, it was filled with emotion, she really painted an exact picture of the burning building scenario. Afterwards Valerie said to her, “What you just said to your mother on the phone, that’s what your radio report should have been.” She made her do the report again, and it was far better, more powerful engaging radio.
Contextualisation is also crucial. Does the listener know what you are talking about? If a friend joins you and a group of friends in the middle of a discussion, do you just ignore this person, and keep them out of the loop of the discussion? Do you just assume that this latecomer knows exactly the context of your conversation? I’m hoping the answer is “no”. So radio is no different. You need to contextualise all the time. You cannot assume that a person is sitting glued to the radio 24 hours a day. You need to create a scenario that enables a person to switch on the radio at any time, and understand what you are talking about.
For example, Clive Derby-Lewis passed away recently. I switched on the radio, and there was a ‘What’s trending on Twitter today’ feature. The presenter said, “Clive Derby-Lewis is trending today.” That’s it, the presenter gave no other detail. He assumed the listener knew the fascist had died. What’s the point of this Twitter feature, if you’re not giving the story? Another example: the terrible bridge collapse on the M1 highway near Marlboro Drive earlier this year, in Johannesburg. I heard a talk-show host interview a spokesperson from one of the emergency services. Not once during the whole conversation was there any reference to what actually happened. They just spoke about the injured people, and traffic issues. You have to always tell the whole story, and put things into context. If the listener doesn’t know what you are talking about, what’s the point of broadcasting? And then one of the most classic examples I’ve ever heard, was a DJ interviewing somebody on the phone, where not once was there any mention of the interviewee’s name. To this day, I have no idea who that DJ was talking to.
Then there are the more obvious attributes: Talent, intelligence, being well read, and a good sense of humour. There has to be some natural God-given talent. If you’re unintelligent, and don’t read anything, how can you formulate any logical meaningful opinion? Why would anyone want to listen to you, if you’re not interesting? Would you spend hours alone with a friend if they have nothing to say? Radio is no different. That formulaic talkshow host that never has an opinion is not going to hold onto a listener for very long.
These are not my original ideas, or opinions. These are the very basic fundamentals of radio. But sadly very few people in the radio industry have any grasp of it.
Image: Howard Stern/CC BY 3.0