Sensitive Subjects: The Lost Sub

One of our main jobs on the air is to identify the thing that everyone is talking about that day and find our angle to make it interesting and relatable to our target audience. Doing so allows us to utilize radio’s major advantage over many of our competitors, the immediacy of live and local radio. Plus, it brands us as in the know helping us form deeper connections with our audience. Some of these major topics are easy to address because they just involve celeb gossip or something else light that’s easy to joke about. But, talking about a sensitive subject that involves people dying or the likelihood that people will die is obviously a lot more challenging. Which is why many of us choose to ignore these topics all-together or just quickly touch on them and move on. However, that’s doing a disservice to ourselves and our audience. This week we had one of those subjects, the tourist sub lost while attempting to explore the Titanic shipwreck. Here are a few keys to talking about a topic like that on the radio.

Find another gear. Most of what we do on the radio involves us keeping it light, fun and entertaining. In fact, I say that phrase quite frequently to the shows I coach. It’s usually a safe bet because it plays to the strengths of most of our on-air personalities and because that’s generally what the audience wants to hear from us (especially on a music station). They have their own problems to worry about, mainly they’re just looking for an escape from those problems to distract them for a few minutes and hopefully entertain them a bit. So, most of our on-air content will fall into the light and fun category. However, as on-air personalities and shows grow it’s important that they develop another gear so they can tackle the occasional sensitive subject that everyone’s talking about. Being able to strike the right, softer tone that’s respectful to the families involved and any listeners who may have been in similar situations may seem difficult. Yet, we’ve all done it in our own lives when talking to someone we care about who’s going through trauma. The real challenge is striking that tone while still finding a way to make it interesting and entertaining. One of the big keys to that is not getting bogged down in a mountain of details, trying to pass ourselves off as experts when we’re not or making the mistake of trying to solve it. My consulting mentor Tracy Johnson always says, ‘remember you’re not trying to solve the problem, you’re exploring it.’

Find the angle instead of the storyline. With major stories outside of our format, like a big sports story on a music station, we try to find the storyline that makes it more mass appeal. But, with a topic like this that already has a mass appeal storyline intact (This is no doubt being made into a movie and documentary as we speak), the storyline is already written for us. Our challenge is to find our unique angle to approach it from that will pique the interest and make it relatable to our specific, local audience. That could be as simple as setting it up, going through the story and respectfully using it as a jumping off point to talk about something lighter that brings the audience in on it. For instance, one of the people on board is a billionaire who’s also been on Jeff Bezos’ spacecraft which could lead to a conversation about the billionaire adventure we’d sign up for if we had to do one (This one is a tightrope though). Another option would be to talk about how being lost at sea is one of our life-long fears to spawn a conversation about what our other life-long fears are (heights, sharks, commitment, etc) and what we’ve done to try and face and overcome them (if anything). It’s also coming out that there were some red flags in the construction and operation of this tiny sub. It’s controlled by what looks like a PlayStation controller, there’s no escape hatch so the crew and tourists (who paid $250k each) had to be bolted into it and they quite often lose communication with it. Those could be jumping off points to solicit stories about red flags when working with an adventure company. I distinctly remember going four wheeling with my brothers in the sand dunes in Oregon and as we were waiting at the counter the guy was complaining to a coworker about how many people had broken bones that weekend. For the record I didn’t back-out, but I did ease up each dune assuming certain death was waiting on the other side. The best phone/engagement topics are always the ones that are reverse engineered to solicit great listener stories.

It’s important to remember that talking about these major, breaking stories is part of what makes this job so fun, but of course it also adds a challenge. Most of us that have been doing this awhile are creatures of habit who’ve developed a routine for managing the massive amounts of things that have been tossed on our plates to handle each day. These breaking stories have a way of blowing that up because we have to be willing to pivot, save some of what we’ve prepared for our shows that day for a later date and focus our energy on coming up with our unique angle to address a subject everyone is addressing. We also have to keep checking the updates to make sure we’re not running with old or incorrect info. But, we go through all of that because it’s the kind of thing that makes live radio exciting. I’ve been around long enough to have been on the air during many major events, the kind of events that mark time in our lives because we all remember where we were. I’m very grateful to have had those opportunities and that I now get to pass along to others some of what I learned while going through them.

What do you think? How did you talk about the lost sub? Comment below or email me at Andy@RadioStationConsultant.com.

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