Working With On-Air Performers

To some outsiders looking in, the job of talking on the radio requires little more than a decent set of pipes and the gift of gab. But, those of us who have had any level of lasting success sitting behind a console and talking into a microphone know that there’s a lot more to it than that. At their core, radio on-air personalities are performers. Like all performers they need a very delicate balance of confidence, discipline and self-awareness to excel. But unlike other performers, radio personalities have the unique task of sounding like they’re having a natural conversation with one person, that also happens to appeal to the masses. Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years working with on-air performers.

Keep it positive. I know that sounds simple and basic, but it’s the absolute key to unlocking someone’s best performance. When I’m not doing radio I perform with a ten piece big band singing songs that are eighty or so years old, a truly brilliant business model by the way. A few years ago I booked a bunch of performances of our Christmas show at a theater in a tourist town here in Texas. Unbeknownst to me, at the end of each day the theater owner would send a survey to everyone asking them what they thought of the show (upwards of 800 or so people). Then, he would filter out any of the positive feedback and send me ONLY the negative comments people anonymously made. So, on the bus ride home I’d read a list of confidence killing statements like, ‘lead singer was the weak link’, ‘tall guy seemed awkward up there’ and so on. When I asked the owner why he didn’t send any of the positive feedback he said, ‘why do you need to see those? The negative comments tell you what you need to work on.’ Clearly, he was new to working with performers. I’ve performed in one way or another my entire life and have developed some pretty tough skin, but even those of us with thick skin respond better to critiques wrapped in compliments. That being said, we don’t want to reach so far with those compliments that we’re reinforcing bad habits.

Spend time getting to know them on and off the air before making a bunch of suggestions. I fell into this trap myself earlier in my career. Having spent my entire life in radio, I used to have a tendency to jump to conclusions about an on-air personality based off a small sample size. While throwing out snap judgements that are 80% correct after listening to a few breaks may be a cool parlor trick that impresses others, it will cause you to miss the occasional diamond in the rough and flat out misjudge talent who were having an off day. Properly coaching a performer requires us to listen to a LOT of audio. It also helps immensely to get to know that performers true off air personality that way we can pinpoint which parts of that personality need to be turned up and turned down to create an on-air persona that will connect with their target audience.

Find out what motivates them. One of the big mistakes some people who hire and coach on-air talent make is thinking that there’s a single personality type that works best on the air. Usually that’s because they themselves were pretty good on-air and that’s their personality type or they worked with someone successful and they’re trying to recreate that with someone else. In truth, there are a wide range of personality types that can work well on the air and each one is motivated by different things. Plus, some on-air personalities don’t fit neatly into one personality box (like type A). Because of that it takes time to diagnose what will and won’t work to motivate any individual on-air personality. Some of them need a heavy hand and require strict consequences. Others can be motivated by money, status, ratings victories, inter-office competition, syndication opportunities, a flexible schedule or any number of other things. However, rarely if ever is praise not at least somewhat effective as long as it’s genuine and focused on the right things.

Finally, teach them to coach themselves. Anytime I’m working with talent, my goal is to get them to a point where they’re hearing the same things I am (or we all are when I’m working with PDs and Ops guys). When the talent get to that point, they begin improving exponentially faster. That’s because, at most, we’re going to listen to one or two breaks during our weekly aircheck sessions and maybe discuss another one or two. Yet, the typical on-air talent does upwards of sixteen breaks per show. So, we’re analyzing and discussing 5 percent or less of their breaks. Encouraging them to listen back to their own audio frequently will help cover the other 95%. Plus, while I’m a firm believer that everyone needs a coach regardless of how good they are or how long they’ve been doing this, learning to self-coach makes talent more capable of weathering coaching droughts without letting their shows fall off the rails.

What do you think? What successes or failures have you had either working with a performer or as a performer working with a good or bad coach? Comment below or email me at Andy@RadioStationConsultant.com.

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