I began the “Back to Basics” series a couple months back in an effort to highlight some of the strategies, practices, and techniques that have helped me sound like a professional early on in my radio career. I don’t write this because I think I know better; I write this because I rely on the basics to be good at my job. I don’t believe I was blessed with the voice of God, I’m not a former pro athlete, or anything out of the norm intellectually.
For me to stand out in this business, I have to nail the basics at the core of everything I do. Part of that concept and drive for me is the desire to be great.
Striving to be great is the most basic concept you can take hold to and it takes zero talent or experience. I heard Turner Sports NBA analyst Greg Anthony once say “No one ever got worse at something they wanted to be great at.” It resonates with me every day and it’s the perfect launch point to today’s “basic” concept.
Ask yourself this: If you are not striving to be great, what are you doing?
I see so much complacency in this business. I see so many guys coming up that turn down opportunities because they are either scared or lazy. Simple things, too. If you are a producer and a host asks you to come up with a segment, you should be finding a way to knock it out of the park and then ask for two segments. If you roll your eyes at a request like that and think “great, more work,” you are already behind the 8-ball.
That attitude is pervasive in this business and I will never understand it. This isn’t an industry you get into because the money is so great that you just have to pursue this lifestyle. No parent wishes their child grows up to become a sports talk radio personality. We’re not doctors, lawyers, or pilots. We talk and cover sports for a living.
This is a dream job, but I see so many treat it like it’s just any other job. It confuses me to my core, because if you are still at the bottom of the ranks and you aren’t shooting for the moon, so to speak, that means you’re comfortable making the incredibly low rate radio companies pay for anything less than top-tier “talent.”
It’s not lucrative. I can’t speak to every market in the country, but right here in the heart of Florida, you’d make a good amount more bagging groceries or working a drive-thru than you would board-operating a talk radio show. That’s just the reality of it. Is it pretty? No. But this is what we’ve signed up for, isn’t it? No one is forcing you into this industry; you chose this.
So, I ask again — If you don’t want to be great, what are you doing?
After you answer that very personal question, the next one to come to mind should be: How do I become great? Lucky for us, that one’s simple: Effort and focus.
We all want to be great at different things, so I don’t want to hyper-focus on one element of broadcasting. Whatever your avenue — talk radio, production, or play-by-play — I think the methods are the same. Listen to yourself, listen to others, find people you respect in your field of choice and talk to them, ask for advice, and push the limits of your comfort zone.
My general rule of thumb is if it makes me nervous, I must be doing something right. Rarely do we get nervous in our comfort zone, but rarely do we do any growing in our comfort zone either.
Remember that feeling the first time you cracked a mic? Find new ways to feel like that again. It usually means you’re learning something and those uncomfortable experiences will soon take up residence in your comfort zone, making you better in the long term. Convince yourself to try new things. Even if it’s crap, at least it’s new crap that you can learn and grow from.
The bottom line is, there are going to be a lot of things between now and the end of the road that hold you back from accomplishing whatever your ultimate goal is in this business. But you can’t allow one of those hurdles to be your own effort and approach.
If you truly want to be great, there’s nothing stopping you. This is not coming from someone who is great, but rather someone who is striving to be. And if that’s not your bag and you don’t care about the fact that you’ve completely plateaued, might I suggest another line of work?
Back To Basics: Context
“It’s imperative that topics, guests, sound bites, and personal stories are shared with a backdrop of context so that the listeners can better understand what you are talking about. Let them into the conversation.”
Have you ever heard a song that seems as though it’s about absolutely nothing or at least absolutely nothing you understand? Perhaps the beat and hook are catchy, you might bob your head, but the song will never truly connect unless you can relate to the lyrics.
Sports talk radio operates a similar way with its audience, you can have a smooth voice and a nice delivery, but if you are not relaying the proper context to back up the discussion you’re having on air, you miss an opportunity to maximize its potential and you risk losing your listener in the moment.
One of the reasons I find the audio/talk industry so fascinating is that it forces you to master the art of telling a story, setting up a topic, replaying the image of a game the night before without the accessibility of showing your listener what it is you are talking about. You are painting a picture and there is nuance to it that can be very hard to appreciate if you don’t have the ability to add a visual.
I hear it all the time now with these simulcast TV/radio sports talk shows, where there’s a host explaining a highlight on the screen that you clearly can’t get a clear picture of without seeing it. There is something lost in translation for an individual that has to create the image in their mind without your assistance.
It’s imperative that topics, guests, sound bites, and personal stories are shared with a backdrop of context so that the listeners can better understand what you are talking about. Let them into the conversation.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the 4 areas of talk radio that require context:
I think a lot of hosts fall into this trap where they think everyone listening already knows the backstory of what they are going to discuss. We have more access than ever. Listeners tend to be more knowledgeable on the latest news, but assuming that those who are listening already understand the crux of the topic at hand is a mistake.
If you are debating a penalty from the game the night before, you shouldn’t assume everyone listening watched the game or saw the play. People are busy. Many listeners will rely on you not just for the discussion of what happened, but actually the detail of what happened in the first place. And think about the negative impact of someone sitting in their car listening to you and your co-host debate a call in a game with no context as to what happened, when it happened, and the impact before or after.
It’s confusing and a good reason to change the channel.
This is where hitting reset later in the show can be so important. Just because you talked about something an hour ago, doesn’t mean the people listening now heard it. Just simply saying “as I said before” doesn’t add context. In fact, that can be a deterrentl. Listeners want to feel like they are the first ones to hear this out of your mouth, so become an artist at regurgitation. Your listeners will appreciate it.
Every guest you book should check one of 3 boxes:
- Regular weekly feature.
- Interesting story to tell or insight to share.
- Helping a partner/client get their message out.
While all 3 might lead to different styles of interviews, they all need context. Why are they taking place? Why are you breaking away from natural conversation for this guest? Who are they and what benefit do they serve?
The best interviews in my opinion are ones that add to a conversation already taking place on the show that day. With that said, a reminder to your audience as you welcome the guest on is a helpful trick to tie it all together. Also, the more backstory as you can provide and credibility you can sew into your guests introduction, the better. You might know who they are and follow their work closely, but don’t just assume your audience does the same.
Chalk this up as one of my top 5 radio pet peeves: Sound bites without any setup.
I can’t tell you how many times as a producer a host would ask me to play a clip coming back from commercial break, no setup, no explanation, just sports sounds on the radio. Now I know a lot of shows still do this, perhaps its even still the trendy thing to do, I’m not entirely sure, but I absolutely hate it.
A clip, whether that’s play by play, post game, etc. needs a setup. If you aren’t telling your audience what they’re about to listen to, the clip loses all meaning, its becomes a time filler. Now a lot of hosts will air a clip first and then discuss why they aired it after the fact, but I think that’s a mistake as well. Sound bites are add-ons to your product, you wouldn’t bring dessert out before the meal. Or if you prefer a baseball analogy, you wouldn’t bring the closer in before the starter. It’s a host’s job to let listeners know what they are about to listen to more than allowing them to piece together what they just heard.
Adding a slice of life to your show can be (when done right) the differentiator between you and the million other options that are out there to be consumed. It’s a pretty simple formula; if a listener feels connected to you on a deeper level than just your sports analysis you have a much better chance of hooking a long-time loyal fan.
Deeper connections, better understanding of who and what you are all about, there’s some real upside to all of that. Also, if you are on top of your game enough, creating a little tribe of loyal listeners along the way, adding a little sub-culture to your broadcasts adds another layer of bonding to your most passionate “P1’s”. However, getting too far into the weeds with personal stories, inside jokes, or things that only the most passionate listener would understand can alienate your larger audience.
The fact is, most people who listen to you probably don’t follow you on social and they’re not part of your super-secret fan club. So, if you speak on the radio as if you are only talking to a select group, you might only be entertaining that select group.
Back to Basics: Topic Development
“Your number one goal when setting up a topic should be to get somebody later in the day to regurgitate something that you said, either at the water cooler, sitting at the bar with a buddy, or at the kitchen table with his/her family.”
One of the most simple and important tasks for any sports talk radio hosts is topic development. Understand that when I say simple, I don’t mean easy. Topic development is simple in its nature because it’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel here. See the story, think of your angle, share it with your audience, and do so in a way that you think they’ll be intrigued. The formula is the simple part, and some days, finding the topics and angles you want to take is as easy as breathing air.
It’s amazing how sometimes when you get up in the morning to prepare for your show, topics can come right to you, yet on other days you just sit there and stare at your computer as if there’s not one good thing to talk about no good angle to take. In those moments I revert to something that my producer and co-host (Stefan Gilliam) always says: join the conversation that’s already in progress.
Sports fans never stop talking about the teams, players, and stories that they care about and that was evident last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when you would think a sports talk radio audience would disappear completely. But as many in the industry learned, while some did go away, there was still a healthy/active audience that remained.
What did that teach us? If sports fans are having sports conversations with no sports going on, that means we never have an excuse ever again to sit ‘topic-less’, as if there’s nothing to talk about.
This is long been one of my biggest pet peeves in the sports talk radio industry, I’m sure you all have heard it, some have even said it. I know I have: “Damn, there’s nothing to talk about today”.
That comment is the equivalent of waving the white flag in our industry. Saying there is nothing to talk about means that you are not an active participant in the ongoing conversation among sports fans, a conversation that for the most avid, never stops year-round. Of course, there are some days that are easier than others. The month of October is a good example of that. Not every day of the year is going to yield the low hanging fruit, but it’s our job as hosts and producers to create or continue a conversation among sports fans. It is our job in every single day to add to the water cooler conversation, and that’s what makes topic development so key.
Your number one goal when setting up a topic should be to get somebody later in the day to regurgitate something that you said, either at the water cooler, sitting at the bar with a buddy, or at the kitchen table with his/her family. Then, the ultimate goal is to get to a point where somebody sees a story or watches a moment in a game and they think to themselves, “man, I can’t wait to hear what (insert your name here) has to say about it!” That is a win in our profession, that’s when you know you’ve hooked your audience.
So how do we get to that point where we’re doing this with consistency?
Here are so simple tricks and tips I’ve picked up when I feel stuck without what I consider to be a compelling topic:
- Go to Twitter and look at what’s trending. There’s a sports tab on Twitter under the trending section.
- Look at the comments section on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter of a local team you cover.
- Create a Facebook group for your show, even if the member # is small, the interaction from that focus group can give you a good gauge of what fires people up, without having to put in any extra work.
- Always keep a running notepad on your phone, even the most irrelevant/random topics can come in handy when you are in a pinch.
For the topics that come easy, here are questions I ask myself to get the most out of every topic/angle:
- Is my take any different than most? Is there a uniqueness to my opinion?
- What are other hosts or sports fans missing in this story?
- Is my take on this consistent in nature with other opinions I share on a daily basis?
- How can I get the audience to participate?
- Can I spin this local without forcing it?
Occasionally, you’ll have a topic that is so provocative, you’re creating the conversation but more times than not, the conversation you’re having on the air is one that sports fans are already having with each other. Its on us each day to find the balance between putting the work in to find the right topics, while not overthinking it. Keep the active conversation alive but do it in a way that’s unique to you.
Back To Basics: Teases
“If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them.”
I think one of the things I love about radio is how theoretical a lot of our strategies can be. We assume a lot in this business, and its largely because we have to. We assume we know what topics our listeners want to hear, we assume they know things that might actually need more explanation, and sometimes we assume they’re just going to stick around because they like us. Sure, there are metrics that you can follow, trends you can keep track of, and social growth that helps gauge your impact, but largely a lot of the content we put out, and specifically the way we put it out, we’re just hoping it lands.
I think one of the easy tactics to lose sight of when you’re going through the daily gauntlet of hours of talk time, is the good old fashioned radio tease. In an ever-increasing world of digital tracking and analytics, the value of a tease going into a commercial break can be difficult to track. And because we don’t know its true impact it can easily be forgotten or just ignored altogether. To me, this is a massive mistake and a big opportunity lost. Sometimes, we just need to let common sense prevail when determining what is and is not worth our time.
If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them. How do we do that? Compelling conversations, debates, interesting interviews, and personality they can’t find anywhere else. All of that is great, but at some point you’ll need to go to commercial break, and no matter how likable or entertaining you think you might be, 6 minutes of commercials is likely going to take your average listener across the dial to a new location. So, how do you keep them or at least ensure they’ll find their way back? Give them something they need to know the answer to. Again, I’ll ask you to think about this logically: Which one of the examples below is more likely to keep a listener engaged through a commercial break?
Example 1: “More football talk, next!”
Example 2: “Up next, the one move that will guarantee Brady another ring, right after this!”
We all know the answer. Example 2 gives the listener something to think about. You’ve provided just enough information that you have them thinking, while creating a gap of information that they will hopefully want filled. Yet, we opt for Example 1 way more than we should. Myself included. It’s lazy and more than anything it’s a lost opportunity to keep a listener.
The most loyal/die-hard members of your audience aren’t going anywhere, so it doesn’t matter how you go to break for those individuals. The least loyal, who maybe like your show, but they are just jumping around every day in their car or online, they aren’t sticking around no matter what you say. It’s those in the middle, the one’s who are looking for, usually subconsciously, a reason to stay or comeback. That’s the audience you’re providing this tease for.
Teases are not for your most loyal listeners, teases are for people that are stopping by to see what you have going on, which is the majority of your overall CUME. If you can hook those casual listeners, even just a few, to stay through a commercial break and listen to a fertility clinic commercial, then you’ve done your job as a host.
I find the best radio tease is direct, a good description that leaves the audience hanging for an answer or your opinion on the issue. Nebulous or nondescript teases don’t give the audience enough to sink their teeth into, you want to leave them guessing but if they guessing too much they’ll probably lose interest. You want to make them think, you don’t want them to have to solve a puzzle.
Example 1: “Could Aaron Rodgers be subtly hinting where he wants to play next?”
Example 2: “A player makes it known he wants out, but where does he want to go?”
Both examples above are fine, it’s certainly a step up from the “more football, next” tease but Example 1 provides the listener with something specific enough for them to start thinking of answers in their own mind, thus creating that desire to see if their idea matches up with what you are about to tell them. Giving the listener a player or team that you know most of them care about, plus a level of mystery, equals a good/solid tease that is more likely to keep them hanging on through the break. Example 2 is good but the problem I find with those is that they’re so nebulous that you aren’t sure you care as a listener. You might want to know the answer, but without a solid description, you give the audience a chance to decide that they don’t care or you just simply miss the opportunity to elicit a response by not drawing attention to an item that they are passionate about.
The next step in all of this is making sure you follow up on what you tease. You might only get a couple opportunities to mislead a listener before your teases mean nothing to them in the future. If you say you are going to talk about Alabama’s dominance in the SEC around the corner, make sure you do it, and if you aren’t able to, I think its only fair to draw attention to the fact that you couldn’t follow up on it. Apologize and move on. It’s live radio, things happen, and I think people listening understand that but you also have to be respectful of the time they are giving you.
Bottom line is, teasing is a radio parlor trick and it’s an easy one to lose sight of. We don’t prioritize them as much as we go along in this business, whether that be for egotistical reasons, laziness, or just not prioritizing them as part of the show prep process. Treat your teases with seriousness and a level of priority, the same way you do with the topics and content you create. We all know we’re not reinventing the wheel, there’s nothing that we can say that hasn’t been said 100 times in the sports talk sphere, but portraying that to your audience is doing them and yourself a big disservice.