By Walter Sabo
NEW YORK – “Talk” is not a format. It’s a means of communicating. Talk radio could reach any target demographic that management thinks it can sell. Your station could be #1 in your city with talk targeted for teens. Your station could reach the GOLDEN DEMO — Women 25-44 — all day with talk aimed to serve them. It’s up to you. My colleagues and clients have been successful in reaching any demo with talk. Pick your demo. Design your format, then select the hosts.
Every day I am asked for host recommendations for talk radio. It’s flattering that we have earned a reputation for finding good hosts. Direct recommendations are usually reserved for clients because the talent pool is limited and the process of selecting the right host is profound.
Overall, here are some of the steps we take in finding a good host, regardless of their background. The brilliant Mickey Luckoff, lifetime general manager of KGO, said, “I like DJs to become talk show hosts because I can teach them how to do talk but I can’t teach them how to do radio.”
I totally agree. I look for talent who have invested their time doing excellent radio taking advantage of a strong format. A great CHR jock has remarkable broadcasting skills. He/she is taught the importance and necessity of getting to the next event. One morning I heard Howard Stern explaining his frustration over his co-workers’ letting him down and revealing, “You don’t understand, all I am thinking about is how I’m going to get to the next thing.” That’s the job: Moving the show along, not lingering on an obscure point.
Arguably the best all-news anchor in San Francisco is Susan Leigh Taylor at KCBS. Prior to working at KCBS, she learned programming as a PD at talker WRBZ, Raleigh. She did years on music station K101 FM and she was Scott Shannon’s midday jock on Z-100 in New York. Prior to that, she was on WLS-FM. All of those music stations required the ability to execute a tight format. Susan knows how to make stunning radio because the basics are so ingrained she has the confidence to do whatever she has to do to make it sound spectacular. Where did they get the first 1010 WINS all news team? The format didn’t exist. From Top 40!
John and Ken, now the stars of KFI, Los Angeles were doing a morning zoo in Atlantic City when New Jersey 101.5 gave them their first talk show. They knew format radio and understood how to take format direction and apply it to talk. They still use it.
The Deceptive Success of an AM Audience Share
The hardest fact for new FM talk station management to discover is that there is no default audience waiting to hear something talking. There is a group of listeners who just want to hear something talking. They can be quite large. Talk radio for them is companionship. They literally don’t care what is being said or who is saying it; they want something talking to them. That audience will always make at least one line ring. They do not listen to FM.
If a host is a success on AM, they won’t necessarily be successful on FM. Would you hire a classical music host to do CHR? Not likely. Hell, I’ve heard insane arguments about the ability of a country jock to do Hot AC (Of course they can do it!) To build a high-cuming FM talk station, the host must embrace formatics. Yes, you could put a traditional AM host on FM without renovation but all that will happen is the demos will drop about eight years and the total audience will be lower.
The other essential skills for success are:
• The willingness to give an opinion without apology or compromise. The unmovable opinion is the show. That skill is the difference between a person on the radio and a radio STAR.
• Preparation. Two hours of prep for every hour on the air. Right now, Howard Stern is prepping his show.
• True to themselves. My favorite hosts are the ones who say that they never listen to other hosts. They prep their show, stick to their own voice and opinions.
Finding Hosts Who Aren’t in Radio
This is a two-part challenge. First, find a compelling personality who might be able to host a radio show. Part two, match them with a motivational, fearless program director.
The best pool of non-broadcast on-air talent tends to be school teachers and college professors. That’s because they have the discipline to prep for a five-to-six-hour-a-day show. They have an opinion. Teachers have to show up on time and they are prepared for any question they might get.
Usually the weakest pool is TV hosts and actors. That’s because they are used to reading from a script, not writing that script or ad-libbing. Every transition, joke, comment that you see on TV is scripted. The secondary challenge is that the moment a TV job opens up, they dump their radio show in a fever.
The greatest disasters you and I have heard take place when a semi-famous actor is given a radio show without a skilled radio program director to guide them through the challenge of making great radio. Dr. Ruth Westheimer was a double-PhD college professor when she was given her first media job on WYNY-FM in New York. The secret ingredient was GM Dan Griffin, easily the best talk programmer/manager of our lifetime. He knew how to guide Dr. Ruth…and how to keep away the lawyers.
TOMORROW: Topic management and production values to grow cume.
Walter Sabo can be contacted at Walter@sabomedia.com or 646-456-1000.
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