Dead Air: A Dynamic Reminder for Talk Show Hosts

| August 7, 2012

By Richard Neer
WFAN, New York
Talk Show Host

NEW YORK — While growing up listening to fast-paced Top 40 stations like WABC in New York, and WLLL in Lynchburg, Virginia, it seemed even a split second of silence was anathema. Something had to have gone wrong on the control board or transmitter – or the deejay must have fallen asleep. Resumes for job seekers typically included “tight board” to indicate there would be no dead air during their trick.

High energy was also a must. For motor-mouthed jocks, the goal was jamming as many words as possible in before hitting the post. A few of the greats managed to add humor or pithy commentary; many more resorted to gimmicks and “schtick.” They lived in fear of “flubs” or mangled verbiage.

With the rise of FM, playing “progressive” or “meaningful” music, the style turned 180 degrees. Screaming jocks were eschewed in favor of personalities with a good “rap,” the ability to relate one-on-one with the listeners in a conversational manner. The culture was taken seriously – the war, sex, the protest movement, drugs, etc. There wasn’t a lot of humor in the presentation, and the tone was often described as “laid back.” We crowded the mic and tried to sound like we had deeper voices than our youth allowed – trying to make those 12-inch woofers in the dorm rooms buzz. It was assumed that at certain times of night, the listeners were under the influence of something other than the sound of your voice.

Flash forward to the 1980s, as FM underground stations gradually evolved into a higher-fidelity version of Top 40, which by then had morphed into CHR. Jocks were mere conduits to the next spot break, always maintaining forward momentum – tossing out backsells in favor of “what’s up next.” Processing equalized levels, subtlety suffered. Most just talked louder and faster and didn’t worry much about content.

Talk radio brings a very different mindset. It’s almost impossible to maintain relentless energy throughout a four-hour program with no music breaks to interrupt. Imagine a theatrical experience where all the lines are shouted at the same high level. After the initial buzz wears off, it becomes boring. Even the most energetic rockers – like Bruce Springsteen – break up their set with ballads and acoustic numbers. When there is nothing with which to contrast, even a mega-energy performance becomes monotonous. Pacing is the key: knowing when to drop it down so that when you do scream, it stands out.

Directors will tell you if you expend all your energy in the opening act, you have nowhere to go but down. But unlike a concert or play, your audience isn’t captive. You can’t afford to start slow and gradually build. Your opening must have pop. But even within your first monologue, there must be highs and lows. Loud and soft. Fast and slow.

That goes for pitch as well. If your voice is too modulated in the lower register, it may sound beautiful and sophisticated to you, but it will sound dull and pedantic to the audience. Use the upper register regularly. An extreme example is when Martin Short performs as Jiminy Glick, his satirical take on a shallow TV talker. During an interview – seemingly from out of nowhere – his voice hits grating falsetto notes. It grabs your attention and jolts you out of a comfort zone. You may not want to go that high, but it works.

Equally, long stops or the dreaded “dead air” can be effective. Often termed “pregnant pauses” because they are allegedly full of meaning, they are useful punctuation to allow your last point sufficient time to sink in. It also can serve as a transitional bridge to your upcoming subject, or a sign of your exasperation with something or someone you have just commented on. Pauses grab attention, sometimes more than shouting can.

And use non-verbals. A deep sigh, a strong inhale or exhale, a “phhhfft” or lip roll – can often express sentiments better than words.

 

Richard Neer is a sports talk host at WFAN, New York and an anchor on A Touch of Grey. He can be e-mailed at info@talkers.com.

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