By Bob Lonsberry
WHAM, Rochester/WSYR Syracuse
Talk Show Host
EXCLUSIVE TO TALKERS
MOUNT MORRIS, NY — This is a note to radio producers.
More specifically, it is a note to my radio producers.
Here’s how I want it done.
That might sound demanding or haughty, and it might be. But it’s better to know what you’re shooting for than to muddle around and never quite catch on.
And I’ve had enough of that.
As I think about it, over 20 years as a radio talk show host, I’ve worked with an awful lot of producers in an awful lot of situations. I’ve done fulltime talk shows on four different stations, and filled in on five different national shows. That doesn’t mean I’m good, but it does mean I’ve had a lot of people talk in my ear.
And I’m grateful for them all.
But only a few of them have gotten it, and that has jaded my view, and led me in recent years to withdraw, trying to minimize the disruption that a weak producer might bring to the show and my career.
Part of this is driven by the fact that “producer” doesn’t really mean anything specific. It varies dramatically from situation to situation. Another issue is that producers are almost all part time now, and the position is seen as peripheral and entry level. I don’t believe bosses expect producers, given the meager pay and status, to stick around very long. Anymore, producers are only producers until they can get fulltime jobs at the mall.
I’m sorry. You deserve better.
But I don’t write the checks.
I can, however, tell you what I’ve learned and how you can work the best for me. Maybe that will help me and the show, and maybe that will help you and your career.
So here goes.
First, listen to the show
Yes, I’m sitting in a little room through the glass talking to myself, and you’re in another room bored out of your mind, but try to pay attention. A radio show is a dynamic, vital thing, and the mood and circumstance are constantly changing. You’ve got to be following it if you hope to contribute to it.
When people come into your studio, please stay somewhat focused on the show. Don’t ignore them, but if you’re over there having a chucklefest, you’re doing the show no good. Your head has to be in the game.
At the very least, be listening for profanity from callers. You have the dump button, I don’t. And when someone swears and I have to start yelling at you on the air to push the dump button because you were oblivious to what was said, well, that’s really not acceptable.
Neither is it acceptable for you not to know when I go to break. There is a magic out cue that is said every time we go to commercial break. If you don’t hear it, and I stop talking, and there’s silence, and you keep talking to your pals in the other room, and I have to stand up and start waving my arms at you, well, the pooch just got screwed again.
Likewise, I shouldn’t have to do a big lead up to the break just to get your attention and give you time to walk back to the control board.
Listening to the show will also help you understand the show. I can’t ask you to agree with what I say, but you should know what I say, and you should have a sense of what the show is about, generally and at any given moment. When you have a feel for the show, and the way my mind works, you will be able to contribute.
Second, be a broadcaster
Remember that when I speak to you, when I call for you to speak on the air, you have to deliver. You didn’t go to school for four years and dream about broadcasting so that when your mike came on you would sound like an idiot. Entertain, be engaging, use your moments to earn more moments. Be yourself, your best self, and be a broadcaster.
Ideally, you should be a character on the show. What kind of character, and how large a part you play on the show, I’ll decide in time. But the better you are, the more you put in, the more you will get out. I’ve had producers who were dominant parts of the show and were known and loved by listeners, and I’ve had producers who were never mentioned.
Which you are is up to you.
Part of that is being ready to go on the air. That means having headphones or an earpiece on. This is a radio show. If I want to talk to you, and every time I go to you you’ve got to fiddle around looking for headphones, well, forget it. We don’t have that kind of time to waste.
Third, handle callers well
They are wrong to call it “call screening.” More correctly, it is called “call rating” or “call ranking.” I don’t want you hanging up on half the world, I want you quickly assessing how strong a caller is — then let me know how you rank them. A simple system given current technology is to merely type their name and topic and a 1 to 10 score. I recognize your ranking is little more than a guess, but even that can be helpful. Rank the callers, listen to the call, and refine your ranking criteria.
Resist the simplistic but common belief that you are supposed to screen out people who are old or off topic or who you don’t personally understand. That practice castrates and lobotomizes talk radio. It throws away countless callers who I could use to advance the show. You are not the gatekeeper, I am. If you rank someone low, and I use them, and I can’t make a good call out of it, that’s on me, not you. But if that person never gets on hold, then you’ve taken options away from me, and that hurts the show.
The first key to callers is to answer the phone.
If the phone is ringing and you’re not answering it, the pooch is getting screwed again. If you’re off in another room, or if you’re lost in conversation with somebody, and the phone is ringing, and you’re not answering it, please know that with all my heart I want to go to commercial and storm into your studio and with profanity I learned in the Army ask what your malfunction is.
Callers are an important tool.
I may not use them, I may not put them on the air, but I want you to answer them and quickly get them in the que. I don’t care where they’re calling from, I don’t care whether it’s a cell call or not, I just want their name and a one or two word description of their topic… then your numeric ranking.
That should happen fast.
Callers on hold are a security blanket and a tool, and they give me options as I work through a segment and a topic. If by some fluke I can make the phone ring, but you can’t get those people in the que, I’m not exactly sure why I need you anymore.
Be polite to every caller… always, every time. Whether the caller is polite to you, or in reference to me, it doesn’t matter. Happy or sad, you are a professional, and callers are treated professionally. This is a radio station, not a barroom.
Fourth, think like a reporter
Talk radio is, in part, a news product, and getting things first is part of the news business. Getting the whole story sets you apart from other products which compete for the listeners’ time. You help me and your career by developing your abilities to find people and information.
A simple way to start is to begin compiling a source list. Each time we have a guest on the show, save that person’s name and contact information and a brief bit of information on them. Do the same thing if you see someone who seems noteworthy in the paper or on the news. Look up their information. Keep that in your source list. Review it often, even when you’re not looking for anything. When a story breaks, and we need to respond quickly, we may be able to find someone immediately through your list of contacts.
If you are smart, you will be courteous to these people and impress them with your professionalism and friendliness. You will never call them by their first name; you will always use a courtesy title or their rank or office. They are our guests, and even if I disagree with them on the air, you will treat them like guests and with every accommodation. You will treat them in a way that reflects favorably on yourself, on the show and on the station.
One reason for this is that we want the potential guest to like you even if they hate me. Even if they think I’m the biggest jerk on earth, we want them to have a comfortable link to the show, for a variety of reasons. The producer is that link.
If you’re smart, you will call up the folks on your source list every once in a while and see if anything’s going on. You will also tell them that if they ever have a news tip that you are always ready to hear. I do those things, and it works out. As you develop those contacts and relationships, you will help the show and your own career.
Also, when we have guests, you will make sure that they are on hold and ready to go at least two minutes before the segment begins and I go on the air. It is completely unacceptable, though sadly fairly common, to have a segment begin – meaning I’m talking on the air – and have the producer only then break away from some outside conversation and get around to calling the guest. I’ve always wondered what they thought I was supposed to be talking about until they got around to getting the guest I had asked for in that segment.
I’m plenty good at sounding like an idiot all by myself; I don’t need your help with it.
I will pick topics and chart the course of the show. I will ask you to get specific guests or to find someone who is knowledgeable about a topic or event I want to discuss.
Personally, I am kind of a loner. I don’t need a lot of talk or camaraderie. We won’t be doing meetings unless the boss convenes it and orders in food. In my perfect world, we each know our jobs, we each trust one another to do our jobs, that trust is justified, and things work out. I’ve got your back, you’ve got my back, and we’re good.
During the show, leave me alone. Commercial breaks are not breaks, they are opportunities to call or e-mail sources, to check Twitter, and to prepare for the next segment. If you’re talking to me during a commercial, it better be important, because what you’re keeping me from is important.
The same goes for before the show. If we need to coordinate, it can be done in less than a minute. Beyond that, every moment has to be dedicated to show prep, and as fascinating as your weekend may have been, that is not when I want to hear about it.
Those are the things I want.
Here’s what you should want
You should want my job, or our boss’s job. You should have ambition, and the willingness to work and learn to advance your career. Not through being a butt kisser or a back stabber, but by being the best broadcaster you can be. You are on the ladder, now get busy climbing it.
You will be able to rely on my help in that regard. I will be on the lookout for opportunities to praise you to bosses. I will expand your responsibilities as you grow, and I will experiment with things in search of talents you might not yet know you have. I see my job as helping you get ready for your next job. Your duty is to help me succeed today, my duty is to help you succeed tomorrow.
Twice in my career I have negotiated raises for my producers by moving money out of my own compensation. A third attempt was rejected by an uncooperative boss. The point is, if you are earnest and good hearted, and honestly try to do your best, I will be your friend, father and protector. I will teach you and encourage you and promote you.
And I will rejoice in your success.
And I will be proud of you.
I’ve had two of my children produce for me. One of them has gone on to an exceptionally good position in a wonderful company. I want the same for you. And I know that starts by you taking this job seriously and doing your very best.
These are some tips for how you can do that.
Good luck and God bless. I look forward to working with you.
Bob Lonsberry, the father of nine children, hosts middays on WHAM, Rochester and afternoon drive on WSYR, Syracuse. He can be emailed at Bob@Lonsberry.com.