By Bob Lonsberry
WHAM, Rochester/WSYR Syracuse
Talk Show Host
Step one: Ignore anybody who tries to tell you how to be a talk show host
This is fundamentally a solo business and the more you try to be like someone else, or the more closely you follow the consultants and the bosses, the less effective you will be.
Certainly, there are general rules of the business, ways to hold listeners and maximize ratings, to move through a clock and broadcast professionally. You must know and execute the formatics, but you must be their master, not their slave. They give you structure, but you give yourself voice.
Somewhere, down deep, you either have it or you don’t, and the key to your success will be being true to yourself. Likewise, the key to the continued success of the form will be the quality and variety of rising hosts.
The great weakness of talk radio today is that it all sounds the same. There are those who are copying Rush, and there are those who are currying favor with the bosses, and neither group is doing much to build audience.
The structure of talk radio also contributes to making it very homogenous. There is a tiny handful of radio and syndication companies, and they are led by a very small number of men whose views are repeated like gospel across their hundreds of stations. Often, ironically, these men have never been talk show hosts themselves.
And yet, their word is law.
This leads to a situation where hosts, nervous about losing their jobs, end up doing shows directed at an audience of one or two executives they have to report to.
That’s no good.
Because you don’t do shows for bosses, you do shows for listeners. And though the bosses own the station and sign your check, your real relationship is with the listener.
Step two: Focus on listeners
Know your audience, be your audience, respect your audience.
And love your audience.
In any given show you might have two or three guests and maybe a couple of dozen callers. There is also the producer and the boss and the newscaster and the traffic and weather people.
And tens of thousands of listeners.
It’s not hard to figure out what your priority should be.
If you’re not focused every moment of every show on listeners, and what’s coming out of their speakers, then you’re not doing your duty.
Too often radio stations focus on themselves instead of on listeners. The things we say – go to our webpage, like us on Facebook, enter our contest, listen to our internet product – are all designed to benefit us. We should say more things designed to benefit our listeners.
As a talk show host, those people have to be special to you. They have chosen to give you and your station a few moments of their time. That generosity allows you to feed your family. That generosity brings prosperity to your co-workers and your advertisers. You owe those people.
And what they want from you is friendship.
Remember that. At the root of it all, people turn on their radio to be with a friend. The only unique product our medium can offer is personality. Listeners will naturally come to think of you as a friend. The stories you tell, your personality, the names of your children, will all become the fodder for an unfolding closeness. They turn on their radio to hear their pal, and it is your duty to be that pal.
Always be honest with them, never betray or mislead them, and never think yourself above them.
You owe them.
Step three: Don’t suck
Make your show something that a guy working at his desk or on his tractor can turn on to help him get through the day. Let the lady tending her kids or on a break from work find respite and companionship for however long she can tune in.
Do that through variety.
Talk about anything and everything. You are not giving a speech at the Republican National Convention; you are sitting at your friend’s kitchen table on a Friday night playing Apples to Apples with the couples from the neighborhood. You are standing in the foyer of church on Sunday visiting with your friends. You are at the bowling alley on league night laughing with the guys. You are calling up buddies from college or the Army.
You are just having a conversation.
And everything is fair game.
Yes that includes politics. But it includes a whole lot more. Things that make you laugh or rage or cry. Things that mean something, things that resonate. Things that invite listeners to feel and think as you feel and think, to share your joy or outrage, your wonder and your awe.
Talk about children and cooking and gardening, the Sunday sermon you heard, how to deep-fry a turkey and what caliber makes a good carry gun.
Point out the ridiculous and take errant local officials to task. Develop an understanding of your audience and your region and become the voice of both. Be a tough guy with a soft side, the smart aleck who’s also the smartest kid in class. Be the defender, the champion, the voice for what your listeners are thinking but don’t have a platform to say.
Be humble, self-effacing, comical and the alpha male.
And zig when everybody else zags.
If Rush or Sean or whoever are talking about it on their shows, unless you can find a good local angle, there’s not much point in you talking about it on your show. Unless it’s one of those rare days when you can say it better than Rush, you should leave it to Rush to do the saying.
Again… Zig when everybody else zags.
If the three shows before you have cussed out Rolling Stone for putting a terrorist on the cover, do you really think the audience wants to hear that topic again? If you’re relying on some service to send you ideas every morning, so that you can do the same bits and topics every other lame show in America does, why are you in this line of work?
Do your own research. Be curious. Read Drudge, but also read the Science and Health sections of The New York Times. Hit the BBC, read all the papers and TV sites in your region, no matter how small or remote. Go where the others aren’t, learn what the others aren’t, say what the others aren’t.
And do your own reporting.
Call the mayor off the air, or the police chief or the CEO or whomever, and ask them what’s going on. Ask them what they’re working on. Ask them to explain things to you. Do real reporting and break the news on your show. Some days you do segments based on the evening news, but make sure that some days the evening news does reports on your segments.
Don’t be afraid to talk about God. Don’t be afraid to talk about money. Don’t be afraid to talk about anything.
And don’t be afraid to be funny.
In fact, if you can’t bring a fair amount of humor to your show, you might be in the wrong line of work. Every time Rush goes through one of his dry spells, people wryly crack that he needs to bring back the Frogman. They’re right, but not just about Rush. When you’re tempted to take yourself too seriously, or you’ve just laid out in crystal clarity exactly how much Obama sucks, it might be a good idea to throw in a humor segment and lighten things up with some wholesome laughs.
You can do double entendres, and be a little ribald, but you need to remember that some of the listeners have their kids in the car with them, and they shouldn’t have to worry that you are going to say something inappropriate.
The best humor will always be clean, it will usually involve family, and it will allow everyone listening to identify with what you’re saying.
Don’t do artificial topics. Don’t come up with fake controversies hoping to entice angry callers. Find real issues, real situations and express real opinions.
And don’t repeat yourself.
Please, in the name of Marconi, don’t repeat yourself.
The most torturous radio on the planet is a blowhard talk host stating and restating and restating again some meager opinion on a forgettable topic for segment after segment. It shows a lack of preparation, a lack of ability and quickly produces a lack of listeners.
Whoever came up with the “Topic A” concept didn’t do us a favor. The notion that one topic grabs and holds the public mind – exclusively – and should be pitched and repitched over and over, is insane. Some days, there is an overriding issue or event that will dominate a show. But those days, honestly, are few and far between.
Not everyone would choose to do this, but my approach is to have a new topic for every segment. Each one should be interesting enough to sustain a few minutes, but none of them should over tax a public with a short attention span. Moving quickly from strong topic to strong topic increases time spent listening, which is one way to satisfy the listeners and get the bosses off your back.
Step four: Callers are a tool
Never let them take over a show or force a topic. Your job is not to make the phone ring; your job is to get listeners.
Your show is not 10th-grade civics class. Everyone doesn’t get a say. Your boss isn’t paying a massive electricity bill so that dolts barely able to dial seven digits can ramble on pointlessly.
Talk shows are about listeners, not callers, and callers are good to the extent they help you engage and entertain listeners. A caller can help the show in a variety of ways. Be they dumb or smart, erudite or drunk, for or against, man or woman, young or old, they need to be compelling. It’s not about what they want to say, it’s about what you’re helping the listeners to hear – which is a good radio show.
Most regular callers suck.
Most callers with nicknames suck.
There is no reason why you should tell listeners that a caller is on a cell phone.
Don’t mention where a caller is calling from. Radio exists in one place – where the listener is. If you say where callers are calling from, you immediately exclude every other town in your region, and that’s no good. You may also point out listening trends that people don’t need to know about – if a guy listens to your show and doesn’t hear any callers from his town, it registers, and it’s not a good thing.
Have story lines and characters.
Let your children and friends become regular parts of the stories you tell. Bring listeners into your family and home, through your stories. Give them the joy of following along and implant in them the desire to come back and hear more. My listeners know the name of my barber’s dog.
Step five: Stand for something
Have a moral and philosophical core. Believe in something and let that something permeate your show.
At a certain level, you’ve got to be a true believer. Not that you are antagonistic about it, or that you necessarily go looking for a fight, but be a person with values and beliefs. Bosses say that chases away listeners by excluding people. They are wrong. Listeners are not vanilla people and they don’t expect you to be vanilla either. They have principles, and they expect you to have principles, too.
My unstated mission statement is: God, family, country. I rarely mention those words in that fashion, but each day I generally try to work a show that is supportive of that template.
Step six: Get out of the studio
Go meet listeners. Every hand you shake or conversation you share is a listener for life. Meeting people binds them to you. Further, it binds you to them, it humanizes the audience and puts faces on it. It introduces you to wonderful people and the fascinating stories of their lives – all of which you can bring back to the studio and the show.
Done right, your show will make you a public figure. To the extent you can, be worthy of that and set a good example. Use whatever prominence you might have for good things. Be personable and kind.
And count every day as a blessing.
You never know when you’ll come off an air shift and the boss will be waiting for you with the guy from HR. When that day comes, don’t let it be a day of regret. Meet it with the clear conscience that comes from knowing you’ve done your best and you’ve been true to the listeners.
If you’re lucky enough to have a show, count every day as a blessing and every segment as a gift.
And leave people better for having listened to 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.