By Bob Lonsberry
Talk Show Host
His own radio program.
A talk show. In Salt Lake City.
And on his first day, he will have a bigger audience and a bigger paycheck than I have ever had.
And yet, it is the nature of the elder to lecture the younger, to tell them how the world was in hope that it relates to how the world will be.
Not that I am particularly expert or accomplished. I have done small-town talk radio in Rochester, New York, for 25 years, with side jobs for 10 years in Utah and eight years in Syracuse, New York.
But here’s the advice anyway.
First: Ignore everything they tell you.
Over the years, any number of corporate types have blown through, each with some new theory of how to do talk radio that has sounded preposterous and proven disastrous. Look them in the eye, nod sagely, make earnest, agreeable sounds, and let it go in one ear and out the other.
Because if they were any good at talk radio, they’d have their own show, or they’d have been able to keep your predecessor from being a failure.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t listen and consider, or that you can’t learn, but this is a seat-of-the-pants game, and if you don’t have it naturally in your gut, you can’t be coached. It’s hard to learn sincere.
And that’s where you need to start – at sincere. Be you. Know who you are, what you stand for, what your values and priorities are, and build a genuine radio character around that. Don’t pretend, don’t act.
Entertain, yes. Accentuate, absolutely. Pose, no.
Don’t create some mythical listener, compiled from profiles and analytics, and try to be his clone. Be yourself, and be a friend.
Because that’s why people listen to the radio. They already know Trump sucks, or Hillary sucks, or whoever it is that particular day. They may not need you to repeat for the umpteenth time what they heard last night on FOX News or MSNBC.
But they do need a friend.
In the cab of the truck, on the shop floor, doing the dishes, driving to a sales call, in the office, out on a run. They need a friend. Someone who makes them laugh and think, and with whom they feel safe and stable. On their best days, and on their worst days. The background-of-their-life guy they call by name when they’re talking with family at dinner.
Your calling is to be their friend.
And their voice.
What comes out of your mouth, they should feel comes out of their life and heart. You’ve been given the big stick, swing it vigorously in slaying the dragons they fear and in expressing the views and values they hold dear. Let their lives be honored in your broadcasts, let them find empathy and encouragement. Let them come away from you stronger than when they tuned in. Develop your sensitivity to their priorities.
And love them. You can’t serve anybody you don’t love, and if you don’t want to serve the audience – truly serve it – then you should find another line of work. You should study these people and their communities – the ones that are culturally familiar to you, and the ones that aren’t. You should know where they shop and where they play, how they pray and how they swear, what they fear and what they loathe. You must know them, so that you can love them.
And you must be prepared to defend them.
From error, from bullcrapping politicians, from bad policies or laws, from the overreach of profit or politics. You must be the wrath and power of a free press in defense of the innocent and good.
But you can’t be full of yourself.
At the end of the day, you’re an idiot on the radio. We are the medium of fart noises and boob jokes. Your grand sermon is apt to be followed by a commercial for impotence cream. Fortunately, the size of your voice and the size of your head will track. The louder and more artificial your radio voice becomes, the more ego drunk you have become. Keep an eye out for both.
You’re the idiot on the radio, inviting people along for the ride.
Make sure they’ve got a ride to follow.
Talk radio is a narrative form. It is a story-telling venue. Let there be a story line in your show, let there be multiple crisscrossing story lines, let there be names and characters and dramas and joys.
Whether it’s your kids or your neighbors or your hobbies or your diet. Throw in tidbits on a regular basis, something beyond the issues of the day, tidbits of your real life, to engage people, to warm people, to empower people.
Let these story lines continue over months and years. Make them part of the group culture of the listeners of your show.
Nothing good comes easy, and you only own the ground you bleed into.
Let your listeners know that you will be there for them no matter what. The storms, the upheavals, the power outages and political returns. Work your shift, and work an extra shift. Show that you are committed to the audience, and the audience will be committed to you.
This is a duty entrusted to you by God and a radio company, and if you treat it that way, folks will recognize and respect that, and they will recognize and respect you.
Finally, this is fun. Huge fun.
And a giant scam. We’ve convinced massive media companies to pay us lots of money for sitting on our arse and running our mouth.
It’s radio, and if radio’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re not smiling, you’re missing the point.
Now go do it. Open the door, count to three, and jump.
And enjoy the ride.
Bob Lonsberry is a talk show host heard daily on WHAM, Rochester and WSYR, Syracuse.