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Be the Best Talent Coach: Maximize Potential

| September 17, 2021

By Jon Quick


“Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance: Growing Human Potential and Purpose: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership


CARMEL, Ind. — Many programmers just don’t do it, though it’s the most important part of their role, or at least it used to be. Coaching talent for: Great preparation. Powerful execution. Compelling communication. Audience retention. Better relating to the listener.

Ask today’s program director and too often you hear, “I don’t have the time.”

Programmers are often so caught up in corporate matters or minutiae that they really don’t have the time by the end of the day.

Other reasons include some group PDs – often sheltered in a corporate office in a faraway land – dictating strategy and making many PDs simply “systems operators.”  In some cases, they might not understand the issues and nuances in a local market. It’s key to learn to “speak the unique language of each market.”

When consulting and coaching radio and brands, I shudder when I hear, “My talent won’t listen and already has too many things to do.” Surprisingly, many programmers and personalities believe coaching is beneath them or they don’t know how to coach, because many PDs never actually learned how to do it.

Peyton Manning

Enter Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Can you imagine an NFL team not reviewing game film with the players on Monday morning after the game?  It’s been told that Peyton Manning used to watch a playback of his entire game with his dad, the legendary Archie Manning. His dad pointed out in no uncertain terms what son Peyton did wrong. And what he did right. Peyton would probably say that feedback was invaluable to him as he built his own football dynasty.

The best talent out there are desperate for feedback.  They want to get better no matter how many years in the business; no matter how many Marconi Awards they have won.

The “Wow” Factor

First, let’s look at some of the most common issues we find among talent that talk, no matter what the format. For that I call upon some of the best radio minds in our business.

The legendary Walter Sabo is now the host and producer of “Sterling at Night,” heard on some of the premier talk stations in the country.  Sabo is a man who has worked with some of the best talent in the history of radio.

“I want to be shocked and surprised,” says Sabo. “Today’s talent is afraid to be unpredictable and to bend the rules. You must break the rhythm. Expect the unexpected. Simply put: Remember the ‘WOW Factor.’”

Steve Reynolds of the Reynolds Group consults leading talent in the top 10 markets. While he is best known for his work in music radio, his wisdom applies to on-air personalities in most any format.

“One of the primary challenges for any talent is to move the audience to care about them,” Steve says. “Look at your life – when you care about someone in your circle, you spend more time with them. The topics you choose, how you treat those topics on the show, the tone of your program, and your ability to show vulnerability by sharing your life will bond you with the audience in ways that are unbreakable.”

Tom Langmyer is president & CEO of Great Lakes Media, a station acquisition company and media advisory firm.

Tom’s illustrious career includes corporate positions in media in large companies, programming news, talk and music stations – and as a longtime GM at KMOX, St. Louis; WGN, Chicago; and WTMJ/WKTI, Milwaukee.

Langmyer believes that “talent needs to connect more intimately and one-on-one. The talent should be communicating as one person to one listener, as in ‘you’ – as opposed to the collective ‘everyone.’ Still shocking that so many radio, TV and podcasters, even at big networks don’t get this simple thing. Who are you talking to? Are you addressing people in a stadium or sitting next to your listener in the car? That said, there are ways to coach this without having it be through a painful ‘aircheck session’ in an office. Respect the talent. That’s rule number one. Have their back and they will trust you back.”

A Coaching Checklist for Talk Radio

The best on-air performers are always working on their next show. They’re voracious readers. They consume media at amazingly high levels. They know their target listener.

They find out everything the target is interested in. Health, family, kids, their money, politics, where they go on vacation, where they live, what they drive, what they watch, what they read, what sports they like, their concerns and their fears.

Smart talent will even find a picture of their typical target listener. Say it’s a 40- something person. They hang it above their desk with a headline on top saying: DO THEY CARE?

They go to all the places where the listener might be – on a bus, at a ballgame, on the street, in line at the grocery store, at a major event. Dissect your demos. Know how to speak their language.  Know what makes them laugh, and what keeps them entertained.

They are nosy. They ask questions. They store away the information they glean like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter.

Research Is a Tool, But There Is More

This comes from one of America’s great programmers, the late Rick Sklar, the man who made WABC one of the greatest radio success stories. Can you imagine what Sklar would be doing with all of the new distribution tools available to us today?

“Programming and marketing decisions in radio today are driven by numbers, statistics and computer-interpreted data, often at the expense of plain common sense and showmanship. People are afraid to be creative unless it’s been researched. But the longer I’m in radio the more obvious it becomes to me that we’re in show business. The giant stations that dominate their markets year after year, like the long running hits on Broadway and the top 10 movies, songs and books of the year, entertain with a capital “E.”  Stations that don’t creatively entertain, first and foremost, are doomed to mechanical mediocrity in their sound and their rating performance. “

Great coaches have a strong intuitive sense of what makes great radio.

The Playlist

Yes, a talk station should have a playlist. Just as a music programmer has a playlist, great talent will compile a “topics” playlist that appeals to their target.

The list, of course, will continue to change and evolve every day. There are certain topics that will be on the list for a long time. Some will be relevant today only.

And as is the case for a music playlist, they know how often to ‘rotate’ it. Realize, there are those occasions where one topic might take up the whole show.

Understand, that it’s OK to repeat topics. The audience changes. If something works well in the 6:00 am hour, it’s OK to repeat it in the 8:00 am hour. It’s also OK to playback an excerpt of something that was great radio the day before. In fact, I encourage it.

Even a Guest Playlist

If a program has guests, develop a stable of great ones who appeal to the target and who are compelling, interesting, informative, entertaining. Make them regulars.

If they are good, invite them back.

But don’t totally depend on them. Experiment. Find new and exciting guests.

Stop the Crutches and Taking the Easy Way Out

Phil Boyce is SVP/spoken word format at the Salem Media Group: “A lot of PDs I know have drunk the Kool-Aid about ‘live and local’ without thinking what that means. Don’t think listeners are clamoring for local talk about the community bulletin board. Most listeners want to know the local host’s take on the big stories of the day and localize them. This doesn’t mean talk about the corner farmer’s market, unless you devise a way to make it really entertaining.

“Anybody can do celebrity birthdays or on this day in history. A common crutch. Unless you can find a creative way to do it. In small markets, you still often hear school lunch menus. A good community service. But a morning show I worked with in Northern Minnesota decided to “sing” the lunch menus to add entertainment value. It was hilarious.”

Tom Langmyer: “Great coaches can help with the globally important things, and on the seemingly smaller things which add up quickly to become bigger things. We’ve all heard bad clichés and such crutches as ‘you guys,’ ‘what’s up?’ and ‘we’ll be back.’

“Great coaches can help with very common problems that make talent a hard listen.  Taking forever to start the show out of the gate with useless prattle is almost universal.  Look up ‘vocal fry,’ and ‘uptalk,’ which are common issues and are horribly annoying to many people. Fix it. Coaches can help with ‘Aye” and ‘Theee” disease, the awkward way many, particularly sports talent, speak, as opposed to ‘a’ and ‘thuh,’ which is how real people talk. These irritants turn people off. Affectations and strange communication patterns are common problems where a coach can help. How many media ‘professionals’ do you know who pronounce ‘right’ as ‘royyyt?’ How many yell AT, versus talk WITH, the listener?” “The big picture and the details are both of great importance,” adds Langmyer.

I must reinforce Tom’s astute comments to include my most annoying crutch of all, “Ya know what I mean?”

Memorable Benchmarks

Develop memorable benchmarks. These are things to which people will look forward and will give a personality or the station itself more positive differentiation. Things that create street talk and buzz. 

Benchmarks are what you’ll be remembered for, or what you are known for.  Benchmarks can be a lot of things, but they are always regular segments of your show.  Not necessarily every day, but at least weekly and, hopefully, more often.

Benchmarks can be serious news, funny bits, a daily newsmaker guest, a town character that always has an opinion about everything, a game you play with listeners, a time when listeners can call in to sound off, the list is endless. All great shows have several of them.

Talk to ME

The best talent are great storytellers. They get to the hottest topics right out of the box.  They grab the listener and know the strategies to keep them interested and what’s to come.

Paint a picture; create theatre of the mind. The greatest play-by-play announcers, especially for baseball, are masters of this.

Watch the small talk. Some is alright as long as it’s relevant. Too much can get in the way of the information people come to the station for.

Remember, unless you have some really interesting first-person stories to tell that your listener can relate to, most could care less what you did over the weekend. It’s amazing how many personalities delay the start of the show with useless chit chat. That’s a great formula for someone to hit the button and never come back.

Practice the Art of the Compelling Tease

Clients of mine know how hard I stress this. It’s critical to maintain time spent listening and more share.

Too often, an announcer will say, “Stick with us. I’ll be right back after the break.”

Why should I?

Tease a guest or topic in a compelling way. Reset your show every 15 minutes. Give them a reason to continue listening. Usually it’s about the TOPIC, not the guest.


Never say, “Financial advisor Joe Smith coming up after the break.”

Instead say, “How this new economy is going to cost you thousands of dollars. Details next. This is the (insert name of show) on (insert station brand).” Yes, I mention one of the basics here: You can’t give the call letters often enough.

Never say, “Our medical expert Dr. Jim Johnson next.”

Instead say, “What you need to know now about another new danger of the pandemic your children might face.”

Use this same technique when producing your daily show promos.

Change the Script

Be spontaneous. Surprise the listener. It can be ‘planned’ spontaneity, of course, with proper preparation. Be willing to change the course of the show from what’s planned, especially if things are not going well. Likewise, if you have something good and you feel real momentum, keep it going if you can. If you can’t, invite them back tomorrow or even later in the show.

Practice Smart Interview Techniques

Remember, the lead is everything. When you get to the interview be sure you write the introduction in such a way that it grabs the listener’s attention.

Be prepared. Plan your questions. And decide how (and when) to use them. Know the topic/guest well.

Use some of the best questions to tease ahead: “When we come back the governor tells us if she is going to run again this fall. Get the news exclusively here …“

Reidentify the Guest/Topic Often

Remember, people are tuning in and out all the time. People don’t listen always from the very beginning.

When coming back from a break, be sure to reset the stage. Don’t assume people know who’s on-the-air. Again, remember that people are tuning in all the time.

If the interview is going poorly, be willing to cut it short.

If the guest is willing, and if there’s time, let the listener be the interviewer for a while.   Or involve the listener on the phone when discussing a fun or hot topic. Remember, listener involvement is one of the things that make radio unique and one thing most steady radio listeners like about their favorite station


When coach personalities, I’ll often mention pacing. Too slow can sound tired and dull.   Too fast can be hard to understand. Strive to talk one-on-one in a conversational style.

The Realization that Without Sound Radio Is Nothing

Imagine a television newscast without video. The talent that works hard finds sound of every variety to enhance their programs: voice clips, sound effects – even topical use of music.

Social Media

How well is talent utilizing the various platforms of social media? It should be remembered that the radio is still our main and most important platform, but social media can increase our reach to incredible levels. Conceptually, there are no market sizes anymore. These days most anyone in the world can hear us.

Coaching Various Personality Types

Tom Langmyer notes that “great coaches need to get to know the talent personally. It’s critical to identify things are noteworthy in the talent, such as life experiences, defining moments, personality traits, authenticity, passions (and even “non-passions”), areas of brilliance & genius, relevance, topicality, entertainment style, and having a story with the great ability to tell it. The best talents are curious, adventurous, inquisitive and observers of people. They actually play at it, not like it’s a ‘job,’ but because they live for it.”

We all know talent have all kinds of personalities and responses to feedback. There are those who beg for coaching. They want to get better. They can be uneasy when you don’t pay attention to them. These people are open to a typical aircheck session. Just be careful you don’t overwhelm them.

You might just take a 10-15 minute segment of their last show, one that you think exemplifies a problem they have. Listen to it together. Let them point out how they could have done it better. Smile and nod and add some of your own comments. Urge them to make the change and then follow-up with praise when they execute.

If you are coaching a two-person team, for instance, let them critique each other. They might end up doing the job for you.

Typically, coaching takes place in the program director’s office and there is a review of airchecks. That might not be the right way, depending on the emotional make-up of the talent – a polite way of saying you need to consider the “ego factor.” Consider that and how it impacts the approach you take when coaching.

Walter Sabo says, “To get the most out of coaching big talent, it is essential to acknowledge their stardom. Find some positive things to say, then let them talk and you listen. Then, it becomes easier when you suggest just one thing to work on (for now).

“Get them out of the station to a place where they feel more comfortable. Go to the deli for lunch. Or join them for a beer. Sometimes with talent you don’t even listen to an aircheck,” continues Sabo.

Hopefully, they cooperate. If they don’t, you have other issues.

Remember, truly great personalities thrive on feedback. They are always searching for ways to get better. Just ask Peyton Manning.

Jon Quick has worked with many great radio brands in his career, including WCCO, WIBC, KFGO, KTAR, KLBJ, KFTK, and Corus Entertainment, Canada.  Today he specializes in consulting and talent coaching for brands nationwide.  He can be reached at 317-432-0309, or

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Category: Advice