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The Fine Line Between Treasure and Trash

Inspiration can be hard to find at times. Especially if you’re an on-air talent and working with less than spectacular material during a slower period of the sports calendar. But regardless of your empty basket of content options, an audience still expects you to hit the airwaves and put on an entertaining show to allow them a distraction from life’s challenges.

But what do you do when the ideas don’t flow and the sports world offers trash instead of treasure?

The first place to start is inside your soul. It’s understandable that you’re going to have less joy for certain topics than others, but being honest, transparent, and intimate with your audience goes a long way in earning trust, respect and appreciation. People can detect when someone isn’t invested in the content and it’s your job to make sure they never feel that way about you.

On a daily basis, you’re going to sift thru stories from tons of websites, searching for a headline, paragraph, audio bite or video clip that is worth stopping in your tracks for. Sometimes you’ll find them. Other times you won’t. How you proceed when you locate gold is pretty obvious, but it’s when you uncover the equivalent of a dirty wet napkin that you discover what you’re truly made of.

Each talent is different in the way they think, operate and prepare. Some turn coal into diamonds. Others panic at the first sign of danger. But whether you’re confident and gifted or rattled and creatively challenged, an Oscar worthy performance is expected and excuses are best left at home.

What takes place before you speak into a microphone is irrelevant to the audience. To put it mildly, they don’t care about your problems or how much time you dedicated to create the content, only what comes thru the speakers. If it takes four hours of your time instead of two to satisfy their expectations, so be it. When the red light goes on, they expect you to seize the moment, or they tune you out. It’s that simple.

In thinking about the days when nothing stands out and the fear of filling two to four hours of air time with sub par material consumes you, I want you to step back and examine why you’re in that particular position.

The first issue often involves confidence and insecurity. To grab an audience’s attention, and operate to the best of your abilities, you’ve got to believe in what you’re selling. You are the salesperson of your content. If you can’t convince yourself that a topic is worth buying, then don’t expect it from your listeners.

Secondly, many hosts blame the subject matter rather than their own creativity and preparation. The beauty of the world of sports is that each day provides new content. There are days and weeks when bigger stories develop and our natural passion and interest increases, but there are no off-days in sports, let alone the sports media industry. It’s what you do with the material in front of you that determines if your programming is viewed as superior or a poor use of air time.

Rather than complaining about the lulls in the calendar, consider how you’re preparing during those tougher days. If you normally invest one to two hours of prep time into your show, slower periods day may require three or four hours. Is it a pain in the ass? Yes. But if you’re an exceptional talent with an ability to create compelling content, you’ve got to be willing to invest the time in your craft to deliver your best stuff.

Ask yourself this, if the phone lines were shut off and the audience participation on Twitter and the text line disappeared, would you still have an entertaining show? If the answer is no, reconsider your approach.

Nothing is more important than your pre-show creative process. This is your opportunity to discuss, debate, and test possible content ideas, and the final conclusion you arrive at determines if material makes it to the air or gets tossed aside. Whatever you do, don’t let that time get wasted with small talk, coffee breaks, and personal phone calls. As the old saying goes, Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance!

When big stories don’t land in our lap, we have a tendency to assess blame. That may allow you to get a few things off your chest but it doesn’t solve anything. A great storyteller and entertainer understands that to win over a crowd, you sometimes need to take small items and make them feel bigger. They leave no stone unturned when searching for content, and equally as vital, they recognize the difference between making news and creating interest versus reacting to news and relying on interest.

What serves as a great indicator of a show forming a powerful connection with an audience is when people tune in for the host rather than the subject matter. That’s the goal you should be striving for. It’s similar to purchasing tickets to see a top notch comedian. We trust in their ability to make us laugh and deliver stories and punchlines in a unique and memorable way, that we disregard the subject matter.

If you’ve ever listened to Howard Stern, he’s a master at creating internal show drama and content. He uses it like bait to lure in the fish. What makes Stern’s show fascinating is that it doesn’t rely on what’s topical. It creates its own material, which then becomes content for others to talk about.

Leading up to a big interview, few are better at building suspense and anticipation than Stern. He also captivates the audience by involving his cast and exposing their various dilemmas in real life situations, which in turn makes it easier for listeners to think, play along and connect to the personalities. That makes the program easy to digest.

One show that is doing this particularly well right now is Kirk and Callahan on WEEI in Boston. Each day is unpredictable, interesting, funny, upsetting or emotional, and whether listeners love or hate Kirk, Gerry and their rotating co-hosts, they have either strong opinions or an emotional connection to the program. Because Kirk and Callahan are authentic, creating their own content, and not reliant on the day’s top sports stories, they’ve been able to generate a ton of interest, and keep listeners tuning in to see what’ll happen next. The personalities have become the point of entry for the audience. The material comes second.

If you scan the country, you’ll find a large number of shows promoting themselves each day by touting their guest lists and giveaways, but rarely is anything mentioned about the host. It may not feel as big or unique, but the on-air talent’s observations, jokes, personal stories, and unfiltered commentaries strike a chord with people much more than a daily guest list.

Don’t get me wrong, A-list guests are worth promoting, especially if an on-air talent can pull exceptional answers out of them, but it doesn’t mean the other areas of the show aren’t also a destination or capable of becoming the larger focus of a day’s presentation. I also don’t want you to think that by becoming the focal point of a program it means that you can deliver less valuable content to people. Just like going to a concert, the crowd will sit thru a new tune or B-side song that you have a passion for, but if you feed them too many unfamiliar songs, they’ll quickly head for the exits.

If a host is capable of relaying a personal connection to a piece of topical content or offering an interesting way of understanding and viewing a specific subject, that has a better shot at staying in a listener’s head. The on-air talent are seen as the listener’s “friend on the radio” who keeps them company each day, and they go thru your ups, downs and in-betweens with you. It’s what makes radio a powerful platform.

A host doesn’t have the benefit of knowing who’s paying attention or how their comments are being consumed. The best ones though attack the air with a purpose, and welcome the challenge of stealing the audience’s attention when they appear less interested.

Anyone can hit the air the day after Jay Cutler signs with the Dolphins and question if it’s a good or bad move. Stating that Colin Kaepernick deserves to be on a roster when players with lesser skill occupy NFL roster spots requires little thought. Taking issue with LaVar Ball after he boasts about getting a referee removed from a summer game is easy. Each of those examples are things that your audience can create themselves, but as a sports media personality you’re expected to get more mileage out of the content than those who listen to you.

Over the span of a three or four hour show, some basic points are likely to be raised. That’s fine, but relying on audience reaction and simplistic headlines won’t be enough to keep people tuning in for an extended period of time.

What it boils down to are three simple things; being curious, investing prep time, and taking chances.

Are you stating the obvious or peeling back the layers of the onion to find what’s in the middle? Can you take a basic topic, relate it to a bigger local issue, and make it sound more important? Or are you regurgitating facts and information and distancing yourself from the emotional opportunities inside of a story?

To keep a topic hot for hours, and maintain mental interest and energy in a story requires developing four to five angles and having the patience and understanding to avoid unloading all at once. If you can exhaust ten to fifteen minutes of content potential from each angle, and include an interesting twist during the conversation, the audience will eat out of your hand and be back for seconds.

Reading, watching and listening to different things is a wise practice because it keeps you mentally engaged. It’s especially helpful to research how a local team, player, or story is being covered in another city, because it’s fresh and removed from everything we’re accustomed to hearing or seeing on a regular basis.

In our business it’s common to develop habits and rely on the same three or four local websites to create a rundown, but finding gems often requires searching in foreign places. When you fail to do it, especially during slower periods, you can find yourself gassed on a particular subject, and praying for a flood of phone calls or guests to bail you out.

No one said creating content and connecting with an audience was easy. It’s extremely hard. It’s why some hosts have reservations for the broadcasting hall of fame and others have futures waiting on tables or selling insurance. It doesn’t require a ton of skill to engage an audience when hot button topics are available, but you find out who’s truly worth their salt when the sports world feeds you a handful of crackers and you’re clamoring for steak.

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