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Storytelling and Formatics Are a Winning Combination

Each week my ears are glued to radio stations all across the country. Being a former programmer turned consultant, I’m constantly looking for ways to help brands and individuals get better. In doing so, it can sometimes be difficult to sit back, relax, and enjoy the content but when something excellent is presented thru the speakers, I instantly recognize it.

Last week, I caught two of those moments on the same show and station. I’ll explain what stood out, where it occurred and why it resonated with me in just a moment.

Before I do that though, let me be clear about one thing. When I highlight a show or brand, it doesn’t mean they’ve created the greatest show on planet earth. Nor am I suggesting that they’re better than their local competition. I’m simply appreciating and acknowledging a piece of content which had the potential to connect with an audience.

The latest example that grabbed my attention happened on 102.9/750 The Game in Portland, Oregon. I was listening to John Canzano host his daily program “The Bald Faced Truth” which airs weekdays from 12p-3p PT. For those who aren’t familiar, Canzano has been a fixture in the market for a long time, and has earned recognition nationally for delivering one of the country’s better sports radio programs.

As I was listening to John host his show, I was drawn in by his ability to tell great stories and not waste time diving into his segments. I’ll explain in a minute why diving into content is vital but as necessary as that may be, if the content itself isn’t great then it doesn’t matter what you’re diving into so I want to begin by highlighting John’s storytelling ability.

On this particular day, John recited a previous conversation he had with Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth who told him “you’ve got to be where your feet are.” Canzano explained that too often people live in the past or plan for the future that they forget to enjoy, appreciate and recognize what’s taking place in the present. He then used that opening to springboard into a story which involved USA Today Network Tennessee Titans reporter Joe Rexrode.

While flying to Cleveland to cover the Titans-Browns game, Rexrode found himself on the verge of potentially facing death. The engine on his flight blew out and the Titans scribe was convinced (along with the flight attendants and everyone else on board) that the plane was going to go down. As he contemplated what was about to occur, he opened up his laptop to begin writing a letter to his family apologizing to them for dying.

I could transcribe everything Canzano said during this story, but you owe it to yourself to take 10 minutes and listen. What I enjoyed about this piece of content is the way John painted a picture with words and made the audience feel as if they were on the flight themselves. That emotionally taxing situation was used as an example of why it’s important to live in and appreciate the present.

Equally as interesting and entertaining was a second segment that Canzano delivered during the same show. Once again, John wasted no time diving into his content and provided a great back story to support a thought provoking topic. John began by explaining that his wife is Asian and described how their different backgrounds can lead to being treated differently when they go out to eat. That came into play recently at a Sushi restaurant, leaving John to feel like he was the victim of racism.

Over the next ten minutes, John shared vivid details about his dining experience and how the waitress who served him and his wife treated them differently than another couple in the same establishment. He allowed his listeners to draw a mental image of what was happening, and put them in a position where they could relate to it and contemplate how they would’ve handled it.

I can’t tell you how many hosts I hear on stations across the country waste time starting off segments. Rather than diving in with a purpose, they come across as if they’re lost at sea and hoping that if they drive the ship in a million different directions they’ll eventually stumble onto shore. The response I often hear from talent is “we need time to build momentum” or “we like to let the content evolve and ease into the conversation” except what they fail to understand is that they are not in the listener’s shoes at that point in time. A person with 15 minutes of time to listen to a sports radio show does not care about your need to ease into content. If they’re going to have to wait a while to hear something good, they’ll turn elsewhere.

Step back for a quick minute and think about what your audience is subjected to once you begin a commercial break. They’re hit with four to five minutes of commercials, probably a 1-2 minute sports update, :10-:15 seconds of music (sometimes longer if an audio cut is being played) and then they’re expected to wait another 3-4 minutes before the talk show host gets into the “good stuff” they have planned for the segment. I didn’t even mention traffic reports, stock reports, weather updates or other business driven benchmarks which stations sometimes put in place to help generate revenue even if it doesn’t necessarily excite the content consumer.

Do the math for a second. Your listener has 15-20 minutes to spend with your show. Do you really think you’re helping yourself by making them wait 10 minutes at a time to hear your A+ material? If the game within the game is to secure five minutes of listening in a quarter hour, are you helping or hurting yourself by wandering thru the first few minutes of your segments?

As a rule of thumb, I think there are three critical things a talk show host must do consistently to provide a benefit to the audience and position themselves strongly to gain their time.

First, tease something that makes them think thru a commercial break. It doesn’t have to be an over the top outlandish position, just a question or thought to leave them curious.

Secondly, pay off what you teased as soon as you return from your break. Easing into your content simply means you are not prepared for where you’re headed. Remember what you promised the audience and pay it off immediately. The challenge should be deciding whether the content you teased is worth :60 seconds or 10 minutes of airtime. If it’s only worth a small amount and it’s served its purpose of keeping the audience engaged then be ready with a strong follow up topic.

Finally, come prepared with GREAT material. Anyone can hit the airwaves and talk about how much of an emotional roller coaster Game 5 of the World Series was. What are you providing that nobody else is? What did you see that nobody else saw? What other vivid details can you pass along from your experience watching the game that mentally engages the audience and keeps them hanging on your next sentence? If your plan of attack is to field phone calls and rely on the obvious question “was that the greatest World Series game of all-time” be prepared to run out of gas quickly.

In our business, we put a lot of emphasis on formatics and I don’t want to discount their importance. But, if the only thing you have are great teases and payoffs and an ability to reset, then you’re not going to win. It still comes down to creating unique topics and angles that help steal a listener’s time and delivering opinions and information in a thought provoking and entertaining way.

Remember this, you have zero control over your radio station’s signal, the in-market competition, your lead in show or the ratings system. However, when you combine excellent formatics with great topic development and storytelling, you give yourself a chance to stand out. That approach seems to be working well for John Canzano.

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