Air Quality Control

By John Silliman Dodge

Welcome to the New Year, always a good time to consider new possibilities and new ways to engage and think differently about the way we do our work. You may have a new on-air position in a new market, or this may be simply the opportunity to approach your old job with a brand new attitude. Either way, it's the perfect time for a fresh perspective. Let's start by taking a look at the art, the craft, and the creative science of announcing. First let me share a Light Bulb Moment with you.

I was visiting a client in San Francisco and listening to a station that used to be one flavor but then morphed into a totally different flavor. Suddenly (which is the way these things happen), I realized that radio can no longer compete on the basis of music alone. That day is over and done. Today information is so readily available that I can copy your station's playlist and you can copy mine by tomorrow morning drive. Consider speedy digital downloads, file sharing, cheap CD burners, Web radio, satellite radio, subscription services, new wireless applications, etc. and it's easy to see that music is turning into a commodity. For younger audiences, radio is nowhere near their primary source for new music. But don't panic, it's not like we're losing our grip. Or is it?

I've spent decades working in performance-playing concerts as a recording artist, in the studio as a radio production director, coaching talent as a program director, and now consulting with radio stations, businesses, and universities around the country. I'm convinced that the real competitive advantage between stations always comes down to talent. The unique value that talent adds to our presentation is the only true differentiator left. Relationships are what propel and sustain all businesses. Since enduring relationships with listeners are what build long term success, announcers take on a much greater responsibility than ever before. Are we trained and prepared to take on that challenge? Some of us are, and many more of us are not.

The old school "that was, time, temp, liner, this is," style of radio just isn't compelling anymore, if it ever truly was. Real people communicating honestly and emotionally with other real people-that's where we're headed. This approach is particularly well suited to the authentic style of Triple A radio but in the most important ways, great announcing is not about radio at all. It';s about clear, concise, compelling, creative, memorable message making. It's about merging the fundamentals of interpersonal communication with the fundamentals of theater. It involves creative thinking and writing, public speaking and presentation techniques, even the mechanics of speech. After we begin to think and perform this way, then we can overlay the particular requirements and eccentricities of the radio medium. But first we have to break down to the basics. I use a system I call PREP which stands for Preparation, Rehearsal, Editing, and Performance. I think it can help make you a better announcer. Let's take a look.

Preparation. Awareness of and empathy with your audience is the ultimate goal of preparation. You want to know exactly who you are talking to at all times. Go beyond age/sex/zip demographics and get to know the values and motivations of your listeners, what the sales team calls the psychographic profile. Empathy involves taking on their perspective. Put yourself in your listeners' shoes, see through their eyes, listen with their ears and imagine how they perceive you. The more you understand who they are and what makes them tick, the easier it is to visualize them as unique individuals. And that vision puts you closer to the natural, one on one, across-the-table conversational sound common to all great communicators. Once your begin to think from their "outside-in" point of view and not from your "inside-out" perspective, Life will hand you more show prep material than you can possibly use.

Rehearsal. Let's debunk the myth of spontaneity right now. Spontaneity is vastly overrated. Not every thought that pops into your head should pop out of your mouth like your brain was some kind of gumball machine. Why? Because chances are the first time you say something is not the very best way you could say it. Close maybe, but rarely perfect. So take your gem of an idea and polish it to brilliance. Three times is the charm. Before the red light goes on, speak your next break out loud. All the bugs become evident, the places where your thoughts or words aren't quite buttoned down. Speak it a second time and the rough edges smooth out because now you know where you're going. The third time, you go live. You're still delivering your own words, only now they sing. It's called planned spontaneity and every successful actor and comedienne employs this technique. You don't have to run your entire break through the drill but you should always rehearse the two most important components: your entrance and exit.

Editing. Our world is on communication overload. We're supersaturated with e-mail, cell phones, telemarketers during dinner, broadband Web, and omnipresent radio and TV. So do your listeners a mighty favor: Think before you speak and choose fewer, more powerful words. Fewer words arranged in a tighter sequence give your ideas bigger impact. Less truly is more. Your audience will appreciate this approach and reward you with loyalty.

Performance. I've done quite a bit of voice-over work with ad agencies and something always happens early in these sessions. The director says, "We don't want you to sound like a DJ." By this he means, "We want you to be a real person, someone that the audience will relate to. Real people are more believable. DJ's aren't." Pretty sobering, huh? Exactly how did this come to be?

Too often an announcer opens the mic and out pops a caricature, a bad impression of a DJ. He uses tones and phrases he would never use in real life, certainly never with his friends. This disconnect starts with the illusion that he is all alone in a studio talking to a vast, anonymous audience. They can';t see him and he can't see them. This is where things can break down and threaten intimacy, eye contact, directness, relevancy, real-speak, and humanity. But there's a way around it.

For years professional athletes have used a technique called visualization to prepare for a successful performance and we can adapt this to our role as announcers. When you visualize, you fix one listener in your mind and talk directly to him or her. You remove the artificial tones and cadences, the "DJ-isms" from your speech. You talk exactly like you talk to your close friend in a one-to-one conversation. In the process you become real. You're allowed to show and share emotions, opinions, all the things that real people do together. This attitude helps listeners adopt you into their family and circle of friends. Right where you want to be.

Is the performance completely real? Not exactly. There is an additional technique we could call Reality Plus Ten Percent. As a producer I observed that if you lay in a natural sound effect, a door slam let's say, it won't necessarily pop out of the mix. So I learned to enhance and accentuate reality just to the point where these effects sounded "natural." You can apply the same technique to your delivery. Your speech can take on just a touch of extra emphasis, can become crisper and more defined, can run a bit more rapidly and benefit from extra animation. But it's like that "no makeup" makeup look. It doesn't take much.

Finally, remember that you are an actor and get up for your performance. Breathe deeply, use your whole body, make sure the blood is flowing and the brain is fully engaged before the mic and the mouth are open. Know your direction and your purpose for the break. To the extent that you can, imagine your monolog as a dialog. Focus all your energy and content on one person at a time and use the intimate tone and language with him or her that you use with your best friend. And never break eye contact. Ever.

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So there you have it: Preparation, Rehearsal, Editing, and Performance, a straightforward formula for effective announcing and a new and different way to approach your important role as the relationship manager of your radio station. Now that you think differently about your job, it's time for your executives to think differently as well.

What if broadcasting were more like other big American industries? We would invest in research and development of new products and services. We would commit to ongoing training so that our people could learn to be more productive and effective. This isn't frivolous or discretionary spending; some industry CEO's believe that a one-dollar increase in R&D translates into a two-dollar increase in profit and a five-dollar increase in market value over a seven-year period. Even in an economic disaster year like 2002, research and development budgets were only trimmed by 15%. But sometimes I fear that our industry thinks R&D is a misspelling of an urban format and not a strategic component of success.

In nature when a pool isn't fed by a spring or replenished by rain it evaporates and the animals that depend upon it die. In business, the talent pool is in jeopardy when we fail to budget for development. Great coaches like Randy Lane, Lorna Ozmon, and Vallerie Geller have been evangelizing this message for years. They know that success doesn't happen by chance or accident. Smart broadcasters know that talent development is a product of planning and they nurture and develop new talent upward through the chain of markets. The best broadcasters know that talent is their magic bullet, the secret weapon that makes all the difference.