Breaking Down the Voice Break
From High Performance Radio: The Announcer

The radio announcer’s performance unit is called a voice break. He or she creates the voice break by sequencing components in such a way that they flow together for maximum effect. The most basic elements include:

  • Station ID
  • Back announce (also called backselling)
  • Time
  • Your name
  • Live station promotions (one per break)
  • Recorded promos or program features
  • Other service elements such as PSA’s, weather, or traffic
  • Forward announce (or frontsell) music including station ID

Let’s break these components down one at a time…

  • Station ID. The single most important element in the voice break is the station ID. It’s the equivalent of your brand name. For example: “91.3 KBCS, the home of worldwide jazz and folk.” When you speak these elements together, they identify and reinforce three important attributes:
    • The dial position/frequency
    • The value proposition, or what listeners can expect when they tune in
    • The call letters

The dial position/frequency is most important identifier because it’s the only piece of information a listener requires to find you and to return again.

The value proposition can take different forms—sometimes it’s a nickname such as Radio Alice. Sometimes it’s a positioning slogan, such as “The Tri-Cities Best Rock.” And sometimes it’s a program name, “Breakfast with Bud.”

The call letters are more important to some stations than to others, depending on market position. The station might be best known by its nickname, say 99.5 Kiss.

Choose two of these three identifiers and place them as close as possible coming out of music and again at the end of the voice break going into music. For variety on your next break, simply create a different combination.

An important note about station identification: You would think that people always know which radio station they are tuned to. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Most listeners have an average of 2.5 presets on their dial — one favorite, one alternate, and a third for when they’re in that “special mood.” They pay less attention than we’d like to which station is on. So never assume your listeners know. Identify your station often and do it in a varied and fresh way each time. This isn’t being redundant or pushy. This is simply good branding tactics.

Back announce. People want information about the artists and songs they hear. Your challenge is to deliver that information in a brief, bright and concise package. It helps to visualize an inverted pyramid. Use the greatest amount of information to describe the last song in your set, the one the listener has just heard. The amount of backwards-oriented data should reduce quickly from that point until you reach the first song in the set, which gets just the bare bones description. Always work from the present backwards in the reverse order of play. When it’s time to front-announce, give your first song the full treatment.

The Informational Pyramid

Hey, what was that song? One of the biggest complaints about commercial radio is that “they never tell you what they played.” This prohibition on back announcing is motivated by the director’s desire to create maximum forward momentum. It’s extreme, but well reasoned; the more time you spend describing the past, the more risk you run of bringing all forward momentum to a halt. Between the two extremes — telling listeners nothing about what they just heard and detailing every last thing that’s happened in the past thirty minutes — try to strike a good balance.

On back announcing: If you assume that most listeners have been listening since the very beginning of your music set, you could be wrong. Listeners tune in and out. Much in-car listening lasts exactly as long as the average commute. If you don’t identify the station or the songs before the end of that ride to or from work, your listener may have no idea what he heard or who you are. That’s not good. And when you do finally back-announce, going on at length about a song you played 15 minutes ago runs the risk that your newly arrived listener has no clue what you’re talking about. That’s not good either.

  • Time. Express the time digitally. It creates a much crisper sound. 10:22 is said “ten-twenty-two” and not “22 minutes past 10” or worse, “22 minutes after the hour of 10 o’clock.” Once we pass 45 minutes after the hour, express the time as “ten-fifty” or “10 minutes before 11.” Round seconds either up or down. “Coming up on 11 minutes before 5” is more detailed information than the listener needs.
  • Your name. Not every break, but at least every second break, say your name. This is how listeners get to know you better. Imagine yourself at a party. You wouldn’t walk up to someone, extend your hand and say, “Hey everybody, this is John Dodge.” Yet people do it on the radio all the time. “I’m John Dodge” is the natural, one-to-one way to go.
  • Live station promotions. This element might be an upcoming concert, a special event, or a pledge drive that has strategic importance for the station. Beyond the music, this element should be the focus of your voice break, the one thing you want the listener to remember if he forgets everything else. That’s why it’s never smart to run two important messages back to back. Doing so creates information overload for the listener.
  • Recorded pieces. This might be a produced concert spot, or a show promo, a PSA, or a recorded program feature. If your break contains a recorded feature, you should reduce your portion of talk to balance the break. The longer the feature, the more space you need to give up. If you run underwriting spots on your station, place them after your important station promos, not before.
  • Other service elements. These include traffic, weather, and PSA’s. Regular public service announcements are part of our responsibility as broadcasters. They’re usually placed late in the break after the live and recorded elements but before the forward announce into your next set of music.

On reading liners and PSA’s naturally: these scripts contain important messages for the community and should be communicated with genuine enthusiasm. But trouble can occur when the announcer shifts abruptly from a conversational style to reading someone else’s PSA copy. To avoid this, pre-read the script so you understand its exact meaning and intent. Then extract the “who, what, when, where, and why” so you can deliver the message in your own words. So it sounds like you doing the talking.

Forward announce. At least every other break, point to something attractive scheduled in your next quarter hour and invite listeners to stay tuned for it. Not much detail is required. Save the detail for your very next piece of music. Finally, be sure to add the station ID and dial position at or near the end of your break.

In conclusion, those are the basic components that make up a voice break. Your format or your PD may determine the exact sequence of elements. If you have the option, remember that it’s good practice to place the most important information first and sandwich any secondary items in the middle. And make your sequence logical; don’t run a recorded promo directly out of music and then begin your back announce. Get information about music immediately adjacent to music.

Voice break checklist. In a perfect world you would go over every show with your Program Director and get his or her constructive feedback. In reality, everyone is so busy that you often have to self-evaluate. When you review your aircheck tapes, which you should do regularly, it will improve your technique if you judge your performance by these criteria—

  • Was I concise and brief? Did I eliminate unnecessary chat and focus on the substance?
  • Did I make creative and effective use of station ID’s and use them frequently?
  • Was I engaged one-to-one with my listener? Did I make eye contact and sound “present?”
  • Was my communication informative and valuable?
  • Did I promote station events and programming frequently and with enthusiasm? Did I sound proud to be part of my station’s team?
  • Were my transitions between voice break elements fluid and natural?
  • Did I regularly invite my listener to stay tuned for something good coming up in the next quarter hour?
  • Did I pass the “what city is this” test and connect to my community?