Managing Air Talent
From Radio & Records, August 2003

By John Silliman Dodge

Everywhere you look you're challenged to do more with less. You may no longer control the number of units in your hours. You might not be able to program as much variety as you'd like, or go as deep as some Web channels and satellite companies go. You may not have the promotional budgets you used to enjoy. But there's one thing over which you have complete control. OK, maybe complete control isn't the right way to put it. But you have something unique that sets you apart from all the other options on the dial. It's not your music. It's your people.

We're so funny. We think we're in the music business. We're not. We're in the relationship business. Relationships between listeners and air personalities, between leaders and staff, between sales people and clients, between labels, program directors and music directors-this is the glue that holds the Big Show together. And who are your outreach experts, your relationship managers, your most valuable customer service reps? Your announcers. Their presentation, the way they deliver your carefully crafted package is more important now than ever before. Because the songs you play aren't exclusive to you. Your playlist isn't defensible. Even your promotions can be scooped or one-upped. We should post a sign that says: It's the PEOPLE, stupid.

The proper care and feeding of announcers is like some mystical alchemy. Everybody thinks it's a good idea but nobody knows exactly how to go about it. This is just one of the things we'll explore at the Summit on Friday morning during the workshop called "Managing Air Talent." More on that a bit later.

As a PD you are increasingly called upon to be a coach, a mentor, a teacher, a guide, a cheer leader. Depending on your experience and personality type, these roles may or may not come naturally to you. You probably have your left brain skills down: You're strategically sharp. You're a Selector Master. You have a black belt in Excel. You can execute complex research projects in your sleep. You understand the delightfully dysfunctional relationship between radio and records and you work it, Baby. Now comes the hard part. Motivating people. Notice I didn't say managing. Motivating. There's a quantum difference.

Announcers are performance artists and what motivates artists is not what motivates engineers or salespeople. Performers are people-pleasers. They live to make you happy. If you're not happy, they're not happy. Say you pass your morning guy in the hallway at 10:10. You scowl and say nothing. He thinks, "The boss hates me, I suck, I'm outa here" when in fact you may have simply come from the dentist office. Instead let's say you say, “Good show” and he says, "Thanks." That's better than nothing but what he really wants to know is, "Exactly what was good about it and how can I repeat that goodness tomorrow and next week so I can kick up the next book which is the only thing I think you really care about?" He's probably not gonna say that to you because you're the Man (or the Woman), so you have to tell him: "The way you featured that caller at 7:20, the way you let him go on for an extra minute when some other self-centered knucklehead would have cut him off. That was great radio. Everybody could relate to what that guy was saying. Smart move." This is focused feedback, actionable information, sincere praise. And it took you ten seconds to deliver. You interview American workers and they'll tell you their #1 complaint is lack of feedback from management. You can buck this miserable trend by praising your announcers-because they're people-pleasers, and giving them specific feedback every chance you get-because they thrive on it.

Leadership is a service role, an exercise in constant motivation and communication of vision. By contrast, management is a control function. Which one are you? Managers dink around with process. They make the trains (or the clocks) run on time. Managers tell people what to do and some of it actually gets done, sometimes. But leaders weave dreams and inspire people from the inside out. Leaders understand that most people want to be led and only require a vision that is greater than themselves to follow. Leaders understand human nature and why people work.

Speaking of work, the top-down command and control military model doesn't work anymore, except maybe in the military. People won't do anything that isn't in their own self interest. (I can hear you say, "They will if I
tell 'em to!") Trust me, they won't. They'll thwart you. You can threaten them with firing but your best and brightest don't even need the job. You need them more than they need you. And if you're a total putz they will realize this fact and use it against you.

What kinds of leadership skills are required today? Empathy. Understanding. Compassion. Detached attachment. Sensitivity. Listening skills. Female energy. If you're a man you're saying "Huh?" If you're a woman you're saying "Duh."

It's time to acknowledge my influences. Every important lesson I ever learned about managing people I learned from being a dad. My daughter was my management guru. Adapted for radio, here are a few things she taught me:

  • Heap on the sincere praise. Approval is the performer's emotional paycheck.
  • Motivation comes from the inside out, not from the outside in. Learn a person's self interest and then link their interest to yours.
  • Understand why people work. Money is only a byproduct and rarely the goal.
  • Have frequent, informal chats with your people-all of them not just your favorites or the "important" ones. No ulterior motives, no agenda, just take their temperature as though you were really interested.
  • Listen much more than you talk. (Always a challenge for radio types.)
  • Be open to ideas from anywhere, everywhere, and everyone. When you use someone's idea, trumpet it publicly and you will gain more loyalty than you can imagine.
  • Assess each person as an individual and respond in a custom fashion. One size does not fit all.
  • Always look for the "teachable moment," that unplanned opportunity to illustrate a point with a story or an example.
  • Never criticize in public. It only backfires and creates bitterness, resentment, and passive aggression. Even resist the urge to criticize in private.
  • Your body language talks louder than your mouth. So check yourself. Crossed legs, folded arms, set jaw, knit brow? Or open stance, welcoming eyes?
  • Never mind the mouth, watch the feet. It's not what people say they will do but what they actually do that reveals their nature.
  • Most people will solve their own problems if you express confidence, wind them up, point them in the right direction and then get out of their way.
  • A corollary: You can tell people what to do but don't tell them how to do it. That's their business. It' best to tell people why something needs to be done and let them know you have confidence in them to do the job.
  • Enthusiasm is a force multiplier. Develop yours and infect everybody with it.
  • Check your assumptions and approach each personnel challenge like a brand new deal. Because it is.
  • The difference between what I say and what you hear me say can be huge. Always think before you speak and choose your words carefully.