One of the things I most enjoy about Morning Show Boot Camp each year is getting a unique perspective from those who make their living from behind the mic. And this year was no exception.
In AQ3, our study of air talent, more than 600 on-air professionals opined about radio, their careers, COVID, and the companies that pay their salaries. After conducting the original studies in 2018 and 2019, I wasn't planning on being surprised by the key findings in this year's version. Sure, the pandemic has warped the industry in ways we couldn't have imagined. But I generally have a pretty good bead on what air talent are thinking and feeling.
Until Bert Weiss invited me to participate on his MSBC 33 panel: “Managing Content in a PC Charged World.” The stage was loaded with talent and great perspective.
Seated left to right in the photo:
- Brian Philips – Cumulus' head of programming, and a guy who has managed high-profile talent in radio and TV
- Brian Sherman – Half of the sensation “Sherman & Tingle Morning Show” at The Drive in Chicago
- Dana Cortez – Host of her own syndicated radio show, and a fantastic panelist no matter the topic
- Cat Thomas – PD of two iconic stations in Seattle, Hubbard's Warm and Movin'. I've worked closely with Cat in Jacksonville at WAPE and Rock 105.
- Louie Diaz – OM for Cumulus' Atlanta cluster, and VP of Contemporary for the company
And then there's Bert himself (standing far left), inimitable host of “The Bert Show,” a perfect choice to herd us cats and get the most out of a controversial topic that impacts more talent than I could have imagined.
It seems like every decade or so, there's a societal/cultural blowup that somehow impacts radio personalities, especially those known for their opinions and candor.
How has a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic affected radio’s on-air talent? We surveyed over 600 personalities and producers. Watch our webinar to see the results.
For me, perhaps the most dramatic of these was the controversy that took place during the Halftime Show at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about that infamous event and its ripple effect on radio:
“(2004) was the year that become known for the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake‘s set, produced by “MTV (who was relieved of its Super Bowl halftime duties ever since).
Strangely, that kerfuffle sent shockwaves through the radio industry, as the FCC became more vigilant about going after morning shows for inappropriate content, from Howard Stern (still on broadcast radio at that time) to Drew & Mike to Lex & Terry to Bubba the Love Sponge.
Everyone doing “shock radio” (as it was called back then) felt the chill, not to mention all those perplexing conference calls with the legal department trying to determine the words that were Kosher and those that were “fineable offenses.” And the fines were stout, magnified by many companies informing talent that if they slipped up, they had to whip out their personal checkbooks to make things right with the Commission.”
Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
Here we are 17 years later, and our polarized society, “cancel culture,” and other events have ushered in a very different – but every bit as ominous – chill throughout the American radio industry.
Back in 2004, you could debate pretty much anything with someone from “the other side” with impunity. Today, the mere mention of the President, face masks, vaccines, or Afghanistan is liable to start World War III.
That sentiment was reflected in AQ3 where we gave our respondents the chance to agree or disagree with the following statement:
“I'm concerned about covering topics that may offend certain segments of the station audience/my audience.”
I didn't see this one coming. Nearly two-thirds of our on-air talent sample agree or agree strongly with the statement. That's huge.
And perhaps in an even bigger surprise – to me – those who are hosts on music stations express even greater concern. Nearly two-thirds share their PC concerns.
The panel ran with this jump ball of a question, discussing the full range of variables in the mix – who you work for (the station, the company, the programmer), your level of trust with your bosses, and your relationship with the audience.
As more than one noticed, that last item was the key to KISS 108's Matty Siegel skating his way in and out of his comments about Demi Lovato this past May. On the other hand, the panel also pointed to the comments by the (former) 97Rock morning show in Buffalo as indefensible.
Oftentimes, it comes down to the show's EI – or Emotional Intelligence – to serve as a guide for how to traverse those slippery slopes. And it means asking important questions before the On Air light goes on.
Is yours the kind of show that has a “trust bridge” with listeners as well as those who sign your paycheck?
Programmer Louie Diaz reinforced the importance of insulating talent from every complaint email that comes in. And Dana Cortez reminded attendees there are days when even “happy shows” have to confront – or at least acknowledge in some way – a big, serious meaty news story, whether it's COVID, the insurrection, or Black Lives Matter protests.
Of course, other shows are about escape – the place to hang out for a stress-free, fun experience. They're the last place listeners go to hear a rundown of the controversial issues of the day.
And as the panel indicated, it is mission critical to know your station, your audience, your company, your boss – and of course, your show.
Listener expectations go to the heart of whether a show can/should take on a topic that veers outside of the usual “Second Date Update” type of material.
And how do you make that determination?
Yours truly suggested taking the time to conduct a couple Zoom focus groups to take the audience's temperature. That type of simple, inexpensive exercise can provide an important look into the mindset of the audience and their tolerance for controversial topics from your key personalities.
We are living in a time when fear is palpable, everyone is offended, and the audience has their own feedback tools for firing back at a station or a show.
Our respondents acknowledged how social media can be a hotbed of emotion that can stir up hostilities and anger. But most agreed deleting inflammatory posts is a last resort.
Controversy on the airwaves becomes a personality-focused decision, but one that is best made in collaboration with other key team members in the mix – the PD and/or the GM, and depending on the specific situation and her tolerance for hothouse situations.
And ultimately, talent must decide how to handle those hot potato issues to make sure the show, the station, and careers don't end up getting burned.
Of course, you could always call your consultant.
- Why Your Next PD Should Be A Ted Lasso School Of Programming Graduate - September 28, 2021
- Hail To The Chiefs – 7 Techniques They Can Teach Radio About Fan Engagement - September 27, 2021
- Where The Streets Have Cool Names - September 24, 2021