How to Win the Ratings – The Breakfast Show Blueprint – Part 8

Greg Smith is a Director of Radio Today.

In this series of articles I wanted to explore the key ingredients of a top rating breakfast show.

I’ve enlisted the help of prominent programmers & researchers, people much smarter than me, to tell you how to win the ratings in radio’s most important daypart.

You can read part 1 with Jon Coleman, part 2 with Todd Wallace, part 3 with Randy Lane, part 4 with Brad March, part 5 with Rad Messick, part 6 with Dave Charles and part 7 with Mark Ramsey.

Today we learn about the traits of great on air talent from Tracy Johnson (pictured), the President of the Tracy Johnson Media Group.

Five Traits of Great Air Personalities

I work with a lot of talent in a lot of formats in all size markets and on several continents. While it’s true that each market is different, every competitive situation is unique, and “my station is different”, there are far more similarities than differences. So it is with air personalities.

Great talent makes everything seem easy. The greatest morning shows make it sound as if the magic just flows naturally and effortlessly. Is it natural talent? A gift from God? Maybe. But while greatness may be hard to define, there are five common traits that all great personalities share. These are the characteristics I look for when seeking air talent that truly makes a difference.


1. Interest/Interested/Interesting

Winning air personalities take an interest in the audience. They may not live the same lifestyle as the listener but they understand what is happening in their lives. They understand that the show is "not about me," but about "them." That's one of the things that made Oprah a magical television personality for so long. She understood, related to and took an interest in her audience.

Great personalities are also interested. They are curious, and genuinely like to learn about their listeners, callers, and how things work. They ask questions and engage their community of fans around topics that the audience cares about, both on and off the air.

And, they are interesting. Personalities are unique, one-of-a-kind characters that cannot be replaced. They have a distinct perspective, a point of view that they share in a compelling manner through effective story-telling. DJ's talk about topics. Personalities relate stories and reveal their character through content.


2. Likability

The second trait is a natural way of being likable. Of course, everyone wants to think they are a likable person. We all have characteristics that friends, family and even some co-workers find attractive! In this sense, likability is a little bit more.

Great air personalities change a room when they enter it. They make people feel good about being in their presence. They have a magnetic personality that attracts a crowd. They have a certain charm or charisma
that endears them to others.

Likable people are generally upbeat, positive and energetic. They brighten the day of those around them. They are genuine, natural and friendly. They are outgoing, welcoming, fun, warm and caring. They know how to tell stories in an interesting way, even if the story itself isn't that great.

Listeners begin the process of becoming a loyal, devoted fan of the show in steps. The end goal is that they fall in love with you and reward you by becoming an evangelist for your show, telling all their friends about you! But before they can fall in love with you, they have to like you. And before they like you they have to know something about you. And they'll only learn about you through the things you do. These phases of the talent/listener relationship are important building blocks, and they take time, patience and a strong commitment to building the relationship.


3. Work Ethic

How hard do you work? Probably harder than ever, and still feel that there aren't enough hours in the day or resources at your station to do what you should do. And there's always more that needs to be done.

When suggesting new ideas, promotions or tactics to most radio shows, the #1 response is usually one or more of the following:

"We just don't have time."

"We don't have a team of writers and producers that can crank out content like Stewart or Kimmel."

"We have a Facebook page but don't do much with it because the station won't provide an intern to keep it updated."

"We didn't have time to do a more creative tease in the break because we were editing a phone call we recorded yesterday and had to hurry to get it on the air this morning."

Look, it's hard. I get it. You're busy. But being a celebrity is a full time job. Being a DJ is part-time. Leading a community of listeners is a commitment. It's 24/7. It demands that you constantly prepare, plan, edit, adjust, and mine your life for content. You're always promoting, marketing, interacting.

It means tweeting, hosting a conversation on Facebook, sharing relevant content and being involved in the relationship.

It means meeting listeners as often as possible, speaking at events and making appearances. Sometimes they pay you, but many times they don't. Most times they won't. But as you build your celebrity status, that will come.

It means paying a price, in time, effort and lost sleep. It's a discipline to schedule that prep meeting on Friday morning when you'd really like to get out the door and on the course to start the weekend early. It's texting or emailing at 11pm when a story changes and your planning for the next morning has to be adjusted.

Ryan Seacrest earns a gazillion dollars a year working about 100 full-time jobs. Yes, he now has a full entourage to support and manage the details of his empire. But it wasn't always like that. When Ryan worked afternoons at Star 98.7 in Los Angeles, he spent many mornings in San Diego, hanging out with Jeff & Jer. He watched, asked questions and learned how to create connections with the audience. He spent hours with producer Tommy Sablan, learning how to work with listeners. Nobody paid him to do it. His success didn't just happen. American Idol didn't just decide to make him the star of one of the most successful shows in history. He earned it by going out and making it happen. And Pitbull even sings about him in his #1 song!

There are obstacles in every job, but don't let them become barriers. Knock down the obstacles, ignore the challenges and invest your time and resources in the one sure thing: yourself. Nobody said it would be easy. If it was it wouldn't be fun. And this business is fun. You've heard the saying, "There's no business like show business?" That's this business.


4. Show Biz

Radio has accepted a bad rap. Detractors are quick to point out the shortcomings. It's old technology. There's too many commercials. The first time radio heard that the industry's days were numbered was around 1922. A fella by the name of Thomas Edison said that radio would never last, that it would just fade away when something new came along.

Well, Tom… it lasted. But only by making adjustments. Radio has weathered the storm through the introduction of countless new technologies.

And it will continue to survive, and can thrive, if we remember that this is show biz.

What does that mean? Show-Biz is:

  • Promotion: Historically, this has been a strength. Don't lose it. Great personalities are able to hook the audience on an idea, tease them to listen longer and use the amazing reach to expand the influence.
  • Exaggeration: One of the most misunderstood (and mis-applied) concepts in the last 10 years is the concept of "living your life on the air." Your real life is not that interesting. It needs to be enhanced. Hollywood takes good stories, dramatizes them and makes them great. Your task is to use your real life as a basis for creating entertainment.
  • Excitement: Larger than life promotion is about building buzz. A motion picture is pre-sold, marketed, promoted and teased for months before it's release. They use resources to create anticipation… and they treat each movie as a separate product. Find your "hits" and promote them to build excitement and create a meaningful connection with your audience.

Every break is important. Don't throw it away. A typical morning show on a music oriented station is on the air for four hours a day. It's normal to have four "talk" breaks per hour. That's 16 opportunities a day to entertain the audience. Don't waste them. Build them up, support them, develop the content and make every minute matter.


 5. Balance

This topic could take on many complexions. It could be about offering a range of emotions, a blend of music and personality or any number of other options. In this case, the balance is humility and ego.

Most great air personalities have a huge ego. That's not a criticism. It's a good thing. They seek the spotlight. They crave stardom. The burning desire to be a celebrity that the audience adores motivates them to achieve levels that mere mortals can't even dream of.

This must be balanced by a humility that recognizes the value of the fan. It's all about the audience. Like a host of a party, the great personality obsesses about ensuring that each guest has a great time at their event. They balance their natural tendency to share their point of view with the understanding that the audience is listening to get, not so you can give.

It's a delicate balance. There's a fine line between telling a story about yourself and about something that happens to you. The former is self-indulgent and egotistical. The latter is relevant and interactive. The great ones understand how this balance works.

So there you have it. The top 5. If you’re a personality, do you have what it takes? If you’re a programmer, can you identify these traits in your staff? And can you develop and inspire them to excel?


Tracy Johnson Media Group develops and execute strategies that engage audiences and increase ROI with world class solutions for radio stations of all sizes. We work with the world’s greatest stations and air talent, from stations in small, local communities to syndicated shows in hundreds of market. Our team of consultants, talent coaches and promotion specialists customize services to fit your needs, from one-time projects, ongoing consultations, in-market and online seminars, workshops and speaking engagements.  Get more information at or email [email protected]


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