The Killer Morning Radio Show

A week or so ago I mentioned I had an idea for building a killer morning show. The theory being -- terrestrial radio is not likely to attract new young listeners but if it snags more listening from the available audience in the mornings then it will ring the cash register.

Radio stations are fighting the first effects of a recession and fighting themselves at the same time.

There is little they can do about the economic downturn, but there is a lot they can do about maximizing free cash flow.

There are the traditional ideas: cut the spotload and raise the rates. I like it. But radio executives don’t have the guts to do that even in good times.

Cutting staff, cutting expenses – no, don’t like it. You don’t cut to grow. You cut because you can’t grow your business and eventually you pay the price. (Can you say consolidated radio?)

A radio station’s morning show is responsible for between 40-60% of its total revenue and I am always surprised at why owners, managers and programmers miss a critical opportunity to build a killer morning show – one that breeds loyalty, gets consistently high ratings and maximizes the stations cash flow.

When morning powerhouses are built, it is not surprising that it is done on the back of edgy, outrageous behavior. I’m sensing that this type of morning show has run its course. You can only get so outrageous in a world with few boundaries. (Remember when Howard Stern talked about breasts on the radio? At first it was outrageous. My college students now yawn).


Don’t say “there you go again with your students – they are not our audience”.

I know that, and they probably will never be devotees of a terrestrial radio morning show in the future. But we as an industry are very shortsighted when we look to our target demographic for all the clues on how to program.

Look beyond.

Gen Y is changing society faster than baby boomers are today. Don’t believe me? Watch some TV commercials and see how they're built for short attention spans. You may be a baby boomer with a much longer attention span but you’ve adapted to the fast-paced needs of the younger generation whether you are aware of it or not.

Mean is out.

Edgy on radio sounds old and, well – tired. Morning shows are missing a few key ingredients that you may want to think about.

Here’s the element that I think can build a compelling morning show for any target demo:

Make dreams, wishes, fantasies come true.

Take a dominant station like B-101 in Philadelphia. If they had a powerhouse morning show with the monster billing that station does all day, it would be an even meaner money machine without having to fish for new listeners.

Of course music stations have to get the music right – no getting around that. B-101 does pretty well there.

Then instead of hiring a guy and a gal to be just another morning team with traffic and news and oh, I’m getting so bored already—how about hiring a strong, compelling personality who is a direct link to the audience and the heart and soul of what I'm about to describe.

So I am suggesting creating a feature that eventually becomes almost as big as the format -- a radio station in and of itself.

The killer feature is to grant listeners wishes, needs and fantasies every day – in different hours of the morning show. These pieces can run as long as a song because they are worth it.

Now, it gets ugly.

You’ll need a staff of off-air people. Don’t do this on the cheap or it will sound like a contest instead of the heart of your station. Top production people who work with investigative reporters and others who can go through and filter the many requests you will get. This is about production. Watch how Oprah's TV show does production. Listen to how radio does it. See why radio is dying and Oprah is growing?

Your listeners will be invited to email, write, text, call -- whatever way they'd like -- and pitch their request.

Say you choose a request from a listener to help them keep from losing their house until they get a job. The recently fired person is interviewed. The station writes compelling copy. Does interviews -- high quality audio. The morning show host is the voice of the feature. Custom production music is important (my friend Jim Long, former TM production and imaging genius, is looking at the Malibu beach right now saying, "I've got just what Jerry's looking for").

Think Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Supernanny, The Last Contest, Christmas Wish, the Investigative I-Team Unit -- all rolled into one.

I kept my radio stations and my publication Inside Radio successful for a long time living by two words -- addictive and unique. What I'm saying is that we in radio are doing the same morning shows over and over again and when we stray from the music we get burned. That is true because when we stray we are doing things that are not unique and addictive.

And I'm not only talking about an adult contemporary morning show -- I'm talking all of them -- from hip-hop to oldies. It doesn't matter.

First station in wins.

One to a market.

Only the strong survive.

The feature never ends. It goes on forever and it will likely work forever.

But, let's learn from B-101, Philadelphia owner Jerry Lee.

Buy TV spots -- lots of well placed ones -- and promote the hell out what you're about to do. Sorry, I lost my head, TV spots cost a lot of money. So maybe we should just complain and watch him make all the money.

Listen in:

1. GI returning from Iraq but his parents don't have the money to fly her parents in for the reunion. You get the plane tickets, the hotel, the dinners, the gifts, the videographer and on and on. Create the magic. Capture the emotion.

2. A couple was in an accident -- they survived but are without a car now -- you fix it, give them a rental, pick them up in a limo, have the morning show host take them to dinner, etc. Radio used to do this stuff well -- create theater of the mind.

3. A retailer cheated your listener out of money and they contact you for help -- since you have an investigative reporter on staff, he alerts the appropriate authorities, seeks pro bono legal counsel --- fights to help them -- the on-air piece is dramatic, sometimes tearful -- the online followup is addictive.

You increase billing by increasing your morning ratings then raising rates.

You don't trade out some tickets to Nine Inch Nails and give them away -- that's what radio does and radio is losing.

But you might arrange a private mini-concert or an entire section of the Staples Center. You think big. You do the unexpected.

And you sell product placements or use them to defray the cost of the prizes.

You do not sponsor this component of your morning show. It is a station feature and no one advertiser gets to sponsor it. But they do get to buy high priced commercials in your morning show and during other dayparts when you deliver more audience.

You have online connections where your listeners can actually see the people who benefit from your station -- and do regular followups. Stream your station. Video clips. Sell ads. Sell pre-roll commercials. Invite others to help -- contact the people who are the focus of the event. Create a social network around something positive. And drive the listeners back to your terrestrial station. Never stop playing the music.

If I'm reading it right, to do compelling content on a radio show you'll need to break the mold. If a morning "zoo" works for you, fine. But if you want to build a morning franchise as big as your entire station, you've got to make your morning show unique and addictive.

Imagine the possibility for names?

This project is big and expensive as I envision it. You should only pray that a competitor does it on the cheap -- radio style. Forgettable and average.

The better for you to start building step two, step three and step four that will never attract the elusive Gen Y -- remember they're on their cell phones and laptops -- but it promises to be as addictive and emotional as, say, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Please don't believe anyone who says, "we doing this already"? Just like radio does in almost every area -- it programs cookie cutter morning shows.

One thing is for sure: radio has to change and the morning show is a great place to start.

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