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Back To Basics

Back to Basics: Topic Development

“Your number one goal when setting up a topic should be to get somebody later in the day to regurgitate something that you said, either at the water cooler, sitting at the bar with a buddy, or at the kitchen table with his/her family.”

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One of the most simple and important tasks for any sports talk radio hosts is topic development. Understand that when I say simple, I don’t mean easy. Topic development is simple in its nature because it’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel here. See the story, think of your angle, share it with your audience, and do so in a way that you think they’ll be intrigued. The formula is the simple part, and some days, finding the topics and angles you want to take is as easy as breathing air. 

It’s amazing how sometimes when you get up in the morning to prepare for your show, topics can come right to you, yet on other days you just sit there and stare at your computer as if there’s not one good thing to talk about no good angle to take. In those moments I revert to something that my producer and co-host (Stefan Gilliam) always says: join the conversation that’s already in progress.

CTVA US Daytime Game Show - "Everybody's Talking" (ABC Daytime)(1967)  hosted by Lloyd Thaxton
Courtesy: ABC

Sports fans never stop talking about the teams, players, and stories that they care about and that was evident last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when you would think a sports talk radio audience would disappear completely. But as many in the industry learned, while some did go away, there was still a healthy/active audience that remained.

What did that teach us? If sports fans are having sports conversations with no sports going on, that means we never have an excuse ever again to sit ‘topic-less’, as if there’s nothing to talk about.

This is long been one of my biggest pet peeves in the sports talk radio industry, I’m sure you all have heard it, some have even said it. I know I have: “Damn, there’s nothing to talk about today”.

That comment is the equivalent of waving the white flag in our industry. Saying there is nothing to talk about means that you are not an active participant in the ongoing conversation among sports fans, a conversation that for the most avid, never stops year-round. Of course, there are some days that are easier than others. The month of October is a good example of that. Not every day of the year is going to yield the low hanging fruit, but it’s our job as hosts and producers to create or continue a conversation among sports fans. It is our job in every single day to add to the water cooler conversation, and that’s what makes topic development so key. 

Your number one goal when setting up a topic should be to get somebody later in the day to regurgitate something that you said, either at the water cooler, sitting at the bar with a buddy, or at the kitchen table with his/her family. Then, the ultimate goal is to get to a point where somebody sees a story or watches a moment in a game and they think to themselves, “man, I can’t wait to hear what (insert your name here) has to say about it!” That is a win in our profession, that’s when you know you’ve hooked your audience. 

So how do we get to that point where we’re doing this with consistency? 

Here are so simple tricks and tips I’ve picked up when I feel stuck without what I consider to be a compelling topic: 

  • Go to Twitter and look at what’s trending. There’s a sports tab on Twitter under the trending section. 
  • Look at the comments section on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter of a local team you cover. 
  • Create a Facebook group for your show, even if the member # is small, the interaction from that focus group can give you a good gauge of what fires people up, without having to put in any extra work. 
  • Always keep a running notepad on your phone, even the most irrelevant/random topics can come in handy when you are in a pinch. 

For the topics that come easy, here are questions I ask myself to get the most out of every topic/angle: 

  • Is my take any different than most? Is there a uniqueness to my opinion? 
  • What are other hosts or sports fans missing in this story? 
  • Is my take on this consistent in nature with other opinions I share on a daily basis? 
  • How can I get the audience to participate? 
  • Can I spin this local without forcing it? 

Occasionally, you’ll have a topic that is so provocative, you’re creating the conversation but more times than not, the conversation you’re having on the air is one that sports fans are already having with each other. Its on us each day to find the balance between putting the work in to find the right topics, while not overthinking it. Keep the active conversation alive but do it in a way that’s unique to you. 

Back To Basics

Back To Basics: Teases

“If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them.”

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I think one of the things I love about radio is how theoretical a lot of our strategies can be. We assume a lot in this business, and its largely because we have to. We assume we know what topics our listeners want to hear, we assume they know things that might actually need more explanation, and sometimes we assume they’re just going to stick around because they like us. Sure, there are metrics that you can follow, trends you can keep track of, and social growth that helps gauge your impact, but largely a lot of the content we put out, and specifically the way we put it out, we’re just hoping it lands. 

2,622 BEST Fingers Crossed Kid IMAGES, STOCK PHOTOS & VECTORS | Adobe Stock
Courtesy: Adobe Stock

I think one of the easy tactics to lose sight of when you’re going through the daily gauntlet of hours of talk time, is the good old fashioned radio tease. In an ever-increasing world of digital tracking and analytics, the value of a tease going into a commercial break can be difficult to track. And because we don’t know its true impact it can easily be forgotten or just ignored altogether.  To me, this is a massive mistake and a big opportunity lost. Sometimes, we just need to let common sense prevail when determining what is and is not worth our time.  

If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them. How do we do that? Compelling conversations, debates, interesting interviews, and personality they can’t find anywhere else. All of that is great, but at some point you’ll need to go to commercial break, and no matter how likable or entertaining you think you might be, 6 minutes of commercials is likely going to take your average listener across the dial to a new location. So, how do you keep them or at least ensure they’ll find their way back? Give them something they need to know the answer to. Again, I’ll ask you to think about this logically: Which one of the examples below is more likely to keep a listener engaged through a commercial break? 

Example 1: “More football talk, next!” 

Example 2: “Up next, the one move that will guarantee Brady another ring, right after this!”  

We all know the answer. Example 2 gives the listener something to think about. You’ve provided just enough information that you have them thinking, while creating a gap of information that they will hopefully want filled. Yet, we opt for Example 1 way more than we should. Myself included. It’s lazy and more than anything it’s a lost opportunity to keep a listener.

The most loyal/die-hard members of your audience aren’t going anywhere, so it doesn’t matter how you go to break for those individuals. The least loyal, who maybe like your show, but they are just jumping around every day in their car or online, they aren’t sticking around no matter what you say. It’s those in the middle, the one’s who are looking for, usually subconsciously, a reason to stay or comeback. That’s the audience you’re providing this tease for. 

Teases are not for your most loyal listeners, teases are for people that are stopping by to see what you have going on, which is the majority of your overall CUME. If you can hook those casual listeners, even just a few, to stay through a commercial break and listen to a fertility clinic commercial, then you’ve done your job as a host. 

I find the best radio tease is direct, a good description that leaves the audience hanging for an answer or your opinion on the issue. Nebulous or nondescript teases don’t give the audience enough to sink their teeth into, you want to leave them guessing but if they guessing too much they’ll probably lose interest. You want to make them think, you don’t want them to have to solve a puzzle. 

Example 1: “Could Aaron Rodgers be subtly hinting where he wants to play next?” 

Example 2: “A player makes it known he wants out, but where does he want to go?” 

Both examples above are fine, it’s certainly a step up from the “more football, next” tease but Example 1 provides the listener with something specific enough for them to start thinking of answers in their own mind, thus creating that desire to see if their idea matches up with what you are about to tell them. Giving the listener a player or team that you know most of them care about, plus a level of mystery, equals a good/solid tease that is more likely to keep them hanging on through the break. Example 2 is good but the problem I find with those is that they’re so nebulous that you aren’t sure you care as a listener. You might want to know the answer, but without a solid description, you give the audience a chance to decide that they don’t care or you just simply miss the opportunity to elicit a response by not drawing attention to an item that they are passionate about. 

Photo by: iStockPhoto

The next step in all of this is making sure you follow up on what you tease. You might only get a couple opportunities to mislead a listener before your teases mean nothing to them in the future. If you say you are going to talk about Alabama’s dominance in the SEC around the corner, make sure you do it, and if you aren’t able to, I think its only fair to draw attention to the fact that you couldn’t follow up on it. Apologize and move on. It’s live radio, things happen, and I think people listening understand that but you also have to be respectful of the time they are giving you. 

Bottom line is, teasing is a radio parlor trick and it’s an easy one to lose sight of. We don’t prioritize them as much as we go along in this business, whether that be for egotistical reasons, laziness, or just not prioritizing them as part of the show prep process. Treat your teases with seriousness and a level of priority, the same way you do with the topics and content you create. We all know we’re not reinventing the wheel, there’s nothing that we can say that hasn’t been said 100 times in the sports talk sphere, but portraying that to your audience is doing them and yourself a big disservice. 

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Back To Basics

Back To Basics: Interviews

“The balancing act of being well-prepped enough to ask the right questions, but not so ‘all-knowing’ that the guest is no longer necessary is the key to the best possible interview segment for your listeners.”

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One element that is paramount to the sports talk format is the interview. As much as we want to be experts on everything, that’s just not feasible. So, we bring on guests to fill the holes, to fill some time, and to give our audience a different voice on occasion. Guests are a staple of just about every talk show there is, but, not every guest is created equal. 

Charles Barkley on the Dan Patrick Show (Full Interview) 06/16/2014 -  YouTube
Courtesy: Peacock

Some guests are brought on for the purpose of learning more information, some are ‘friend of the show’ types, cross-promotions, big names, niche experts, play-by-play partners, and so on. Each guest brings their own flavor and that means the host’s style has to change with each guest. If your radio station is the home of the Charlotte Hornets and you bring on their coach, you may ask some direct poignant questions, but there’s a limit to how much you’re going to press a guest like that. You still have to keep the partners happy. With friends of the show, those that may be more of a weekly feature, that become ingrained in the culture of your particular program, you’re going to give them more of the ‘buddy at the bar’ treatment than you would if you had a chance to get on a high profile guest that’s promoting a book for 10 minutes. Different interviewees call for different interview skills. A good host should be able to recognize how to change their style without compromising their principles or sounding like a completely different person. Consistency and adaptation are key. 

With that said, while styles and approaches may change, your principles should remain the same. 

I was able to chat with Mike Tuck, the Course Director for Advanced Interviewing at the Dan Patrick School of Broadcasting at Full Sail and he shared some of his course material with me, the same items he uses to teach the basics to aspiring broadcasters. This information is invaluable whether you’ve been doing this for 1 year or 40. 

“Good interviewing starts with asking smart questions,” Mike says. “Open-ended questions (the six W’s) get the most complete answers and avoids the yes/no shutdown. Neutral questions allow you to get honest answers. Lean questions help focus your questions (one at a time please!) and in turn, focus their answers. Remember, colorless questions get colorful answers. We are in the business of getting good answers, good stories, and good soundbites. Never forget that.”

The “one at a time please” really struck me. We have so much that we want to get out of a particular guest or are so insecure that our first question was poor, so we just load a second one on top of it.

Here’s a generic example: “What did you make of the game last night? Is this quarterback the right guy for the job?” What exactly are you wanting your guest to respond to? What if they answer one question and not the other? It’s word soup, meant to fill time, not to get the best answer.

One of my biggest takeaways early on in talking to Mike Tuck was if we don’t direct the guest towards responding to the question we want to be answered, the interview quickly loses its purpose. 

“The next thing to remember is we are storytellers! And our role in an interview is that of a facilitator,” Mike says. “We’re a good point guard or quarterback looking to set up our guests to be successful! And in doing so we need to lay out a plan, or a path for the interview. Connecting ideas chronologically and logically helps our guests and our audience understand the story better and allows us to build towards the climax. (The story could be a literal story from someone’s life experience, or something like who is going to win the game, or what a team should do in free agency.)

“There are many keys to being good at interviewing, but the three most valuable tools are:

  1. Being a good listener- follow-ups are how we BUILD story and get COMPLETE and fulfilling answers.
  2. Do your homework- research your story and your guest. The more you know the better questions you’ll ask and your interactions will be more conversational.
  3. Be curious- Being curious will mean you listen more intently and care more about getting good answers and research with more depth and set yourself up to ask better, more focused questions.”

If you stop for a moment and look at number 1. That can be one of the trickiest components to a solid interview, being prepared to ask the questions you have, while also tuning in to the interview as if you are on the outside looking in. If you hyper-focus on getting your next prepared question into the conversation, following the response to the last question, you might miss a golden opportunity to follow up. 

That’s what makes number 2 so important and tricky as well. You want to be well prepared but you also want to be flexible in your approach. I’ve found that if I have 10 questions prepared I’m in a good spot. However, I always allow myself the grace to ditch 50% of those questions if the interview goes in a better, more interesting direction. We must remember who this interview is for in the first place, it’s not for us, it’s for our listeners. 

Number 3 is often overlooked as well. Curiosity is key and it’s something that I now use as a filter before scheduling an interview. If I don’t care, if I’m not intrigued by the guest, topic, or story, I’m setting myself up for failure. I think part of the curiosity factor that is often lost is when we’re interviewing someone on a topic or story that we’re already very familiar with ourselves, sometimes we as interviewers can come off like experts on the topic. Why have a guest on in the first place? 

The balancing act of being well-prepped enough to ask the right questions, but not so ‘all-knowing’ that the guest is no longer necessary is the key to the best possible interview segment for your listeners. 

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. - Ellen's Blog, Professional  Organizing for Kingwood & Houston

As I mentioned at the top, not every guest is going to fit in the same little box, different guests call for different styles and skills. But if you have these principles in mind as a backdrop to every guest you book and every interview you conduct, your content should be better for it. 

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