Wake-Up Call


The evolution of Top 40 radio continues. And as our listeners’ habits and attitudes toward our radio stations change, so must our programming philosophies.

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when Top 40 radio stations built their audiences backwards. Since the teen audience is the most active, programmers put their energy and promotional dollars into the 7-12 midnight slot to draw that active audience quickly. Once the teens found the station after dark, the energy and promotional dollars were extended back to the other dayparts. The last day-part considered was the morning show. As a matter of fact, many successful Top 40 radio station did quite well for years without a high-profile morning show.

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, most morning shows on successful Top 40 stations were mainly hybrids of afternoon drive. Music was still the main element. News and weather reports were broadcast and maybe a couple of one-liners were thrown in to fool the audience into thinking that a personality was involved, but the biggest difference between the two drive-times (and often the only difference) was the reading of the school lunch menu of the day.

This all began to change in the late ’70s. As the top 40 format began to draw a larger portion of the older demographics, a higher profile became imperative to attract and maintain that audience in morning drive. This point was driven home by several morning talents who became as big, if not bigger, that the radio stations where they worked.

The success of Rick Dees at WHBQ in Memphis was particularly important in changing the way the format viewed morning personalities. Dees was the most phenomenal deejay in the history of Memphis radio…and the city had many. Rick transcended the format and became the primary reason people listened to WHBQ. It was not something that was ignored by the powerful RKO chain, owners of WHBQ, and stations in every major market. Paul Drew, VP/Programming for RKO, was quick to see the value a high-profile morning show added to a successful radio station. He moved Dees to Los Angeles and set about hiring high-profile morning shows for the other RKO stations. And the trend began.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the trends. It didn’t work everywhere. In many instances, the process backfired.

High profile, marketable, listenable morning talents succeeded on the RKO stations because the programmers still controlled the morning shows. Formats were followed, music was still the main ingredient and the morning deejays were forced to work within the structure of the stations’ overall sound.

It wasn’t that way everywhere.

More than one station found out that although a great morning show can take your ratings through the roof and set you up for the rest of the day, the opposite is just as true.

There isn’t a Scott Shannon, John Lander or Rick Dees hanging out in every station. These guys can do a five-minute bit before the commercial break and the audience will stay with them and enjoy their entertainment. The same can’t be said for bad imitations.

Morning shows are like fine Ferraris. They must be tuned to perfection. If only one element is out of sync, the entire show won’t work.

If you have the budget to hire a proven morning talent, you probably won’t have to dial the show in as much. But it, as is the case in most situations, you work with a limited budget, you can’t afford a true, expensive free agent. You’ll have to make do with what is available.

That is why the support team is so important. In simple terms, if Scott Shannon, Rick Dees and John Lander need a group of professionals around them to make sure the  morning show operates smoothly, isn’t the same doubly true for those with less talent? Too often, stations spend the entire available budget on talent and have little or none left over for a supporting cast. I’m not talking about the news person or a sidekick, I mean the prodders…the person who makes sure the morning show runs smoothly and consistently.

Consistency is the key to a successful morning show. Almost any competent deejay can amuse and entertain the audience when things are going right. But most days, everyone needs help. This is why a producer is so important to the success of a morning show…to make sure the show is consistent day-in and day-out.

It is a given that most of us in radio started at the bottom. We were all “gym rats” to some extent. Not only will a good producer make your morning show sound better and operate smoothly, but it’s alto an excellent proving ground for your next programming assistant…or music director…or program director…or, if you’re really lucky, your next morning talent.

A good producer can surround your morning talent with a support staff that makes everyone sound better. It makes the main deejay’s job easier and keeps him focused on entertainment. It also makes your morning person easier to deal with inside the station. The talent can concentrate on the personality aspects of the show. The producer handles the formatics, guests, hot topics and schedules the rest of the week.

There’s another reason a good producer is priceless. If you have a great morning show that is hosted by a morning talent, you have less risk of losing the audience if the talent decides to leave. Particularly in smaller markets, losing your morning talent, especially if the talent is good, is always a distinct possibility. A good producer can maintain the momentum of a morning show without having it hinge on the personality of the main morning talent.

If the ultimate success of your station depends on the performance of your morning show, I suggest you take all of these suggestions and more into consideration. Maybe you will discover something that will make your radio station better.

Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

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