What Happened To Listener Involvement?

Remember that?

Today, a guest column from a Marconi Award-winning programmer, who you will meet below:

As the world of entertainment has gotten faster, more interactive and personalized, Radio has been forced to adapt to new technologies and new platforms. Never before has the word “content” been more crucial to the medium’s future.

And, sometimes, in order to move ahead, we need to look back.

My former colleague, Tom (Kelly) Pagnotti, now owner of ChoiceVoice, recently sent me an old air check of his time at WBIG (when it was an <horror> OLDIES station). What struck me about that trip down memory lane was the amount of listener audio that was on the air. Why, people were sharing content and actually interacting with the radio station.

That’s called “engagement.”

For years, putting callers on the air was an integral part of any good radio station. With proper editing, they could be funny, informative and — above all — local. They added a layer to any on-air product that was 100% relatable because every listener identified with the caller. How the talent treated that person formed the basis of his/her relationship with the entire audience. What you hear Tom doing on the radio was completely by design.

We wanted — encouraged — our listeners to be a part of the show. They helped us go viral.

Wow. Relationships. Sharing. Interactive content. Going viral. Where have we heard those terms before? Oh yeah…they were invented by the Social Media gurus.


When I listen to radio today, I hear very little listener involvement. Outside of Morning Shows and Talk stations, the listeners are almost completely absent from the product. Sure, stations encourage their followers to text, tweet, post and click. But, there is something less than personal about reading a text on the air versus talking directly to that person. Perhaps this is a reflection of the larger scope of how we communicate as a society. But, it really is a lost opportunity for radio.

The irony is that today we can directly communicate with our listeners — via that old telephone thing — better than ever. Everyone has a cell or smart phone. They ALL have it in their #1 listening location: the car. They are often sitting in traffic, bored as hell. So, they call someone to pass the time. It could be you.

We prioritize driving clicks, shares and uniques so we actually drive listeners away from a direct conversation and send them to our web site or FB page. I’m not saying radio shouldn’t be doing these things. I’m saying we should not do them at the expense of forming REAL relationships. Besides, they’re usually in the car and they shouldn’t be texting or browsing.

Real people are unpredictable, spontaneous, stupid and funny. Real radio talent knows how to mine this stream for great content. And, brave programmers can use this as a tool to create an emotional bond with their fans.

Ah, fans. That may be what we are missing here. Does your station or personality have fans? Do they love what you do or simply “Like” you? Are your FB “fans” and Twitter followers really your friends? Or, are they just statistics you can use in a sales presentation?

Adding listeners back into your programming mix is NOT a risk. People love to hear themselves. Think of this as the audio version of the selfie. What’s even better is the more you seed, the more it will grow.

Tony Kornheiser does a very entertaining local radio show on WTEM in Washington, DC. He NEVER takes listener calls. However, he does end his show with listener emails. Now, you may think this violates what my general point is here. Listen to what he reads. All the emails are related to inside jokes and Tony’s peculiar personality. They have become show writers and made what could be a lame segment wildly entertaining.

That took time to develop. You can add that level of entertainment to any daypart — today! Just have your talent answer the phones and hit record. With proper editing and coaching, you will have added a new, free, personality to your station. You will have fulfilled what we all agree is radio’s strongest asset — being live and local.

You could do that, or you could run a “more variety” sweeper or ask people to log in to win tickets to the circus.

Which technique will make you more memorable?

Oh, and you can listen to Tom’s air check HERE.

Steve Allan is a thirty-plus year radio vet with programming stops in Washington, DC, Boston, Detroit, and Cincinnati. Currently Steve works the agency side with Rosenberg Media as Digital Media Director, and the research side with Research Director, Inc as a Programming Research Consultant. He can be reached at steve@smthree.com