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Career Advice for Radio Air Talents


There are three kinds of radio air talents:

  1. The kind who owns the audience

  2. The kind who works for a radio station that owns the audience

  3. The kind who shares ownership of the audience with the radio station

Most air talents think they are kinds 1 or 3, that they either own the audience or share ownership.

And most are wrong.

In fact, the vast majority of air talents are either kinds 1 or 2: They either own the audience or they do not at all.

Here’s how you know:

If you switch from one station to another across town and carry most of your audience with you, you own that audience. If you carry a significant fraction of that audience with you, you share ownership of the audience. And if you carry little of the audience with you, it’s the station’s audience and you just talk to it.

Needless to say, the leverage any air talent possesses is directly related to how much or how little they “own” the audience. Indeed, this is why many radio managers want to keep you from owning the audience.

Note that this is not about experience or technical prowess. It is not about live or recorded. It is not about local or national. It’s only about one thing: Who owns the audience?

How was it that Nate Silver was able to bolt from the venerable New York Times to a big money deal with ESPN? Because he owned that audience – the NYT did not.

Sure, he gained that audience in no small part because of the good graces of the Times, but once the audience bonds with his content and with him, it’s his, not theirs. And he owes them nothing more than the letter of his contract.

How was it that Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg were able to bolt from the equally venerable Wall Street Journal to launch a platform similar to the one they championed at WSJ? Because they owned the audienceWSJ did not.

Sure, WSJ helped them gain and grow that audience, but it stuck around for Walt and Kara, not because of the Journal’s golden halo.

Can anybody become Nate Silver or Walt Mossberg? No, of course not. It helps to have great skills and to be in the right place at the right time.

But as a radio talent, your career path is either in the direction of Nate and Walt or in the direction of obsolescence. You can be famous for something and sought after for that something. Or you can be the nameless and faceless voice on the air with whom I’m barely familiar and not particularly connected. You can, in other words, be easily replaced.

You will not keep or grow your job or income because of experience or longevity or even perseverance and good nature. You will keep and grow your job because you own the audience.

And now, to your questions:

“I’m not on the air long enough to own the audience – all I have are a few breaks of seven seconds each.”

That’s the station telling you they don’t want you to own the audience and don’t want to employ anyone who owns the audience. Go work somewhere else.

“That’s fine for a morning show, but what about folks who work in other dayparts.”

Owning the audience is also about quality of content, not just quantity of content. Sure, quantity helps, but it’s no substitute for quality.

“So what do I do to own the audience?”

Be worthy of their devotion. Be that good. Be must-hear.

“But doesn’t that mean I have to take chances – and fail? And if I do, won’t I get fired?”

Yes, you’ll need to take some risks. And yes, you may fail. And yes, you may even be fired. But remember, “coasting” is only something you can do in the presence of a stiff breeze.

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