The Secret Your Morning Show Doesn’t Know

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip August 24, 2005

What do American Idol, Reality TV, video games, and hyper-paced summer blockbusters have in common, besides their outrageous popularity? As Steven Johnson writes in the new book Everything Bad is Good For You, all of these things challenge the mind and engage the consumer.

So what does “engagement” have to do with your morning show? Everything. See, an engaged listener is an involved one. He or she is that much more likely to listen and keep listening and come back to listen again later.

How to make things more Engaging

Three ways: Multi-threading, Complexity, and Mystery.

“Multi-threading” is the weaving of plot points through a show, story elements which leave something unknown so the audience has to “fill in” the details. Compare the number of story lines on an episode of The Sopranos with a show from the “good old days” like, say, Fantasy Island. The latter had a simple plot with one story line and it began and ended with that episode. In The Sopranos, however, there are overlapping story lines, virtually none of which begin or end in any given episode. The audience has a history with the show and “fills in” the details. And that “filling in” is a form of engagement.

“Complexity” means there are layers of content that exist simultaneously. It means not everything is meant to be understood by everyone. Part of the fun is figuring out just what’s happening, the way you solve a puzzle. As the creator of densely-layered The Simpsons said, “your attention will be rewarded.”

“Mystery” means we don’t know what’s going to happen next. This is the source of suspense and drama and tension and exactly the kind of water-cooler talk that turns a show like American Idol into a national phenomenon. Reality shows are often referred to as “games,” and much like video games we are playing along, even if it’s only in our mind. “Mystery” can be facilitated by “teasing” as long as teasing is done right – that is, if you don’t reveal the best part of what you’re teasing.

Now score today’s morning show on these three factors? How much can you find?

The “Topical” Obsession

The problem with many Morning Shows is that they excel only in the one area they’re told to excel in, the topical.

The upside of “topical” is that you’re talking about what’s on everybody’s lips. The downside is that what’s on those lips may be a mile wide but it’s an inch deep and it changes daily. This automatically inclines your morning show towards the same kind of disposability that makes the local paper ripe for bird cage-lining after one short day. Sure, people listen to you in part because you’re topical but if that’s the only reason, then you’re only as good as your topics and you won’t control your show, current events will.

Put another way, there’s no “repeat value” in the average morning show. If I hear it today, it’s not relevant tomorrow. Every day is just like every other, an episode of Fantasy Island. There is no “multi-threading,” no “filling in,” few demands placed on the minds of the audience, no layers, no mystery, no challenge.

If your morning show only obsesses on echoing back to listeners what they’re talking about, then why do they need you?

“Engaging” means Repeat-worthy

Look around. The best forms of entertainment always contain “repeat value.” When we buy an mp3 player what we’re really buying is a means of repeating value. It’s why we buy DVD’s and CD’s, it’s why Seinfeld is priceless in syndication, it’s why we spend an average of 40 hours playing one video game. It’s why we keep coming back to Survivor and American Idol and Big Brother, all of which contain not one ounce of topicality. It’s why the “hits” exist.

What makes something repeatable? Complexity, story, relationships, new layers of experience unfolding like the layers of an onion (but without the tears).

Together, these factors add up to one word: Engagement. It takes a special kind of engagement to buy the Star Wars movie you’ve seen dozens of times, and it’s exactly that kind that your morning show must aspire to.

Topicality is in-the-moment, but the truly great Morning Shows are the stories which blossom over time.

And a good story is bigger than any moment. A good story is always worth repeating.

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