by Mike Finnegan
Audio Journal is more than just a reading service
When a piece is written by a columnist or author there is passion in the inner voice of that writer. When we read to ourselves, we humanize the language with inflection, emphasis, and the natural sound of conversation. As readers to people who cannot, we should still bring life to the written word as we would if we were only reading to ourselves. As a pianist would put feeling into a musical piece, and not just play back the notes in a stiff and dispassionate fashion, we should read and interpret the written word and make it “sing.” The more relaxed and conversational we are as we read, the more natural the communication between you and the listener.
Radio is a “one-on-one” medium
One of the truly beautiful things about radio is its ability to communicate with the listener “one-on-one.” Even television hardly achieves this intimacy that radio does. Radio is the theater of the mind. It’s the words and human voice that reach our listeners. Think of the best TV shows, movies, plays, talk shows, news reports, and literature and it all comes back to the script and what is being said. At Audio Journal we have the power of words at our disposal. Giving life to those words, as actors give life to a script, is our main task and service to our listeners.
Always keep in mind that you are speaking to only one person when broadcasting. There is a direct connection between you and your listener. The great voice man Casey Kasem says to imagine that the microphone is a Stradivarius violin and that you want to play it with as much feeling as possible. The better you play the mic, the more of a virtuoso you become. The microphone is your direct connection to the mind of the listener. Use the microphone to transmit your thoughts, via your voice, through the mic, to the ear and mind of your listener. You can only do that one person at a time. You are never talking to a group of people. There is no crowd out there, although we know that there could be thousands listening, because we are communicating with only one mind at a time.
Radio is the listener’s “friend”
Imagine as you speak on Audio Journal that you are sitting across the kitchen table holding a conversation with a friend. What could be more natural and informal than that scenario? When speaking in such a natural state, engaged in conversation, your speech does not become halting, or overly formal. You may say “Good morning” to someone, but would you say “Good Tuesday morning to you” to anyone? One of the traps of the radio “personality” is to get too caught up with the fact that he or she is on the radio. Have you ever met an actor, or even a writer, who is always “on”? Doesn’t it feel like you’re being talked “at” instead of talked “to”? Nobody likes to listen to a person who is talking only to hear himself talk. Friends don’t converse like that, and neither should the effective communicator talk “at” his listener. Always hold a conversation with your listener as though you’re right in the room with him, because, in fact, you are in the same room “through the magic of radio.”
Preparation is 90% of the game
When I was a deejay in Worcester one of my colleagues had a chance to talk with Boston radio legend Jess Cain, and he asked him the question every up and coming DJ has for the superstars: What’s the secret? Jess answered with the obvious, saying “You know, preparation!” Being prepared and knowing what you’re going to say every time you open the mic is the secret behind most entertaining, humorous, glib, topical, and together personalities in the business.
We know at Audio Journal how important it is to preread the material we are going to present so that it is read effectively and confidently to the listener. When we are familiar with the material, we have command over the words and give them the right to emphasis and inflection. When we edit, we spare our listener the superfluous. When we preread, we can look up the correct pronunciation of a word. Being confident in our preparation allows us to give meaning to our reading. A play may be well written, but if it’s not acted by well rehearsed players, it loses its power and impact. We owe it to our listeners, and writers of the material we read, to come to our show as well-prepared as possible.
One other word on preparation, or two. Being familiar and confident with the workings, the mechanics, the technical aspects of radio, allows us to be the performer we can be on the air. The seminars on how to put out good sounds on the air help us all to make Audio Journal sound as professional as possible. Our listeners know that we are amateur volunteers and a “slick” sound is not exactly what we’re looking for, but in this age of electronic media, people know what sounds good, and what doesn’t. Knowing the board, being prepared in what promos we are going to play, being ready for a smooth transition to the next program, all add up to a smooth presentation. Too many technical snafus can be irritating to the listener. Try and make the sound as professional as possible so that pride in workmanship comes through.
On the other hand, if you mess up on the air, if there is “dead air” or something equally frustrating, don’t dwell on it or call too much attention to it. Listeners are forgiving and forget a lot sooner than the performer does. Move on. When a shortstop makes a dumb error in front of 35,000 people, he can’t dwell on it lest he make another error on the next play. The professional keeps momentum moving forward, and tries to minimize the occurrence of errors by being as prepared as possible. When in doubt, double check. One more word on preparation: Always know where you’re going, especially when adlibbing. When I have a punch line I want to have come out right, I write it down. So even if I’m not reading the whole “bit” I at least know how it’s going to end and how I’m going to “get out of it.” Even Johnny Carson used cue cards. If there’s a point you want to be sure you make before you get off the air–WRITE IT DOWN!
Be yourself, but be entertaining
One of the tricks to sounding relaxed and natural on the air is to be yourself! This does not mean that if you are naturally a quiet, unassuming, even dull person when you are at home, that you should bring this part of yourself to Audio Journal. Quite the contrary! When I say be yourself, I mean bring out that part of yourself that wants to be an entertainer. The you that sings in the shower or along with the radio when you’re alone on the road! It doesn’t mean we all have to be comedians, it means we should explore the part of us that yearns to perform. At our holiday party this year the company had a karaoke machine, and our button-down, sharp dressing GM started it by singing “Mack the knife.” Don’t be shy, but bring out that part of you that says “Hey listen to me! I’ve got something to say! I deserve your attention!” We wouldn’t talk to a friend on the phone in monotone about something that interests us. Be animated as you communicate and your enthusiasm will be infectious and compelling.
Personality without “Personalizing”
One of the two questions you have to ask yourself when expressing your personality on the radio is, “Who cares?” Now a cynical response to that might be, “Who cares about anything?” But that doesn’t serve the purpose of this discussion because we have to assume the listener cares or he would not be listening. I remember reading about Roy Orbison, who used to be quite nervous before a live show, seeing the marquee one day which said, “Roy Orbison–Sold Out” and realizing after all those years that people were there because they loved him. Listeners want to like the people they listen to. You are a volunteer at Audio Journal for many reasons, but behind it all you are driven by love. But back to the question about deciding “Who cares?” and how that fits into expressing your personality. There is a general audience out there who comes to the radio station for specific reasons. Knowing what appeals to that audience is a knack and sometimes the result of laborious research and demographic studies. One thing is for certain, and you have to ask yourself, would I care? The listener doesn’t want to hear about mundane matters. The listener may not care about the cold you have, but might be entertained about a comical story that might involve the fruitless search for the cure for the common cold. The general idea is relatability. The answer to “Who cares?” is, “Does it relate?” The other question you have to ask when doing personality radio, especially on an information oriented station such as Audio Journal is, “is it important?” Years ago when WHDH was a full-service music station with deejays there was a sign in the studio that read, “If it’s not important, Don’t say it.” This assumes that your listener is basically informed, and resents being talked down to. It also says that the listener doesn’t need to hear nonsense or silliness. I suppose this question can apply to your choice of reading material: If it’s not important to the listener, don’t read it.
Air checking and self-critiquing
One of the tools of the trade is the air check. At the radio station deejays put in a cassette and can listen back later to a scope of their show. The machine only records when the microphone is turned on. At Audio Journal we can record our program in its entirety. When listening back try to pretend you are an objective listener. Don’t be so hard on yourself! A lot of people don’t like the sound of their own voices. We are not used to hearing our voice as others hear it. Listening to your air check can be helpful if you listen for style, inflection, delivery and accuracy in your reading. But listening too critically can hinder your next performance if you let yourself become too self conscious. Relax. Realize that no one else has recorded your program to listen to later and critique. You can learn a lot from the air check. If you use “a crutch” in your speech, it will come out on the tape. A crutch may be the use of sounds like “uh” and “you know” or other such phrases. You’ll know them when you hear them because they have a way of jumping out at you. The overuse of the word “and” can have an irritating effect like a run-on sentence in writing. Catching the crutches, being conscious of them, and working to eradicate them can help clean up your speech mannerism and make you a smoother and more effective communicator.
Remember that although Audio Journal is a sub-channel, non-commercial radio reading service, it still in a way competes with all the other stations on the dial. We should always strive to be as bright, informative, and articulate as our professional counterparts. Remember to energize your performance as much as you personality is comfortable with. Seek that part of you that is enthusiastic about what you’re bringing to Audio Journal. Try to always be “on” when the mic is “on.” I’ll close with with a story from Rogers Ailes, The Media Advisor to the 1988 Bush Campaign. Years ago when he was producer of the Mike Douglas show, he had Jack Benny backstage for an appearance on the show. But Roger was greatly concerned when he observed Jack sitting on the couch, looking frail and old. He thought, “This is terrible, Jack Benny is about to go on stage, and all America is going to see a frail old man, who vaguely resembles Jack Benny on this show. Then as Mike Douglas on stage was introducing Mr. Benny, the great comedian stood up, filled up with that personality that we all know as Jack Benny, winked at Roger Ailes, and went out on stage and delighted the audience as he had done for decades. He was conserving energy, he knew how to be “on” when it was time, and he responded when he heard those words, “It’s show time!” Try and be a professional entertainer, and you will be a professional entertainer. Thank you for volunteering with Audio Journal.