Unlocking talent: delicate and dangerous

Abstract: The secret to radio’s survival sits in the chair behind the studio desk; the challenge is to unlock the talent…

Most of the times I have been called in to work with on-air talent, it’s been because their PD (Programme Director) didn’t know what was wrong. Actually, they did, they just didn’t have a word for it.

I have found that the biggest challenge for radio station PDs is finding the time to do what they really want to do. Most PDs I know are former presenters or producers. This makes sense as a PD needs to have a deep connection with the product and the means of production. But stepping up into management has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is the opportunity to make a bigger impact on the output, the disadvantage is having to deal with all the shit that goes with it.

Radio PDs are increasingly managing the bigger picture. They’re involved in the station’s strategic direction, and they’re continually facilitating discussions at the nexus of marketing, sales and programming, and around outside broadcasts and promotions. This often puts distance between themselves and what their instinct tells them to do: work with their on-air talent.

That’s when I often get called in. The PDs are connected enough with their talent to know when something is wrong; they just can’t put a word to it. That word is ‘unlock’.

Ironically radio talent often lock up once they’ve found the key to a style of radio that works for them. But then they get stuck in a rut. There’s a confidence that comes with establishing a formula that works, and it provides an element of comfort for the presenter. But in a rapidly changing media environment where the media consumer has immediate access to the ‘next great thing’, and a tempting array of alternative offerings via apps on their smartphones, comfort for the presenter can be boring for the consumer. Hence the need for PDs to continually unlock their on-air talent – encourage them to assess their position, tap into their expertise, and innovate.

However, unlocking talent is a delicate and dangerous procedure, and it often takes time, time many PDs wish they had. It requires kid gloves and a firm hand. True radio talent are creative, and so challenging them risks upsetting their creative persona. Thankfully, all the talent I have worked with have seemed genuinely appreciative that I am giving them the time and input, and have valued my assessment as honest and supportive. That helps.

The reality is that every presenter and every presentation team dynamic is different. There are personalities, and, especially in the latter case, issues, that need to be assessed and addressed. It’s usually when I do a one-on-one psychometric evaluation of the talent that hidden aptitudes and areas of expertise emerge that, when recognised and developed using the correct tools, can help unlock long-term creativity and a renewed passion for the product.

Sometimes it’s easy. On one occasion working an afternoon drive-time host, simply by observing him I was able to identify what was impeding his creative development – an unqualified lack of self-confidence. He was incredibly skilled and had a remarkable energy and passion for his work; he just didn’t believe it. In the evaluation that followed, I was able to provide him with the psychological encouragement and, importantly, the tools needed, to activate and realise that skill. Within two days the difference was remarkable.

Working with entire drive-time teams can take a little longer. It involves multiple individual psychometric evaluations, as well as the careful on-site assessment of the team’s on-air and off-air dynamic. Sometimes there is a single key to unlocking their collective talent, although normally there are several combinations that need work. This demands a collaboration of all my skills as a counsellor, consultant and, sometimes, even parent.

But the hardest job comes when trying to unlock a talent that isn’t there. It means I have to give the bad news to a PD that they have a serious problem: a format jock is at the helm of their flagship show – someone who shouldn’t be there, because they don’t have the edge.

[All the work here is original. Nothing has come from any other resource. So, if you’re going to use or repost any of The Edge then please give due credit. If not….fine – be an asshole.]

Originally published on The Edge, 6 April 2016