Creating ‘water-cooler’ content

In another instalment of The Edge I teased towards what is one of the highest forms of effective radio and promised that one day I would expand on it. Well, here it is.

There are two levels in the presentation of a radio show: ‘the maintenance’ and ‘the magic. ‘The maintenance’ is the essential foundation of any radio show. It is the nuts and bolts housekeeping and includes elements necessary for the overall management of the show (spots, timeous presentation of features, the music), as well as its execution (pre-announcing, back-announcing, time checks, station IDs, etc). These are the things that are governed by formatics (i.e. industry-recognised standards of disciplined presentation). ‘The magic’ is what makes a show special, i.e. the bursts of creative brilliance that get people to react and include everything from simple, funny one-liners to full-production pieces, stunts and ‘events’.

It is ‘the magic’ that sets each show apart from the others.

‘Maintenance’ is the basic level at which a professional should operate. It should therefore be an absolute given that any professional presenter on any radio station should be able to execute a show’s maintenance. The truly talented presenter works beyond this, at the next level – they provide the magic – and their true value to a station lies in how much ‘magic’ they bring to their show. The more ‘magic’ a presenter can produce, the more talented they are, and therefore the more value they have.

The ultimate measure of ‘the magic’ is something called ‘water-cooler talk’. The term ‘water-cooler’ refers to the metaphorical water-cooler in an office around which people tend to congregate instead of working, and where they share information or gossip. This could actually be in the kitchen, the bathroom, the ‘smoking area’, a coffee-shop – anywhere were people congregate. It can also refer to what someone shares on social media (especially Twitter, and I’ll explain why later). ‘Water-cooler talk’ is therefore a generic term for when a listener discusses what they heard on a show with someone else. It is the ultimate measurement because it means the momentum of an event in the show was carried beyond the show’s broadcast time to an extent that its consumer (the listener) actively marketed it on your behalf. For free.

In a way it’s a bit like a consumer voluntarily and publicly endorsing a company’s product. Outside of simple commentary, water-cooler talk can take a preamble form when someone initiates a discussion around an event because they want to talk about it (“did you hear what Fred Mkhize said this morning on Blob FM? I was shocked!”) or a follow-up enquiry when someone asks about an event because they want to know what happened (“did you hear the outcome of the ‘Win a Pelvic Massage’ Competition on XXXFM? What happened?”)

What’s ironic is that ‘water-cooler talk’ is the cornerstone of social media – think of your enthusiastic retweeting and reposting – which is challenging radio for the attention of media consumers. This means it’s now even more important for radio talent to use it.

So how do you create water-cooler talk? There are many ways, such as doing something spontaneous and so ball-crunchingly brilliant that everyone will talk about it; but one of the easiest ways is to continually draw attention to an upcoming event in your show that promises to be intriguing and which has a challenge element to it (and when I say ‘event’ I don’t mean a Katy Perry double-play!). This has the dual effect of not only building TSL (time spent listening), but also increasing the number of people that will hear about the upcoming event and yet who may miss it and will therefore initiate water-cooler talk through follow-up enquiry.

An excellent example was on East Coast Radio’s Big Breakfast many years ago when host Alan Khan and producer Travis Bussiahn opened up a challenge to their listeners to match a recent Guinness World Record of texting a set 160 character text in 41.57 seconds. Sounds relatively easy, right? That was the secret. They promoted it for a day, secured a couple of challengers, set a date and then promoted it for a number of days before the event.

The result was extended water-cooler talk as people talked about how easy it must be, then tried it; challenged each other to see who could text faster; talk about whether it could be done; and then talked about when it was going to happen. Each time they, hopefully, made mention of the station and the show. Just as important was the follow-up enquiry water-cooler talk by people who missed it and wanted to know what happened. The result was tens of thousands of people actively talking about the show, the host and the station. You can’t buy that type of marketing!

What is critical in creating water-cooler talk, is the accuracy with which the listener conveys what is going to happen, or has happened, on your show, otherwise the effect of the ‘water-cooler’ talk can be injurious to your brand. The secret to this is creating a key phrase that captures the essence of what you’re doing and is then continually repeated – essentially drumming it into the mind of the listener. As a guideline, think of something that could be tweeted easily; i.e. in 140 characters or less. This will help develop the discipline needed to ensure the accuracy of the message.

People are inquisitive. The biggest selling newspapers and magazines in this country are the tabloids, and they tap into that and carry heavy doses of gossip and scandal. Their readers want to know who did what, when and with whom. The listeners to your radio show are no different. But people also like to tel other people stuff that will shock, surprise or entertain them. Play on this and generate events in the show that will encourage people to talk, to ‘gossip’. If you can do this you will evolve from simply providing maintenance. You will be providing magic; and that means you will be working at the next level in radio.

A level shared with others who 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.]

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