John Myers on radio talent
GMG Radio out-going chief executive John Myers takes time out to talk about the most important part of your radio station – the talent – and how hard work is the only way to make it to the top.
"David Beckham used to practice 100 free kicks at the end of every training session while his team mates headed home or to the golf course. The result was that he could score incredible goals and win important games for his team at the same time. He knew he was talented, but he also knew that he had to practice if he was to be the best of the best…
Radio is no different. The best practice their skills every day and exceptional talent is valued just like in any other profession. The very best practice more than most, some are derided as bordering on mad for the hours they put in, when, in reality, radio is just their life and obsession which, in itself, is weird to many observers.
Those who are radio ‘gold’ – are presenters who can drive audiences through the sheer force of their personality. What they do, and the way they do it, can turn around a station’s fortunes or, at the very least, driving interest, audience and revenue to all-time highs. It is these people who become radio superstars and, quite rightly, they earn more than anyone else. Breakfast talent, for example, are usually the highest paid, but not everyone can handle the pressure. When Rajar arrives, if breakfast is not the most listened to programme, the station is usually in crisis and something has to be done. It is a relentless task to be required to deliver a market-leading performance every day and every week of the year.
This isn’t a criticism of the presenters who are best at keeping the music, news and ads moving. They know their own limits and programmers should always have a place for them. The truth of course is that if you really want to make it, hard work is the first door you open. The problem is not everyone wants the slog that is needed these days to get the results they see others enjoying. I’m not saying this is the case for all, but you would be kidding yourself if you think otherwise.
Do presenters work hard enough? How many do you see heading for home right after their on-air shift rather than return to the studio to review what they just offered up in the name of entertainment? Are they constantly practicing their skills, seeking perfection, generating ideas and demanding more from everyone around them? Do they know what the competition is doing, have they mastered the art of the power of a pause, when to speak and when not to, do they know about basic microphone techniques, that the mere suggestion of a word can be better than actually saying it? Are they aware of their locality (really aware), do they listen to the news on their own programme, understand the talk on the street, what is engaging listeners and do they reflect that in their own programmes? Can they read a paper in two minutes and instantly pull out the key things that can be expanded or commented upon (the best can)? Do they constantly bang on the door of their PD asking for feedback? The best PDs know that the best presenters can also be the most demanding and challenging to manage. When on the air, do presenters demand more of those around them to give their all, are they really focused on delivering the very best both for the station and the programme? Or, are they just getting through it before heading out the door until the next day?
It is a truism that the best work harder and smarter and, through this, are earning more than their competitors. But they also have something else. They are creatively different. It could be a turn of phrase, an unusual spin on language, or a style all of their own that makes them stand out. Of course passion is important, but you don’t need to be offensive, neither do you need to be outrageous; you just need to be different to become a real radio superstar. Personally, I have always thought that Wogan is unbeatable for ‘winging it’, although, to be fair, he isn’t. He has honed his act over some 30 years or more and is still right at the top when it comes to delivering a unique form of radio, five days a week. He might not be seem to be preparing a great deal but this is because his talent is so unique, often turning simple emails into works of art. He doesn’t have any prizes or snazzy jingles and the music is often softer (eclectic) than most and, here he is, with the biggest radio audience in the UK, year after year. Of course, he’s on a powerful network, he doesn’t play adverts and there is valuable cross promotion on the BBC, but that doesn’t stop many of our own commercial radio guys getting to the top who constantly deliver big ratings in their respective markets through talent, preparation and a great work ethos.
Every region or group can point to at least one star in their domain and, at GMG Radio, we have more than most. In Scotland, I have watched our own Real Radio’s Robin Galloway arrive at 4.30am for a breakfast show and then, 15 hours later, still be there at 7pm trying to get the right ‘wind-up’ recorded for the next day. Robin’s not obligated to do ‘wind-ups’ – he’s driven by the desire to deliver to his audience something so special that only he can create. He is now No.1. Hard work took him there and this along with talent keeps him on top. Similar examples exist right across the UK.
I grew up listening to Kenny Everett, Fluff, Rosko, Edmonds and others who were experts at creating such magical on-air moments, they will remain with me forever. There are many other presenters coming through now, both in the commercial sector and on the BBC, who will do the same for years to come. Radio constantly evolves and it is why I love this medium; the only boundary to success is the presenter themselves. When I lived in the North, James Whale and Alan Beswick would, in their heyday, offer up scintillating debate that made local radio stand out. Ask yourself, who makes you stay in and listen to a radio programme right now?
In reality, you cannot teach desire, you can only teach skills. I have seen good presenters become de-motivated through poor management, but I have also smiled at witnessing some we thought would never make it turn into brilliant radio personalities on their own, often spending hours in the studio, at times re-editing something so minor that only a few would know the difference. At GMG I think we spend a lot of our time talking to talent but I recognise that we can always do more.
In my youth, I used to turn up at radio stations saying I would work for nothing, just to get in the business. I rarely see anyone coming to our studios these days offering me the same deal. Perhaps they do. I learned early that the big names revealed more of themselves on the air than anyone else. Their life was often presented in colour; they expanded on reality to make a point and a great link. In turn, they became a must-listen. I watched Tarrant drag a competition out so long and with great skill that employers used to complain that their staff were still in the car park listening to the radio when they should have been at work. In some of GMG stations, I enjoy knowing a great deal of time and effort is being spent on programmes that, when aired, few can compete with.
Make no mistake, radio’s future is not with management, it lies at the feet of our talent and management’s job is to nurture, develop and to allow them room to grow – not just on-air, but right across every single department. We must continue to inspire our programming team to do more but equally, there must be a stark recognition that there is no shortcut to hard work and I hope the debacle of Brand/Ross will not deter anyone from taking risks with what we do. We have to take risks, because risk reward is the way we win. When we fall down, let’s not crucify the talent, but look at how we can do it better next time. Listeners will appreciate that and radio will be better for it.
Hard work is the first pill you have to swallow, so accept it. Great creative talent, along with a supportive management team, will then drag out the rest – provided you have it. If you are on-air, you need to be sure you are working at your craft and recognise that being allowed time on the mic is an honour that should never be taken lightly. If you get home and find yourself asking why your show, news bulletin, production piece or a slice of audio just didn’t work, I would want to ask what you were doing at home at all. I bet the spare studio is empty and waiting!"