Long-show Format Radio and TV Talk Shows

Long-show Format Radio

So you wanna be a radio talk-show host?  Here’s some tremendous advice from a guy who “came up through the ranks” in Wisconsin radio, with a background in news and talk programming.  Jerry Bader’s high-rated show is on WTAQ-AM in Green Bay, and he’s put together a guide for anybody who wants to know how to do it:

Talk Radio 101

Rule #1:  Be the most informed person you know.

Rule #1 A:  Be a great story teller. ALL radio is great story telling. Every topic should be framed with:

  1. A suspense-building intro: where is he/she going with this, don’t give up the whole story right away.
  2. Make EVERY topic your own; i.e., thousands of hosts may be talking about it, but none of them should be saying what you’re saying about it, at least not in your unique way.
  3. Ask questions during the topic that allow the listener to play along vicariously; even if they’re not part of the 3 to 5 percent of an audience that will call a talk show this allows them to “play along at home.” (This is also part of the suspense building)

Rule #2:  Better to air what many may consider a boring topic interesting to you than a general interest topic boring to you. Why? If it bores you, it will bore your audience…fast! If you’re good at what you do, you should be able to make a topic you find interesting equally interesting to your audience.

Rule #3:  If you can’t sound like an authority on a topic, DON’T do it (it doesn’t matter if “everybody’s talking about it)

Topic selection:

I don’t consider myself a conservative talk show host, I consider my self a host with a conservative perspective, so in selecting topics I don’t factor politics into it at all. I ask the following:

  1. Can my audience relate to it?
  2. Are they hopefully hearing it for the first time?
  3. Do I have something to say about it that no other host does?

It doesn’t matter if it’s bailing out GM, or whether American Idol is rigged (I’ve done both, several times) if they pass that test, I’ll do the topic.

Dealing with Callers:

Be they friendly or unfriendly, rule number one is LISTEN TO THEM! Not naming names, but I hear some national hosts whiff on this. The reality is this: every call should have the goal of making the host sound good (some in the industry bristle at this notion; I think it’s crucial).

You need to listen to what they’re saying, whether they agree or disagree with you. If they disagree, attack their point by asking questions. If they agree and do little more than parrot you, say good bye in a hurry. If they bring a compelling point you didn’t, use it to shine by expanding on their point.

Your producer has a caller with a great point who is either too nervous or too angry to come on the air: NEVER let your producer say “I’ll pass your thoughts onto the host.” If the producer thinks it’d make a good call, they should tell the caller that others want to hear their point of view, or simply point out to them how pointless it is to call and simply vent to the producer. These don’t always work, but they often do.

Local vs. State and National:

I think too many hosts make the mistake of thinking that just because something is local, people care about it. Certainly, HOT local issues should take precedent; but any topic that can strike an emotion in the listener is “local.” I went an hour on the pastor in New England who let a child molester under his roof with his own four children. Most city hall topics go nowhere…But a turf war between two homeless shelters in Green Bay hit a home run. If it elicits an emotion within the listener, it’s local to them.

Last and certainly NOT least:

Life is show prep. I did an hour on the lousy service I had at a bar.

My daughter’s school is showing “The Day After Tomorrow” in science class. I found my father-in-law’s immigration paperwork from 1954, which made for an amazing topic on illegal immigration. Keep a notebook with you at ALL times. Some of the best topics are one’s that “pop into my head.” And don’t be shy in soliciting ideas from listeners(or friends and family)! Which leads to this:

 Be a DANGEROUS radio show; make the listener feel they’re in danger of missing something REALLY good if they’re not listening every day! And if they miss it, they’ll HAVE to run to the podcasts on the website.

Long-show Format Television

 As a TV news reporter, you may well have to serve as moderator of a public affairs program, or host a long-form public affairs talk show.  Here’s some advice on that from a real pro.  Neil Heinen’s background includes both radio news and TV news assignment management.  Neil is Editorial Director of both Madison Magazine (as well as a writer and columnist) and WISC-TV in Madison.  He hosts the weekly public affairs program “For The Record”, and has some thoughts on putting together a good show:


It’s tempting to say that any talk show is only as good as the preparation that goes into it. And that is true to a point. But the best shows have an element of spontaneity to them for which no preparation -other than experience – is possible. It is the job of the host to expect that spontaneity (indeed encourage it) and handle it well when it arrives.

I think a guest has a reasonable expectation of some advance notice of the content of the program. But I dislike extended pre-taping sessions where questions are vetted and guests begin to prepare answers. The best shows are conversational in style, where questions flow naturally from previous answers. While the interviewer may have – and indeed should have – a blueprint for the length of the interview, it’ll be unrecognizable to the viewer or listener if done well. Nevertheless the interviewer will always be well served by explaining the format, length of segments, number of breaks, tips for where to look and perhaps how to recognize signals for upcoming breaks and other advice for making the guest comfortable. Try to determine if the guest has previous experience with such interviews and provide water or the like. I like to tell guests that during For The Record there are two, two-minute breaks and especially during the last break, if I haven’t gotten to something important to let me know and I’ll work it in.

Active listening is key. But admittedly difficult. A good host is always aware of the amount of time remaining in the show and has questions that can be asked with five minutes remaining as well as with 30 seconds remaining. Do NOT ask the first if the time remaining is the latter, and vice versa. Have notes and paper and pen available and use them – your mind can and will go blank and the question on the page will save the interview. Know what safety valves you can utilize.
Go to a break early to avoid awkward transitions. Don’t let your guest go on with an uncontrollable cough. Help them if their mic slips off.

Never interview an author if you haven’t read their book. Can some people pull it off? Yes. But when you ask the first question of an author that CLEARLY indicates you’ve read their book the entire dynamic changes and the quality of the interview increases ten-fold. It’s worth it.

Remember the questions your audience might be interested in more than you. Don’t forget to ask the question you already know the answer to – but your audience does not. Remember to mention the name and title of your guest often enough to inform the new listener/viewer and remind the rest.
If at all possible, work with a producer. The producer should book the guest to avoid any “negotiating” with guests (by the host) to get them to appear. If at all possible avoid promising to “not” ask a particular question unless you as interviewer would be comfortable with that information.

Remind scientists and doctors to use language people can understand. Ask any guest to explain acronyms and verbal “shorthand.” Always try to give folks suggestions where they can get more information or how to get in contact with a guest or contribute and participate in a cause or effort.