The Biggest Cause of Listener Tune Out Is Confusion!

As human beings, we all respond to simplicity, clarity and familiarity. When we can’t understand what’s happening, we run for cover. Confusion is stressful, and we avoid stress. This has profound implications for radio shows.

Personalities and programmers agonize over cracking the ratings code, constantly seeking to find a magic formula that launches their station to new heights. The quest usually includes endless tweaking of clocks, adjusting format execution and building in hooks designed to keep the audience listening longer.

But the key to ratings success isn’t quite so complicated. There are six things that cause listener tune out. Eliminate or reduce tune out, and ratings go up. And the most common reason listeners tune out is confusion. And that comes from three sources.

3 Ways to Reduce Listener Confusion

The problem with confusion is that most broadcasters don’t realize the content is confusing.

First, they don’t listen nearly as much as we think they do. Recent studies show the average length of tune in has dropped to 7-8 minutes per occasion.

But even declining TSL isn’t the biggest contributing factor.  Listeners aren’t paying nearly as much attention as we would like. Listening to the radio is mostly a background experience. They’re usually actively engaged in many other foreground activities that take up more of their attention.

And they constantly button-punch. They jump from one station to another. Many times, they don’t even know what station they’re listening to.

When visiting clients, I usually Uber to and from stations. Recently, on a 30 minute drive from the airport to a meeting, the driver had my client’s morning show on. After about 20 minutes, I asked what station she was listening to. She gave me the wrong answer. I asked about my client’s morning show (the one she was listening to) and she said,

yeah, they’re okay but I don’t listen to them much. I like this show a lot better.

Okay! The listener was confused. Now you may not think that’s a big deal because it’s a PPM market and if the driver had a meter, they’d get credit. But here’s the problem. When listeners can’t recall the station, the chance of getting them back for additional occasions is greatly reduced.

That’s why it’s so important to reduce confusion. Here are three ways to do it.

Reset The Scene

Since the audience constantly tunes in and out, reset the scene as often as possible. You can’t possibly do this too much. It doesn’t have to be a long reset, but it has to be clear.

That’s why television shows often begin a new episode with highlights from earlier shows. It reminds viewers of what has happened in the story so the viewer isn’t confused. Television does it, and that’s a foreground medium.

Mojo in the Morning has been a market leader in Detroit for decades. His show is well constructed and easy to understand. It’s loaded with benchmarks and features that help with recall.

Mojo realizes that reducing listener confusion is a primary key to TSL. He understands the importance of resetting topics in each break so listeners can follow what’s happening on the air. He says:

You cannot rehash enough what you are doing at a particular time. As tedious as it sounds, it’s important to consistently re-explain your regular benchmarks. Re-explain who the characters are. It’s especially important to re-introduce characters and benchmarks after summer and vacations for new cume as well as for those who may not have heard the show for awhile.

Manage The Microphones

Another common cause of tune out is when voices compete for attention on the air. Listeners have a hard time sorting out who’s talking, especially when personalities talk over one another.

In the studio, it doesn’t feel like a big deal, but it’s a very different environment than listening to the radio. In the studio, we can see one another. Secondary and tertiary voices enter the conversation and it’s easy to follow because we can see it.

When the conversation starts to get animated, we can sort out who is talking because we have eye contact. But listeners are blind. They can’t see you. It’s an entirely different experience.

So when personalities talk on top of one another or an unfamiliar voice enters the segment,  the audience is confused. And when they’re confused, they tune out.

That’s why it’s important for the show’s host to manage the on-air traffic flow.

At KISW/Seattle, BJ and Migs have an eight person cast. Shea manages the show’s flow by applying the Rule of 3 to reduce the potential of audience confusion. Shea says:


If you’re on a show with a large cast of characters, try it. And remember that when listeners are on the air, they become part of the cast. So introduce them.

Many personalities have been trained to go cold into phone calls, editing directly to the listener’s first comment. That saves a couple of seconds but the audience is confused. Who is this person? Why are they on the air? Where did they come from?

Unfamiliar Voices

We like what we know. That’s a universal truth. It’s why we go to the same coffee shops, take the same route to and from work and listen to the same songs. Familiar is comfortable. Unfamiliar is stressful.

This is true with radio personalities, too. Believe me, your audience is not nearly as familiar with air talent as we give them credit for. And that goes for the main personalities that have been on for years as well as secondary and tertiary voices.

Whether it’s a big or small crew, be sure to name tag the show often. This is easy to do, but we overlook it way too much. It’s repetitive and tedious. It’s also critically important.

I work with a show that has five characters, all males. Their personalities vary but it’s very hard for listeners to sort the voices. Even with name-tagging, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who especially with the three guys that aren’t primary names on the show brand.

So in addition to following the Rule of 3, we’re working on identifying roles and personality traits in dialogue.

In a meeting, they asked how long we needed to go out of our way to introduce each character. The answer: It never stops. Ever. For one thing, we must constantly introduce new listeners to the show. For another, 50% of existing listeners tune in for less than 2.5 minutes per day. They know little about you. Introducing personalities and character traits never ends.


Confusion is a real thing, and it happens far more frequently than you think. It’s the #1 reason for listener tune out. It adds stress to the listening experience.

When there’s too much stress, buttons are pushed. And when buttons are pushed, TSL is lost. And the great danger today is that distracted listeners are less likely to remember to come back.

These are just three common causes for confusion. There are others, but fix these first. It’s a fundamental key to winning the ratings battle.


By Tracy Johnson

Recognized as one of America’s most innovative radio programmers and managers, Tracy Johnson’s broad background in traditional and digital media spans more than 25 years and has influenced hundreds of radio stations, programmers and personalities. 

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