The Science of Show Prep

None of you got into radio or come to this site for a science lesson. But like it or note, radio performers can learn a lot from behavioral scientists especially when it comes to preparing content. The science of show prep can help you find a path to great success on the air.

Think about this:

Why does one painting become worth millions while another seemingly similar work sell for pennies on a garage sale?

What is the difference between a best-selling novel and one the author can’t give away to friends and family?

Why does one pop song rise to #1 while another with a great hook never cuts through?

What causes some online videos to go viral while millions of others are seen by only a few dozen?

When you arrive at answers, and while still thinking outside the box, apply it to radio.

Now ask yourself:

Why do some topics take off on the air, igniting strong response and word of mouth, but others do not? Every personality has had that feeling of disappointment when a can’t miss break ends up flat.

Yet other times, the simplest “so what” segments you never thought would resonate ignite.

In other words, what makes content work…or not? And how can you improve the “hit rate” of what is produced on your show?

The Science Of Show Prep

Behavioral scientists tell us that creating great content is not simply a matter of quality. The idea that the “best” art rises to the top and reaches the most people doesn’t explain it. It’s more than that.

 Jim Davies, a professor at Carleton University and director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory conduct a series of tests, resulting in his Theory of Compellingness.

Read all about it in his book: Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe.

Davies answers questions such as:

  • Why do some things pass under the radar of our attention, but other things capture our interest?
  • Why do some religions catch on and others fade away?
  • What makes a story, a movie, or a book riveting?
  • Why do some people keep watching the news even though it makes them anxious?

For example, in a study about speed dating, people were asked about the type of partners they found attractive. Results showed answers before the exercise had no correlation with what they actually found attractive in person.

Davies explains:

We are beginning to understand just how much the brain makes our decisions for us: we are rewarded with a rush of pleasure when we detect patterns, as the brain thinks we’ve discovered something significant; the mind urges us to linger on the news channel or rubberneck an accident in case it might pick up important survival information; it even pushes us to pick up People magazine in order to find out about changes in the social structure.

That’s a clue into how listeners respond to radio shows.

Finding A Story In Topics

So how can you apply the science of show prep on a radio show each day? Mostly, it’s a matter of applying creative solutions to appeal to listeners on a personal, emotional level.

That’s the art of creating compelling content by finding stories inside topics. This may cause you to move beyond your comfort zone, but that can be a good thing. Many personalities get into a rut. This exercise will help shake you out of a routine that may have become ordinary to the audience.

Behind all of these concepts is a preparation technique I call TESOP: It’s an acronym for Topic, Execution, Story, Observation, Performance. It’s explained in detail here.

Whether the source of content comes from Harvesting Your Life or a show prep service, anything can turn into content if you mine it properly.

Here are some typical ways to convert ordinary into extraordinary.


Create contrast to add drama in a storyline by putting a personality in an awkward or unexpected situation. Then exaggerate the story to bring out the suspense.

For example, a cast member with Claustrophobia is locked in a coffin for the entire show. Or someone with fear of heights goes bungee jumping. These stunts makes sense when there’s a story attached.

Resolve a Conflict or Dilemma

Some of the best relationship features work because each episode sets up a conflict that builds tension. Then the tension is resolved.

Set it up with a “what should I/they do” situation, and explore it.

This is the simple formula behind the success of may situation comedies on TV. A storyline is introduced and developed, conflict is raised to an extreme, then is resolved. You can do the same on the radio.

Seek The Extreme

Ordinary phone topics become storylines when the personality is on a quest or mission. Many clients organic these topics with a concept called the Book of Records.

Instead of an ordinary phone topic like “What did you eat when you were depressed?”, turn it into a quest to find “the most anyone listening has ever eaten in a depressed sitting”.

Just turning up the volume on it by going for the extreme (the most, youngest, oldest, farthest, etc.), a new layer of interest emerges.

Top 10 Lists

While using lists on the air is usually an example of lazy, uninspired show prep, there’s nothing wrong with turning unique content into a list. 

It’s a great way to compile a shareable, social media worthy segment. Start with an ordinary phone topic, such as “What excuses did you use to get out of Jury Duty?”. Then dramatize it by coming up with the show’s “Top 10 Excuses To Get You Out of Jury Duty.”

Make It a Game

Games are fun to play on the air, and add TSL by capitalizing on the play along factor. Some segments lend themselves to becoming a game.

At KLOVE, one of Skip & Amy’s most recognized features is a silly game they play on Fridays. Amy plays a musical instrument, and plays it poorly. She plays a familiar song, and listeners have to guess what it is. They call it Name That Toot. Isn’t that more interesting than a recurring segment that references her musical abilities?

 Add A Guest

Sometimes guests are weak on the air. In fact, that’s the case most of the time. But on occasion, the right guest can turn excite a storyline.

With a panel of experts, your show should have a choice of resources that fit various situations and topics. Or, use the feature Ask Me Anything. This is a terrific way to create something interesting out of nothing.


These ideas all apply art to the science of show prep, but understanding that science is a key part of the equation. Keeping both in balance can be an important key to your personal success formula.

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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