Talk On The Radio: How Much Is Too Much?

Finding the right combination of talk content on a music station is a non-scientific task. Break length and music count are issues nearly every programmer wrestles with from time to time.

Yet, it’s one of the most important decisions to be made.

One of the first questions from virtually every client is:

How much music should the morning show play?

This is almost always followed by:

How long should breaks be?

There’s no standard answer to these questions. That’s like asking how long a song should be, or the ideal length of a movie. Or how many pages should be in the book?

The real answer: It depends! And there are many factors to consider. But I’ll provide a guideline after discussing the variables.

Break Length Variables

When working with talent, knowing when to tighten or loosen the leash to allow them to run free is difficult.

It is true, however, that air talent on music stations must earn the right to more talk. This privilege is not a bonus granted by the PD or GM. It’s an invitation from the audience, and is earned over time. When content becomes more of an attraction that music, increase the talk and reduce the music. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Here are 6 factors to help you figure out the right mix for your station.

Don’t Obsess About Talk Break Length

First, understand that the length of the break isn’t nearly as important as the pace of the break. Forward momentum is key to listener retention.

In sports, Major League Baseball has obsessed over shortening games. Baseball officials are applying pressure on teams, umpires and players to “speed up” the games.

The emphasis is on the wrong syllable.

Taking all of the “downtime” out of baseball shortens the average game time by 7-8 minutes. In a three hour game, does 7-8 minutes matter?

This isn’t really about length. It’s about the pace, momentum and energy of the game.

Making the game more exciting should be the goal. In radio, we often do the same thing. We’re worried about length, when our emphasis should be on the listener experience. When content is engaging and moving forward, longer breaks are more tolerable. But as soon as it slows, we enter the danger zone. In this regard, length is irrelevant.

Tight And Short Are Not The Same Thing

There’s a big difference between executing a tight performance and length of talk in a break.

Being tight is eliminating needless words and streamlining focus. Don’t tighten a break in order to shorten it. Tighten it to improve the pace of the break, provide focus and make it easier to understand.

Shorter is simply, well, shorter. And shorter isn’t always better.

In other words:

Tight and short are not the same.

For programmers coaching talent, this is important. Choose words very carefully. A comment like, “I love this because it was short” is deflating, with misplaced emphasis on an aspect that carries limited impact. It’s stifling to creative personalities.

Compare that to a comment like,

I love that break because it was tight. It was focused. It moved forward.

Audience’s aren’t screaming for shorter talk segments. They are excited for content that inspires them.

But every programmer wants guidelines. The right answer for you depends on the strength of your show.

Here’s a starting point.

6 Tips on Break Length

The most important consideration for how much talk is the right amount of talk is the stage your brand is in with your audience in the Personality Success Path.

Stage 1: Introduction

New show,  or shows in a new market, on a new station, or on a station that’s just changed format, play more music! Use the popularity of the songs as an introduction to personality.

Try for 10-12 songs per hour. If that’s not possible because of commercial load or information features, think about editing songs to increase the music count.

On the air, focus mostly on the basics. Sell the position, the station and introduce a few key features.

Inject personality into every element by ize-ing each talk opportunity. That’s adding relatable content that helps you localize, energize, supersize and personalize material. The more a personality is able to connect with the basics, the faster she will gain traction through this stage.

Get more details on how to do it in my seminar on demand My Solo Show Can Beat Your Team Show.

Stage 2: Familiarity

As a show becomes more familiar, increase talk break length incrementally.

If the station is establishing a music image, or is in a tight, direct format battle with a strong competitor, don’t let a competitor gain an advantage because of too much talk. Still, as familiarity increases, likability will follow. And audience tolerance increases.

Usually 8 songs an hour is required to gain a meaningful music advantage.

This may vary depending on the station’s history and presence in the market, but if quantity of music is a meaningful position, make sure the show is competitive.

Stage 3: Growth

As personalities grow into Stage 3, they become part of listener habits. Take advantage of this growing strength. In this stage, talent is gaining momentum and could experience rapid growth if managed properly.

If ratings are equal to the station’s overall share, it may be an opportunity to take a leadership position by relaxing restrictions more, particularly if research indicates positive perceptual momentum.

Gradually remove songs over time, increasing personality content. This is the best time to increase the number of breaks in the clock, but keep the talk break length fairly consistent. Drop one song at a time, gradually reducing music count.

Be sure to monitor ratings response and research the audience for perceptual changes in the show/station.

Stage 4: Like

As the show outperforms the station, it’s clear that the audience really likes the personalities. Now is the time to evolve toward less music/more personality aggressively.

Be careful to avoid doing it suddenly, but move quickly. By giving listeners more of what they tune in for, the ratings snowball will likely continue.

Relaxing the music count to as few as 4 songs could be appropriate here. That’s one tune per quarter-hour, which is enough to maintain a music presence.

Stage 5: Love

As the audience truly falls in love with the personalities, go all the way. You have potential for media domination. There’s no point in playing fewer than four songs an hour. Drop them all.

If preference and ratings are significantly above the station (20-25%), drop the music entirely.

It doesn’t make sense to play less than four songs an hour. That’s not enough to hold a music listener and it gets in the way of those coming for personalities.

This is the time to transition and become a personality-driven talk show.

Get Details on the 5 Stages of Growth With My Personality Success Path Here

Adjusting Break Length

When making any programming change, do so gradually. Small changes are less shocking as a large change. Removing one song at a time insures a smoother transition for talent and the audience.

I mentioned editing songs a couple of times. This is an effective method of increasing personality while maintaining song count. If you can remove 45 seconds from each song, you save 7.5 minutes every 10 songs! That’s huge. Add personality and still play the same number of songs? Yes, please. If the songs are edited properly, it won’t be noticed. For details on how to do it right, go here.

Regardless of song count, maintain a high personality presence and use each opportunity in the format clock. Use song intros to relate to listeners. Talk into and out of stop sets. A frequent presence on the show adds more time for listeners to get to know the talent. And familiarity always comes before falling in love.

That’s part of Romancing The Listener.


At the end of the day, the perfect break length depends on many variables. But this rule of thumb should guide all decisions:

Each break should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. And it should be as short as it can be, but no shorter.

Finally, don’t overthink it.

Seth Godin nails it:

“Too long.” You’re going to hear that more and more often. The movie, the book, the meeting, the memo…few people will tell you that they ran short. Shorter, though, doesn’t mean less responsibility, less insight or less power. It means less fluff and less hiding.

When in doubt, leave it out. When a friend sends you a video on YouTube, what’s the first thing you look at? How long is it? Do I have time for this? Is it worth my time? Listeners ask themselves the same question about radio shows.

Is it worth their time? It is if it’s tight. And tighter execution almost always results in shorter breaks.

Do More Music Morning Shows Work?

Tracy Johnson’s Audience Magnet Blueprint eBook (free)

The Science Behind Why Listeners Reject Talk

Radio Personality Success Path: The Five Stages of Growth

Tracy Johnson’s Audience Magnet Course

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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