How To Be A Guru At Topical Radio Production
If your morning news feed said that Queen Elizabeth had finally snapped and sicked her corgis onto Meghan Markle because the American was "a royal pain in one's arse" then you would've stumbled onto pretty much every Australian radio station's first break out of the 7am / 5pm news.
And what's this you've scrolled down to while sipping a coffee? There's a new social media challenge involving pouring a bowl of hot ramen down your pants? Chances are, breakfast teams everywhere will be getting their saucy hot noodle jokes ready to tackle this one on air asap.
Content that reflects current events in this way is known as topicality. It's a massive part of radio shows. Notice I said shows. Because as far as using topicality to promote our music product on air, there aint a whole lot to shout about these days.
It wasn't always like this though. Back in the early noughties topical references seemed to be everywhere in radio imaging. You'd hear music promos with snippets of good songs followed by one bad one which would be 'voted off' the station Survivor style via a Jeff Probst grab intoning "the tribe has spoken". Likewise when audio of misbehaving celebrities surfaced (Mel Gibson I'm looking at you, sugar tits) you could count on it showing up in a promo that said something like "our hits are so sweet Mel calls us Sugar Hits".
But then sometime around 2010 pretty much every station in Australia packed up their topical based production, gave it one last cuddle then dropped it off in the woods at the edge of town, never to be seen again. Some stations still dabble, but not many.
So what happened? Maybe we thought any script longer than "Zap FM, hits and old stuff" would send people in a fit of rage over to Spotify. Or is it that we couldn't be bothered spending time trying to think up funny topical references? Yet another possibility could be that it's considered not 'on message' enough. Well here's the real message for you - nothing makes your station imaging and content sound more contemporary and alive than topicality. If you compared a CHR station that didn't use topicality anywhere in their packaging with a classic rock station that did, the classic rock station would in many ways sound more contemporary and modern than the CHR one. A lot of people will scoff at that but it's true. You can even hear it in your head if you think about it. One sounds like a pre-recorded stream in between the brekky and drive shows, the other sounds like a local, relevant and entertaining station 24/7.
Don't get me wrong , I'm not whinging about it. Programmers do what they think is right for their station and there is a possibility that many people have simply forgotten about this style of production and how effective it can be.
So then, how do we make our work sound like topical gold and not like we're just shoe-horning the latest trends into scripts for the sake of it? Well I've been writing topicality into content for a decade or two now so allow me to start the process for you.
As I said earlier- topicality was ditched due to A) making things run too long, and B) not having enough time to think up funny scripts. The good news is, I can take care of both these concerns. Firstly, in order to keep our topicality brief so it doesn't slow down the flow of music, we have to really focus on word economy. I mean realistically we should always be focused on it but particularly when we're trying to keep momentum going from song to song in a music feature. So wherever possible we'll shelve the 'setup and punchline' way of writing. Instead we'll try to sell the music feature and tie in a topical reference all in one sentence. This means that sometimes the result might be a bit less funny than a fleshed out setup and punchline, but it's a trade off you'll need to make in order to keep things short.
Create a table like the one below. As you can see I'm writing about a music feature called Nova's Ten In a Row which involves playing ten songs back to back with no ads and few interruptions. The nature of this music feature again underlines the importance of keeping things brief.
Fill out the first column of the table with with whatever topical stuff you can think of - events/shows/apps, things like that. Then in the next column list a characteristic for each of them that is shared with the feature/product you're writing about. Finally on the right hand column list something that's a difference between the topical subject and your product. Just get two rough ideas down for each topical subject. They are humorous observations at this stage, not fully formed scripts. It's fine if one observation seems to have more potential than the other, because we'll only be using one from each. Of course you could make all of them into sweepers but for the sake of this demonstration we'll just use the stronger ones. I should also point out for any overseas readers that 'Holden' refers to an iconic car manufacturer which just went bust here in Australia.
I've highlighted four observations which I went on to base four sweeps on. You'll notice the observations differ from the end result a bit, but the seed of the joke is still there. I just wrote them the best way I could to turn them into self contained sweeps. Listen to the completed sweeps in the audio link below.
Once you've built half a dozen topical sweepers and another half a dozen generic sweepers to go with them you've got a pretty powerful and funny package for any music feature or on air product. Just be sure to update the topical ones regularly and you're golden.
Find more info about topical jokes and how to use them in your content in my eBook. Don't forget to subscribe to this blog because I'll be revisiting topicality and how to use it in content soon.