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OLD PRO WANTS TO STAY FRESH

QUESTION FOR DAN O’DAY:

Here's my question for you: 18 years in the business, 15 with my current station. I've been morning drive for most of those years. I'm now the MD and PD for the station. Can you see where this one is going? My show isn't up to my standards right now. I'm not in danger of losing my gig; I'm something of an institution in this market and that gives me a certain amount of leeway. But I know that eventually some hot young turk (like me 14 years ago) is going to come along and put me firmly in the cross hairs. I'd like to go down fighting at least. Obviously I need to spin off some of my duties, and I've got someone lined up and training for the MD slot. But that's still later this year at best. I'm tired, I'm harried, and I'm getting by on every trick, wile and bit of smoke and mirrors that almost 2 decades of experience can provide. I remember reading many moons ago that the burn-out period for a personality morning show is like 4 years. At almost 4 times that run, I have re-invented the show twice. But at this point I'm feeling a tad overwhelmed.

Any advice on keeping fresh and new in (to borrow from the Eagles) The Long Run?

DAN REPLIES:

My advice boils down to just three words:

DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

Try altering the Where, When & How of your daily show prep ...Not forever, just for a few weeks, to shake up your nervous system. If you normally prepare at your desk at the radio station, prepare for the next day's program at home, in the bathtub. (But be careful when surfing the 'net from the tub.)

If you typically follow a formula for prep, reverse the order. For example, you might usually start with gathering objective material (birthdays, tv shows, hot movies, trivia) and save the subjective stuff (e.g., comedy bits, personal observations & rantings) for the end. If so, start your prep with the harder stuff - the stuff you have to dig deeper for - and then move into the easier, fact-gathering material.

If you're not developing enough fresh ideas for your show, it's not because you are out of ideas. It's because either

A) You're wasting your mental energy on too many old ideas

B) You're not making yourself aware of your newer ideas

C) You're not making an effort to keep your new ideas.

To counteract any and all of the above, resolve from this moment forward never to be without a little prep notebook (pocketsized, so you won't have an excuse not to take it with you wherever you go) and a writing utensil. Write down every thought that you might later turn into something good for your show, your career, or your life. Important: You don't have to know how you will use it before you can write it down. If you have a hunch that you should save the idea - or if you just find yourself wondering if you should save it - write it down.

Think of five things you used to do much earlier in your career (bits, features, characters, research) - things you enjoyed but have forgotten about for many years. Devote a total of 30 minutes to brainstorming fresh, new ways of re-incorporating those old standbys.

Revisit your earliest creative inspirations, keeping your mind very open to ideas & concepts you can bring back to your work with you. (If I were to embark on such a revisit, I would submerge myself in the books, records, and videos of Robert Benchley, Nichols & May, Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis, Warner Bros. TV westerns, Jay Ward Productions, Max Schulman, Allen Sherman, and The Smothers Brothers.)

Conduct a top-to-bottom review of every element of your show.
For each element, ask yourself:

Why did I begin doing this?
Is that reason still valid?
Is there any valid reason to continue doing this?
Why did I decide to do it this way?
If there still is a valid reason for doing it, what's a fresher way of presenting it?
What, to me, is the single least interesting feature on my show?
Is it likely that my listeners share this lack of interest?
If so, can I get rid of this feature?
If I can get rid of this feature, what should I replace it with?
If I can't get rid of this feature, how can I make it more interesting & alive (for both me and my listeners)?

Go to the nearest large bookstore and purchase one book from each of the following categories:

Philosophy
Business
Ancient History
Politics
Children's Literature

Allow yourself no more than three minutes per selection. Take the books home, and read each of them in a different setting. One might be read only in your backyard, one on a park bench, one in a local diner. Remember to jot down your spontaneous reactions in your little notebook.

You're getting old, and you want to stay fresh. Do what so many American men do when faced with their mid-life crisis: Get yourself an invigorating young mistress. Mental and creative calcification are two great weapons that old age uses to attack most of us. One professional defense is to add a much younger member to your show's cast. Not necessarily a full partner; it might be a traffic reporter or newsperson or producer or comedy writer. What you're looking for is someone smart, strong, creative...and a lot younger than you, which means his/her preconceived notions will be different from your preconceived notions.

Put yourself in precarious situations. Right now, you're able to "get by on every trick, wile and bit of smoke and mirrors that almost 2 decades of experience can provide." But I guarantee there was a time in your career when you didn't coast, didn't take things for granted: When you were scared.

I'm not suggesting that you take up bungee jumping or tightrope walking. But what check your internal list of Things I've Always Wanted To Try But Never Did For Some Reason Or Another. For most items on that list, you'll discover the real "Reason" is related to fear: Fear of failure, fear of looking foolish, fear of not being able to figure out where to begin. Always wanted to play the guitar? Learn ventriloquism? Take on a new challenge, and you'll discover this re-awakened openness to new challenges generalizes to other parts of your life as well.

Travel in time and conduct your own professional postmortem.You are now two years in the future. Some younger, more enthusiastic cross-town morning show has stolen all of your listeners, and you have been demoted to the overnight show. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see how you could have prevented this debacle.

So....How did they beat you? What weaknesses did they take advantage of? How did they reposition you (to your detriment) in the marketplace? What successful new features/contests/characters/promotions/gimmicks did they introduce? What parts of your daily show do you wish you had dropped or changed a long time ago?

Armed with these answers, return to Present Time.

And get to work.

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