We talk a lot about the power of brands and product consistency to attract and maintain audiences, especially in today’s super-competitive world. However the ability of talent to lift an operation is something overlooked.
Watching the presidential election night, er, week, unfold we were pretty glued to CNN at our house. This is partly due to the other’s half’s contractual obligation, but also because they did a great job on-air.
They were delivering pretty much the same content as their competitors, revealing county vote counts, slowly, over 5 days, but their line-up of familiar personalities - Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and John King were re-activated constantly across the week as a prime-time team. It struck me as being pretty radio-like - having a strong weekday line-up. The consistency of the core group is probably one of the reasons that CNN had its best ratings, something like 5 of its best 10 days ever, beating similar channels with exactly the same story.
Much has been written about John King’s performance at his magic wall. Again, doing something that was repeated on other channels, but doing it very well, with experience (he’s been doing elections like this since 2008) and on his own terms made him a break-out star.
Whether it’s using a touch-screen for 12-hour shifts or being a successful breakfast DJ, top talent’s success really does come from that mystical X factor. Competence, charm, skill, believability, personality - it all comes together to elevate certain individuals.
John apparently spends his time-off travelling and learning counties and histories - demonstrating how preparation and commitment helps turn in a great performance.
In the UK, Radio 1 remains a key place for broadcast talent. Like much of the BBC it exists somewhat permanently in between a rock and a hard place. It needs to showcase new talent and take risks, whilst remaining popular and staying out of too much trouble.
Its new schedule, announced last week, seems to me to include the right amount of evolution. The Head of Radio 1, Aled Haydn Jones has moved out some - Huw Stephens, Dev and Phil Taggart, and moved around some others - Adele, Matt and Mollie taking more permanent weekend spots. This creates some space in the schedule to bring on both new people and move up others, such as Arielle Free taking on early breakfast.
This is the hardest problem for any station with an already strong line-up, finding space for new people. Really only when people are on your own air can you get the true measure of them. In the new schedule, new recruits Sian Eleri and Gemma Bradley get weekly shows and Friday early breakfast becomes a rush-goalie like spot for trying out new talent.
Much of this new talent came from Radio 1’s Christmas cover initiative last year, where a whole range of people got one-off shows. However the rigidity of the regular broadcast schedule has meant it’s taken nearly 11 months to find more regular places for some of them, and there’ll then be another wave of new talent coming this Christmas too.
Sometimes it seems that Radio 1 is forced to do the heavy talent lifting for the BBC on just their radio budget. If they’re going to the trouble of finding all this talent, shouldn’t it be popping up on the BBC’s socials, YouTube channels, BBC Sounds and BBC Three?
To become great talent you need time to learn your trade. Air miles. The equivalent of John King travelling the country, learning his counties.
New talent also does well when it’s surrounded by experience. Their introduction to the network is best achieved whilst popular stars remain. Swapping out Drivetime for someone who isn’t ready, isn’t good for the station, the listeners or the talent chucked into the deep end.
Overall though, introducing, supporting and growing talent has the opportunity to pay off big time. It can create the difference that your competitor isn’t able to replicate, so that when you have your election moment, people stick with your magic wall.
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