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Listening While On Air

The Lyft driver noticed my WKQX hat and asked if I was in broadcasting. I said I was and noted that he was listening to Bryan, Ali and Justin, a Chicago show that we coach.

The driver then began talking about his own radio career. On the drive from the Loop to O’Hare airport I heard a detailed recap of his life as a deejay, salesman and radio manager. In 55 minutes the driver never asked me a single question.

On the air and in real life, conversation is a two-way street. We stereotype media personalities as big talkers, but successful on-air players are actually intense listeners.

At Podcast Movement in Philadelphia last year, Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air said, “people hear I’m in radio and tell me, “You must be talking all the time.” No, I’m listening all the time.”

On a team podcast, television or radio show, we coach improvisational theatre skills. Good partners listen with open ears, head and heart, suspending judgment and reacting to whatever happens without blocking or hijacking the conversation.

Listening is hard. Forcing yourself to be 100% in the moment with others requires effort. Talking is easier than listening.

On-air roles attract some people who like to talk a lot. They use paragraphs to say a sentence. They interject quickly and frequently interrupt because they are not listening. Their show is done for themselves, not for the audience.

When you practice active listening, it induces others to share more interesting thoughts. In research, focus group facilitators are trained to never lose eye contact when someone is speaking. They are taught to wait until everyone is done talking before looking at notes and facilitators get dinged for glancing away.

If you are not listening, the audience notices. In the 1992 presidential debate, viewers saw Bill Clinton looking individual citizens directly in the eye as he spoke with them, while George H. W. Bush often glanced around the room. Listening skills in that debate became a turning point in the election.

Today’s short attention span audiences prefer collaborative conversations that highlight the chemistry and personalities of an on-air team. Shows where one host dominates conversation are not as successful as in the past.

Anchors who do not learn to practice active listening are likely headed for other careers, like the Lyft driver who gave me the idea for this article.