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Don’t Look at The Audience

Steve Martin tells aspiring comedians, “don’t look at the audience.”

In his tutorial on Masterclass.com, Steve once became confused on-stage when he got big laughs from a joke but saw only one-in-four faces laughing in the audience.

The truth is many people sit there stone-faced even though they are really enjoying the show. Instead of guessing at body language, comedians I know find it more reliable to record and listen back to shows, putting a stopwatch on each laugh.

In most radio, television, and podcasting, there’s no in-person audience to tell you how you are doing. So how do you know?

Presenters can be thrown by a harsh critique about something that actually worked, or they can become overconfident even though a segment died on the air but generated text response.

Here are a few success indicators to consider watching. Some are scientific; some are like testing the wind with your finger. All will at least give you a clue about your performance.

Research

The best way to know what the audience thinks is — ask them! The most successful media companies gather ongoing consumer feedback; qualitative studies, focus groups, and online surveys. Take individual reports with a grain of salt, and over time watch for positive and negative trends that stand out.

Numbers

Never make decisions on Nielsen or Numeris alone. Big fluctuations come from small sample sizes. Remember, the ratings for Seinfeld’s first season sucked! Keep track over several seasons and combine that data with streaming numbers and research, as stated above. On radio, your morning show numbers should ideally outperform those of your station. For podcasts, go beyond downloads and investigate how long listeners stay and if they return for the next episode.

Social media

Track your followers and compare them against your station and your competitors. At this writing, CBS This Morning has 420k Twitter followers, but anchor Gayle King has 1 million. On the radio, Howard Stern has more followers than both The Howard Stern Show and SiriusXM.

Compliments

Listen for that “I love you” sound in someone’s voice when they repeat your show back to you. Notice the tone of social media comments. Watch for the spark of pride in your manager’s eye when they high five you on a particular segment. You will know the vibe when it happens.

Complaints

Zero complaints may indicate that your content is not memorable or entertaining. Critiques are inevitable if you speak unvarnished truth, attempt humor, or reveal your authentic personality. A complaint means they noticed you. Here in Portland, KGW’s reporter Maggie Vespa turned complaints about her style of dress into a conversation with the audience, which went viral nationwide.  

Your team

If the show is having fun, the more infectious it is for the audience – to a point. Will Farrell says what cracks up the film crew on the set sometimes doesn’t work on-screen, while the throw-away gag that no one noticed gets the big laugh in theatres. The content you love is not always what the audience loves. It takes a team of management and on-air players who keep each other on track in a daily practice of always putting the audience first.