Music Show Basics

Doing a show involves research, organization and thought. Besides finding the music you will play, it also means planning what you will say and scripting some of it.

If you plan on doing a show for any period of time, you will find yourself tiring of the same old favorites quite rapidly. There’s a lot of music you haven’t heard, and you should be actively seeking it out. If you are doing an eclectic show, you should be listening to different types of music and always searching for new artists to play. A bit of thought and experimentation will go a long way towards making your show well rounded and interesting.

When and Why to Background

There are two groups of listeners in terms of their response to background information: those who like the music to have context and those who just want more music and less talk. I think the easiest way to please both groups is divide your links in half (links are when you talk). Half your links should have background information about ONE song in the set. For the other half of your links keep it short and sweet with no background. A good rhythm could be: background one link, the next one without background and so on through your show.

People listen to the radio for a combination of reasons – they want information, entertainment, company and music. It should be said that listeners who REALLY want more rock and less talk shouldn’t be listening to the radio, they should listen to a CD. Also, although listeners may say they want less talk, they don’t like the reality. There was a movement in radio a few years ago that gave listeners what they said they wanted: more music and less talk. In fact some stations eliminated DJ’s. The no DJ experiment failed and stations quickly returned to regular formats. Like most things, a combination approach is the best solution.

It is also important to consider where you background in your link. Because radio is linear and immediate (there is no rewinding the tape or turning back the page) the background information should be as close as possible to the song you are backgrounding. In other words, you either background and then play the backgrounded song at the start of a set, or the last song of a set ends and you background as soon as the song finishes.

How Long Must This Go On?  Set Lengths

Once you have your music and spoken word material together, you will want to organize it into a show. Sets are generally put together with 2 or 3 songs depending on the lengths of the cuts or into sets that are 12 – 15 minutes in length. To help listeners keep track of the music you are playing, sets should be a maximum of three songs or 15 minutes, which ever comes first. If you are trying to create a considered mood by stringing together a long shopping list of songs remember the chances of a listener remembering what song five was, for example, are remote. Listeners can call in to find out what the name of a particular song is but not everyone has a phone close at hand and not everyone knows what the request line number is.

Avoid S.M.S (The Shapeless Mass Syndrome): Organize Your Sets

Many programmers at campus radio stations don’t give programme structure a second thought. They figure the great music they are playing and their insightful personalities are enough to carry the show, (“Who cares when I play an ad or how I back announce a set of music or how long my sets are?”) but the realities of listening to radio cannot be changed and have to be considered by all programmers.

You need to put real thought into when you play an ad/promo/read a PSA. Radio is linear, so you cannot expect people to go back and forth with you as you go back and forth through your show.

Consider this On Air format:

  1. Last song in a set of music
  2. Play ad, play promo, read a psa
  3. Back announce set of music
  4. First song of next set


This format puts a block of ads, promos etc between you and the music. You should take as many opportunities as possible to keep the music alive and vital and one of those opportunities is right after a set of music is finished. Use radio’s immediacy to your advantage, as soon as the last song of set is done back announce immediately.

So, it should go like this:

  1. Last song in a set of music
  2. Back announce set of music
  3. Play ad, play promo
  4. Back on-air, announce next song
  5. First song of next set

Stir The Pot: Announcing Songs

Be interesting with your back announcing; don’t just say “that was band X, from their album Y and the song we heard was Z.” You will sound dull if you do that all the time. Think of how sports announcers talk about game scores: comprehensively beaten, clobbered, trounced, defeated, it was X over Y, the A’s walked over the B’s, etc. Be creative – think of some synonyms for “played” or other ways to convey the information. Here are some ideas for how to announce songs:

“One of my favorites, the New York Dolls…”

“Did you like that? GBH from their ’84 release…”

“Edmonton’s/Vancouver’s/New York’s finest, that was…”

“You were just grooving/rocking/air guitaring to…”

 Also, avoid using the same format for announcing songs: don’t always list band, album, song – you can also use album, song, band or song, band, album.

Avoid reading sleeve notes because all too often it sounds like you’re reading sleeve notes…usually not very interesting. It is much better to check out the sleeve notes before your show, then drop a few highlights into your announcement: “From the 1994 album…” or “Recorded in Toronto…” or “Produced by the guy from Band X…”

Do not deconstruct your show so much that you say something like, “…and then I played this song and then I played an ad” or “…and now I’m going to play an ad”. This quickly sounds ridiculous and unprofessional. Also, avoid using terms like “PSA” (“And now I’m going to read a PSA”), since most listeners don’t generally understand radio jargon. Before you play an ad in the middle of your announcing, just finish what you have to say with a concluding tone and play the ad. Likewise, when you read a PSA, just read it without any preface.

PSAs, live tags and news highlights sometimes have typos and difficult words to pronounce. Always rehearse out loud anything you’re going to read On-Air: it might save you some embarrassment later. Reading it to yourself isn’t as helpful as reading it out loud. It might seem a bit silly, but you’ll thank yourself when you get through a PSA or live tag smooth as silk instead of fumbling over a word or phone number.

Go With The Flow: Planning Sets

When you are putting together sets of music, find pieces that flow together: don’t go from one extreme to another i.e.: a classical piece into a metal/hardcore piece, followed by a traditional Irish jig followed by a jazz tune. It is too jarring for many listeners. Playing two drastically different genres back-to-back might sound very eclectic “on paper” and gives the impression that you like all types of music but it is also not very creative.

Instead, find the time to listen to the beginning and end of as many songs as possible and organize your music according to how one song ends and the next one begins. For example, imagine a metal tune that ends with a cello solo and then mixing that with a classical music piece that starts with a violin and then playing a folk song that starts with fiddle. Work with what sounds best together and plan for smooth transitions from one song to another.

Try to bridge songs that sound very different from one another by playing a short station ID between the songs. The “neutral” station ID clears the slate for another musical genre.

Also, think of the board as a musical instrument. Remember, it’s a MIXING board, so mix whenever you can. For example, try playing a voice only station ID mixed over the instrumental tail of a song.

Some Final Thoughts

When you’re on air by yourself, be conversational. Pretend you’re talking to someone you’re comfortable with. Some people tape photos of their friends or their enemies or their dog to the mic stand. It might sound silly but it works. What you do depends on what tone you’re trying to achieve.

When you’re talking On-Air, keep your sentences short. Your listeners can’t go back to check what you said last. It’s easier to follow if there’s one thought per sentence. Be sure that your ideas follow one another. If you’re working from a script, a good way to make sure everything is going to make sense is reading it out loud. You’ll probably find a lot of places where you want to breathe.  Put periods there. If you do that, you’ll sound more natural On-Air.  Also, writing the script to make it sound like you’re live – rather than reading from a formal script – is a good idea. It will also get you speaking more slowly and clearly.

Try to use verbs as actively as you can. You don’t have to say you were walking quickly down the street. You can say you were trundling down the street instead.  Same idea, more descriptive. It’s an economical way to paint a picture for your listeners.

It’s a great relief to those of us who hate to dress up that radio has no visual component but that leaves us with an added responsibility. We need to create pictures for our listeners. Sound is one way can create an image in your listener’s mind. If you’re interviewing, you want to get your guest to paint the picture. When you interview some band that uses lot of visual gags in their show, you might want to ask “Of all the sight gags you’ve worked out, what’s your favorite?” Hey presto, they’ll describe the scene.

In order to keep listeners tuned into other great programmes that may follow, we have to avoid saying something like, “There is only 10 minutes left in my show, so I had better get back to the music.” It’s better to say, “Stay tuned to RadioActive 101 because in 10 minutes Ergel is here with his programme Blow by Blow, a show featuring two hours of post modern flute music.”

Don’t be afraid to remove a recent tongue piercing before you go on the radio and please take the gum out. Trust me, we can HEAR it!

Don’t forget that even though people can’t see you, your facial expressions are audible. They come across in your voice. Smile, frown, laugh, stand up, shake your fist. It will give your show a lot of life.

Don’t be afraid to have an opinion on the radio, but you need to be able to back it up.

People listen to our station to hear good music, inspired programmers and well-produced news programmes. Listeners don’t listen to the station to find out what kind of day you’re having. So please don’t tell us how tired, sick, or hung over you are. Listeners want to hear a good programme and if you tell them you’re not in a position to provide a good programme why would they continue listening? If you are tired, sick or hung over keep all the talking to a bare minimum and play more music.

Show some enthusiasm. After all, you’re playing great music on a cool radio station with thousands of people listening. Is that exciting, or what?

And finally: Break the rules, just have a good reason to do so!

Excerpted from CJSR’s Production and Volunteer Manual, Edmonton. Reprinted with permission. Authors – Daryl Richel with the help of Meagan Perry (April. 2001) and Christine Chomiak, Program Manager, (Sept. 1996). Based on a program guide written by Richard Thornely,PD (Jan 1990), who in turn, based his on a program guide by Michelle Dawson (Feb. 1986).

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