"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
--Eleanor Roosevelt

By Valerie Geller

"Did you hear the show?" That is a common question heard at radio stations.
Most managers don't have the time to actually hear the on-air product.
However, the talent is hungry for feedback. Starving, actually.
Surprisingly, hosts often hire me at their own expense to conduct aircheck
sessions with them, craving direction that their program directors cannot or
do not have time to give.

Airchecking is more than just a "tape critique." One-on-one coaching, or
airchecking, is a specific, focused way of working. It is not the only tool
that can be used to develop, improve, and advance talent, but it is the best
way. Airchecking is the process of listening to tape of a show and, using
specific criteria, determining what worked and what did not work. With a
guide, airchecker, coach, or PD as your witness, one then decides what can be

Even if you listen to tape of your shows religiously, you are likely to miss
many nuances of the total performance. One air talent I work with says,
"When I listen alone, I focus on how I did. I get critical of just me, not
how the whole show went. When I listen with other people in the room, I
focus on everything that is happening on the air: the guest being
interviewed, sound effects, callers, spot breaks, etc. I hear it all."

It can't be helped. Think of your school or family group photos. When you
see one, the first thing you do is look at yourself. It is the same in
radio. It is a natural thing to pay attention to how you made a certain
point or handled a particular caller. You are less likely to be aware of the
subtleties of that caller's comments or the newsperson's clever contribution.
There is something about listening to your show with a witness in the room
that forces you to hear your work differently.

In this workbook, we explore a variety of specific techniques and methods for
effective airchecking. Managers will learn to create an environment that
makes staff receptive to constructive criticism. The goal is to aircheck in
such a way that each talent sets achievable goals to fulfill his or her
creative potential.

Talent, if you do not know what you sound like on the air, you are already in
the danger zone. You are working with a handicap.

Watch a child play by making faces in a mirror. What do I look like if I'm
mad? What do I look like with my tongue out? Can I see myself from the back?

Airchecking is like a mirror. How do I sound when I am sad or angry? How do
I behave with a difficult guest? What happens when I try to sound smarter
than my partner? Am I smarter than my partner? What happens when I pretend
to know something about a topic I know nothing about? What happens when I'm
bored on the air? How do I sound if I didn't get enough sleep? What kind of
a show will I have if I have not been out of my house in a month except to go
to work?

Your audience knows, but without your aircheck tape as a mirror, you do not.
Sitting alone with a tape of your show is like a single mirror. Working with
a talented aircheck coach can give you multiple reflections of your work.
There are other angles you cannot see with only one frame of reference.
Viewing those other angles is the power of a good aircheck session.

Think of the show as a garden and airchecking the show as a weeding process.
In order to maintain its health, growth, and beauty, you should regularly
walk through your garden taking note of which plants are thriving and which
need attention. Some parts of the garden flourish, some struggle to survive.
Always you appreciate its beauty. If there is a special new plant in your
garden, you want to learn its potential and create the right environment for
it to grow. You make sure it has the right sun, soil, etc. Your aircheck is
like that walk to see how well your garden is coming along.


Unfortunately, there is no airchecking school for programmers. One learns by
working with people, seeing what is effective and what is not. Some aspects
of airchecking will vary greatly, depending upon the individuals involved.
It is in the best interest of programmers and managers to learn to aircheck
effectively, simply because if the talent wins the station wins. There are a
few things one must never do, but the only right way to aircheck is the way
that works.

In the United States where it is becoming easier and less expensive to take a
syndicated network show than to have local live talent on the air, it is
critical that we develop new talent now. Most syndicated programs were once
local success stories. Someone worked with each of those hosts when they
were starting out.

Even the strongest syndicated shows can be beaten by hot local talent. I
frequently meet novice broadcasters with much to offer. What will stations
do once today's syndicated shows run dry or move to television? We need to
look to the future. Airchecking and developing these talented people is one
way to ensure that creative and powerful radio will continue into the next
generation. Of course, after a few years of experience, some of these very
people will go on to become major syndicated talent.


Without an understanding of what is required for an individual air talent to
succeed, even the most gifted new hire may not reach his or her potential.
In a case like that, it takes a year or two for the talent to leave or be
asked to move on. What went wrong?

Let's go back to the garden analogy. You came home from the garden center
with some big, fancy bulbs. The picture on the box showed a huge, exotic
flower, but, unfortunately, the box was without instructions. How much water
is needed? How much sun?

There may be nothing wrong with the talent you have chosen, but when you have
to play a guessing game with insufficient information there is a good chance
of damaging the talent, or at least failing to create an environment where
talent, like that fancy flower, can blossom.

If you found something you did not recognize in your garden, you would not
cut it back without knowing what it was--it could be something wonderful.
The same goes for air talent. Veteran airchecker Dan Vallie, with
Vallie-Richards consulting puts it well when he advises programmers to "let
talent go out on a limb as far as they can. Do not restrict them until you
find their range of potentials and limitations. It's better to reel them in
after a while than to have to keep pushing them out there."

A great aircheck session with a trained program director can move talent
along faster than any other tool. Progress may be painstakingly slow.
Talent improves step by step, day by day. Frustratingly, the process may
sometimes seem to be working in reverse. There is a period of intense
growth, followed by what sound like patches of mediocrity, where all coaching
seems to have been in vain. What you may really be hearing is the talent
searching for ways to implement suggestions and ideas you have discussed.
Have faith and continue the process. If you are on the right path, positive
change will come.

When done correctly, airchecking can be a solution to the dilemma facing
managers and programmers around the world who complain: "I can't find any
good talent. I've listened to dozens of tapes and they are all bad or
mediocre," or "This is a good station in a reasonably sized market, and the
job pays a decent salary. Why can't we find the right people?"
The answer is DEVELOP THEM.

Here is the Aircheck Method we use:


1) Always have a tape of the show you are discussing on hand. You may wish
to transcribe it word for word to emphasize specifics. Keep in mind that a
transcript can destroy context, i.e., sarcasm, irony, humor all get left
behind with the loss of vocal inflection. This often happens when a manager
receives a nasty call or complaint letter with specific quotes included.
Inevitably the context is missing. A discussion can degenerate quickly if
the actual facts of the case are in dispute. Having the tape allows you not
only to look at the content, but also the context of an event on the show.

2) Focus on one thing at a time. Sometimes an aircheck session turns into a
"dump" session, in which talent unburdens him- or herself of a lot of
thoughts having nothing to do with the show. A double standard applies here.
It's acceptable, to a point, for the host to digress. After all, a PD is
uniquely able to understand pressures talent may be under, and even, in some
cases, to do something to alleviate them. As a manager, however, you are
there to aircheck, not to vent. Listen to the talent. Should you hear the
makings of a great show taking place in your office, encourage the talent to
put that on the air. Caution: don't let these diversions distract you from
the aircheck session; just move the subject back to the tape and the show at
the most appropriate moment.

3) Tell the truth. Trained communicators sense when you are fibbing.

4) Reinforce the positive by starting with the good stuff. Remember to
acknowledge goals achieved.

5) Be fair. Criticism goes in very deep. No matter how angry you are, avoid
verbalizing your negative reactions to a piece until you can express yourself
calmly and rationally.

6) Let the talent discover along with you what needs to be improved.

7) Outline strengths. Ask a lot of questions. What worked? Why did you
want to do this on the radio? What were you trying to say here? Did this
connect? Did this make you laugh?

8) Always end an aircheck session with one or two mutually agreed upon
"Achievable Goals." Pick at least one thing that can easily be accomplished
by the next scheduled session. Try to let the talent initiate goal-setting.

9) Is there anything on the tape that you could use as a promo?

10) Have faith, believe in this person's ability to improve.

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