Treat Them Like Dogs


(By Tracy Johnson) The measure of what makes a great program director is changing. And it will be changing even more in the very near future. Increasingly, the most important task for programmers is managing talent.

Why? Simple. Air personalities are the one thing that separates radio brands from one another. And as pureplay streaming providers like Spotify and Apple Music siphon music listeners from traditional stations, the importance of air talents is obvious.

But here’s some unexpected advice for programmers and managers: You should treat talent like dogs. That sounds strange coming from a radio talent coach, but hold on. Dogs are our best friends. They’re friendly, loyal, and always there for you. We love our dogs, and we should love our radio talent.

However, if you’ve ever raised a puppy, you know how frustrating it can be. You also learn that it’s fun, and when they “get it,” you have a loyal friend for life! It’s the same when coaching air personalities. These adorable and talented creatures will drive you crazy, wear you out, and test your patience. Success depends on how you understand them, learn to inspire and motivate them, and reward them.

Here are 10 keys to working with talent. It’s just like raising a puppy:

1. They respond to praise. They want to make you happy. They really do. It’s up to you to teach them what makes you happy, then reinforce it with praise. Psychological studies prove that it takes nine positive reinforcements to offset a single criticism. When they do something positive, tell them, and reward them.

Dog trainers carry a pouch full of delicious treats to get a puppy to do what they want. You should too! Be generous with perks and benefits, and treat talents like stars when they behave properly. Reward them for the right things and they’ll keep making you happy.

2. They learn at their own pace. Growth doesn’t always happen at the pace we want, or think it should. And every talent will have their own pace. The best approach is to focus on teaching proper behavior (or correcting) one thing at a time, then moving on to the next thing. It’s your responsibility as coach to constantly teach, helping them grow. Puppies (and talent) love to learn. It inspires them, motivates them, and challenges them. When they aren’t learning, they get bored. When they get bored, they stop paying attention. Then, bad things follow! That’s a huge responsibility for programmers. You have to stay ahead of them and think strategically to inspire constant growth.

3. They demand time and patience. Puppies learn through repetition. Repetition takes time. Time takes patience. It doesn’t happen overnight. Talent requires the same commitment and discipline. They don’t just
“get it” in a meeting and start performing differently tomorrow. You can reason with them, but they only learn with time.

4. Keep it simple for best results. Puppies don’t understand complex commands or detailed instructions. They respond to simple words, like “down” or “sit.” You’ll have better, faster results with talent by using simple
words and concepts that are easy to apply to their show. Don’t get bogged down in details or philosophies. Explain why it’s important, and how it will work for them! Help them envision it so they can execute it.

5. There will be mistakes. Look, they’re going to pee on the floor. And when they do, you have to clean up after them. Ignoring it will cause it to happen again and again. Puppies and talent require constant attention and monitoring. If you don’t address it, bad behavior will continue, and it will be your fault, not theirs. Make sure they know that the behavior is unacceptable, deal with it quickly, then move on.

6. Establish boundaries. Indulge a puppy and you spoil it, which leads to begging and an unhealthy sense of entitlement. A dog “serves at your pleasure.” They have to know where they stand and respect your authority.
But don’t hold it over them like a master/slave relationship. Treat talents kindly and fairly, but with clearly established expectations and boundaries. You don’t want a morning show host jumping into a guest’s lap at the
dinner table!

7. You can’t train stupid dogs. Some dogs are smarter than others. They’re capable of performing more tricks, and more should be expected from them. It’s the same with talent. Learn their capabilities, and realize that all personalities have limits. They (and you) will be frustrated if you expect something they’re not capable of delivering. It could be that your talent is just not the right “breed” for your needs. Don’t try to turn them into something they’re not.

8. You can teach old dogs new tricks. But it’s more difficult. The radio industry is full of personalities living in the past. They’re executing ideas that worked in the ’80s, and those concepts are outdated, ineffective, and just worn out. These people can be retrained, but it is much more time consuming and challenging than working with a puppy. It takes a different approach to train an older dog.

9. Leash until learned. Trainers keep dogs on a leash until they’re trained to respond to voice commands. It’s for the dog’s safety! In radio, it’s much easier to loosen the leash gradually than to turn talents loose, then try
to contain them. If you let them run free, don’t be upset if they run away and don’t come back. As talent grows, grant more freedom, control, and independence.

10. They love car rides. Have you seen a dog with its head out the window of a car? They love it. Same with air talent, and someday they may give you a ride in their new sports car they buy with their ratings bonus! They probably won’t give you credit for it, but you’ll know. And you’ll be collecting bonuses, too.

When dogs are properly trained, they are loyal for life. It’s the same with air personalities. As a talent coach and consultant, much of my responsibility is training the trainers to get the most out of their personalities.

Tracy Johnson is the founder of the Tracy Johnson Media Group. He is a programming and promotion consultant and talent coach, and made the list of Radio Ink‘s list of the Best Program Directors in America. Reach out to Tracy at [email protected].


  1. IMHO another smart piece of work from Tracy. It’s evident that not everyone got it. I don’t think a lot of air talent reads this publication (although they should) and let’s not be so stuffy when we read this. I live in San Diego. So does Tracy. It’s one of the most pet friendly places in the world. We all love our pets! Tracy works with competitors, but so what? The comparison between air talent and dogs isn’t a negative. He could have said “babies” or “lions” or ..well you get the picture. I started out as talent, and agree 110% with what he says here. Pat me on the head, take me for a ride and don’t whack me on the nose with a rolled up Radio Ink magazine if I make a mistake. Anyone with a pet knows who runs the household. Anyone with a pet knows how to respect that pet-and knows how to get respect in return. That’s what a good manager strives for isn’t it?

  2. Number 11.
    Show these poor, inept curs a piece of meat.
    When they begin to salivate – ring a bell.
    Repeat a few more times
    In future, when you want a slobbering behavior – just ring the bell.
    Say “Good doggies” and apply a “loving” scritch – as an extra piece of reinforcement.
    I can only hope this piece was presented as a satire.
    But, somehow, I don’t think so.
    Perhaps Tracy can confirm or deny.

  3. “Increasingly, the most important task for programmers is managing talent.”

    Really. Would that be voice-tracked talent, satellite network talent, or syndicated talent?

  4. Horrible comparison and a total disregard for the hardworking, mostly underpaid, talented human beings that our industry relies on to differentiate us form other media outlets.
    Just my opinion


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