Spontaneity; The Missing Ingredient


(Mike McVay) When you think about what’s missing from radio today, many things may pop into your brain, but among that list for me is spontaneity. That’s one of the critically important elements that winning stations have and the rest of the platform does not. Something happens that’s out of the ordinary and it prompts a series of moves or actions that could make your radio station a destination.

Spontaneity is one of the things that a music streaming service cannot easily duplicate, what an automated station may not have programmed into its format clock and what many air-talents ignore as they’re ‘going through the motions’ versus thinking deeply about each break and each segment of their show. It is that unexpected moment that causes someone to turn-up the volume, pay attention, that evokes an emotion, and possibly causes whatever just happened to be shared as word-of-mouth. That’s what creates day-to-day tune-in. That’s what builds habitual listening.

Being ready to adjust and alter the format to take advantage of an unusual situation seems like it should be something that can be done easily, but unfortunately it isn’t and it doesn’t happen often.  Most recently, when the depth of the pandemic became accepted by us as a people, some stations sprang into action and began saluting frontline healthcare providers. There were those that played the National Anthem at a set time daily. There were others who decided to play Christmas music at night as a way to lessen the stress we were all feeling. There were others who did nothing for fear of breaking format.

What I’ve learned over the years is that the very best Program Directors spring into action and take advantage of such situations. Celebrities all seem to die on the weekend. That’s an obvious exaggeration, but it feels true, and when it happens those stations whose audience has a connection to the deceased makes their audience aware of it and pays tribute to them. When John Kennedy, Jr died on a Friday evening, there were stations that immediately searched out songs to play as a tribute to him. Same for Princess Diana who perished in the early hours of a Sunday morning. I remember seeing the positive ratings for those stations that played 100% Michael Jackson music following his death. 

There was a time when a program director would call the studio, or walk down that hall, and she or he would tell the on-air talent to “play songs that feel like summer today … it’s finally above 32 degrees.” Same for that first snow when I’d run into the studio and ask the talent to play Christmas music. One station that I programmed even had a category of songs titled “Rainy Day Songs” and we would spike them into the on-air rotation when the weather turned wet. That doesn’t work in Seattle where it rains a lot, but it works somewhere like Phoenix or LA where rain is the exception.

Every now and then there is a “moment” like the guy on Tik Tok, (Dogface208), who rode a longboard and swigged from a bottle of Ocean Spray while Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams” played. You’ve seen the video as Ocean Spray eventually turned it into a commercial. There were PD’s who were spontaneous and spiked the song. When Lil Nas X enlisted Billy Ray Cyrus to join him on a remix of his song “Old Town Road” … it was a moment. If nothing else, your morning show would “spike” it by playing it on-air and calling attention to it, and talk about it. Why? Because it wouldn’t be expected, but it wouldn’t be a tune-out, and it would cause talk. That’s why you should be spontaneous. 

If you’re truly concerned about keeping your programming exciting and engaging, then encourage spontaneity, and coach your people what’s appropriate and what isn’t for your format. Being spontaneous works for any format, music or spoken word, and it definitely builds day-to-day tune-in.

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at  [email protected]


  1. Mine was a legitimate criticism, Robert.
    PD’s and consultants all step into a never-never land and presume the emotional positions of thousands of listeners – all without any evidence whatsoever.
    Still, it is subjectively satisfying. Even the staff might be diggin’ it.
    But that, and a buck, ninety-five, will get you a cup of coffee.
    Plus, there is always the possibility that the point blew right past you.
    Mind-reading can be a risky practice.

  2. Exactly Mike. “Carpe Diem”…seize the day has also been my mantra and it should be for any program director today. I remember when it snowed in April in NYC and I went into the control room and told the jock on the air to play a bunch so “snow songs” in a row…i.e.:Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Sleigh Ride, Winter Wonderland, etc. What we did was printed in a column in The NY Times the next day. P.D.’S are too concerned with breaking format. Be a leader, take chances and get people talking about your station!
    Joe McCoy

  3. When, Mitchell, did you gain the capacity to read the minds of any listener? Such presumptions have always been , not only dangerous, but wholly inconclusive.

  4. When I was P.D. I used the term psychographics. Programming the music to the current listener moods determined by current weather, sad or happy news of the day, etc. The obvious that most do are “Friday Festivities” with signature party tunes. Sometimes even breaking format with a tune not normally played but perfect for many of the listeners moods is appropriate in my opinion.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here