Alfred Hitchcock’s Lesson For Radio


(By Jeff McHugh) Your radio show can have a stronger emotional impact using practices from motion pictures, theatre, stand-up comedy, and improvisation. Director Alfred Hitchcock was known for planning. Famous for suspenseful movies like The Birds and Psycho, Hitchcock storyboarded each shot in detail before shooting and even planned the audience’s emotions with a technique called blue scripts and green scripts.

Hitchcock’s blue script was the standard dialogue, scenes, and action. The green script plotted out what the audience should feel at a certain point like claustrophobia, fear, unease, or fright. With the green script as a guide, the actors, crew, cinematographers, and lighting techs could work together to evoke powerful reactions at the right moments.

Experiment with using the blue script/green script yourself. As an exercise, grab a pen and paper and take an emotional inventory while listening to a segment of your show.  When you feel an emotional response, write it down. Note what was happening on-air to evoke your reaction.

Radio shows that lag in Nielsen often lacks emotional impact. The hosts do not come across as emotionally engaged, segments are poorly structured or the content is weak. Sometimes it is all of the above.

The way to boost your show’s emotional power is to plan for it. Here’s how:

  • Feelings as a filter. As you consider an idea for the show, what do you feel? You may notice there is little emotional reaction to standard show prep content like a list of celebrity birthdays or a generic text-to-win giveaway. Consider minimizing or avoiding that content and do something better.
  • Identify payoffs. What are the emotional twists in a story, the laughs, the provocative questions, the conflicts, or the happy ending?
  • Place the payoffs. Structure where emotions fall within in a segment to take your audience on a roller coaster ride. A sad story followed by the release of a laugh feels awesome to your fans. Tip: place the emotional high point at the end, like the crescendo at the end of a fireworks display – big boom, and the segment is done. Exit ASAP.
  • Voice = emotion. Shouting, whispering, speeding up and slowing way down can evoke a powerful response at the right moment. The most powerful vocal technique? A dramatic pause.
  • Music in harmony with the content. If your music bed does not add to the emotion of a segment, it is taking it away. There is no in-between. Imagine the Jaws theme preceding a movie shark attack. Now imagine replacing that theme with a generic drumbeat disco bed. No competent director would make that mistake, yet you often hear radio hosts talk over irrelevant music beds. Timing how you start, stop, and fade in/fade out music has an emotional impact too.
  • Use emotional words. On camera, you would use your face and body language to express anger, joy, sadness, fear, humiliation, torture, calm, lust, or anxiety. The audience cannot see your face on radio but choosing descriptive words can paint the same picture.

Companies have used the Hitchcock blue script/green script concept outside of entertainment. I coached executives at a well-known consumer product company recently. Their salespeople plan pitches to grocery chains based on the desired emotional response from CEOs, just like Hitchcock. They claim it closes deals.

Emotional impact is radio’s strongest defense against services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Sirius XM. In the future, terrestrial stations providing evocative content will survive long after many generic more-music stations have gone dark.

Jeff McHugh is known for developing remarkable talent for both morning and afternoon drive. He brings an uncommon mix of positivity, creativity, and strategy to the shows that he coaches. He is a member of the team at the Randy Lane Company. Reach Jeff at [email protected] and read his Radio Ink archives here.



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