Finding Your Spark Of Spontaneity


(By Mike McVay) If I asked you what’s missing from radio, you’d probably have a lot of answers, and rightly so. High up on my own list, you’ll find spontaneity. When something unexpected happens, the right actions can make your radio station a destination.

It’s a critically important element separating winning stations from the pack. 

Spontaneity is one of several 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 talent 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 and 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. As such, 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. Some played the National Anthem at a set time daily. Others decided to play Christmas music at night as a way to lessen the stress we were all feeling. Others did nothing for fear of breaking format.

The very best Program Directors spring into action and take advantage of such situations.

Celebrities and newsmakers all seem to die on the weekend. (That’s an obvious exaggeration, but it feels true.) Despite voicetracking, stations whose audience has a connection to the deceased should always make their audience aware of the passing and pay tribute to the deceased.

Long ago and far away, when John Kennedy, Jr. died on a Friday evening, some stations immediately searched out songs to play as a tribute to him. They interrupted programming with news of the end of Camelot. Same for Princess Diana who perished in the early hours of a Sunday morning. And 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 70 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. 

Every now and then there is a “moment” like when Beyonce debuted her new Country song during the Super Bowl. Some stations spiked the song the next day. Many didn’t.

Maybe it’s like the guy on TikTok from a few years back, Dogface208, who rode a longboard and swigged from a bottle of Ocean Spray while Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” played. You’ve seen the video as Ocean Spray eventually turned it into a commercial. It’s all about acting quickly when a moment happens. 

If you truly desire to keep your programming exciting and engaging, then encourage spontaneity, and coach your people as to 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. There is zero reason to not be reactive when something BIG happens. There’s always an opportunity to be proactive when you know something big MIGHT happen. There should be no barrier to being spontaneous.

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]. Read Mike’s Radio Ink archives here.


  1. When I programmed/mornings I was a fan of what I called “Pysch-o- graphics”, pretty much what you described. Rainy day vs Sunny…after math discussions of “watercooler” (yes, showing my age) topics. And, even breaking format musically for “one off” plays to reinforce the listener mood.

  2. Spot on once again, Mike! I remember years ago in Philly when our morning show went out on a main thoroughfare on a Monday after a Sunday eagles game. There were a lot of turnovers in the game so the show handed out scores of apple turnovers to passing cars. They took the moment when people were upset and lightened it to make it fun and timely! Love those moments and the listeners do respond!

  3. So true Mike. I remember when I locked myself in the radio station, when Iran took the American hostages. 50 days! One for each hostage. Of course, that was back in 1980. I got world wide attention for our little WOBL in Oberlin for that little stunt. It also got me fired! But it was worth it.


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