“It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” — Red Auerbach
Have you ever noticed that some on-air personalities, while they may be completely professional, are somewhat boring by themselves? But the minute someone else walks into the studio, they seem to come alive and get much better. Some personalities seem more talented when they are performing live in front of an audience. Others are funnier, sharper, and more creative by themselves. It turns out that talent usually falls into one of two categories: generators or reactors.
Putting Your Personalities in Power
In order to coach talent effectively, it helps to identify the talent’s strengths and natural abilities. Sometimes that can be achieved by clearly defining the talent’s roles. Consultant Dan Vallie advises, “There must be an anchor or director, a creative chief, a producer, etc.” But before you define the role, knowing the type of performers you are working with lets you guide them toward their maximum performance. The programmer is then able to design powerful radio by making the shoe fit the foot, instead of trying to do it the other way around.
What Is a Generator?
The natural skill of a generator means that he or she can easily work alone or as part of a team. A generative talent can easily visualize original ideas. (These ideas are not always good or usable ideas, but generators do tend to come up with a lot of them.) A generator has a strong, independent imagination. The generator comes up with a myriad of topics, undaunted by the blank page. True generators are rare. Generators can be the “life of the party.” Something interesting happens when a true generator enters the room.
What Is a Reactor?
Reactors are also creative individuals. A reactive talent takes existing ideas and comes up with numerous ways to make them better or more workable.
No less talented than a generator, the reactor nonetheless has a very different style. A reactor alone faces the blank page with terror. However, the moment a reactor comes in contact with a generator, he or she can instantly and very cleverly pick up on remarks, comments, or nuances and be very funny.
A reactor is usually the one who responds to just about any stimulus with an insightful or witty remark. Reactors can have a lot of fun talking back to their TV sets and radios.
If you’ve ever listened to a talk show that seemed to have a slow start, but then picked up after the interview or calls began, you were likely listening to a reactive talent. The minute the host can “react” off of the callers or interview guest, generating for him or her, the show comes alive.
Many stand-up comedians are reactors. Although they might seem to be generative, after all, they’re standing up doing a monologue in front of a live audience. In reality, if you put those people in a studio, alone in a room, without that live audience generating for them, they may be less colorful. Reactors work best with other people in the room to spark their creative energy.
Both types of talent are valuable and good, but the right casting here is the key. Forcing a reactor to carry the show as a generator doesn’t work, and forcing a strong generator into an equal or subordinate partnership with another generative talent can lead to an almost painful on-air clash. The trick is to identify each person’s specific strengths and then to encourage the person to develop those strengths.
Putting two generators together as co-hosts or as a team can sometimes be a disaster. They tend to battle for the microphone, seldom listen to each other, and compete for attention. The show sounds like two kids fighting at the dinner table. It is hard to listen for very long.
Putting two reactors together is not much better. The audience hears them casting a net for ideas over and over again. The process is dull, and, if nothing swims into the net, the show becomes weak and boring. Electric connection with the audience happens when you have a balance of both elements.
How Do You Tell the Difference between a Reactor and a Generator?
It’s fairly simple. Generators have a lot of ideas and energy. They take huge risks and worry about it later. They have moments of brilliance. They sit alone in a room, and their minds overflow with ideas. That is not to say that every idea a generator produces is a perfectly conceived show, but consistently they seem to be practically exploding with new material.
If you are looking at a reactive talent, you will notice that he or she is quick with a story, a memory, an imitation or a line for any topic you could give him or her. But you must lead the reactor by giving that first push, that suggestion, or a good opening. Leave the reactor alone in a room with no external catalyst for the show, and he or she is miserable. Reactors may do brilliant interviews, or pick things out of the newspaper that are unique, but they need some kind of initial stimulus to begin the process.Reactors often come alive in a room full of people. But again, you probably have a reactor on the air if he or she is dull until the news person shows up or until the calls begin.
Generators are scarce. Most people are reactors. It is a little like being left- or right-handed. One is no better than the other. If absolutely necessary, right-handed people can adapt to use their left hands, and vice versa. You can certainly force people to improve in the area where they are weaker, but in most circumstances it is best for the station to take advantage of their natural inclinations.
A Cast of Dozens
You might think it takes a generator to host a morning show. That is not always the case. One reactor, “Casey,” found a cast of generators in his listening audience. “Rita” owned and operated a local beauty salon. She was also Casey’s loyal fan and listener. Rita started calling in on a semi-regular basis to chat about hot movies and goings on around town. She was funny and charming and had unique views. Rita became a regular on the show. The listeners started calling in wanting to meet Rita. She participated at station events and appearances.
Next, Casey added another regular listener, a talkative cab driver. Then he found a local construction guy with fix-it tips, who also happened to be 27-years-old, dating regularly, and happy to talk about his weekend adventures.
Using interactive media, Casey continues to add appropriate players as they appear. He now has a winning show with lots of generators to show off his reactive talents. He assembled his own generator-reactor team.
If you’re an on air personality, it helps to know your own strength. Are you a generator or a reactor? And if you are a manager or programmer, it is your job to identify each person’s specific strengths and then encourage each one to develop those strengths. Once you know who your generators and reactors are, you can get onto the business of creating powerful radio.
Excerpted with permission from “Beyond Powerful Radio – A Communicator’ s Guide to the Internet Age” by Valerie Geller.
About the Writer
Valerie Geller, president of Geller Media International Broadcast Consultants, works to help communicators become more powerful in 30 countries, including Australia, for news, talk, information and personality. Through consulting and individual coaching for news and talk talent, Geller finds and develops personalities, leads “Creating Powerful Radio” and “Communicate Powerfully” workshops and seminars for radio and TV broadcasters, internet radio and podcasters. Geller is the recipient of the Conclave’s 2010 Rockwell Lifetime Achievement Award and is the author of four books about radio including her latest from Elsevier’s Focal Press Beyond Powerful Radio – A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age. To contact Valerie Geller for a one-on-one coaching or consulting, appointment, or for information on the “Powerful Radio” seminars and workshops, call +1 212 580-3385