The Danger of Dead Ends and Detours
Home  »  Community News  »  The Danger of Dead E...
Tracy Johnson
The Danger of Dead Ends and Detours
TracyJohnsonBlog 0 , ,  

Dead ends and detours are the most frustrating things on a road trip. But they’re even more destructive on radio shows. On the air, both are equally dangerous on the air.

When traveling, two unforeseen things occur:

A detour is annoying because it routes you in an unplanned and unintended direction. And the longer the detour, the further out of the way it gets.

It’s annoying at first, but some detours turn out to be okay. Some even enjoyable. They take you places you would otherwise miss. In fact, some detours can become the highlight of your trip.

Another unexpected event is coming to a dead-end. A road block. Dead ends are never a good thing. The only solution is to turn around and go back because it’s impossible to move forward.

The same things happen on the air. Dead ends and detours destroy momentum, annoy listeners and turn otherwise terrific breaks into a horrible listening experience.

Avoiding Dead Ends and Detours

Show prep will protect against dead ends and detours. Most often, breaks bog down due to lack of detailed planning. On solo shows, this is almost always the cause of a break that doesn’t quite het where it’s intended. Just having an idea of which direction the content should flow and hoping for the best is rarely the recipe for success.

On multi-cast shows, it’s a little more complicated. Assigning and enforcing show roles is important for many reasons, but this is one of the most valuable. When a host takes charge of the break, and each cast member trusts the host, a show will have fewer problems.

And learning improv skills helps solo performers and multi-personality shows.

But it’s still going to happen from time to time. So it helps to know what causes these problems. This will help in the planning and preparation process.

Dead Ends

Dead ends are comments that make it difficult to continue forward in a direction.

A common problem is when a personality asks a rhetorical question, planning to continue with a thought. A co-host responds with a definitive answer rather than advancing the story line.

Here’s an example:

Host: Man, what would we do without our quarterback?

Co-host: Yep. I agree. We’d be in trouble. He’s really good.

Clearly the host is setting up a discussion. But the co-host is a barrier to the break moving forward. There’s nowhere to go with the comment. It’s a dead end, and a momentum killer. It adds nothing to the conversation.

Bad Questions Are Dead Ends

Another source of dead ends is poor question construction. Many programmers coach talent to ask questions to spark listener reaction. That’s a fine tactic, as long as the questions are good.

But personalities often craft questions that don’t lead to colorful responses or stories. Closed questions leave the audience with nowhere to go. The phone doesn’t ring because the question hasn’t provoked a response.

Here are examples of closed questions.

Do you agree with the President’s decision? (The only possible answer is yes or no).
How would you like to win $1,000? (Of course I would).
Do you think the Cowboys will win the game tonight? (Again, yes or no).

Each of these is a dead end. Even if the listener (or a co-host) responds, it doesn’t move the entertainment forward.

These, on the other hand, these are open-ended questions that lead to a more interesting response:

What would you do if you were the President?
You just found $1,000. How would you spend it?
What are the keys to the Cowboys winning tonight?

It’s pretty easy to see how these would all inspire more interesting responses isn’t it?

Difference Between Dead Ends and Detours

There are essential differences between radio personalities, but the ability to advance storylines is a skill that is clearly a big advantage.

Listen for it, and it’s easy to hear in radio shows. Some shows just sound highly engaging, expertly segueing from one topic to another in a single break. They leave me wishing they talked more.

Other shows sound like they work hard, maybe even prepare content in depth. But they can’t hold interest for 30 seconds. Their breaks are well structured, they are focused and they get to the point quickly, but dead ends destroy the listening experience.

Stu and Angie on Hot AC Majic 100 in Ottawa have a great rapport, and have mastered the art of conversation. Listen to how they flow seamlessly from one element to another.

This rather simple break transitions naturally from weather to a local community event about smoking to personal observation and opinion about teenage behavior.

On the surface, the break is ordinary. It’s routine. But it’s so  well structured and easy to listen to. It’s brilliant in simplicity, but the key is how they keep the communication flowing by avoiding dead ends and detours.

5 Things That Bring Breaks to a Halt

It’s fairly common for personalities to get off topic and allow breaks to get stuck in a circular pattern. It happens to every show from time to time.

Usually it happens in one of these 5 things:


When personalities just don’t know when enough is enough and keep going to hit one extra punchline, momentum is killed.

Sometimes, a second (or third, or even fourth) punchline is fine. In fact, mini-pay offs are like dropping audio bread crumbs. And that’s a critical part of leading the audience through content.

But when the break reaches a high point-the end-and the show just can’t stop, it’s like slamming into a brick wall at 100 mph.

If there is more than one punch line, great! Just be sure that each is better than the previous. And each mini-payoff should support and set up the big conclusion. That will help build momentum toward an end point.

Phone Calls

Air talent loves to go to the phones. In some cases, it sounds like some personalities expect the audience to provide the entertainment for the show.

Look, I love phone calls on the air. But only if the calls add to the storyline of the break.

When a call doesn’t move the storyline forward, it destroys momentum. It’s a dead end.

And that happens mostly in one of two situations:

  1. We take one too many phone calls. Everything is going along well, but that one extra call adds nothing new and suddenly the whole break feels heavy. It bogs down. It’s a dead end.
  2. Or, the call isn’ screened, the caller is unprepared and the host doesn’t know what they’re going to say. Then they introduce an angle that takes the break off-topic. It’s a detour.

Protect against this by designing topics to attract stories, not just responses.

For example, asking listeners, “What’s your favorite food for a party?” will lead to boring responses. I mean, who cares? And each call is going to sound like the last: “My favorite food is _______ because ________.” Each caller will be repetitious.

But if you rephrase the topic to “Party food disasters…what did you plan and what went wrong?”, you’ll generate stories that can add color to your topic.


Multiple personality shows face unique challenges to stay on track and avoid bringing breaks to a screeching halt.

It happens when cast members are unprepared, aren’t paying attention or are thinking more about what they’re going to say than supporting the storyteller.

But the biggest cause is shows who want to preserve the surprising, spontaneous response on the air. So co-hosts have no idea where the break is going.

I hear it when a personality is leading a break, telling a compelling story. They say something that reminds another character of a personal story. So they tell it. And just like that, the break goes off-topic.

It’s a detour. It may be well-intentioned, but it doesn’t matter. The audience is confused and it’s hard to get back on track.

It also happens when there are too many stories in a break. Even if a personality waits until the “right moment”, that next, related story probably isn’t going to be more compelling than the first. And both fail.

It’s not hard to protect against this, but it takes discipline and attention. Each cast member should become proficient in the improv skill of listen and respond. Be in the moment and react naturally.


The fourth mistake personalities make is stacking too many topics in a break, or more accurately, not drilling deep enough in a topic to find a story.

This usually happens from poor development in the preparation process.

Effective breaks happen when personalities find an emotional essence for a break. That means finding the story inside the topic.

Find the story and you will discover that most details in any topic are irrelevant. Eliminate the details. This will naturally narrow the focus of a topic and make it easier to keep the audience engaged.

You’ll also find that it allows more personality to cut through.


Finally, breaks reach a screeching halt when there are too many details that don’t advance the premise of the story. Facts aren’t interesting, but many personalities seem to think they need to be thorough and complete in presenting a break. But they don’t.

Descriptive, colorful details are essential in telling a story. But if the details point the wrong way, the story bogs down (dead end) and is hard to follow (detour).

Avoid the Screeching Halt

Each of these five things cause breaks to become too complicated, causing listeners to become confused. And when they’re confused, they get bored. That leads to a loss of attention.

And then: tune out.

When forward momentum is lost, breaks deteriorate. This kills personality even if the content is great.

Test the Topic. Before putting anything on the air, try a question or setup on a friend, family member or co-worker. Or put it up on Facebook or Twitter. Pay attention to their response. If you get a short, boring reply, your premise is too factual. Rephrase it, and find a way to introduce the topic so it produces a more colorful response. When you find a good response, practice advancing the conversation, probing for more of their story. Work on it, and soon you’ll find that it becomes easier and easier.

Get Into Improv: Improv skills help personalities on team shows and solo performers by understanding how to listen and respond, avoid blocking and responding “in the moment”.


Detours aren’t the end of the road but you get lost. They’re frustrating and annoying. On a road trip, you have to deal with it. On the air, listeners have a choice. They tune out.

Dead ends are the end of the road, and there’s nowhere to go. And listeners not only tune out, they try to avoid going on that road ever again! And that, of course, is very bad.

Dead ends and detours are hazardous to a radio show. Pay attention to how each break is constructed and work on skills to avoid these common pitfalls.

Photo credit:

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.