The Critical Importance of Storytelling On The Radio


Pop Quiz: What’s the most important skill a radio personality can have? Is it a great voice? A pleasant personality? A smooth way of talking up song ramps?

It’s none of those things. It’s the ability to tell stories. Storytelling is at the very core of the difference between announcers and true personalities that command attention on the air.

Fortunately, there are some basics any personality can learn and apply to tell better stories. There’s an art to relating a personal experiences on the air. But every art is governed by some principles and laws. There’s also a science to storytelling. The science is in the structure of a story. There are 5 storytelling steps, and each is important in crafting a great break on the air.

Some personalities are naturally great storytellers. They have a gift for making the listener feel special. Others (most) have to work on it.

Mastering, or at least understanding, the 5 Steps of Storytelling will improve your communication and connection skills, on the air and off. It will also tighten and sharpen the show’s performance because you’ll realize the importance of deeper show prep.

Let’s examine and demonstrate each of the 5 Steps of Storytelling.

5 Storytelling Steps Defined

Here’s a short summary of each step of a well-told on-air story: The hook, set up, dress up, payoff and black out.

Step 1: Hook

A magazine attracts attention to a story by the headline. Their headline is the hook. On magazine covers, the headline is designed for one purpose. It’s to provoke curiosity so the shopper picks it up and turns to the story. That’s it. It’s the same on the air. The hook’s sole function is to get interest in what will follow.

Hooks have to be quick. You have 7 seconds to get the hook in and lure the audience deeper into content. The hook should rarely be about you, but rather to set up a story that supports the hook.

The hook is the most important part of your story. If you don’t capture attention in the opening line(s), listeners will be gone by the time it gets “good”.

Step 2: Set Up

In the magazine metaphor, the set up is the first paragraph of the story. Once you open the magazine to the right page, the setup lures you into the rest of the article. On the air the Set Up should advance the story and frame the details that lead the audience onward.

The second step of storytelling is really the first step toward Pay Off.

Personal stories, main characters and conflict happens in the Set Up. Think of it as a bridge from the opening line to the twists and turns that build interest toward the thrilling conclusion.

A set up should have enough detail to move the story forward. In most cases, such as in the Jeff & Jer segment below, a personal story works best in the set up phase, particularly if listener participation is coming later.

Step 3: Dress Up

In this step, the break accelerates toward payoff.

How will you embellish, exaggerate and enhance the content? Turn up the volume on the story during the Dress Up step.

Adding detail, color and twists and turns is important in this phase. But every element must move the story toward the conclusion.

A lot can, and often does, go wrong in this step. The wrong details can become a detour or dead end. This usually happens because personalities fail to plan this part of the story.

Step 4: Pay Off

There are two critical elements in getting to the Pay Off. The first is building anticipation by increasing suspense. The second is protecting the outcome so the Pay Off is surprising.

Every break needs a destination.

Before the story begins, plan the outcome. In fact, this is where you should target the bulk of show prep time. It’s much easier to perform spontaneously when you know where a break is going.

Some bits don’t have a natural punchline, including the example below. That’s okay, as long as there’s a direction and a plan for getting out efficiently.

Step 5: Black Out

Once it’s over, it’s over. 

Many great breaks are ruined when talent goes for one more punchline. That one extra joke or one more phone call can turn a good break into an ordeal. It’s always better to find an exit and take it rather than hoping for another out that doesn’t come.


Storytelling structure is a fundamental element of radio performance. Personalities should use the 5 storytelling steps in every break. In Show Prep, start with the Pay Off. Identify how you want the break to end. Then develop a great Hook. With those elements in place, the Set Up and Dress Up are much easier.

Some segments will have a longer Set Up or Dress Up than others. Experiment with the 5 storytelling steps in your show prep process to find your sweet spot. As you learn to master the break structure, it will et easier and easier.

This is just a sample of the storytelling principles I share in my new online seminar, STORYTELLING BASICS. The webinar is October 9 at 1pm EST. Sign Up for the free seminar here.  The seminar is also available on demand after October 9 here.


By Tracy Johnson

Recognized as one of America’s most innovative radio programmers and managers, Tracy Johnson’s broad background in traditional and digital media spans more than 25 years and has influenced hundreds of radio stations, programmers and personalities. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.