When Contest Winners Will Not Scream

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

It has become, easily, the cliche of midday radio:
Jock: “You’re caller No. 93, you’re getting a pair of tickets to our spring concert.”
Winner: “Wow, that’s great.”
Jock: “Gee, you don’t sound very excited. Can I get you to scream for me?”
Winner: “I can’t scream. I’m at the office.”

The winner isn’t giving us the scream–the thing that jocks and programmers have come to regard as the unit of currency of good contest winner promos for the last 30 years.

It’s not always that the winner doesn’t sound in any way appreciative. They often sound friendly enough. It’s just that the winner isn’t giving us the scream–the thing that jocks and programmers have come to regard as the unit of currency of good contest winner promos for the last 30 years. Listeners might not even interpret the caller as a “bad winner.” But jocks do.
At that point, the battle of wills usually continues for another two or three exchanges, which usually end with the jock sounding disappointed. Occasionally, however, wheedling is not enough, and the on-air personality tries something else–abuse. And at that point, the caller really shuts down.
The contest winner who will not scream is a deadly moment not because of what it is, but because of how it’s handled. Usually, the at-work winner call turns into a minute’s worth of the jock driving home just how unexcited the listener is about the radio station. And if you listen to more than one station in middays, you will encounter it over and over.
The reluctant workplace screamer can be handled creatively on occasion. I heard one middayer running what sounded like a loop of other screaming winners that ran under a typically reserved caller. You also notice a lot of those promos that start off sounding like a live winner and don’t immediately reveal themselves as pre-recorded. While the initial intent of those promos may have been to make it sound like a station had even more winners, now they’re doubling as a way to get some screaming on the air during the workday.
Workplace callers are not necessarily unenthusiastic or recalcitrant callers. They call talk shows or foreground personality shows from the office every day and say surprisingly personal things. A few months ago, I heard an early afternoon caller on an Urban AC cheerfully discuss the physical discomfort of wearing a thong–and then it got explicit. And this was the station that was competing with the relationship talk show “Love Lust & Lies” by playing music. Somehow giveaways just don’t spur that kind of openness.
So how else can jocks get around the midday caller who will not scream without it turning into a confrontation?
1) Look for another story: Asking a caller, “What are you going to do with all that money?” had gotten to be a cliche;, too, particularly as Powerball jackpots dwarfed whatever radio could give away. But maybe we need to start finding our drama somewhere other than the scream–the winner really needed that money, the winner missed seeing the spring concert act two years ago, it’s going to be the winner’s first night out since a breakup. The questions that elicit these responses don’t get asked if the jock is badgering the winner about not screaming for another 20 seconds. When a station is paying winners’ bills, the jock usually has an opening to find out the listener’s story. But, by and large, there’s a lot more potential entertainment than just the scream.
2) Accept that the jock is going to have to create the excitement: Classic Rock’s “work force” contests do a pretty good job of generating drama from listeners who don’t even call in on time. And if there’s anything that ought to be worse than drawing attention to bored sounding callers, it’s pointing out how many people aren’t listening. I recently heard KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas p.m. driver J.J. Kincaid do a teaser for the station’s “Big Money” contest that began by talking for no apparent reason about seeing somebody sitting in the “personal shopper” section at Nordstroms before pointing out that with the help of the radio station, that could be you. That sort of sell-through is a much more precious commodity on radio these days than an excited sounding workplace winner.
3) There is no law that every winner has to be on the air. For many years, caller No. 9 wasn’t always on-air. Then again, a lot of the calls that go on the air today wouldn’t have been deemed worth airing. If a caller is really unappreciative sounding–as opposed to merely unable to scream–why not deal with it over an intro, let the jock be entertaining for 20 seconds (if the caller isn’t), and move on?
4) Finally, maybe it’s time for some stations to cede the screaming winner to another era of radio. Most programmers wouldn’t hire a jock that screamed like it was 1973. So why hasn’t the jock/caller dynamic changed in all those years? Even those PDs who grew up with some Super-Q in the early ’70s or “Hot Hits” in the early ’80s think listeners are too sophisticated to be screamed at now. So maybe we can’t realistically expect them to holler back. And in some situations, screaming winners may not be helping your efforts to establish yourself as the at-work station. And beating up listeners for not screaming is not helping either.
Got a better way to deal with overly restrained midday winners? I’m looking forward to your posts.

27 replies
  1. Ric Lippincott
    Ric Lippincott says:

    Good article Sean. Enjoyed it. We have some great promo’s on the air thanks to the talent of our personalities as well as Matt Bisbee, the Bonneville production Merlin. No one here is sounding disappointed.

  2. Dwight Douglas
    Dwight Douglas says:

    Radio should learn some simple lessons:
    Contests giving away small prizes like tickets to shows or merchandise from their sponsors will not increase the ratings. “Deal Or No Deal” is the competitor here and radio cannot compete.
    Only contest “players” enjoy hearing other people scream when they win.
    Radio needs to understand that putting people’s names on the air is the only value for radio. So why not just thank a listener by name for listening to the station. That would get everybody they know to talk about the station. It’s free too.
    Dwight Douglas

  3. Grover Collins
    Grover Collins says:

    I do mid-days in Cincy on WKRQ and sometimes I’ll whisper with them on the air and it usually gets them to laugh. Or I’ll scream for them since they can’t and they seem to think that’s funny too.
    Grover Collins
    WKRQ (Q102)/Cincinnati

  4. Dave Shakes
    Dave Shakes says:

    Sean: another excellent article from you, thanks! I add to the list of work-arounds:
    1-call the winner back later when they are on a break and can speak freely.
    2-when they pick up their prize, interview them at the station as they are excited by being inside the glamour of your station studio.
    3-send a congrats email. Winners often respond with an email reply that has a personal anecdote or at least a sincere thank you. This testimonial can then be read by a personality live or on promos.

  5. Renee Revett
    Renee Revett says:

    Dear Sean:
    You remain one of my all time favorite voices in this industry. Logic: what a concept.
    I completely agree with you that perhaps the “screaming winner” is as passé as using Gary Glitter or “We Will Rock You” as a winner bed.
    Geez, It’s 2006 already. Adapt your shtick or go work on an Oldies station that still has a sock-hop and jocks in the “air chair.”
    Renee Revett
    Program Director
    New Country 99.1 KXKC
    Lafayette, LA

  6. Helen Little
    Helen Little says:

    Wow, I just went over this very same thing with my jocks on our Urban AC. If the listener whispers, perhaps [the jock should] whisper back was one of the examples I gave. I enjoyed the article.
    Helen Little
    Radio One/Philadelphia

  7. Scott McKenzie
    Scott McKenzie says:

    Old habits die hard. Quite possibly the only other “listener winner issue” is the person who turns out to be the “winning caller” only to ask “What did I win anyway?” With the office/work winner I’ve turned it around into a whispering “conspiratorial audio bit. In other words, joined in with the winner in a hushed tone like “Yeah, ain’t it great how you’re winning at work and the Boss doesn’t know it?” This seems to cement many office winners bonding them to my station as “comrade-in-arms”. I want adults winning. I shouldn’t be shocked if they act and sound like one? Abandoning the old closer like “..what station just made you a winner?” is something I have my staff avoid also. Working the phones is a personal talent. One that when it works…it’s fabulous! Great article, Sean! Thanks

  8. Keith Isley
    Keith Isley says:

    (1) When I programmed CHR in the ’80s and ’90s we taught the DJs to think in terms of winner “stabs”–replaying only the best few seconds of (highly coached) winner reaction–rather than winner conversations (unless the conversation had some special excitement or entertainment value). (2) Using “stunt winners” was not unheard of.

  9. KC
    KC says:

    sometimes i think it sounds funny to just start whispering along with my winner (if it is an appreciative person who just can’t be loud because they are at work). then, forget about the usual “contest winner” bed and play a music bed with the ying yang twins’ whisper song.

  10. Harvey Mednick
    Harvey Mednick says:

    Hi Sean,
    Why are people entering phone contests at work anyway? The workplace is better targeted for e-mail/Internet entries, don’t you agree?
    Harvey Mednick

  11. Tim Byrd"The Byrdman"
    Tim Byrd"The Byrdman" says:

    Fine article, but i muse at the fact that something like this even needs to be addressed by people with common sense. I have done chr,ac, hot ac,top 40 dance, country etc. I go with the energy of the caller, or possibly use a piece of the call, or congratulate them myself. This is not rocket science. I always am kind, fun, and warm with those that called my show. As usual you hit on something that some needed a little help with. Job well done as usual!
    Tim Byrd
    “The Byrdman”

  12. Bobby Rich
    Bobby Rich says:

    Many of your readers will remember the best winner episode of all time. This occurred on WCWA, Poundridge, NY in the 70’s. The station was known simply as “NINE”. It was not only their identity, it was also their vocabulary. The jock and winner exchange went something like this …
    Jock: (casual) “Nine” .
    Listener: (breathless) “Nine?” .
    Jock: (anticipating a winner) “Ninnnne” .
    Listener: (giddy) “NINE?!?!?!?!” .
    Jock: (huge) “NINNNNEEEE!!!!” .
    Listener: (screaming) “NIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNEE!!!!!” .
    jock: (orgasmic) “NIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNEE!!!!!” .
    Jingle out: (quick drum run)”(group sing) “Nine” .
    Hot hit out–no talk over intro

  13. Paul Donovan
    Paul Donovan says:

    Good stuff. You’d be surprised how naturally it comes when you remember how much you love your listeners. Each caller is just as important a person as you are. Love ‘em and they’ll love ya back!

  14. Jim Zippo
    Jim Zippo says:

    Thank you. This is what all jocks need to know. We ran into this at ABC Radio Networks years ago, and finally realized that listeners are real people, not trained circus seals. Nobody is born with “scream when you win” DNA.
    The listener’s “real” reaction is generally what probably 90% of the most important listeners would also do.
    As long as they don’t say something like “your station sucks”, we roll with it, and the jock is the one who needs to keep the momentum up [through] tight call editing [or] whatever it takes.
    Most importantly, don’t abuse the precious listener. Imagine if they’re sitting there with an ARB diary….hmmm!
    Again, Sean, thanks for your insight!
    Jim Zippo
    Mornings/Program Director
    KOOL 94.9/KPKY-FM
    Clear Channel/Idaho Radio Group
    Pocatello, Idaho

  15. Ted Striker
    Ted Striker says:

    Sometimes it’s fun to coax the caller out of their shell by having your jock encourage them to let their hair down and just go nuts. The jock might say, “OK Jennifer, who is the most uptight person in your office?” Then tell them if they can get that person to scream for them they will win, too. A fun way to build excitement that is guaranteed to get that whole office talking – instead of the whole thing being kept a quiet secret between you and the reluctant caller.

  16. Bruce Cherry
    Bruce Cherry says:

    Two options:
    1) Spend a little time and prep the winner before airing them. If they can’t get excited in the office, fine play up the fact that they are
    breaking the rules to listen to your station and show them how much you appreciate it.
    #2.Don’t air the winners, just give them props by mentioning their name and place of business.
    Bruce Cherry
    Program Director
    Gainesville, Fla.

  17. Hollywood Henderson
    Hollywood Henderson says:

    Great article, Sean!
    I have always felt that a screaming winner was not
    necessary. Different people have different reactions, why not just “roll with it?”
    Last night my big-money qualifier sounded strangely subdued, turned out she was eating cereal while calling. I had her breathe into the phone and let me guess by her breath what cereal she was eating.(I got it almost right! I
    guessed Honey Nut Cheerios, she was actually eating Honey Bunches of Oats!)
    Anyway, we talked about cereal and about money, it was fun! Toward the end of the call she volunteered that if she won the grand-prize money, maybe she could afford to eat something besides cereal! I closed the call by saying I hoped we DID pick her name, for the sake of her own personal health.
    It may have been a bit unorthodox, but when every other radio winner seems to sound so similar(“Oh my GOD! Are you SERIOUS!?”), I think there’s value in “different.”
    Hollywood Henderson
    KPLX (99.5, the Wolf)

  18. Jim Pastrick
    Jim Pastrick says:

    Hello Sean, Your recent article regarding winner reactions and the ensuing comments made some very good points. I’ll only add that now more than ever, we need to treat every caller or contestant as a potential diary holder, or as if we’re working the help desk. We’re in the customer service business. Having a “how may I help you attitude” wins repeat customers.
    Jim Pastrick, 104.1 WHTT, Buffalo

  19. Mitch Cooley
    Mitch Cooley says:

    I also am a big fan of just dropping a few seconds of a one or twoo word reaction from a winner; even if it means coaching them.
    I think it’s acceptable to bank a bunch of listener reactions to go back to as a drop when you announce the winner, whether it be a scream,
    “thank you”, “alright”..but one has to be careful to match the right reaction to value of prize. Expecting your contestant to “scream” over
    winning a free lunch at Applebee’s is unrealistic…
    and it would sound silly if they did.
    Love your stuff.
    Mitch Cooley
    Program Director
    Hits 106 KQKY
    NRG Media
    Tri Cities, Nebraska

  20. Bill Tanner
    Bill Tanner says:

    One of the most effective things to do with a “quiet winner” is for the jock to match the intensity level the winner offers. An average contest can be turned into a great phone bit by the host saying very quietly…”OK, let’s have a really quiet conversation about your winning a thousand dollars. Shhhhh. Am I boring you yet?”
    A human moment amidst the canned, all-too-predictable shrieks.
    Turn the sow’s ear into a silk purse.

  21. Bill
    Bill says:

    Whisper,no…Scream, Abuse, Call Back…NO! MY GOD E-Mail,Use Hushed Tones, STABS, STUNTS & NINE!!! Air Winners/Don’t Air Winners…
    In Touch? NO
    Geeky Jocks? YES!
    Listeners…WANNA SCREAM NOW!!!!!

  22. Tom Mailey
    Tom Mailey says:

    We have several “stunt winners” that we keep on Instant Replay. They are generic reactions from way, way over the top winners from past contests. It works into a pretty funny save. If someone can’t obviously get loud at work, or they just don’t have it for some other reason, we’ll just acknowledge it rather than stumble around begging for love we’re not gonna get, and then say “bring in the stunt winner!” …especially if the prize is huge.
    Pat and Tom Show
    KNCI Sacramento

  23. john parikhal
    john parikhal says:

    Hi Sean,
    Nice to see the dialogue on contests. To me the core issue is radio arrogance – expecting listeners to respond like dogs or trained seals when asked to “bark” because they won something. The arrogance extends even further – when the 8th caller (who has probably tried to dial in for 3 weeks) gets told they are a loser because they are caller number 9.
    This speaks to the fact that radio is suffering a period of creative emptiness because very few PDs or Promotion Directors have time to think of anything new – they are overworked and underappreciated. It’s not the job of radio listeners to make the station sound exciting. It’s the station’s job.

  24. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Boy, how scary would it be if nobody can ever air a better winner call than the one created for the 30-year-old “Nine” parody that Bobby Rich cites?
    I wanted to thank everybody for all the terrific feedback here. This column has generated the most first-day feedback of any Ross On Radio, which just goes to show how many people are dealing with these issues on a daily basis. And I particularly appreciate hearing from our first-time callers, none of whom had to whisper.
    It’s also nice to see how many air-talent and program directors are still working hard to make their stations entertaining. Sometimes you wonder. I agree that the best thing you can do in most circumstances is to try and work with the caller you’ve got. I particularly liked the idea of sending a follow-up e-mail: that’s another column unto itself, but it’s the sort of customer service that barely exists, even with today’s emphasis on station databases.
    What bothered me most about the coaxed scream, hearing it on station after station in my recent listening, was not the notion of somebody screaming, just the cliche that the call had become. When somebody has a fresh angle on it, e.g., Ted Striker having somebody else in the office scream, that’s good, too.

  25. Bob Walker - 94.5 WKTI / Milwaukee
    Bob Walker - 94.5 WKTI / Milwaukee says:

    During our last $10K promotion, WKTI ran a promo teaching listeners how to react if they won. Of course the acutal winner was in an office and could not scream. She continued to apologize on the air because she had heard the promo. Her reaction was as much a real moment as a scream. She said “I wanna be a good winner, but I can’t today!”
    BTW: This never happens with a pizza or CD – those people will scream their heads off. It’s only big cash prizes.

  26. Beth Bacall
    Beth Bacall says:

    I find alot of my listeners are shocked that they have actually won, so their immediate reaction usually involves silence!! The at work listener is very restricted. I try to use my voice to generate the excitement they are missing…or I’ll just use a splice of them saying “thanks”. I’ve even used a “stand in” winner, usually and intern who is more than happy to scream on the radio! Another well focused article, thanks Sean.
    Beth Bacall
    Star 99.1 FM


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