Successful radio personalities are like dare devils. Absolute Radio morning show presenter Christian O’Connell insists that “whatever you do in radio, find your Evel Knievel”.

Absolute Radio personality Christian O’Connell and his team member Richie Firth spoke at Radiodays Europe 2012 about how to produce a successful morning show. Find out how they turn everyday experiences into engaging content and PR stunts and got former UK prime minister Tony Blair to call into Christian O’Connell’s Breakfast Show.


Use social media channels

Social media are, as we know, an important backchannel for radio. Christian O’Connell sees Twitter as “an amazing thing for radio” as you can tweet ideas that you think of talking about the next day on the radio and see what happens. “If we get lots of re-tweets and responses, we know we’ve hit [a topic] that the audience is interested in.”



Pinterest logoTest new social platforms

According to O’Connell, they were the first morning show in the world to be present on the female-dominated social media site Pinterest. He likes that its content is highly shareable. “You get lots of breakfast shows that just want to be on Facebook because their boss would say: you need to have likes. That doesn’t really mean anything to me.”




Post radio content online

He explains that sharing content online is a good extension of what they do on-air, together with listeners who call in to share personal stories. O’Connell and his team decided to post a selection of their morning show content on the pin board of Pinterest. It could be a complete celebrity interview or a simple comedy bit like this one here: ‘The Haunted Fridge’…





“The really big skill now is to strengthen

the relationship that you have with the audience”



Christian O’Connell, Richie Firth, Absolute Radio, radio studio

Christian O’Connell and sidekick Richie Firth in the studio of Absolute Radio in London (photo: One Golden Square)



Increase radio audience interaction

Audience interaction plays an important part in his show, which has  Show, that has a cast of 1 host and 3 sidekicks. O’Connell says that listeners are the fifth member of the team. “Together we’re making every single radio show. I never ever wanted to feel that I’m just talking ‘to’ and ‘at’ them. I want to make it feel like we’re in an exclusive club.”



Spotify iPhone radio appIntensify P1 listener loyalty

People often ask O’Connell who his main rival is – whether it’s Chris Moyles on BBC Radio 1 or whether it’s Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2. “It’s everything! It’s people’s phones; it’s their iPods, it’s Spotify… it’s hard to build an audience in the morning now. The really big skill now is to strengthen the relationship that you have with the audience.”




Offer audience topic choice

Two days a week – on Open Topic Tuesday and Open Topic Thursday – they let listeners decide what to talk about in the morning show. One day, a boy called in, asking an interesting question… how many breadcrumbs does it take to build a house? “This thing became huge. We’ve had people emailing from California.” The next day, they’ve had an expert giving a mathematically backed-up answer on air.



Christian O’Connell, Absolute Radio, radio studioCreate entertaining radio moments

O’Connell and his team invite listeners to call in from their work in the morning, after which they come up with an entertaining radio game that involves the caller’s job. When someone who works at a fish market called Absolute Radio, it resulted in a game called Fish Face and a quite entertaining morning show…






Include entertaining interview games

The team likes to do something original when bands visit the show for an interview. In the Song Title Quiz, O’Connell is asking questions to which the answer is the title of one of the artists’ songs. Chris Martin from Coldplay had to answer: what would Romeo & Juliet be called if it had been set in Tokyo? *



Christian O’Connell, Radiodays EuropeRelate to radio listeners

Christian O’Connell knows that if you want to become a successful radio personality, you have to share your life with your listeners. “If you do stuff with your audience, open up and talk about your life, your vulnerabilities and your insecurities, they will get to know you a lot more than when you just talk about the great new single from Nickelback.”




Know & use radio’s impact

The presenter got first-hand proof that even a tiny segment in a radio program can have a huge effect on how the audience perceives you and your station. One time, a loyal listener sent O’Connell an intelligent and well-written critique email, explaining why he won’t be able to listen to his show anymore.



“It was a big leap of faith, but we took it.” 



Christian O’Connell, Radiodays Europe

‘Who’s Calling Christian?’ is a popular benchmark of Christian O’Connell’s Breakfast Show (photo: Thomas Giger)



Write copy that communicates

It had nothing to do with something O’Connell said or did; it was the listener’s frustration about a controversial anti-smoking advert that was part of a government campaign. In this spot, we hear a young girl begging her mother to stop smoking as she doesn’t want him to die of cancer. (Manipulative? Yes. But I think it’s smart copywriting and powerful radio – click below to hear it).





Christian O'Connell's Breakfast Show, Absolute Radio, listener complaint letterTurn adversity into opportunity

Most presenters would ignore listener complaints like these – even try to bury them – but not O’Connell. He forwarded the email to his boss, Clive Dickens, who then said: “If you want to, you can read this out on air and ask people whether or not we should play the ad. It was a big leap of faith whether or not they would be interested, but we took it.”




Involve your listeners directly

“To this day – and I’m doing breakfast radio for thirteen years – it’s the single biggest response to anything we’ve ever done. For a breakfast show guy who’s job is to mock around between the songs, it’s a really big risk to pause that and go: hey – U2 is up in a minute… but let’s talk for a moment about cancer.”



Christian O’Connell, Absolute Radio, radio studioStep outside comfort zone

“I was really worried about whether listeners would feel comfortable to talk about it, or whether they thought it was something they didn’t want to engage with at 8:10 in the morning”, Christian O’Connell remembers. “But they did!” It got them a lot of stickiness: “We did this 6 months ago. We still get emails about it now.”




Convert listeners to assistants

If you have stunts that you want to pull off, engaging audiences on-air helps you mobilize listeners off-air. One time they spontaneously organized a mobility scooter race in front of Buckingham Palace. O’Connell illustrates how a personal life experience ended up in an off-air promotion stunt for the morning show which was possible thanks to help of the audience:





“Whatever you do in radio,

find your Evel Knievel”



Christian O’Connell, Radiodays Europe

Radio people should take some risk and pull a stunt now and then, says Christian O’Connell (photo: Thomas Giger)



Use life as inspiration

The show’s benchmark competition Who’s Calling Christian? was inspired by spotting a British actor on the street by coincidence. He began to ask listeners to call whenever they’ve spotted a famous person and then to invite that celebrity for an interview. The winner gets £ 10.000 and Absolute Radio also donates another £ 10.000 to a charity that is chosen by the celebrity. “It’s a win-win.”



Christian O’Connell, Absolute Radio, radio studioTrain yourself to improvise

It goes to show that turning life experiences into creative radio even gets you to interview A-list celebrities. O’Connell even interviewed Tony Blair. One day, a listener was asking support for a heart transplant and emailed 10 Downing Street – not expecting a reply. Someone from Blair’s office saw the email, recognized a PR opportunity – and then had the prime minister completely surprising O’Connell while he was on the air:





Turn interviews into PR

Tony Blair wasn’t the only prime minister they’ve had on air. Christian O’Connell’s Breakfast Show was able to make national headlines with a radio interview when they had another prime minister, David Cameron, as a guest. Listen to this example of how media sometimes blow-up a little slip of the tongue into the lead story of the 10 o’clock evening news, which was free publicity for Absolute Radio and the morning show:





Christian O’Connell, Radiodays EuropeEmbrace mistakes as entertainment

O’Connell admits that he makes enough mistakes himself. Mistakes are even good in some way. “Stuff that goes wrong is far more entertaining to your audience. Virtually everything I’ve talked about has moments when it falls over and collapses. Hopefully, those bits where you cock up are the things you can have more fun and entertainment with.”




Be radio’s Evel Knievel

In his opinion, radio personalities should try to “make the leap” during each show. “Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But hopefully the audience is joining me, thinking: it’ll be kind of fun to tune and listen if he can make it work. Whatever you do in radio – whether you make the jingles, or you’re in front of the microphone – find your Evel Knievel.”



“There is no good radio show

that isn’t having a brilliant team”



Christian O'Connell's Breakfast Show team, Christian O'Connell, Vicki Butler-Henderson, Brian Murphy, Richie Firth, Absolute Radio

Christian O’Connell and sidekicks Vicki Butler-Henderson, Brian Murphy and Richie Firth (photo: Absolute Radio)



Build great radio teams

However, creative ideas are just one of two important parts. Christian O’Connell says that there is no good radio show that isn’t having a brilliant team. “The reason why I can be so relaxed on air, and have these leaps of faith, is that I have a very big safety net. I need people who bring stuff to the table and share stories about what’s happened to them. They feed the machine that is the show.”



* answer: Lovers in Japan



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