How to Talk About Race, Religion and Politics

In an email from the Randy Lane Company, Jeff McHugh offers the following advice for radio and TV hosts searching for a way to address and reflect on big stories like the Ferguson grand jury decision and Bill Cosby. Steve: I wasn’t able to find Jeff’s advice on their website so I’m including it here.

Jeff writes:

Rape, police violence, race relations, religion, politics are often no-win subjects to cover outside of news, but it’s interesting to study exactly how some personalities are able to go there without causing controversy. Here are some tactics that might be effective for your show.

1. Say what no one can disagree with. This week, Mike Rowe of the TV show “Dirty Jobs” shot back at a Facebook commenter who posted a diatribe on how it was impossible to be a Christian and to vote Republican. Mike’s response is true to his character; likeable, funny, honest and pretty difficult for any reasonable person to argue with.

2. Be authentic to your character. On the national US Christian-faith station KLOVE, Craig, Amy and Kanklefritz struggled with what to say about the explicit Bill Cosby accusations while being true to their family-friendly brand. Ultimately, the hosts expressed on air that everyone involved in the story, Mr. Cosby, the women who were assaulted and their families could use everyone’s prayers. They also recounted discussions with their children about how the people who we look up to sometimes let us down.

3. Be completely serious. Vocalize whatever authentic emotions you are experiencing, speak the thoughts in your head and tell stories that relate to the topic if you have some to tell. Don’t just give your opinion. Opinion alone is unremarkable and not compelling.

4. Be completely unserious. Do some truth-telling, but do it in a ridiculous way. Remember the adage, “entertain first, educate second.” Take a moment to enjoy this not-safe-for-air clip from Chris Rock entitled “How To Not Get Your Ass Kicked By The Police,” which is a faux “educational video.”

Whatever you do, don’t not talk about it. On the day after the Michael Brown verdict, I tuned in to one of the urban stations in St Louis that I used to hear when I lived there to get a local perspective. For 15 minutes I heard only music, commercials, IDs, a canned newscast from another station in the cluster and a short clip of Obama’s speech. The host never spoke once.

I’ll add two more suggestions:

1. Discuss the big stories off-air with with members of your show and Program Director. We knew for days the Ferguson decision was coming so there was time to prepare. Hashing it out off-air will likely give the team a good idea of where to go with it on-air.

2. Let listeners have the opinions. Use social media to ask, “What do you think?” and use the responses on-air. Even better: Ask on-air, “What’s your opinion?” and use the best calls as “spice”. This works great on shows that don’t regularly handle serious topics.