Dear HigherEd Communicators: John Tesh is Kicking Our Asses

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Yes, you read that right. John Tesh.

John, “I used to host Entertainment Tonight in the days when Mary Hart’s legs were insured for a million dollars each,” Tesh.

John, “I make New Age music,” Tesh.

John, “I dated Oprah back in the day,” Tesh.


John Tesh
Yes, John Tesh.

He is kicking your ass and mine nine ways to Sunday.

Tesh has figured out how to do what research websites, magazines, annual reports, podcasts, Twitter accounts and God knows what else are supposed to do, and often don’t.

He and his radio production/syndication army have found a sticky way to make people care about research findings.

It’s called Intelligence for Your Life.

That Feeling When You’ve Reached Your Easy Listening Years

A couple years ago, I realized the easy-listening music packaged to grown-ups on adult contemporary radio stations is actually packaged for me.

The revelatory moment is quite clear in my mind.

I was driving my older kid home after visiting with grandparents. I only had one kid at the time. Sleep took my passenger before we had gone more than a minute down the road.

I had the radio on. It was autumn. The air was getting cooler, but was still warm enough that I had the windows down.

I was in one of those grooves you get when every song on the radio is one that you like and it feels like a present from the universe to you.

About three songs in, I realized I was listening to 102.9 out of Hamilton, ON—K-Lite FM.Screengrab of the K-Lite website, featuring John Tesh in the banner

In between the commercials and pleasantly inoffensive music, this soothing voice started talking about things like the four points of business etiquette everyone should know or the top sleep myths.

And I perked right up, because that is where I live.

Those were research findings.

Distilled and packaged for the masses, yes, but research findings.

I have spent the last eight years or so working in research communications, seeking ways to make people care about research (specifically, research out of either York University or the University of Toronto) and the role it plays in bettering our society.

And this guy was doing it without breaking a sweat.

And then I realized it was John Tesh.

I drove in silence for a while, listening to my kid snoring, my mind quietly blown.

This is how I discovered Intelligence for Your Life.

How It Works

Radio section of the websiteIntelligence for Your Life is a syndicated radio show, hosted by Tesh.

It airs each weeknight on 400 radio stations across North American from 7 pm to midnight.

The show content is also available on iTunes with the commercials and pop music stripped out of the proverbial intelligence. Radio stations can also download the stripped-down version and insert their own music, which increases its reach in terms of station type.

There’s even a mobile app.

Here’s how Tesh describes his project, courtesy of the 102.9 website program page:

Tesh’s radio show focuses on a concept he calls “Music and Intelligence For Your Life,” providing listeners with guidance and information that they can use in their daily lives. The concept has proven so powerful that many listeners prefer listening to his show instead of watching television. “I’m at a time in my life when I want my own personal reality show to be aimed at helping others,” Tesh says. “Planting seeds and encouraging people with the program and my music is a method with which I am truly comfortable. ‘Music and Intelligence For Your Life’ is a safe haven for family listening. Children, men and women of all ages can gain something from the show.”

Did you catch that line they just slid past there? Here it is again:

The concept has proven so powerful that many listeners prefer listening to his show instead of watching television.

We’ll come back to that.

According to Wikipedia, Tesh reaches 14.2 million listeners a week.

He’s been on the radio for 10 years.

Let’s stop and appreciate the math for a minute.

That’s 14.2 million visitors a week for 10 years. Sure, it probably wasn’t that many people in the beginning. Let’s say his audience went up by a million listeners every year or so.

That still constitutes serious pay dirt the likes of which most universities PR offices cannot dare to dream.

Don’t believe me?

Consider that Harvard University has 140,000 followers on Twitter and 1.8 million likes on Facebook. And that social media’s been around for maybe five years in a serious way.

Do you think all of those people check in with Harvard each and every week?

Do they flip open their alumni magazines or open their Twitter feeds while they’re driving their kids to hockey practice, doing dishes in the kitchen or puttering around tending to all the other make-busy work that consumes so much of family life in North America?

Do they fuss with podcasts or youtube videos?

Or do they turn on the local radio station because it’s unthinkingly easy to access and gives you something to ponder while your hands do what needs doing.

This is the power of radio and oral story telling.

It gives your mind room to roam in a way that visual digital media can’t.

But I digress.

Powered by Research

In between the pop music and commercials, Tesh offers his intelligence sound bites.

Topic categories for Intelligence for Your Life
Featured topics on the Intelligence for Your Life website

The topics range from health and relationships to workplace and job searching to personal finance and travel.

Some of the topics reflect the fear mongering that I frequently see reflected across the media (e.g., Identity Theft and Kids). Other topics are clearly trend driven.

There is virtually no celebrity gossip.

But whether the source university is identified or not, a lot of the factoids Tesh shares, particularly in his Intelligence for Your Health section, are essentially university research findings re-purposed to be easily applicable for a general audience.

John Tesh: The (Unknowing?) King of Knowledge Mobilization

In higher education, a lot of energy is devoted to explaining this process.

Research Impact, a leading Canadian knowledge mobilization unit
This is a shout out to my former colleagues in the KMb unit (Research Impact) at York University. They are real trailblazers in this field.

It goes by many names:

Universities and colleges have realized, thanks in part to the way digital publishing is changing our relationship to the printed word, that it’s not good enough anymore to only publish your work in a dedicated journal.

Go that route and, if you’re lucky, a few hundred people will read (and understand) your publication in your lifetime.

With any other kind of communications exercise, those kinds of numbers would get you slammed for terrible ROI.

Focusing on journals alone is particularly problematic if you are an academic specializing in the social sciences and humanities, where, presumably, you want to help people understand what makes our lives, communities, societies and nations either good or terribly unhappy.

How will people find better ways to live together if your ground-breaking research stays in a journal on some library shelf or digitally archived behind a subscription-based pay wall?

This promise of translation is what the funding applications—and the people signing the dwindling supply of cheques—want to hear.

The ultimate research communications outcome is to go back to a government funding agency with proof that the money they gave your star professor and her army of graduate students 10 years ago has produced some breakthrough that is improving patient outcomes, saving lives in another context or just making life more bearable for the voting public.

Which is why if John Tesh had succeeded in building this kind of program for a university PR department, he would be giving keynotes all over the place about what he’s done and how we can all do it, too.

Seriously. We would pay him to come.

But there is a good reason he didn’t.

Several, actually.

Five Tesh Takeaways

Why is Tesh succeeding on such an impressive scale? What is it about his model that works so well? And why have research communicators struggled to achieve this kind of success?

More importantly, if you communicate research findings, how can you join him in kicking ass?

1)     Know Your Audience

We are all (stupidly) busy. Life is hectic. The work week feels like it’s always getting shorter.

We all want customized information that is going to help us right now. We do not have the time to go out and find it.

Even reading a one-page media release sometimes feels like too much work, and I spend a good deal of my professional time writing them.

Here is Tesh on why he created the show (via Wikipedia):

“This show was created for my wife, (actress Connie Sellecca),” he says. “She’s one of those people where, you look at her side of the bed (and see) seven issues of Prevention magazine and five months of Oprah magazine . . . (she) never has time to read any of that stuff . . . I feel there’s enough entertainment there—nobody needs to know the latest in the trial of Anna Nicole Smith from us, or who the celebrity birthdays are. So I said, ‘Let’s just do something that moves people forward in their life, and we’ll do the work for them.’ “

The truncated format is part of the secret. Some segments are 25 seconds; others are a couple of minutes.

How good is your elevator pitch for every story you write?

2)     Focus on the Findings, Not Institutional Propaganda

If I am struggling with obesity and want new insight into understanding my challenge and what to do about it, do I care what university came up with it?

The heartbreaking answer for university-based communicators and the interests they serve is that, most of the time, I do not.

I want actionable ideas.

I do not care where they come from.

Sometimes Tesh’s Intelligence reports make the source university clear.

Sometimes they don’t.

You have to keep the focus on the user and her needs or you will lose her altogether.

3)     Curate the Noteworthy Content

Tesh doesn’t talk about every study under the sun.

For one thing, there would be no time for the music placement that presumably constitutes his revenue stream.

For another, you don’t get multi-million audience numbers by being haphazard about what you’ll talk about and what you won’t.

You select your key areas and stick to things that fit.

I know there is a lot of talk in academic and government circles about basic scientific research and the challenges universities face in coming up with money to fund it.

I know there’s a lot of frustration with the public’s perceived disinterest.

Basic science’s value is so hard yet so important to quantify and convey because its whole point is that we as a species don’t know what we need until it’s staring us in the face or melting our ice caps.

Will John Tesh’s model help you tell those stories?

No, it will not.

As any project manager would tell you, they are out of scope.

But his show demonstrates that if you make good on the easily-consumed research stories coming out of your school, you may be able to build something with which to leverage your other, more challenging, communications goals.

4)     Avoid Filler Like the Plague

One of Tesh’s unspoken advantages is the range of sources he can draw from.

No matter where the hot and useful finding emerges — Japan, China, the U.S., Canada or England — it’s all fair game provided the story’s got what journalists call legs.

But spend any time on a university website and I guarantee you’ll find them — small stories of interest to localized groups on campus and no one else.

You know you’ve read them. I know I’ve written them.

But if you force content with minimal news value on your audience to serve some internal function, your audience will walk.

Abuse the audience at your peril.

5)     Be Relevant

Web design and copy writing are similar in that both work best when they don’t make us think.

Reading is work. Your audience is easily distracted.

Tesh’s pieces are written to be understood in seconds. His team understands they are competing with every device, publication and crisis known to man for their audience’s attention.

Front load the salient point in your stories — make sure the relevant piece is located in your opening sentence. Connect this idea to all of your supporting details.

Cut everything else.

Be merciless.

6)     Research, When Done Right, Is Overwhelmingly Compelling

I had the good fortune to collaborate with many excellent colleagues in the Alumni Office at York University.

They had an excellent market research group. And when they ran surveys, as they did often, the finding that came up over and over, no matter what was happening on campus or the age of the former student or what discipline he or she had studied, was that research is interesting.

Stories about research were, by far, the most clicked through by York’s Alumni audience, month over month and year over year.

The success of Tesh’s radio show speaks to this underlying truth.

We have the raw materials to captivate people in our hands.

We just need to construct content delivery models to do it justice.

So, John, Will You Do Us a Solid?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to observe that Intelligence for Your Life’s success is predicated on the researchers and people who communicate their work.

With a small effort, the show and its creators could do more to acknowledge the community that sustains it.

If John or his producers are reading this blog, I’d like to ask them to do two things:

  1. You already include text-based versions of your stories on the Intelligence website. If the information comes from a university release, would you consider giving them a link? The lack of links is conspicuous on your site, regardless of the source of your information. Adding links would allow your visitors to find more information about a given topic if they wish. It would also help to send some good karma to the people doing the heavy lifting in the labs and communications offices.
  2. You have an audience that benefits from research, even if they aren’t aware of the conversations going on behind the scenes to keep research funded and its outcomes excellent. I would ask that you consider doing a 30-second plug once a show (that’s once in five hours) to mention that a lot of your intelligence comes from university- and college-level research and ask your audience to write to their local representatives to support research funding programs. If you don’t want to do this on the show, perhaps you might consider a standing message on your site in support of research and the people who conduct it.

It’s the intelligent thing to do.

Update: So I heard from John

This post has been online for maybe an hour and a half. I have already had 77 click-throughs and I am cruising 200+ page views. So thank you very much to those who saw value in this and shared it.

John Tesh answered
I have received independent confirmation from Tesh’s digital community manager that this actually came from Tesh.

Better still, within 10 minutes of tweeting about it, I had a reply from John.

Here is a screen grab:

It is excellent to know my requests landed on receptive ears.

And I will be watching for the redesign.