Friday, September 25, 2009

Acts, Not Words

In a paragon of timing, the NAB Executive Search Committee announced its pick for our new President/CEO just in time for the Fall Radio Show. The committee is to be congratulated for its low-key, no-drama, few-leaks process. . .whether the congratulations extend to its choice is an open question right now, a few short days after the announcement.

In the past I have added my voice to those of other industry leaders in calling for installing an actual broadcaster at the NAB helm, but I’m the first to admit it’s not that simple. (Not to mention the potential havoc wrought by the selection of a TV guy, perish the thought.) While it would be refreshing to feel actual understanding of our daily lives in the voice and words of our lobbyist-in-chief, as opposed to scripted platitudes, the true value of the person and the position is his persuasive advocacy of our industry with the powers that hold our well-being in their clammy little hands.

Mr. Smith has a past, and being in the public eye for much of his career, that well-documented past includes some not-so-broadcaster-friendly views and actions. Credit our man for his adult, no-nonsense handling of that inconvenient truth: “Now, my politics are the interests of the National Association of Broadcasters, which translates into serving radio and television broadcasters and the American people.” I for one have no problem with Smith’s seismic shifts, as long as he can spin a credible tale that explains them. (Free advice: Use a variant of the time-honored “feel-felt-found” sales technique—“I understand how you feel [about this issue]; I felt the same way myself. But then I found. . .”)

We don’t yet know Mr. Smith’s mind and heart, but we do know those of the broadcasters who chose him. I trust them. I trust their choice. Welcome, Gordon Smith, to the most interesting neighborhood in which you’ll ever live.

This article first appeared in the Small Market Radio Newsletter, of which your faithful blogger is editor and publisher. He is also its circulation manager, and as such encourages you to subscribe thereto.

Dumbing Down

Throughout my career as a consultant, I have sat in meetings where management tried to wrest control of creativity from talent by using research to prove that, to coin a phrase, less is more.

Heretofore my favorite device for sucking the creative juices out of a radio show has been the little dials you distribute to a bunch of people in a room; as they listen to a recording of a show—usually a morning show—they are instructed to turn the dial up when they like what they hear, down when they don’t. The aggregate results are displayed as a line graph that snakes its way across a video screen while the recording plays, so you can tell precisely at what points the audience loses interest in the proceedings.

Some of the most awkward moments of my career have ensued when we’ve plopped talent in front of the screen, expecting a teachable moment to occur.

Now, as described in Bob Doll’s article on Page 9, the PPM data performs the same function on a grander scale. As Bob notes with a fair amount of understatement, the application of the PPM data is “a source of friction between management and talent.”

The problem with these applications is, we are using trailing data to inform the future. In other words, we expect an analysis of a spontaneous event—a live radio show—to result in better spontaneous events in the future.

Well, it doesn’t work that way. The analysis of spontaneity results in less spontaneity.

Radio is criticized for its blandness—for its lack of spontaneity—because it has been replaced by research-driven predictability. And it’s only getting worse, because each round of analysis destroys that much more spontaneity (a.k.a. creativity).

The cure, counterintuitive though it may be, is to take a deep breath and encourage risk-taking.

We like to vilify Mel Karmazin these days for abandoning his local radio roots, but let’s remember that he built his success by picking talent, cultivating it and giving it room to grow. You may not like his picks—Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony among them—but you cannot deny that his was a talent-based business model. It made for unpredictable radio that, whether you liked it, was far from bland.

Now look at your own stations. In and around the satellite and syndicated fare, you probably employ at least one live, local personality. And that personality probably drives you nuts with his or her—usually it’s a his—peculiar peccadilloes. And you probably long for research—whether using little dials or PPM data—to put him in his place.

Be careful what you wish for. Chances are, your station is a beacon light of creativity, thanks to your hard-to-handle friend—at least compared to the Station Everybody at Work Can Agree On Because It Plays 200 Easy Favorites Over and Over that Suck the Same for Everybody.

Congratulations. You are part of the solution.

This article first appeared in the Small Market Radio Newsletter, of which your faithful blogger is editor and publisher. He is also its circulation manager, and as such encourages you to subscribe thereto.