Is Radio Ready for a Black Swan?

Once upon a time, radio employed a lot of people. Radio stations that operated 24/7 had to have a live person on duty every hour of every day.

Radio studios were different back then too. There were multiple turntables, cart machines, reel-to-reel recorders and multiple microphones/headphones in every studio. In short, there was lots of redundancy. Radio wasn’t very fragile.

But as technology invaded the radio world, computers would replace just about every piece of equipment in the building; saddest of all were the people. They increased efficiency by a lot.

That’s what disruption does. Disrupts. Everything.

Ironically, there’s a relationship between all this efficiency and fragility. As computers increased efficiency it also increased radio’s fragility.

In those early days, lose a phonograph needle or a cart machine, it was no big deal. However, when you lost a computer, you lost the entire radio station. This drive for efficiency eliminated the redundancy. (Most radio stations today have redundant computer networks to deal with crashes; but not all.)

In New York City, many radio and TV stations left the Empire State building when the World Trade Towers were erected. A couple didn’t. On 9/11 those that kept a redundant transmitter plant in place at the Empire State building were able to stay on the air when those iconic towers came down. That kind of redundancy wasn’t efficient, but it was smart and it made those broadcasters less fragile.

The problem is that in business, becoming more efficient means eliminating human redundancies. That’s been part of our high unemployment problem since the beginning of the digital revolution. All businesses are becoming more efficient through digital ecosystems. It’s these very ecosystems that eliminate lots of jobs.

When systems become more optimized, efficient and complex their fragility increases. Fragile systems often break suddenly and with no warning.

Consolidation contributes to this scenario by stacking optimized, efficient and complex systems into an even larger ecosystem that become top down managed through “best practices” strategies. Unfortunately, the reality of “best practices” is they are often more “average” than they are “best.” Often what’s best for one location, doesn’t translate to best for others. Best practices are really a “one size fits all” situation.

Before you argue that local decisions sometimes also fail (and I would not disagree with you), the failure is quarantined to a single location and does not impact the entire enterprise.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote about all of this in his book The Black Swan.

 “The Black Swan asymmetry allows you to be confident about what is wrong, not about what you believe is right.”

History teaches us the outcome of efficiency and fragility. But like the couple getting married who knows that between one third and one half of all marriages end in divorce is convinced they are the exception, companies operate with this same blind eye to the arrival of a black swan to fly into their path. Or as Taleb writes:

“If you survive until tomorrow, it could mean that either a) you are more likely to be immortal or b) that you are closer to death.”

The world we live in today is changing. No doubt about it. It’s a communications revolution. We can’t operate the way we’ve always done it. Taleb shares this example:

“Those who believe in the unconditional benefits of past experience should consider this pearl of wisdom allegedly voiced by a famous ship’s captain:

‘But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident… of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.’

-E. J. Smith, 1907, Captain, RMS Titanic Captain Smith’s ship sank in 1912 in what became the most talked-about shipwreck in history.”

If there’s an industry that needs to be thinking about “black swans” and balancing efficiency with redundancy, it’s the radio industry.

People don’t have a favorite McDonalds or a favorite #2 pencil brand, but they do have a favorite radio station.

When a “black swan” swoops in, will you be ready?

Your listeners are depending on you.

Don’t disappoint them.

They love your radio station.

They trust you are prepared for black swans.


Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio

30 responses to “Is Radio Ready for a Black Swan?

  1. ws1o

    Another home run Dick, great column!


  2. james heckel

    Radio is a lifeline in times of emergency. After Sandy knocked out power, we’d get in our cars to find out what was happening.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dick, I read all your posts and this is one of your BEST! 😉 שלום

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Overall good thoughts, Dick. I would like to point out, though…that some companies have already made those plans. I work for Cox Media Group in Dayton, Ohio. We have an operator, either full or part time on the radio side in the building 24/7/365. We have engineers in the building 24/7/365…if not the actual radio engineers, we have those who are monitoring the sister TV station in our building. We have redundant studios, and a network of audio routers which can send one studio into another with the flip of a couple of switches. An “emergency studio” can be set up in a matter of minutes. In the event of a major news story overnight, our overnight producer (a former full time news anchor who came back to us part time after a number of years absence) will either record breaking news announcements, and can call the full time anchors in on a moment’s notice. (I live 15 minutes away and can be in the station in 30.) We have double redundancy with generators. Some stations and companies are already there!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dick: overall, good thoughts. But I would like to let you know there are a lot of stations who are there already. Our group, Cox Media Group in Dayton has an operator in on the radio side 24/7/365. Engineers are available the same, whether radio engineers or those from the TV station in our building. Studios can be routed anywhere at the flick of a switch. Our primary overnight producer is a former news anchor who came back to us part time after several years absence. If something happens in the dead of night, he can record, or go live, to get the news on the air. He can also call in the primary full time anchors who, generally, can get there within 30 minutes. We have backup generators to keep most of the building up and running. In the event of a major local emergency, we can join all 3 stations again with the flick of a switch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cox is an outstanding operator. And I’d love to visit the Dayton property one day. Thank you for sharing that story with everyone.


    • Scott Cason

      What will you do if something happens to the building?


      • Even then, we have options, Scott. We have wireless remote units which could be set up virtually anywhere we wanted to broadcast. I have built a studio in an unused bedroom of my home complete with an 8 channel Autogram console hooked to a computer. I built it because I do work for an LPFM station about an hour from here and with it, I can remote in and update their programming on a moment’s notice. Theoretically, I could remote in to the station (or they could do vice versa, and we could broadcast from my house. It’s amazing what is actually possible these days.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. The Black Swan & your take on “best practices” – most prescient. In municipal & state govt., best practices make no allowance for innovations in an actual crisis. Look at Sandy & Katrina. Innovation in our town saved lives w/a 10-watt AM radio station which even now does not appear as a best practice. The nearest full powered commercial station to us failed miserably. They had no backup power at their studios or xmitter and were incommunicado for the duration. I am convinced that “best practices” are a recipe for mediocrity. Good article, Dick!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Also don’t forget…LPFM could be a big part of the equation for emergencies in small towns. I work with one at which the County EMA paid for the station’s EAS equipment as it had little confidence in the abilities of the 2 full power operations to be set up to inform the community in the case of an emergency. Still, there are many commercial operations that are prepared for emergencies (I work for one owned by a major company and the emergency plan is extensive). There are operators who follow best practices.


      • LPFM is in many ways another way people are responding to high tech through introducing high touch.

        Today’s youth would rather make YouTube videos and watch other YouTube videos made by folks like themselves than watch high tech productions made by the major studios.

        High Touch appears to be making a return.


    • Interesting perspective Rich. Thank you for adding to the conversation. We all learned something from you today.


  7. Dick, this is a simply great piece of writing. Could you contact me at radiogeorge,com to correspond about possibly participating at next year’s Conclave? We have an emphasis on mentoring and it seems like you’d be well suited for a session or two.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dick I’m a big fan of your writings. We all know the syndicaiton and automation of programing horse is out of the barn and is never going back. So apart from the technological anti- fragile strategis what else can be done to keep radio from being on death watch like newsprint.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Radio companies are investing heavily in digital these days. Streaming is being sold in our shop and digital revenues are up. But also, we are learning that you can’t do this with NO people. But, the people being hired today must have multi skills with multiple platforms.


    • The introduction of BEATS1 is an example of high touch showing signs of making a return. They are doing things made famous by radio, but on an all digital platform.

      History repeats, but we now know from Mendelbrot Fractals the pattern of repetition is beyond human comprehension and so it only appears to be different.


  10. What do you base your opinion on? While I have not read Black Swan I’ve read the other book by the same Autor Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. I also speak “pendelum swing” as a WA graduate. In my experience I don’t see the high touch hyper local programming due to fragmentation.


  11. Pete Salant

    Dick, this is yet another exceptionally conceived and wonderfully written piece. You’ve become radio and digital audio’s most articulate communicator, historian and prognosticator. I try not to miss anything spoken or written by Professor Taylor. When we worked together 25 years ago, it was easy to see you were brighter than the average 12AX7 tube, yet who could predict how the Internet would enable you to enlighten such a huge audience.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dick I’ve read the book Pendulum. I’ve read about Beats in fact I think you wrote an article. I’ll do some more reading to get versed on your point of view. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Looking Back at My 1st Year of Blogging | DickTaylorBlog

  14. Pingback: Live & Local ? | DickTaylorBlog

  15. Pingback: The Past is Not Prologue | DickTaylorBlog

  16. Pingback: Dislocation is the New RIF | DickTaylorBlog

  17. Pingback: The Day the World Shut Down | DickTaylorBlog

  18. Pingback: Efficiency vs. Resilience | DickTaylorBlog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s