Tag Archives: Best Practices

Fail. Forward. Fast.

Success FailureIf there is one thing that both college professors and college students have in common, is that they both hate to fail. Professors never want to see their students fail. And students fear failing on many levels.

But failure is a necessary part of success.

Tom Peters

In my sales classes, I showed a short video clip of Tom Peters sharing his favorite slide from his huge slide deck. It reads:

Fail. Forward. Fast.

(“Reward Excellent Failures, Punish Mediocre Successes.”)

Nobody wins by playing it safe.

Nobody learns either.

Woody Allen

Woody cut his creative teeth during the Golden Age of Television writing for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.”

Woody learned “if you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

Radio Innovation

When I was growing up, the radio dial was a cornucopia of innovation.

Every radio station was original and unique.

Sunset would open up the skywave for AM radio listening and I would tune in great radio stations like WKBW from Buffalo, WLS & WCFL from Chicago, CKLW from Windsor-Ontario, Canada and many, many more.

Each of them was unique, a part of their community and provided great companionship.

Then radio began to copy one another.

Imitation, while maybe the sincerest form of flattery, lacks innovation.

Best Practices

With the passage of the Telcom Act of 1996, the radio industry began to rapidly consolidate.

The concept of “Best Practices” would further stifle experimentation and failure by trying to lay a safe, secure foundation for every radio station in these expanding companies to follow.

The new publicly funded corporations quickly learned that funding, not innovation was the way to grow larger. Money gets invested in business models that are familiar.

That’s why the movie industry cranks out so many sequels when they find a hit film.

Failure leads to Innovation

Thomas Edison when asked how it felt to fail 1,000 times inventing his light bulb responded “I didn’t fail 1, 000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Walt Disney is said to have gone bankrupt a couple of times before he became a successful innovator.

In other words, we can learn, grow and become better from our failures.

Radio’s New Heroes’

I’m confident that new blood is flowing into the radio industry that will quickly discard things that aren’t working, try new ideas, innovate and fail, forward, fast.

Everything in life brings risk.

It’s true that you risk failure if you try something bold

because you might miss it.

But you also risk failure if you stand still and don’t try anything new.”

-John C. Maxwell

 

 

 

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Radio’s Non-Compete Contracts

69Have you ever thought about how Silicon Valley became such a powerhouse in the world of technology?  Back in the 80s, my home state of Massachusetts was home to world class research with institutions such as MIT, Harvard and the Route 128 corridor. So how did Boston cede its leadership to California and Silicon Valley? Employee non-compete contracts that held employees bound to these vertically integrated firms.

Meanwhile, taking a different approach companies such as Hewlett Packard and Sun Microsystems were embracing their people to job hop. They encouraged open technologies and building alliances.

Cross-Pollination of Ideas

In her book Regional Advantage AnnaLee Saxenian writes that these same phenomena took place in all kinds of industries all over the world; that being that these companies in California allowed cross-pollination of ideas to occur by the movement of people between them.

Ironically, radio enjoyed this same kind of cross-pollination up until 1996.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996

President Clinton signed sweeping communications reform in America with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The radio industry consolidated almost overnight with a handful of major companies owning virtually all of the best “beachfront” radio properties.

The radio business, is not about just having a license to broadcast, but is about transmitted power and – like the real estate business – location, location, location. Unfortunately, that’s not how the FCC looks at license assignments.

Federal Radio Commission

The first regulatory body for communications in the United States was the FRC (Federal Radio Commission) and it divided the country into five equal regions and assigned the same number of radio services to each region. Why was this a bad idea? Because most of the people all lived in one or two regions of the country at that point in time and so more radio service was needed in them than in regions where it was mainly wildlife.

History Rhymes Again

I fond of saying that history doesn’t repeat but usually rhymes and in the case of radio’s number of AM or FM licenses a single company can own in a metro area we are repeating the same mistakes made by the FRC.

It’s not about number of signals but the power of those signals and location.

Cross-pollination of People

Part and parcel with the Telcom Act of ’96 was the loss of cross-pollination of people. If a person was RIF’d (Reduction In Force) by his company, he was under a non-compete to walk across the street or maybe some place else in the country as the same companies were now competing against one another all across this great land.

Before the Telcom Act, a single radio company could only own 12AM-12FM-12TV stations in the entire USA.  After the act, pretty much as much as they could afford to buy (with certain limitations).

BEST PRACTICES

Worse, these huge new radio companies would introduce across their footprint the concept of “Best Practices.” This is a code word for putting a knife in the heart of innovation.

Innovation requires risk.

Wall Street investors are basically risk adverse.

Playing it safe becomes the rule of the day and anyone that can’t play by the new rules is quickly shown to the exit doors.

Innovation requires three things according to the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida. Those are talent, technology and tolerance.

Consolidation and the new goal of “increasing shareholder value” would chop the talent pool while replacing people with technology. And the tolerance for anything new was likewise reduced to nil. Welcome to “playing it safe” radio; sterile, predictable and boring.

The Day I Tore Up My Employee’s Non-Competes

Back when I was in Atlantic City, I had an employee walk across the street to a radio competitor of mine. I wanted to pursue this employee because I had them under a non-compete contract. My new owners said that if a person didn’t want to work for them, to just let them go. I said then if they didn’t intend to enforce my employee’s non-compete contracts why did they keep them in place when they bought my stations from the previous owner. The president’s response to me was, “darn if I know.” I said then I’m going to tear them all up and he said, “go ahead.”

Life Without Non-Competes

I have to tell you, as a young manager, the realization that everyone at my radio stations could walk across the street to competitors was scary.

However, something wonderful happened.

People who now worked for me knew they no longer were working under non-competes and they now worked for me because they wanted to. It also made me realize that I too needed to provide a style of management that made people want to stay with me more than going someplace else. That, I would learn, is the best way to run a business.

Even better, having this type of work environment saw lots of talented people waiting in line to come work at my stations.

Make Radio Great Again

Radio became the force in America it is by being open to risk, new ideas and innovation. It kept the things that worked and jettisoned the ones that didn’t.

In other words, before radio was encumbered with huge debt brought on by consolidators, it invested in its future.

Radio can only win the future by investing in it.

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Bring Back the Radio Hackers

We never called them that back in the early days of radio’s reinvention period after the birth of television in the 1950s, but that’s what they were.

Radio from the beginning basically was a medium that killed Vaudeville. Radio enticed the performers of Vaudeville to bring their acts to this new mass medium. The sales pitch went something like this: you won’t have to travel every day of the year, sleep on trains and eat your meals on the run. When you move your act to radio, you will be able to go home every night to your family and have a “normal” life. And you’ll make more money!

Not all performers would make this transition. The downside to moving their act to radio was that no longer could they have one act that they could perform night after night. On the radio, they needed a new act every performance. That’s a BIG CHANGE.

When television came along, the successful radio acts moved to TV and radio needed a new idea.

Enter the Hackers

 Alan Freed would hack the term Rock ‘N’ Roll and become the first famous disc jockey introducing a new venue for radio.

Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon aka “the Maverick of Radio” would hack the idea of Top 40 radio introducing a tighter playlist and higher repetition of the biggest hits. After observing teenagers playing the same songs over and over in a juke box.

Better Practices

 Today’s world is infested with the concept of “Best Practices.” It can be a stifling thing when it comes to creativity.

Today’s radio was born out of hackers that were constantly thinking up “Better Practices.” Ron Jacobs and Bill Drake certainly did at Boss Radio in Los Angeles with 93 KHJ. John Rook did it in Chicago with both WLS and WCFL. Rick Sklar did it in New York at Music Radio 77 WABC. Plus there were so many others in all size markets. Radio was different everywhere you listened because it was being hacked in so many wonderful ways. It was exciting to turn on your radio and hear what was going to come out next.

Insanity

 The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We have a lot of that kind of stinking thinking today and I’m sure you’ve heard all the reasons for why this is the path some of our biggest broadcasters are taking. As the radio business grew from a mom and pop business to the behemoths of today a ritual of “Best Practices” replaced hacking.

Today’s Economy is a Hacker Economy

 We live in a world where it seems everything has been turned upside down by the World Wide Web, the Internet and mobile Apps. The power is shifting from the big to the nimble; the hackers. Learn to hack or be attacked by those that hack.

Radio is not exempt from this shift. And it doesn’t have to lose.

Radio has what everyone else would love to own, a mass audience. Radio today is delivering the largest mass audience of all the mediums.

It’s why every entity trying to play in the audio medium calls itself “radio.” Pandora Radio, Spotify Radio, TuneIn Radio, RadioTunes, Beats 1 Radio etc. What radio folks have that these folks don’t have is a broadcast signal that is ubiquitous and a listening habit that has been cultivated over many years.

However, what those pure plays have that radio is missing are hackers.

Radio needs to stimulate agility, creativity and take risks.

Stop thinking about where you want to be in 5 years and start thinking about what problems you want to solve most right now. The winners will be those most able to adapt.

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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.

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Remember When Radio Was Agile?

Have you heard about the latest management movement?  It’s called “Agile” (but it can also be called “Scrum”).

Actually, to be more accurate, there’s “management” and then there’s “Agile.”  They are not one in the same.  Another way to picture them is one is a vertical style of management and the other is a horizontal style of operating.

The vertical style is familiar to anyone working in one of today’s highly consolidated public radio companies that own hundreds of stations.  The top of the management pyramid says “jump” and the troops respond with “how high?”  You may also find that the company circulates a “Best Practices” manual and wants every station to implement it even though a person on the front lines may wonder if these are “best practices” in their particular case.

The military model was the genesis of the vertical style of management.  New York City’s tall vertical skyscrapers are literal structures of top-down management.

Then I started reading about Agile.  Agile is a horizontal mindset.  Everyone in a company is working towards the same goals and on an equal plane.  The planning and execution is a shared endeavor all designed with one goal in mine and that is to delight a customer.

While both vertical and horizontal styles are business models and the purpose of a business is to create a customer (and ultimately a profit), the radical difference is vertical puts that profit goal front and center and has everyone focused on achieving that goal.  The horizontal style says if we delight our customers, then the profits will follow.  The customer is front and center and the focus of everyone who works at the company.

I’ve worked with couple of the big consolidators and I’ve heard the CEO’s message of how much the stakeholders had invested in the company and how we all needed to be focused on reaching or exceeding our goals.

But that’s not the style of radio I entered.  Back in my early days, the radio station; often owned by folks who lived and were active in the community, the focus was on our listeners and our advertisers.  Everyone in the radio station worked towards the same goals of delighting our two constituencies.

We didn’t call it “Agile” or “Scrum” but doing GREAT radio and operating in the public interest, convenience and/or necessity.  OK, not to get too Pollyanna, there was a vertical structure of sorts – a GM, PD, SM – but we all worked side-by-side in the same building and everyone did whatever was needed to be done to delight our customers.  It was a team effort.  It was a horizontal style of operating.

What changed was the Telcom Act of 1996.  That new law would change the face of radio through massive consolidation of radio stations.  All of these little horizontal operating enterprises would be stacked one on top of another until we had a vertical style of operating.  Now a group of folks would declare they were “the adults in the room” and start passing out thumb drives filled with spreadsheets full of revenue goals.

Nowhere were there discussions of delighting the customers.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has made it abundantly clear that Apple is not always going to do things that simply fatten the bottom line and that if you are an investor in Apple that doesn’t like that way of operating, maybe you should invest your money someplace else.  Apple is going to delight the customer  – as Steve Jobs so simply stated – by making insanely great products.

How’s that focus on the customer working out for Apple?  Very well, thank you.  Apple has posted the largest net quarterly profit in history. Not in just Apple’s history but in the history of the world.

Radio is a fabulous business!  Radio entertains, informs and is there in times of emergencies to hold a community together.  But radio performs best when it is operated horizontally and not vertically.

Mary Meeker in her most recent “Internet Trends report at Re/Code” had a slide in her 180-slide deck that spoke most passionately I think to this concept of operating horizontally.  That slide was titled “Diversity Matters….It’s Just Good Business” and here is what the body copy of the slide said:

            “One of the things I have learned about effective decision making is that the best decisions are often made by diverse groups of people.

Saying or hearing these words is magic…..

‘That’s really interesting.  I had never thought of that way before.  Thank you.’”

That sure sounds to me like Mary was making a plea for companies to re-think how they operate and level the playing field by moving to a horizontal style of operating.

The reason the radio industry was so attractive to Wall Street investors was because it was a high cash flowing business that appeared easy to operate.

My roller skating coach used to tell me “Dick when you make it look easy, then you’re doing it right.”  Radio used to be doing it right.  It’s really a lot harder than it looks.  It’s time to go back to that way of operating.

OR – you can continue doing things the way you did last year and watch “flat revenue growth be the new up.”  Doesn’t sound like the radio industry has much to lose by changing their ways.

The good news is there are radio operators who are returning to the business that see the opportunities in the horizontal approach to radio station operations.  It’s a movement that will not only be good for the radio industry but the listeners and advertisers served by the industry.

It’s called Win-Win-Win.

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