Tag Archives: Bowling Alone

How is Radio Affected by Being Efficient?

EfficiencyI started my professional radio career in the 10th grade of high school. However, I started dreaming about being a disc jockey for as long as I can remember. I built my own AM/FM radio station in the basement of my parent’s home and broadcast to about a three block radius around my house.

Lots of People

In my early professional days, radio was people, lots of people!

Every aspect of running a radio station required people to make things happen. Sales, bookkeeping, reception, disc jockeys, copywriters, news anchors, reporters, engineers, production and promotions people with layers of management on top of every department, up to the general manager who oversaw the entire operation.

As an example, CKLW a stand-alone AM radio station in the Detroit metro, had 23-people just in their news department. Today that’s about double the total number of people running a cluster of AM/FM radio stations in any metro.

Was radio efficient back then? No.

Was radio effective? YES!

Did radio make money? Tons of it!

The Gatekeepers

What traditional media had back then, were gatekeepers. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television had people charged with making sure there was a good flow of information and entertainment. These people acted as filters, and overtime they developed standards and ethics that all Americans could rely on.

It wasn’t perfect and mistakes were made, but it got us through the 20th Century and unified us as a nation.

The New Gatekeepers

The birth of the internet ushered in a new gatekeeper, the algorithm. Now lines of code would replace people as the filter for what Americans read, see and hear. Unfortunately, these lines of computer code lack transparency in how they filter the flow of information.

Have they been encoded with a sense of civic responsibility? Who knows?

Is the flow of information the same for everyone? No, it has been personalized to our likes and dislikes. It has put each of us in our own information silo.

Bowling Alone

In 1995, Robert D. Putnam wrote an essay entitled “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”. The essay chronicled the decline in all forms of in-person social interchange. What Putnam saw in his research was that the very foundation Americans had used to establish, educate and enrich the fabric of their social lives was eroding. People were now less likely to participate in their community, social organizations, churches, and even their democracy.

This trend has only been accelerated by social media and the internet. The unintended consequences of the internet are, that it has isolated each of us to a web of one. Algorithms have taken what Putnam saw happening in the last century and put it on steroids in this century. All in the name of driving more efficiency.

Efficiency Bubble

The “efficiency bubble” means that efficiency is valued over effectiveness in today’s world. It’s a term coined by Will Lion of BBH advertising.

Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy in the UK, recently shared this personal experience that demonstrated the efficiency bubble.

“The absurdity of the efficiency bubble was brought home to me in a recent meeting with an online travel company. The conversation repeatedly included the mantra ‘the need to maximize online conversion.’ Everyone nodded along. Clearly, it is much more efficient for people to book travel through the website than over the telephone, since it reduces transaction costs. But then someone – not me, I’m ashamed to say – said something revelatory: ‘Ah, but here’s the thing. Online visitors to the site convert at about 0.3%. People who telephone convert at 33%. Maybe the website should have a phone number on every page.”

“Perhaps the most efficient way to sell travel is not the most effective way to sell travel. What, in short, is the opportunity cost of being efficient?”

“Nobody ever asks this question. Opportunity costs are invisible; short-term savings earn you a bonus. That’s the efficiency bubble at work again.”

Consolidation is Just Another Word for “Efficiency”

During radio’s massive consolidation, Excel spreadsheets produced by new minted MBAs screamed a multitude of ways to have radio stations become more efficient. Unfortunately, the fast-lane involved the elimination of tens of thousands of radio jobs.

And it’s still going on as I write this article.

I don’t ever remember anyone asking about “opportunity costs” being sacrificed in the process.

In the last radio property I managed before entering higher education as a broadcast professor, I would spend my final year going to corporate meetings about Reductions In Force (RIFs) and coming home with a thumb drive that had dates to open new pages in an Excel spreadsheet, that listed what people and what departments were to be eliminated next.

It’s my belief that efficient radio chases away listeners, effective radio creates them.

Blame It on Competition

Tech Guru Pete Thiel blames the efficiency chase on competition. “More than anything else, competition is an ideology – the ideology – that pervades our society and distorts our thinking,” says Thiel.

When all radio companies chase the same efficiency metrics, they all end up sounding the same, their websites end up looking the same, and in essence, they’ve turned the creative medium of radio into a commodity.

Deregulation of broadcast, as I wrote about in The Birth of Radio in America article, now has virtually all of the radio stations in a radio market owned by one or two companies.

Radio always stole great ideas from other radio stations around the country, but most often those stolen ideas were massaged and improved upon in the process. Everyone was upping the game through their own creativity lens, and each radio station had its own unique sound.

Unfortunately, along with corporation radio came the concept of “Best Practices”. This would be yet another contributor to the end of personal creativity at radio stations, all in the name of more efficiency.

Emotions

Roy H. Williams, the Wizard of Ads, says we buy things emotionally and justify those buying decisions rationally. The pursuit of efficiency is a rational answer to an emotional problem.

The radio business was never built on Excel spreadsheets and doing what was most efficient, it was built by creative people who touched others emotionally. Be it station imaging, air personalities, promotions, contests, community events, advertising or marketing, radio always went for people’s hearts.

The successful radio stations today still foster those emotions in their listeners and advertisers.

They’re just becoming harder and harder to find.

 

 

 

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When Radio Was Color Blind

35Once upon a time, radio was pretty much like the TV show The Voice. We only knew what we heard coming through the speaker on our radio.

Those pilots of the airwaves were magical.

We may not have had a clue as to what they looked like, but we created a persona in our minds as if we did. It was never even close to the real person, if we ever happened to meet them.

As a young lad, most of my radio listening occurred at night, after the sun had gone down and when AM radio signals enjoyed the benefit of the skywave effect. The reasons for this were simple. First, during the day I was in school and when school got out, I was outdoors playing sandlot sports. Second, at night the only TV set in the household was controlled by either my parents or older siblings. But the transistor radio was completely in my control. I’d listen to radio stations from all over North America. One of those stations would be the most listened to AM radio station of its day, WABC out of New York City.

Who’s the Black Guy?

I got my best school friend hooked on radio and each day at school we’d compare notes of who we listened to the night before and how far away the stations we picked up were and where on the dial they were located.

Music Radio 77 – WABC out of New York City threw a pretty consistent signal over Western Massachusetts at night and so it got a lot of my after dark listening time. My friend listened to WABC a lot as well, so you can imagine our surprise the first time we saw a picture of the WABC All Americans (that’s what they called their air personalities back in the 70s). We looked at one another and said simultaneously, “Who’s the Black Guy?”

That personality was Chuck Leonard. His cool factor just went up in our eyes. Chuck Leonard was not only heard over WABC late at night but on one of our local ABC network affiliated radio stations doing the feature show “Sneak Preview.” Chuck was famous for one-liners like “The best that ever did it and got away with it.” Yes we heard a lot of Chuck Leonard and loved everything he did. But in our minds, we had never thought of him as being black. And once we found out, we didn’t care.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry

In 1958, two hit recording artists were having a backstage fight over who would close the show that night, Lewis or Berry. The decision would be made by the show’s host and producer. He chose Berry. Lewis would end his act with Great Balls of Fire and then torch his piano.

The man who enraged Lewis was the radio personality who is credited with coining the term “Rock and Roll,” Alan Freed.

While many remember Freed for his involvement in accepting payola for playing records on his radio show, Freed was instrumental in integrating Top 40 radio with black artists.

Motown Sound

Contemporary music on the “kid’s stations” was integrated with the birth of this type of radio. Everything that wasn’t your parent’s music was embraced. It was the silent rebellion for many of us.

My favorite artists were The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Spinners, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Al Green, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Michael Jackson among many others. Berry Gordy’s Motown Records out of Detroit would craft the sound that quickly integrated America’s contemporary radio stations.

I remember thinking; I should have been born black.

But it was Alan Freed that would be the first to break down the color barrier and integrate the music he played over the radio. It’s almost hard to believe that people in his day considered Freed a threat to society because he was playing “race music.”

You can read a really interesting history about Alan Freed and this period in his life at my professor friend Jay Douglas’ “Out of My Mind” blog.

Radio Formats Begin to Silo

As music radio began moving from AM to FM, the Top 40 – or the best of the newest songs type of format – began to silo into their own formats. Depending on who’s counting, there are at least 20 different music radio formats today. It’s hard to find any radio station nowadays that plays the wide variety of artists, styles and music that one could hear over a single radio station back in the 70s, as this 1970 Top 100 Songs from WABC demonstrates.

Bowling Alone

In  2001, Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone. His thesis was that our American society was breaking down as we became more disconnected from our families, our neighbors, our communities and from the republic itself. While once upon a time bowling leagues had thousands of members, today we are more likely to bowl alone.

The great Yogi Berra captured this societal breakdown this way, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.”

PTSD

More recently, Sebastian Junger made an interesting observation about PTSD. What he wrote about and famously talks about in his TED Talk is that soldiers don’t experience PTSD from being at war, but from coming back home to America where today’s society is such a disconnect from the close tribal life of a soldier’s military unit. Where they eat together, sleep together, care for one another and protect each other’s life. When they come home from today’s modern warfront, what they find is an alienating and bitterly divided modern society. Maybe a better term for what our soldiers feel should be called “post deployment alienation disorder” says Junger.

The question becomes not can we save our vets, but can we save ourselves?

For radio’s future, the question might not be all that different.

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