Tag Archives: fragility

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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