Tag Archives: Innovation

Radio & Traveling – Then & Now

Version 2Sue and I just returned from an eight-week, 11,175-mile cross country road trip across America traveling through 23-states. Seeing America from the car has been a Bucket List item for both of us. Our jobs have had us seeing this great land from the air; mine as a radio manager and educator/consultant, and Sue’s as a flight attendant.

Radio Then

Since my earliest days, traveling anywhere meant an opportunity to hear new sounds emanating from my radio. Every station had its own unique style and programming presentation.

I remember a trip to Millinocket, Maine that got me giggling, hearing the local newscaster struggling to pronounce a foreign country’s name or the names of their leaders. I remember hearing records that I’d never heard played on the radio before. It sounded like Maine.

Years later on a return trip to Millinocket, this radio station now aired mostly syndicated programming. It didn’t sound like Maine anymore.

Radio Now

A road trip Sue & I took to Key West, Florida last fall taught us that finding radio stations we would enjoy listening to was a real challenge. The variety of formats boiled down to mainly, R&B/Hip-Hop, Classic Rock, Country, Religious or Public Radio on FM and Sports or Conservative Talk Radio on AM.

But that wasn’t our biggest problem, cruising down the highway at 65-mph, it was when we found a station we enjoyed, it wouldn’t be more than 5-minutes before we found it being interfered with by another FM radio station making our original station virtually unlistenable.

So, before we drove out of our driveway in Virginia for our two-month long road trip we signed up for the two-month free trial of SiriusXM radio.

Community & Companionship

Dan Mason nailed it when he said radio is all about community and companionship. Take either away and you’ve lost what radio is all about.

Our road trip’s daily drives between destinations took place during the midday. Local radio stations we heard were all in full automation mode. Some were voice-tracked, many were not. They offered no companionship.

Pat St. John

However, when we pushed our SiriusXM button on the dashboard, we would hear the end of the Phlash Phelps morning show and four more hours of Pat St. John; ALL LIVE.Pat_st._john

They talked to us. They shared listener phone calls. We felt part of a large community called the United States. We heard about weather for where we were going next or weather for places we had just visited. We heard about other people’s travels and made notes about places we might want to visit.

We even learned from Pat a function that’s on our iPhones we didn’t know even existed, called “announce” that says the name of the person calling you. We both activated it on our iPhones at the next rest stop.

As a radio jingle lover, Pat St. John has a large variety of jingles he plays during his show. He even had his grandson on the program.

McDonalds or Burger King

Over our many miles, we saw lots of fast-food places. McDonalds and Burger Kings were everywhere. We didn’t need to wonder what the food was like at either of them, we knew. We basically avoided them and opted instead for a local restaurant.

And it made me realize that something similar had happened to radio.

I could turn on a station in any city, in any state, and in short order tell you whether it was iHeart or Cumulus. The Best Practices formatics were served up like fast-food. Consistent, reliable, predictable and automated or syndicated.

We even stopped in to visit some radio friends and their radio stations to take a tour. What we saw were empty studios and computer automation running each station.

Mount Rushmore

We’ve always wanted to see Mount Rushmore. It did not disappoint. But it also made me realize that the reason we both wanted to take this road trip adventure was to visit places, people and things that were one-of-a-kind.IMG_0836

We listened to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City. We rode the Hooterville Cannonball in Jamestown, California. We climbed aboard Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” in McMinnville, Oregon (still the world’s largest amphibious aircraft). We went to Yellowstone, America’s first national park and walked around Devil’s Tower, America’s first national monument.

Everything on our list was something special, unique and one-of-a-kind.

Innovation

Touring the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, I couldn’t help but note some correlations between cars and radio.

The Ford Model T came along at the same time massive oil strikes were being hit in Texas; cheap cars and abundant cheap energy.

Radio was reborn after the introduction of television due to the invention of the transistor – that made radio very small and very portable – as well as its introduction in the automobile dashboard. It was a time when commuting from the suburbs to the city for work became the rage.

One innovation drives another.

Car Guys & Radio Guys

If you’re a car guy, you most likely want to make your car go faster.

If you’re a radio guy, you want your radio station to have more power.

Crosley got his WLW up to 500,000-watts (from his original 20-watt station) from 1934 to 1939.

It’s why AM broadcasters fought for and received power increases for their 250-watt Class C AM radio stations to broadcast with 1,000-watts full-time. What ultimately occurred was that the AM radio noise floor increased.

Now we see it happening again on FM with the drumbeat for Class C4 FM radio stations.

This too, won’t end well.

It also misses the point of what makes radio something people want to hear.

The Best Radio

Paul McLane just wrote the forward for latest edition of the textbook “The Radio Station.” In it he said “Radio is best when it engages, provokes, entertains, informs us.”

I quite agree with Paul, adding Dan Mason’s thought that radio is best when it serves a community and provides companionship.

In the end, if you were to ask me, “what does great radio sound like,” I’d have to say, “you know it when you hear it.”

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What We Have Here, Is a Failure to Embrace Complexity

42The world we live in today is a complex place. The KISS operational style seems like it would be a good idea. (KISS = Keep It Simple Stupid) But maybe not.

Turns out in a complex world, being agile is more importance than being efficient. Being efficient kills innovation. Innovation today is the primary driver of building value and creating value is one of the basic reasons for any organization to exist.

Managing Complexity is a 21st Century Skill

People who can manage complexity will be the leaders of the future. Managing a radio station was complex due to the fact that radio has two customers, which want totally opposite things. One customer is the radio listener. This customer wants information and entertainment. This customer usually isn’t fond of commercials. The other customer is the radio advertiser. Anytime their ad isn’t dominating the airwaves and driving consumers into their store is a moment the radio station isn’t doing its job. To add to this complexity are the talented people needed to service both of these customers. Air personalities that attract listeners and sales folks that service advertisers.

Consolidation & Complexity

As the radio industry began consolidating after the Telcom Act of 1996, the traditional thinking of protecting margins was amplified. This resulted in reducing labor costs. RIFs became commonplace (RIF = Reduction In Force). For those that were left wages became stagnant, little money was invested in training and the number of people left in the workforce was reduced to a bare minimum.

The problem is, when you have low paid, poorly trained and overworked people, your operation lacks new and innovative ideas that can improve the business. When the only ideas that are introduced come from the tippy top, they rarely connect with the challenges seen at the front line.

Zeynep Ton writes in her book The Good Jobs Strategy about a discount retailer that took a different approach to their operation than most companies when the great recession of 2008 struck the world. Rather than cut wages or reduce staff, Ton says they asked their employees to contribute ideas. The result was that this company managed to reduce prices to their customers by ten percent while increasing their market share from 15% to 20% from 2008 to 2012.

Herb Kelleher writes in his book NUTS! about how Southwest Airlines created a culture where employees are treated as the company’s number one asset. Southwest does a number of things to benefit its employees, including such programs as profit-sharing and empowering employees to make decisions. This empowerment during the period when oil prices hit a high of $145 per barrel in 2008 saw the Southwest pilots taking the initiative to plot more efficient flying altitudes and work with ground crews to get in and out of the gates quicker to control the Southwest ticket prices and not lay off any people while maintaining a positive profit margin. These actions did not come from the corporate home office but from employees in the field.

What to Do When You Have Maximized Efficiency

Let’s face it; the ability for any radio operator today to squeeze out any more profit through efficiency is over. Radio consultant George Johns puts it this way: “Radio today is in the no business, it has no money, no time and no people.”

So what’s the answer? Collaboration.

The radio companies of the 21st Century will need to develop the ability to make collaboration a competitive advantage. The game has changed from what you own and control to what you can access. Access happens via platforms. Radio needs to create platforms that bring consumers and producers together, much like the Apple App store does globally, but locally for their service area.

Radio needs to find a way to attract listeners by causing them to be fearful of missing something if they’re not listening while directing them to local places via platforms they control that can fulfill their wants and needs on demand.

In other words, radio needs to “think different.”

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Different or Better?

In education, we measure students by GPA (grade point average). The higher a student’s GPA, the more everyone believes that student is the higher achiever. In school, that measure is usually pretty accurate, but what about when the student graduates?

The best baseball players don’t always become all-stars. The best scientists don’t always win a Nobel Prize; the best known do.

Stanford’s business school once tried to learn what their most successful graduates had in common. They found two things. They all graduated in the lower half of their class and they all were very good at socializing. Being able to work a crowd, it turns out, is a skill-set that leads one to be successful.

Lee de Forest wanted to be called “the father of radio.” He even tried to use the “Miracle on 34th Street” concept having the post office make that determination. Only unlike in the movie, the United States Post Office did not deliver the mail addressed “the father of radio” to de Forest. Worse, de Forest never really understood his own Audion tube that made the radio we know today possible.

Edwin Howard Armstrong, the creator of FM radio (that is also the way the audio on your TV set gets delivered too) did understand the science that made the Audion tube work, but most people don’t know Armstrong.

Armstrong was better than de Forest, but de Forest was different.

Nielsen Audio measures better, something audiences really can’t distinguish. However, different is something that audiences can distinguish.

Think of top rated radio personalities. Were they better or different? Howard Stern? The Real Don Steele? Salty Brine? Dale Dorman? Paul Harvey? Jean Shepherd? Wolfman Jack? Etc.

I’m sure you will say they were better, because they were different. They were also all well promoted; either through self-promotion or a radio company that promoted them.

Today, every streaming audio service calls themselves “radio” and they’ve all copied the best practices of radio stations and one another that eliminate their differences; except one. Pandora. Pandora uses their “Music Genome Project” to put together their stream. Is it better than a music format that a person curates? Probably not. But it’s different.

Radio used to be filled with innovators dreaming up different. We need to let those folks back into the business and turn them loose. It’s why FM radio finally got traction and HD Radio never did.

It’s time for radio, like Steve Jobs did for Apple, to “Think Different.”

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If Radio Ran the NFL

Full disclosure, I’m not a sports person. But sports is ubiquitous in our world and in America, the NFL is the top sport. The NFL’s Super Bowls are TV’s most watched programs with the season finale of M*A*S*H being the first non-Super Bowl show to appear in the Top Ten most watched television programs.

The NFL is made up of people. Head coaches, assistant coaches, sales people, support people and of course, the players on the field. Radio is also made up of people. General managers, program directors, sales managers, sales people, support people and of course the personalities on the air.

Team brands are strongly associated with each particular team. If I say “Eagles” you immediately know that I’m talking about the NFL’s Philadelphia franchise. If I say “Cowboys” you again know that I’m talking about the NFL’s Dallas franchise. But if I say “Kiss FM” you really don’t know which radio station in which city I’m referring to. If I say “Jack” you again have no idea of which radio station in which city I’m referring to. While this may not have been a problem back in the day, today the Internet brings all radio together on one platform.

When I was growing up, each major city had at least two Top40 radio stations that would be engaged in a battle for the best. What made radio exciting at that point in time was that each of those radio stations were unique and very much in tune with their city of license.

While many radio folks would dis “Drake Radio” I fondly remember enjoying WRKO in Boston, CKLW in Windsor-Ontario, WOR-FM in New York City and KHJ in Los Angeles (via air checks). Yes they all had those incredible Johnny Mann jingles, but they all had very unique air talent and were tweaked to the city they served. They were the same, but different.

Each radio station was a special and unique culture of people. Culture trumps best practices.

Radio is starved for new ideas. They won’t come from inside radio. The next big thing is happening right now in another field. What it will take is for someone to see it and adapt it for radio.

Henry Ford is said to have seen the meat packers of Chicago disassemble a cow in a line where each worker cut out one section of the cow and adapted the model to create his assembly line for building cars.

The great coaches of the NFL are searching far and wide for new ideas. They are bringing in academics and scientists to learn how to make their players better; both on and off the field. When is the last time you heard of radio making that kind of investment in their players? By that I mean the air personalities and the people who coach them; the program directors.   When was the last new programming idea created for radio?

Remember when a new radio station format premiered back in the day? The launch was exciting and the day it was turned on, everything was in place. The air personalities often had been practicing the format off-the-air before the day it premiered. Today, new formats premiere in pieces. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Why do radio companies repeatedly do this?

This manner of premiering formats would be like the NFL getting a new stadium, a new logo, and new uniforms and on game day having everything laying on the grid iron and telling the fans we will be hiring the players in the next 60-90 days. But radio does this all the time.

Just like the NFL players on the field, the radio air talents are a vital part of the product.

If radio ran the NFL, they wouldn’t have the coach standing on the sidelines, he’d be in the huddle playing the quarterback position, just like radio’s program directors are on-the-air; often anchoring morning drive.

The reason that the NFL hasn’t adopted radio’s model for operating their game is simple. Their model has made them the most watched and listened to sport in America. Maybe radio should be adapting the NFL model for running its industry.

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Winners Invest in the Future

America got to be the leading country in the world by investing in its future and much of that investment came from the government investing in the new ideas of its citizens.

In 1825, an American painter was commissioned by the City of New York to paint a portrait of Lafayette.   The painter traveled from his home in New Haven, Connecticut to Washington, DC to paint Lafayette before he departed back to France. While in DC, the painter received word his wife was very sick. Before he could even begin to travel back to New Haven, a second letter arrived to say his wife had passed away. Grief stricken, this event would cause the middle aged painter to search for a faster means of communication.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse would, with the financial assistance of the United States government, build the first telegraph system between Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland in 1844. He would secure his patent for the telegraph in 1847 and be given the rights to privately build telegraph systems throughout America and the world. He co-founded the Morse code language that bears his name and is still the code used today by practitioners of this form of communication.

This kind of investment in the future has been the Hallmark of America.

Radio has benefited from many creative geniuses over the years since its commercial birth in 1920. Programmers, air talent, engineers, managers and visionary stakeholders have all played a role in making radio the second greatest invention of all time (according to the History Channel).

Growth of any enterprise only occurs if there’s a steady stream of new innovation. Innovation occurs when experimental research is conducted without thought for where it may lead. The transistor was invented in 1947, but it didn’t really see a practical application until the first transistor radio was put on sale in November 1954. It was the Regency TR-1.

The transistor radio and car radio would be the salvation of AM radio with the advent of commercial VHF TV in the 1950s. The inventors of the transistor did not envision that their creation would save the radio industry by making it available to a whole new generation who wanted to hear the latest music wherever they went.

Ironically, our government funded virtually every piece of technological development that would make possible the Internet, the iPhone and even Siri. Radio can either be like Google and Apple and take advantage of what’s been created to leverage it for their business or relegate their medium to the era of flip cameras, walkman, dial telephones etc.

Radio today invests a lot of energy in trying to hang on to the past. It’s playing defense instead of offense as it did back when television was born.

To win in the future, you have to invest in it.

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