We often do our best work when there's very little on the line.
I've hit that ceiling with a couple jobs I had early in my career. When I reached that point where I didn't care whether the job ended tomorrow, I started doing my best work.
When you program out of fear, you don't usually create anything memorable or the least bit interesting. Like watching NFL teams play “prevent defense,” it makes for a boring experience. And it often doesn't work very well either.
But that's the way much of the radio broadcasting industry has been run these past couple decades. We've become so risk-averse, we're afraid to make mistakes. Don't believe me? Tell me the last thing you heard someone or something on a radio station – yours or someone else's – that motivated to talk about it with friends and colleagues in the business? I'm thinking it's been awhile.
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Innovation and risk are simply not encouraged to any great degree in a business that would rather stand pat than actually try something new and different. The result? No one is inspired – not the audience, not the advertisers, no our communities, and none of us.
Why am I telling you this? Because last week I received a comment to a blog post that I want more of you to see. I hope the author won't mind.
I wrote it after watching “American Graffiti” for the first time in years while on an airplane. And the scene where Richard Dreyfuss' teenage character has a heart-to-heart in the air studio with Wolfman Jack. And it inspired me. It's a nostalgic film and for many in radio, celebrating past radio stations and personalities has always been a popular pastime.
But that's not how I saw it. In fact, the 10 takeaways I listed were rooted in modern times – today, to be exact. The way Wolfman comports himself on the air, with his fans, and all of us watching the film is magical.
That was the way Bob Rivers saw it, too. Bob's one of the finest radio talents I've had the honor to work with (and I've been fortunate to cross paths many of the greats). Bob is a craftsman, a mentor, and truly one of the smartest, most innovative personalities I've encountered.
Here's his comments to the Wolfman Jack post:
“This really moved me.
I’ve been lamenting the loss of the music radio big personality.
Nothing has changed about human nature, or the need for human intimate and immediate connections. Instead of a talent with a soul curating and discovering the cream of the crop, algorithms predict what you will like by spying on you through the rear view mirror.
Other industries have healthy evangelists promoting things they love for free. On YouTube a star product “DJ” can have huge followings. They are called ‘influencers' and they get you excited about what’s cool very effectively.
But if I wanted to explore and promote groundbreaking songs and artists as an individual dj today I would be violated for copyright infringement on social media, or be a voice tracing board op playing the safest music a computer playlist can generate.
Surely radio is ready for a movement to compete once again on an artistic level of excellence. I see hot young people being themselves on Tik Tok every day. Those are your stars. Let them in the door. Give them a mission. Then step out of the way.
Cost isn’t the issue.”
No, it isn't.
And as I thought about Bob's comment, in context with similar missives I received that day, I started thinking about radio's risk tolerance at a time when the industry is so in need of a new twist, innovation, or advancement that truly moves a needle that's been stuck on zero for the longest time.
Radio might not be at that “What difference does it make?” stage…yet. But the price of experimentation and innovation isn't particularly exorbitant, as Bob points out.
What would it take for broadcast ownership – especially in situations where their portfolios consist of a bundle of stations where there's always one lagging the pack – to take a well-calculated risk? Too often, radio teams end up choosing a duplicated format in the market, one that is essentially taking up space, rather than contributing in any meaningful way. More often than not, it's being “bonused” anyway, rather than pulling its own weight. And chances are, it will flip formats in a couple years to something else equally as banal and pedestrian.
What would it take to let creative, energetic young people in the door, as Bob suggests, and let them create a radio station – or better yet, a media entity that doesn't sound like everything else taking up space from 88 to 108?
I have heard others suggest taking an HD2 and creating a true sandbox of a station – just to see if something new and different could actually connect with Generation Z – or even younger listeners. But that's not going to be enough to truly have impact in most markets.
What if it became standard operating procedure for the biggest owner of radio in a market to “sandbox” the worst performing station; to enjoy the luxury and freedom to open the door to innovation?
At let's leave the four buzzkill words at the door:
“We can't sell it.”
They have no place in our sandbox. We don't even know how marketable it is until we get it on the air and see whether there's truly a there there.
I remember vividly during my early days pioneering the Classic Rock format. When we signed on a new station, I'd spend the morning with the sales department, explaining the in's and out's of the nee format: its target audience, its core artists, its spirit of purpose, and why it could work.
And in every case, they hit me with this question:
“What does it sound like?”
In order for them to get their heads around their new station, they needed to think of it as an existing product, a typical product on the shelves of the radio warehouse. And as I (patiently) explained to them, Classic Rock didn't sound like anything else on the radio dial, precisely the point behind launching the new format in the first place.
The “next big thing” cannot sound like the “last big thing” – by definition and by design.
When you let creative people jump in the sandbox, it might get messy, mushy, and even a little dirty. But until the powers that be make it a priority to innovate, experiment, and yes, roll the dice on something new, the industry will continue languish, wallow, and run in place with little to show for another year's effort.
This is not to denigrate some of the fine work being done by radio's digital denizens. Many are working hard to reinvigorate tired radio brands, making it more possible to truly meet audiences where they are. But it starts with the core product – the brand – the mothership. Show me a paint-by-numbers radio station and I'll show yet another choice most consumers scan right by.
This isn't about the money.
It is about the fear of getting a little sand in our shoes, our hair, and maybe even in our eyes. But none of those little inconveniences or even setbacks will kill us. In fact, it might be fun to jump into that box of sand and start thinking about the possibilities. We might learn a little something the next time we get into a sandbox, whether it ends up being in Charlotte, Columbus or Clarksville.
The first step to trying anything new is the hardest one. Maybe that's why everyone is waiting for somebody else to open up their sandboxes to innovators, inventors, and even a mad scientist or two. FM radio's pioneers didn't get it all right in the late 60's and early 70's. But in an environment where there was very little to lose, young, creative broadcasters approached their stations with a healthy dose of reckless abandon. You fill enough sandboxes with innovative, smart, and motivated people, and you're likely to end up with something that can work.
Ideas are the currency of our business – any business. When you run out of them or worse – don't really encourage them – you're doomed to suffer with one mediocre quarter after another.
Earlier this week, Apple released its entrant in the metaverse wars, their $3,500 Vision Pro goggles to the usual clamoring and debating. Tech geeks, nerds, and pundits immediately started analyzing the product, its perceived pros and cons, its applications, and how it might/might not change the world.
You can't even buy this new piece of hardware for at least six months, more opportunity for everyone to chime in about a new innovation they know precious little about. One thing is likely, however. On its actual release date, there will be lines around Apple Stores everywhere as consumers cannot wait tot get their hands on what might (or might not) be “the next big thing.”
Over in Cupertino, they're very likely quietly smiling over this expected hubbub. After all, they've been to this rodeo before – many times. In fact, they all but own the rodeo. They know what it's like to spend time in the sandbox, watching their best people create, debate, and hack their to success. This is their first major product launch in years, and they know just what to expect.
Who's kicking themselves right about now? It would have to be the gang at
We could use a more innovative spirit in our radio sandbox. For too long, it has sat empty. Young kids have no desire to play or create there. There are more fun places to play.
In local radio market after radio market, we could change that.
It's time to make some noise.
Bob Rivers can be reached here.