These days, there's a true distinction between what is now known as “traditional media” and “digital media.”
When I was in school, media was media. But the advent of digital created what's known as a retronym. That's when a modifier has to be created so that we're clear about what we're talking about. Guitars used to be. . . guitars. Until the electric guitar came around, creating the need for “acoustic” guitars.
It's the same with media and radio. Digital media forced us to use the term “traditional” (or “old school”) media so that we don't confuse it with digital.
Satellite radio and streaming radio led to us using the term “broadcast” or “terrestrial” radio to describe AM and FM stations. (Radioplayer's Mike Hill prefers “proper radio,” and he'll get no argument from me.)
“Traditional media,” then, has become the catchall for radio, TV, and print. And let's not forget books – perhaps the oldest “old school” medium of them all. There's nothing more musty than “physical books” (another retronym).
But at least books can be easily purchased electronically from e-commerce sites like the gargantuan Amazon. That's where many first started purchasing books because of the company's ability to stock millions of titles, as opposed to lowly bookstores where only a few thousand are typically sold.
Electronic books – made famous by Amazon's Kindle – helped make it even more daunting for physical bookstores. The ability to browse, check out ratings and review, and even read a free sample chapters or two are all part of the benefits of e-readers. And as they've become popular, they've made it even more difficult for bookstores to survive.
Then COVID comes along, and the retail world grinds to a halt as we find ourselves cooped up at home. Book sales during the pandemic were actually quite robust. But for bookstores, stay-at-home orders and a fearful public couldn't have been more devastating.
So, what do you do if you've spent your entire career as a bookseller, and then you're tasked with turning around the fortunes of one of the biggest retail brands, Barnes & Noble?
That's precisely the challenge being faced by Britain's James Daunt. He had his own eponymous stores – Daunt Books – throughout the UK before being tapped to rescue the traditional Waterstones. And when that iconic brand purchased Barnes & Noble, many financial analysts scratched their collective heads.
You think broadcast radio's under some pressure? Barnes & Noble is being chased down by Amazon, the biggest, baddest competitor in the space. If you'll excuse the expression, there's no more daunting force in the book world than going up against the company that invented the online bookstore, and then e-books and e-readers.
James Daunt is clear-eyed about who and what he's up against. In an aptly titled feature story in the Financial Times – “The Englishman trying to save American bookstores from Amazon” – John Gapper describes Daunt's suicide mission in great detail.
At one point, the ever-rebellious Daunt describes his competition in the cold, harsh light of day:
“Amazon is the predator that has culled the weak in this business and left only the strongest. If we relax for a second, it will eat us.”
And that brings us to the core of today's post: Can American radio operators learn anything from Daunt's battle with what Evan Shapiro refers to as one of the Trillion Dollar Death Stars – Amazon?
I'm going to list some of Daunt's key philosophical points along with the unconventional competitive actions he has taken – NOT because I'm suggesting radio do all these things. Instead, I'm pointing them out for the purpose of having a strategic conversation.
You may find as you read along that what seem like smart and logical tactics for a bookstore chain going up against a global e-commerce giant seem very radical when you consider them for radio.
Or maybe not.
Check out these big moves James Daunt has adopted to strategically position his physical, local bookstores against the digitally seamless and ginormous Amazon:
1. Curation and warmth are key elements. The FT Magazine's Gapper observes that Daunt's formula can be summed up this way:
“Bookshops work best if they feel like clubs in which dedicated readers can consult expert curators.”
In radio, the equivalent would be to focus hiring priorities on bringing in music junkies (or news/talk/sports commentators) who are stone cold experts in their fields. It is about creating a relationship with the customer (listener) with talent that truly understands the material and their target market.
Moreover, Daunt gives his literary curators the freedom to “break format,” while making deep, loyal connections with patrons:
“I’m not prepared to tolerate bad bookshops because I know what a good one is. If you give intelligent booksellers freedom, they will create (good ones). It may take time, but it will happen.”
So, strong, knowledgeable tuned-in creatives, and the time horizon to build a following and a great local brand. That's how Daunt would likely approach taking over a radio company.
2. Daunt believes his bookstores can't be as machine-like, precise, and flawless as Amazon. So why try? His formula is a simple one, but it goes against the grain of how you compete against a juggernaut like Amazon.
In the past, both Barnes & Noble and Waterstones tried to compete mano a mano with Amazon – offering heavy promotions, three-for-two deals, shifting stock around quickly, and other standard tactics. As Gapper observes, “None of it worked.”
In fact, Daunt notes that most of the industry's booksellers took a similar approach. As he told FT Magazine: “They all operate the same way and they're all terrible.”
In radio jargon, that means moving away from the homogenous approach the industry has pursued for decades. Stamped out, manufactured radio stations with the same name in multiple markets featuring the same talent in location after location would not qualify as James Daunt radio.
He believes each of his shops should have their own character, based on their location and their clientele. Some will simply be more profitable than others, but each would cater to a highly localized crowd and neighborhood.
In his mind, Daunt rationalized that “businesses cannot be managed at scale in the same way as when small.”
In order to do so requires extensive (and expensive) management teams and staff supervisors which Daunt has no taste for. His approach: “The magic came from giving staff more autonomy.” In other words, pay great talent and let them do what they do best.
The translation to radio means less top-down control from corporate, and more freedom to make local decisions, not just with strategy and tactics, but even the books stocked and displayed – or in radio's case, the music that's played and how it's presented.
Daunt concludes: “If somebody in Illinois told me how to run this shop (on High Street in London), I would be pretty pissed off. So I’m not going to do it the other way around.”
3. Daunt hires staffers with a passion for the product. In this case, connecting books with people who will appreciate and enjoy them. And so he adjusted his hiring goals to find passion players:
“This is a place for people who love books. Look in the mirror and ask if you really want to engage. If you don’t and it’s just a retail job, go and get one at Boots or Target. Just leave.’”
Harsh? Perhaps. But definitive about finding people who truly embrace what they're doing. I recall when WMMO in Orlando signed on back in the '90s, one of the statements in their credo was this:
“We love the music as much as you do.”
DJs like Jim Ladd exuded that same sense of communal enjoyment of rock n' roll decades ago on L.A. radio:
“I'm Jim Ladd, and we're listening to KMET” was the tenor and tone of his audience embrace and inclusion. Daunt and Ladd would have enjoyed working together.
4. The element of “oh wow” is a key to Daunt's scheme. As Gapper notes, there's a fear among book publishers – the equivalent of record labels – that bookstores must survive. The analogy is that while music is now sold and marketed through many digital channels and marketplaces, radio's survival is still the key cog in exposure, adoption, branding, and sales.
As publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove explained to Gapper, “Readers need to be surprised, to be expressed to. They can't get that from an algorithm.”
And that same element of joy when a radio host plays something you haven't heard in a while – as opposed to the so-called “safe list” – goes to the heart of James Daunt's unformulaic formula for saving his bookstores.
Make no mistake about it. He is a pragmatic, and hard-nosed businessman. Daunt has come under fire for paying people lower wages, while cleaning house in order to make his bottom line work. But his investment is in strong, passionate pros and letting them do what they do best.
What do you think of his tactics?
Is there an avenue for select radio stations or even radio companies to take this Don Quixote-like approach?
Does Daunt's brand of counter-programming offer up any ideas about how radio broadcasters could better compete with its Amazons – Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, to name a few?
Or is he an old school dinosaur making a futile last stand to fend off Amazon's world domination?
That story might make a great book.