I'm typically involved in a lot of brainstorms, fewer in the Zoom era. But even in the middle of the pandemic, there are great reasons for brands to set aside a day, bring their best people together, and look for some new thinking.
Perhaps the best in the business is Gerry Tabio from Creative Resources Group. If you've ever experienced one of Gerry's brainstorms, it's a deep dive into ideation, where quantity is emphasized against the warning there are no bad ideas. Gerry makes the exercise fun, but participating in the successful generation of bold new concepts is hard work – not just coming up with the ideas, but navigating the other players in the room.
During brainstorms, the players are often divided into smaller groups, urged to think outside the box. And that's where the rubber hits the road. How many brainstorms truly take the room to a place it's never been before?
You look at how Amazon and Virgin both landed on space travel for business at about the same time. Just imagine the brainstorm session in both companies when one of the participants floated that lofty idea.
Of course, it's not so different in radio. I'm a big believer in the S.W.O.T. process, especially when we're hired by a new client for guidance.
It's the perfect scenario from which to learn about a brand's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. And it's a great chance to learn the staff dynamic – how do managers and other players interact with each other in that quest to come up with something breakthrough.
Two things I've learned in conducting umpteen brainstorms and S.W.O.T. analyses in the past:
- Invite unlikely people into the room – That might mean an outsider or two who knows the brand – that is, smart friends of the company with a keen, unjaundiced eye (and ear). Or it could be a prescient salesperson, a clever traffic director, or a part-timer who perhaps sees the landscape a little differently. They can bring a much-needed different perspective that can challenge the process.
- Focus on the O's – It's easy to list a station's Strengths. It's the time when the egos in the room are front and center, understandably listing off a brand's biggest and best attributes. The W's can get squishy – a moment when a cynic or two in a room can honestly list off true flaws in a station's ointment. The Threats tend to be existential, vague, down-the-road and often out of management's (and even ownership's) control. It's the development of those Opportunities where the room has to work overtime, in pursuit of the next big thing. If there's a time to think outside the box or get out of one's cheese room, it's in the ideation of new concepts that can propel a brand to bigger and better things.
That's what's been going on in Chicago right now, as a very “out of the box” idea is showing signs of coming together, perhaps before the year is out. It involves the company that owns public radio's WBEZ buying the venerable but troubled Chicago Sun Times. Not surprisingly, the story broke last week outside of the usual communication channels. Long-time radio reporter and critic, Rob Feder, had this one first. And make no mistake about it – it's a blockbuster. Especially if it actually works.
I have some knowledge of the Chicago radio landscape, having consulted and conducted research for many great Chicago stations over the years, including WLS, WCKG, the Loop, and over the last many years, the Drive. It's a great radio market, one that, like my hometown of Detroit, appreciates its local media. If you do big things on the radio dial – or in other “Chicagoland” media – you'll get noticed. Chicago is a market that rewards the big and bold, just as it can punish the bad and the bullshit.
And this collaboration of news media brands in the nation's #3 market may have come from a brainstorm or a S.W.O.T. exercise. So often that question is posed :
“In what ways can we ___________________?”
And you fill in that all important blank.
Perhaps in the inner sanctums of the Sun Times or BEZ, the blank was “own local news.”
The Sun Times may be involved in a death spiral with the Tribune, a battle that outlasted WLS vs. WCFL, even when the newspaper business was highly profitable. Today as virtually every daily paper is hemorrhaging red ink, the solution has to go outside that box.
For WBEZ, it has undoubtedly been a much better period. Public radio's NPR stations have generally enjoyed a great ride the past several years, enjoying the “Trump Bump” that kept listeners tuned into their radios – as well as their streams, podcasts, mobile phones, and smart speakers.
But most public radio stations have been typically very reliant on network programming, bought and paid for from NPR, APM, and other content suppliers. Programs like All Things Considered, Marketplace, and BBC News Hour are increasingly rare in American broadcast radio. They are of high quality, consistent, and brilliantly done. But their coverage area is largely national and even international – not what's going on with Chicago city politics, crime, the suburbs, the Great Lakes, and all the other local and regional stories that demand coverage and attention.
The merger of these two news brands could prove to be precisely what each needed, but couldn't accomplish on their own. This marriage – OK, “arranged marriage” – isn't just about survival and preservation. It's about owning the highly valuable real estate known as local news.
Chicago has its share of strong local TV stations, as well as Audacy's WBBM franchise, along with WGN, and other players. To leapfrog ahead of all those players, this “Big O” is the move that could pay the highest of all dividends.
But it won't be easy. Both sides say their respective operations “will continue to serve their respective audiences,” while also sharing content across both platforms. If that sounds a bit contradictory, know that the devil will, in fact, be in the details.
Newsrooms are volatile places, especially these days. Journalists by trade are smart, cynical, and jaded people who will analyze this transactions and its after-effects in detail. The self-reporting of this merger will be fascinating.
It will take a deft touch and finesse from each brand's CEO – interim leader at WBEZ, Matt Moog, along with the Sun Times' Nykia Wright. Neither has been in their current position long. And it's safe to say they haven't experienced a collaboration on this scale.
(Incidentally, Moog is the son of the late Robert Moog, inventor of the famous synthesizer that carried his name.)
Local news domination is a critically important piece of turf. And in a market like Chicago, it is valuable real estate. It will require more than just reporters to “win the hill.” The combined entity will have to make great personnel decisions, as well as creating a mechanism to attract great young and diverse talent to two industries that have seen better days. Can a newspaper and a radio station attract the best and brightest journalists from the Gen Z pool?
We won't know the answer to the big question of whether this bold Windy City news mashup actually “takes.” But it's a message and a challenge to radio players from the public, commercial, and Christian sectors about the risks and rewards of truly smashing through the box, and taking a chance on something really big.
Hang onto your tote bags.
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