March 8, 2013
By Mike Couchman
MD/KSOS Las Vegas
It's time to shine, again. Or perhaps for the first time. Waaaayy back in February, a little "Harlem Shake" video fad briefly took the nation by storm. After about the eight-zillionth remake, one of my radio friends said "Hey guys! I found a popular thing! Hurry we gotta do this too before it stops being popular!!!" It was funny to me because it was true. Radio's bandwagon-jumping on the Harlem Shake was just the latest proof: we're getting better at reflecting, while forgetting how to shine.
As with many things, it's a balance. There's a pendulum. Without a doubt, it had swung too far towards radio acting like WE were the center of our listener's universe. It took getting spanked by the Internet, social media, and smart phones for us to realize radio is just a speck in our listener's universe. Once realizing this, we wanted to at least be a bright speck in their sky. Wise programmers and consultants helped us learn how to "be the moon" in their lives. We learned how to prep our shows from the angle of the moon, how to research our music, etc.
I'm not saying we should stop mooning our audience. Whoops. I mean, we shouldn't stop reflecting what they care about. But at some point, if that's all we do, they're going to move on. If we're all just sitting around reflecting, who's doing the innovating?
We're on our way to being the radio version of what you've already seen on Netflix and Amazon: "because you liked that, you may also like this." While those are quite helpful, over time, they'll lock us in to a viciously mediocre cycle of perfectly tailored boring choices. In the 2012 book "Automate This," Christopher Steiner contended this approach "may bring us new artists, but because ('if you like this, you'll like that' algorithms) build their judgment on what was popular in the past, we will likely end up with some of the same kind of forgettable pop we already have."
It goes beyond the songs. Successful air talents now know what topics will give them the best chance at generating calls and popping in the ratings. It's quite like the Netflix/Amazon algorithms. "Because song X and topic Y scored big in the past, I'm going to play more songs like X and talk about more things like Y."
Our greatest inventions were not born from research, but thanks to visionaries who sensed a need they could help meet. In the Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson shared this gem: "On the day he unveiled the Macintosh, a reporter from Popular Science asked Jobs what type of market research he had done. Jobs responded by scoffing, 'Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?'" I'm not advocating a wholesale nose-thumbing at research or ratings. Innovators...leaders...anyone who dares to shine, uses the available information to create something new. Radio currently uses the available information to create newly rehashed old things.
Please don't stop reflecting. But don't let it get in the way of your call to shine. Reflecting and shining. Leading and serving. They go hand in hand. After all, "a leader without followers is just somebody taking a walk."