Risk And Reward
July 22, 2011
One of the things that's most interesting to me about the tech industry is something that you don't find in traditional media. It's a form of fearlessness that radio, for one, just doesn't possess. I'll give you a couple of examples to explain what I mean.
Have you tried Google+ yet? If you have, do you know exactly what it's for? When you first tried Twitter, did you know what you were supposed to do with it? Do you see what I mean here? These innovations were released to a public that was then entrusted to figure out what to do with them. There was no manual. There were just tools, and what you did with them was up to you. As more people did so, others picked up on that. Twitter is what it is because people used it, figured out what it was good for, and took it in that direction. Google+ is too new to know exactly what people will want to use it for, or whether, ultimately, they'll use it at all. You can see that kind of development in many tech-related enterprises. A tool was handed to the public, and the public's use and misuse and disuse ultimately dictated what would happen to it. Some became successful, some were flops (did you ever figure out Google Buzz? iTunes Ping?). But the initial plan wasn't really a traditional plan. It was more like, hey, here's something cool and here's what it does; now, go use it and see what happens.
That's a new form of innovation. It's not what radio does. Radio's attempts at innovation are top-down: Someone creates a "new format" ("hey, instead of 'the best mix of the 80's, 90's, and today,' how about 'the best mix of the 90's, Oughts, and today'?"), it's put on the air, and it's tweaked with music testing until it's replaced by the next format, because the ratings suck. That doesn't really count as innovation. Innovation isn't playing a different mix of music aimed at a particular demographic, like a "Gen X" format. Innovation isn't doing some variation on all-request radio. Innovation is doing something totally different, taking a huge chance, and radio tends to be averse to that. Just look at the industry reaction when someone tries anything really untested and unusual; FM talk was like that 20 years ago ("FM is for music!"). And with much of radio still being effectively run by lenders and equity investors, you're not going to get a great reception if you say, well, let's try something nobody's ever done before that might fail.
And that's a problem, because you can't innovate unless you're unafraid to fail, and you need to innovate to grow. Tried-and-true is fine if you just want to maintain. The real grand slams in business come from constant development and reinvention. Radio isn't good at that.
But it's never too late to learn, is it? I've suggested that the industry take some of its presently useless HD secondary channels and let students play radio on them; handing people with few or no preconceptions of what they're "supposed to do" on the radio the keys to the studio might be a train wreck, or someone might come up with a compelling idea or two. Maybe, as smaller AM stations run into the inevitability that they'll run out of people willing to broker their time, they can become incubators as well. Same for podcasts and streaming; take new talent and let them do whatever they want, and see if they come up with something different and good. I'd envision the equivalent of the tech industry's "here's a new tool, go use it and see what happens." Hey, people, we have this new technology that allows for these extra channels if you have the right radio. We don't know what to do with them other than to put the same old stuff on there and spend nothing on them. If you have a better idea, come on in and try it out. Tell your friends and family, too.
Isn't that more likely to yield real innovation than the same programmers who have been doing things the same way for decades sitting in an office thinking of "new ideas"? Because the radio dial in 2011 isn't significantly different from the radio dial in 1991. With all the new media competition out there, it's time for something different.
While we ponder the future, you have shows to do right now, and you'll find plenty of stuff to talk about on your present-day shows at All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, which is here, and on Twitter at @talktopics. Don't miss the best radio and music industry coverage at Net News, with the top stories tweeted at @allaccess. And, unrelated to All Access, you can follow me on Twitter at @pmsimon, read my stuff at Nerdist.com, and check out my personal website at pmsimon.com.
By the way, to everyone I saw at the Conclave Learning Conference last week in Minneapolis, thanks -- I was encouraged by the number of newcomers looking to get into the business or trying to advance. I'm just hoping that they'll be given a chance. New blood is as critical as innovation to the future of the medium. Opportunity for them is opportunity for the business.