The Creativity Gap
March 7, 2014
Last week, Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman ventured across the East River to Brooklyn for one of those faux-interview presentations you see at every conference where someone -- in this case, the President of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership -- tosses softballs and everyone maintains a tense smile for an hour or so. The coverage by the Berlin School that was posted to Forbes.com -- you can read it yourself here -- carried a headline that said he talked about "The Future of Radio and Creativity," but I didn't see a lot of discussion about creativity. I saw community around music and conversation about music and building "tribes" around brands and iHeartRadio, iHeartRadio, iHeartRadio.
Which isn't his fault -- he didn't write the headline, and i don't know what the questions were. For all I know, the President of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership asked him nothing but music and branding and iHeartRadio questions. But if I was the President of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership (something that would not happen in any universe, this one or parallel), I'd have asked about that creativity thing. I'd have asked what I ask when someone makes the probably ill-advised decision to let me near a microphone at any conference: Why is it that radio hasn't come up with anything new and different in decades? Where's our creativity? Why are we speaking of radio as if it's a curated jukebox with a brand instead of something capable of a lot more than that?
So many questions. Why does radio still think that the only way to do morning radio is to have a wacky host or hosts, always male, with a giggly female sidekick/"newsperson"/traffic reporter and a "stunt boy" derided for being fat/lazy/stupid? Why do women get permanently assigned to middays and rarely to drive time unless they're the aforementioned "sidekick"? Why must all political talk feature some sweaty guy in a suit getting really worked up over some issue over which neither he nor the listeners ultimately have any control? Why....
Well, one reason is that it's not like none of that works. It sometimes does. But it's not because these constitute some magic formula. Radio people have a tendency to think that the formatics are the star, and the structure of the show is more important than the content. Late to get to a stop set? YOU MUST BE EXECUTED. Make the woman the lead and the guys the subordinates? CAN'T WORK (except where it does, like for Bob and Sheri or on myTalk in the Twin Cities, but, you know, can't recognize those because they don't fit the formula). Talk about something other than the latest from CPAC? BE GONE WITH YOU -- haven't you heard? Non-political talk doesn't work (again, except where it does). Try something unusual and it doesn't work? LAUGHING STOCK. And we'll NEVER TRY THAT AGAIN, because, you know, one failed experiment means the idea can never work no matter what.
We are an industry that can sometimes be inhospitable towards creativity, and that's not because someone up top decreed that we shouldn't be creative. It's more about the pressure to perform RIGHT NOW and make THIS quarter's numbers, and the unwillingness and inability of management to risk trying something that's unproven for the possibility of long term gain. That's perfectly understandable, except that it puts long term survival in jeopardy. Did you see Apple's CarPlay system getting unveiled this week? Did you see how it pretty much addresses the difficulty-of-use issue for in-car digital dash systems? Your iPhone just connects and the streaming apps -- Pandora, iHeartRadio, Spotify, whatever you have on your phone -- are right there, available with a touch. Podcasts, too, and your music collection. And Google has a similar platform using Android. The competition is only going to be more intense, and if it's a matter of just matching the songs on Rdio or Beats Radio with the same songs on AM, FM, or iHeart... you get the picture. That's where creativity and coming up with new and different audio entertainment will be critical. And that's when "it's never worked before" and "that's not how we do things" will be especially troublesome.
It's also when, truly, talent won't really need to be aligned with the big broadcast companies to be on the dashboard. We've talked in past weeks about what the radio industry has to offer talent, like sales and marketing support and a distribution infrastructure, but it also needs to, at some point, get out of its own way and let talent, and producers, and new blood come in, try new things, break the format, and be, you know, creative. I hope so. I long for the day when, once again, "radio" can stand for unique and original entertainment instead of the same old stuff.
So, hosts, you wanna be more creative? Talk about something other than the same old thing. All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else, will help you get there. It's all here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
I have more thoughts about how radio should address the creativity gap and what talent needs to do that, so I'll hold that for next week's column. Assuming, that is, I remember to do it. The odds are not good that I will.