Break the Rules
March 20, 2015
Maybe we're overthinking everything.
I see it in all the instructions you see in radio columns... like this one. Instructions about prep. Warnings about the future. Declarations about what Millenials want (usually delivered by decidedly non-Millenial people). Research on the PPM and demands for making every single solitary second and every tweet and every utterance absolutely perfect because there is NO ROOM FOR DEVIATION and EVERYTHING MATTERS and WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE PANIC PANIC PANIC.
Man, we are draining all the creativity and fun out of what we do.
Listen, I know about all the problems radio faces, and the mistakes being made. I know about how things are changing -- hey, I work in podcasting, remember? (Do I let anyone forget?) I know Millenials have different content consumption habits. I know that the meters are a certain way, and doing certain things can mean certain failure and all that. I know, I know, I know.
Yet we see time and again that we can't always predict what's going to be successful. We see it in every medium. Nobody called "Empire" as the next massive television success -- they thought it might do well, but not THAT well. Nobody predicted "Serial" would be massive. And we've seen plenty of highly-touted things flop. It happens.
And we know research is important. It's critical, in fact. But it shouldn't dictate the creative process. That's cynical as hell, and it's misguided. Surely you know by now that you can't set out to create "viral" content, because that's not how it works. We've all laughed at stories of corporate clients asking agencies to create viral videos, as if you can order that right up. Yet we then micromanage talent, devise formulas to follow, design clocks and limit talk and set up rules, and then we expect the magic to happen. When it doesn't, we don't blame the rules.
The best content breaks those rules. You had to hit the post, play the stop sets at the prescribed times, and never, ever talk about the boss or your home life or, heaven forbid, sex, and then Howard Stern came along. You couldn't treat a radio show like a true-crime reality show that requires total attention and listening to every episode in sequence, and then we got "Serial." You couldn't talk about nothing but sports, until WFAN did. It won't work, until it does.
Which is to say, break the rules. The rules work for some things, maybe most things, but they are not the only way to go, and the real revelations come when someone throws the rulebook out the window. We can't be afraid to do that, especially when things aren't working the way we want them to anyway.
I know, I know. Can't. Gotta make the nut this month. Can't afford a ratings hit. Just putting on the Best Variety of the Music We Can All Agree Upon At Work will get enough PPM juice to make the sales department marginally less nervous. Great. Go ahead, do that. If it works for you, fine. But when so much of our attention is focused on survival, maybe we should be encouraging swinging for the fences rather than singles, bunts, and sacrifice flies. Maybe we should be giving talent more space to try something that's unlike what everyone else is doing. Maybe we shouldn't be afraid to put people on the air who sound different, who have different backgrounds and life experiences, who have something to say that doesn't fit between the lines we've set up. Maybe we'll discover that doing so will attract a larger and more advertiser-attractive audience than the safe stuff. Or not. But we can't be afraid of failure, because once you succumb to that fear, you're giving up the chance to find the Next Big Thing.
The thing is, people don't need radio to be creative. There are other media available, audio and video and text. But radio still has unique properties, and people still listen and people still want to be on the radio for whatever magic is still lingering, whatever romance there is in instantaneously broadcasting your thoughts over the airwaves instead of on tape in a sea of on-demand content. I'd love to see radio move from maintenance mode into growth again, and the way to make that happen is to encourage new ideas. Time to take the restraints off.
While you're indulging your wildest radio fantasies, you'll need stuff to talk about, and that's what All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics is all about, with hundreds of items and ideas to make your show better. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Also, this week, it's "10 Questions With..." Darrell Anderson, who hosts and produces and distributes the Successful Farming Radio Magazine and shows every day that there are categories of news and information that radio can deliver better than any other medium.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries (a division of Legendary Pictures), which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Next week: Well, I don't know. Depends on my mood, which will probably depend on whether Villanova's still alive in the NCAAs.