The Acid Test
September 18, 2015
We're going to talk this week about science, health, the Inuits, and fish. It does include a lesson for radio. I'm serious.
For a long time now, you've heard how you should be eating Omega-3 fatty acids. It's good for your heart, they say. Your doctors have probably told you this. This traces back to Danish researchers studying Inuit communities, living in climates inhospitable to growing grains and where the diets are heavy in fatty meat and fish; stumped by why the Inuits didn't show signs of heart disease despite eating all that fat, they decided that it must be the fish, and zeroed in on Omega-3 fatty acids. Gotta be the Omega-3s, they assumed.
That's a standard by which we've lived for decades now. You've probably, at times, decided to order the salmon instead of the steak you really wanted, because you were conscious of the benefits of eating fish. Maybe you were one of the many folks who took fish oil pills every day, just to be sure you got your Omega-3 fatty acids, and you put up with the fish burps because you wanted to do right by your health.
And then they did studies that showed that fish oil pills basically don't work. So you might have stopped taking them, but, still, you'd order the fish at dinner to be healthy. After all, the research showed that it's heart-healthy, and you want to be healthy, don't you?
You do. Which brings us to this week, and another study that took another, harder look at exactly why the Inuits' arteries aren't solidly clogged with gunk despite eating lots of fat. And THIS study says that it's not about the Omega-3 fatty acids after all. It's that over the millennia, the Inuits genetically adapted to the fact that they could eat only fatty meats and fish. What they ate didn't save them; evolution and genetics did. The study notes that this fits another conclusion: Different food has different effects on different people. (Read about it here.)
We can put it another way, with apologies to Firesign Theater: Everything You Know Is Wrong. Or may be wrong. It's possible that another study will contradict the study that contradicted the previous study. In fact, you can bank on any conclusion being put into doubt by subsequent research, because that's how things work.
Now, to apply this to what you do for a living. Regular readers know that I often bloviate about the need to try new things and innovate, so this will be familiar to you. The radio industry is full of absolutes, rules for programming and marketing and sales. You know what they are, because you live by them, whether it's the less-talk-means-better-PPM-results rule or the tried-and-true clocks that every single radio station uses every single hour of every single day, because heaven forbid your station be in a stop set when the competition's back to music and vice versa. We have all decided that X doesn't work, ever, because someone tried it in Houston 20 years ago and it failed, or that Y works because someone put it on the air in Indianapolis and it skyrocketed in the first month.
But we don't know for sure. We don't know that what works in one market will work everywhere. We don't know if what caused the skyrocketing was the music, the personalities, the clock, the slogan, the marketing, the position of the moon, meter distribution, or a combination of some or all of that. We THINK we know, but we don't. It's all educated guessing.
And that's fine on one level, because what else CAN we do? All we have to work with is an educated guess, unless someone wants to spend a ton of money on post-mortem or post-success research beyond focus groups and ratings analysis. (Blood testing, maybe.) But on another level, buying into the rules stifles innovation. It means that the industry thinks things are settled, that we know the formula, and deviation from that norm is not worth pursuing. Add that to the general unwillingness to take risks, and you get a stagnant creative industry. It's understandable, because we're basing our actions on experiences, but we're also assuming things about our experiences that may or may not be accurate.
The upshot, then, is that we got here, an industry not doing anything surprising or all that innovative, by settling into rules we're not even certain are immutable. And we surely don't know if there's something better we could be doing if we don't try anything new. Some of the rules of radio are probably true. Some are probably Omega-3 fatty acids. We won't know which are which until we test alternate theories. And then challenge them again. It's when you assume everything's been asked, answered, and tied in a neat bow that you need to revisit everything and see if there's anything you might have missed.
Speaking of revisiting assumptions (oh, this is going to be a bad segue, I can feel it), it's when you think you've prepared all the material you need for your show that you need to keep preparing (I knew it, I just KNEW it). And when you need more, more, MORE material, the place to go is All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, which, as always, is here for you with hundreds of items and ideas and bad jokes, all up-to-date and available now by clicking here. And there's the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
If you're reading this before the weekend and you're in L.A., I'll be at the L.A. Podfest on Saturday, not on a panel or anything, just hanging. If you're there, too, I... um... I guess I'll see you there. If not, I'll be back here next week with another tortured analogy.