"You've got to see this! This is so cool, so much fun," said my buddy, a prominent radio consultant. When visiting his home, I commented on how well the station he was listening to was programmed, how vibrant it sounded, and how it had the life of stations I've heard him program in the past -- frankly, something I haven't felt when listening to the radio in a while.
"Is it a local station you're consulting?" I asked. "Or are we listening to the stream of one of the stations you're consulting elsewhere?"
"Neither," he said. "I can't get anyone in the radio industry to allow me to do what I want anymore, so I decided to create my own Internet radio station. I love to program great radio stations, and no one wants to be great anymore."
He went on to tell me how his life as a successful programmer has changed and how the thing he does best, which is build great, fun-to-listen-to, engaging radio stations, is no longer wanted. Oh, don't get me wrong. His business is thriving. But his clients simply don't want to take any risks. Instead, the clients, many of which are run by MBAs, want formulas they can replicate. As a result, they get modest success when they could be getting wild breakout success. This programmer so loves what he does that he's doing it online, just to do it somewhere.
In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin makes a statement that accountants and MBAs cannot understand art because they cannot quantify it, measure it, and package it to fit into their box. Yet, he says, in this world of small margins and product sameness, it is the "art" that will stand out in any business. It is the "art" that soars to wild success. Art, Godin says, is the gift of excellence and risk to please yourself in everything you do, whether it's creating a product or serving a customer.
A producer/director friend of mine in Hollywood tells me the film business is being run by MBAs and accountants and that they are desperately trying to create formulas for success. Breakout films, however, never come from formulas, and most meet with incredible resistance from big film conglomerates unwilling to take risks. It is the breakout successes that bring in the big money and the high margins, but most studios want to remake past successes and not experiment with new scripts.
Breakout success rarely happens in radio anymore. Rarely do we see high risk that results in high reward. Few are willing to take risks because the art proposed cannot be quantified. But we're not alone. Risk-averseness is present in film, in print, in television, in cable, and in radio. Each of these businesses is highly leveraged, and it's rare to see a breakout success. When it does occur, it happens because some bold leader took a risk against the wishes of her spreadsheet-driven superiors.
Godin reiterates that breakout performance rarely comes from the insiders -- those who are trying to protect the way things have always been done. It's difficult to see a different viewpoint when you've lived in one perspective for decades. That is what's killing the newspaper business. The record labels killed themselves trying to defend their tired business model rather than embracing change. The tendency is to defend the old methods (and profits), cling to our past, and resist change. As a result, we simply are not seeing a lot of art when it comes to creating great, compelling media properties
My MBA friends will respond to this message with, "Eric, you just don't get it. It's just too risky, you're naive." What I don't think they understand is that it's riskier to strip the art out of these industries. Though everyone wants the success of Avatar, most are not willing to take the risk to make it. Art is desperately needed in the media business. There are artists sitting on the sidelines who know how to make great radio, TV, cable, film, and even print projects that -- if given permission to get wild and creative with few restrictions -- will blow the doors off and create breakout hits. But these people are a challenge to deal with and impossible to control.
Years ago, in the radio business, I was checking references on a morning DJ I wanted to hire. One manager I spoke with said, "This guy is a nightmare. He has a drug problem, and I had to bail him out of jail every other week. Yeah, he does great radio, but I'm not sure it's worth it." Sounds like Hollywood.
I hired the guy, and my ratings soared. And, yes, I had to take him to rehab and bail him out of jail, but I never had anyone bring me better ratings. Great talent is hard to rein in, and when you do, they aren't so great anymore. That's a hard sell to an MBA, because "This is a business, and we cannot tolerate that kind of behavior." But media is, for the most part, entertainment first. Great breakout success is built around great writers, great producers, great programmers, and great talent. But it's a lot easier to follow a formula, which is why media has become so boring.
Can you create a formula for breakout success? Yes. It's a lot like the venture capital model, where you can count on one in 10 or 20 to succeed and all the others to fail. Hire insanely creative people, cut them loose, and let them take lots of risks. Though they won't all work, the ones that do will be spectacular successes, and media -- all media -- will be better off for it.
B. Eric Rhoads is CEO of Streamline Publishing, Inc. Rhoads writes regular columns for his publications and is an active blogger in the radio and art industries, including Radio Ink Tank, Artist Marketing, and Blue Chip Gallery Marketing. He is an active speaker, consultant, and advocate in the radio, art, and technology industries, and he sits on a number of advisory boards. Eric can be reached at eric@RadioInk.com.
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