07/30

Radio’s “Rules of Thumb” – an interview with author and Fast Company founder Alan Webber

Alan Webber is the cofounder of Fast Company magazine and author of a great new book called Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self
(and the website at
RulesofThumbBook.com).  Among many other distinctions, Fast Company was once the home of a columnist named Seth Godin.

What follows is an abbreviated transcript.  For the full conversation click the link below – or go to iTunes and subscribe to all the hear2.0 interviews



MP3 File 


Alan, this book was compiled from note cards you kept throughout your professional life.  Tell me about that journey.

The book is meant to operate at different levels.  One is about experiences that I had, amazing people I’ve met and learned from, mentors, teachers and people who have been enormously helpful in my life, the lessons they imparted to me, and the takeaways based on our experiences having worked together or spent time together.  

But then there is also a meta-message, and that is what Rule #52 is about – that there really are wonderful mentors and teachers everywhere.  And if you pay attention, if you listen in to the conversations around you wherever they happen, I genuinely believe there are these “a-ha” moments.  And if you do carry around 3 x 5 cards and write down these little epiphanies as they occur, you’ll write your own book of rules, and you’ll actually discover embedded in your own way of working and thinking there are ways of seeing the world that give you an operating manual for very complicated and challenging times.  And listening in to those and writing them down is, I think, a terrific technique for developing what works for each of us; not just reading my rules, but writing your own. 

You’re talking about the idea of learning as a kind of sensitivity to things around you that may give you a lesson or teach you something new. 

Absolutely. 

In all walks of live, there are lots of people trying to figure out what they believe in right now and trying to acknowledge the fact that everything they’ve learned is suddenly insufficient.  What advice do you give to a broadcaster who looks around and discovers everything they’ve assumed all this time is suddenly questionable?

Rulesofthumb I think there are two equally kind of wrongheaded notions that I see, and it’s not just broadcasting; it’s newspapers, it’s magazines, it’s Wall Street, it’s automobiles, it’s banks, it’s retailing, it’s advertising – I think we are hitting what Andy Grove at one point in his career called a “strategic inflection point,” where the operating assumptions and the methodologies and the mental models that we all carry around in our heads need to be questioned. 

One dangerous mindset is to say it applies to everybody else but it doesn’t apply to me. I think that’s clearly not correct.  The first thing you have to do is acknowledge that we’re in an incredible period of turbulence, and you really do need to keep your eyes and ears open.  

The second thing that is equally dangerous is to assume that nothing you bring with you is relevant.  I think it’s true that a lot of it needs to be questioned or reconsidered, but we are human beings who have deep practices and principles and a lot of those values – really sound, basic values – are important.

I think it’s an amazing time of turbulence, and it’s very scary for some people.  I was recently in Eastern Europe, and I was giving a talk about how change was the order of the day.  I was talking to bankers and they looked at me and they said “you don’t understand; we’re very fond of the status quo because here in Eastern Europe, change usually comes either in the form of Fascism or Communism.”  It really took me aback that their experience of dealing with change is so contextually different from the American experience where change can bring new ideas, innovation, creativity, unleash new technology – their experience was with really dangerous forms of change.  

I think we need to get out of our own bubble, we need to listen to each other, we need to pay attention to experience, to what really works around us, and then we need to import new techniques, new tactics, innovative ways of thinking or seeing.  We need to reframe our own assumptions so that we challenge a conventional way of doing business.  

Just one of the rules in the book is from Ted Levitt, who was the faculty editor at the Harvard Business Review when I worked there and is also the author of one of the great Harvard Business Review articles of all time called Marketing Myopia.

In it Ted writes that the problem with railroads was they thought they were in the railroad business when in order to be competitive they had to be in the transportation business.  He talks about a company that sold drills, and he said they thought they were in the drill business but their customers were buying holes.  

So the art of reframing, I think, is really relevant now.  When you look at what our old industries – newspapers, magazines, radio, television, media of all kinds – you look at what they’re going through, they tend to think in very narrow terms, what newspapers can and can’t do, versus what the customer would buy.  

I think the general principle is you’ve got to see with fresh eyes.  You’ve got to reframe the picture so you don’t get stuck in the old way of looking at reality. 

So how do you reframe the radio industry in 2009 and beyond?  What does it look like reframed? What business are you in if you’re in the radio business today? 

That’s a terrific question, and I don’t want to get caught up in trying to pretend like I’m an expert in everybody else’s business. 

I recently wrote a piece about the newspaper business, and I began to ask a series of questions, rather than pretending that I knew how to run a newspaper.  I asked “How is a newspaper like a comedy show?”  

If you look at the news media today, the #4 most trusted person in it is Jon Stewart.  He describes himself very proudly as a comic, but what he does is to look at the news and to make it entertaining by pointing out the foibles and the story behind the story.  In other words, it’s almost a definition of art or comedy – by telling lies about something, by stretching the truth, you end up telling more of the truth than if you stick to the truth.  Jon Stewart does that.  British newspapers do that. 

If you look at the success of many British newspapers, they don’t follow the same very serious, beard-stroking rules of American newspapers.  The Onion as a classic newspaper in America is enormously successful as a comedy paper making fun of the news.  

One of the things that I think newspapers can do, and probably radio as well, is borrow behaviors from other parts of the media landscape that are working and compare themselves to things that are outside their own venue.  

I asked in this piece, “How is a newspaper like a credit card?” 

Credit cards have different levels of service that you buy with different levels of membership.  Could radio stations have members, rather than just listeners?  Membership – as the old American Express ad used to say – has privileges.  So if you become a member of a radio station, you end up with different levels of privilege; you not only get to listen to the broadcast, you get to meet the people in the programming department, you get a briefing from station managers, you get the participatory role in shaping the direction of the station.  You are a member, not just a receiver of the broadcast. 

So it’s participation and a partnership rather than a one way broadcast and passive reception by the audience.  I think that’s one thing that we’re seeing across all media platforms, and it is really one of the big changes in technology.  

One of the rules of thumb I’ve got in the book I learned from a woman at Google named Megan Smith.  Megan was in a meeting of innovators and she just happened to very casually state three rules that I immediately wrote down because I thought they were so smart. 

Rule #1 – The customer participates. 

Rule #2 – The customer drives.  Not only participates, but drives. 

Rule #3 – Open systems beat closed systems.  

The problem with so much of old media, whether it’s radio, TV, newspapers or magazines, is that they’re closed systems, and they don’t let the customer drive.  They don’t let the customer participate, and they operate as if the customer is just lucky to have them sending out their signal and they should be grateful.  

In this day and age, that ain’t gonna cut it. 

Well, historically broadcasters have controlled the airwaves.  We broadcast, you listen. It’s a one way communication.  But you’re saying we’re entering an age where control is democratized, where participation is the central theme.  

What I find on this side of the microphone is that many broadcasters are having trouble adjusting to that, and they’re asking how to monetize it.  Monetization is at the front of every question.  I wonder if that’s the wrong way to ask the question. 

I think you’re absolutely right; it’s not only the wrong way to ask it, it’s probably the wrong question, and it proceeds from the mistaken point of view that you have a choice.  

When Bill Taylor and I started Fast Company, it was the era of the magazine editor as the “Great Guru.”  I always had this image in my head of the brilliant magazine editors sitting in their offices, looking out over Manhattan, stroking their chins and thoughtfully saying “What shall I tell my people this week?  What do my readers need to hear from me?” As if somehow they were the important arbiters of taste and knowledge and information.  

At Fast Company, we intentionally tried to break down that model and have a conversation with our readers.  We were one of the first magazines to include at the end of every article the email addresses of the author and the subject of the piece, so that if readers wanted to give us feedback, they could do it.  All of a sudden, we started getting feedback that told us what the readers like, what they didn’t like, what they found valuable, what they found less valuable, and we were able to actually engage in an ongoing dialogue with our readers.  We also started having conferences and inviting our readers to come to the conferences to meet the people who put out the magazine and who we had written about in it.  

At these conferences we would listen to the readers and find out what they liked and what they were worried about, what kept them up at night, what kinds of workplace issues they wanted to know more about, etc.  And those became some of the stories we then put into the magazine. 

So there is this beautiful feedback loop that you can achieve as a media platform as long as you don’t fall into the mindset you were describing, where you think you’re in control.  

The truth is you’re not in control.  You control virtually nothing.  You certainly don’t control the habits of your listeners or your viewers or your readers; they control them, they are free to change the station, they are free to use TiVo and get rid of the ads, they are free to make their own shows, they are free to have their own stations these days.  

So the democratization of virtually everything as you described it, is very much what’s going on.  I think a station manager or an editor of a magazine who thinks her problem is how to monetize the fact that she no longer controls the audience has missed the big lesson and that is:  You are no longer in charge. Now deal with it.  

Figure out what the new model looks like so you have a conversation with your listeners or your viewers or your readers, so they want to be in your community.  Once you’ve done that, the money will follow.

The subtitle of your book is “52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self,” and those last four words stuck out to me because those are words that, for example, a Donald Trump book will never feature.  Do you think in this moment, with all the chaos swirling around us, that many people are going to look inside and ask themselves that very question: How can I do this without losing myself?

Yeah, I hope so.  The truth of what’s going on in business in America is that we’re seeing a really serious pushback against “business as usual.”  

There was a piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago about MBA students at Harvard, Columbia, and a few other schools, who were taking an oath as they left business school that they would not become victims of bad ethics once they entered the workplace – that they wouldn’t put self-interest and narrow career advancement ahead of doing the right thing.  

This oath phenomenon is very interesting because what it tells me is that we have a serious disconnect between what people know is right and what they think is required of them to succeed in the world of work. I think it’s a huge issue at a time when the world is going through a global economic meltdown, much of which, if not all of which, was caused by unethical, if not illegal, behavior.  

To look at what we’re doing to each other and to the world economy in the narrow interest of self-financial reward strikes me as a time when business, business schools, and corporations should stop for a minute and ask if we are teaching the right things in business school and in our corporate universities.  

Shouldn’t we be having a countrywide conversation about the disconnect between what’s the right thing to do and what makes the most money?

* = required field
  • http://www.rulesofthumbbook.com Alan Webber

    Hey Mark!
    Thanks for taking the time to connect with me and conduct this interview. When I read it over, I’m struck as much by the questions you ask as by the answers I offer–I think you’re spot on that people are looking for new ways of making sense of their work, their lives, the economy at large. We’re engulfed by so much change in so many dimensions, that the greatest service any medium can offer is a way of cutting through the noise and helping people gain a greater degree of confidence that they can figure out what’s going on: in the book I call it focusing on the “signal to noise ratio.” That, to me, is the one single biggest need today–less noise, more signal.
    Thanks, again, for the great conversation you and I had. Hope we can do it again!
    All the best,
    alan

  • http://www.jeremybaker.ca Jeremy

    next time I’m at home, I’ll need to make sure I subscribe to your podcast!