Radio’s Biggest Problem: Leadership

Relevance is a funny thing.

Many of radio’s leaders will argue radio’s relevance is proved by its widespread consumer usage.


Usage is a temporal thing. It is a byproduct of relevance but it is not relevance. Relevance is relevance.

And long-lived goods and services which are not as relevant to me and my life as newer goods and services will be disrupted and displaced by those newer goods and services over time.

So never take refuge in being popular. Just ask MySpace.

Likewise, relevance is not simply being present in every place and on every device. This is another popular fiction that some broadcast leaders propagate.

The notion that relevance necessarily follows if FM were to magically appear on a widespread selection of mobile devices is false. Showing up is not relevance, relevance is relevance.

And the fretting over the auto dashboard is also misplaced. The dashboard is getting more crowded no matter what broadcasters do, after all.

In general, broadcasters worry too much about the march of technology and not enough about their own march – their value proposition in the menu of options before consumers every day, day in and day out.

If radio becomes irrelevant, it will not be because of technology, it will be because of radio itself. It will be our own fault.

Relevance is not about technology, it’s about what you do.

I can’t imagine a more elegant illustration of this point than the fictional one from an early episode of Mad Men, “The Carousel.” How can you possibly make something exciting that’s “not exciting technology, even though it was the original [technology].”

[click the video to watch, and yes you really should]

Relevance requires using the tools available to us, even the new tools, to make meaning, to satisfy the needs of the consumer, to deepen the experience that radio can be rightly famous for, to be personal even if it doesn’t mean being personalized.

If you’re a News/Talk station, for example, witness the way this feature in the New York Times tells a story using technology. Technology is not a “place to be” here, it’s a means of deepening the richness of the story. Kinda makes your debate about what podcasts to list in your bottomless archive feel a bit thin, huh?

Radio is obsessed with monetizing what it has and being where it isn’t. This is sensible only if you can’t see past the closest financial horizon.

The real win is embracing those tools which help us tell meaningful stories that matter to real people and leveraging those tools with our strengths and the desires of our audience in mind.

I will listen past the garbage for the thing that’s relevant.

I will listen past the garbage for the thing that moves me.

I will ignore the “glittering lures” in favor of what’s meaningful.

The relevant things to do don’t happen by accident, they’re designed by people who care and leaders who show the way.

Show the way.

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  • Outstanding.

  • Hey thank you Dan!

  • Agree Big Time–Well Done!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Great blog, excellent use of video…makes you want to write a campaign for the Radio industry. One to them to WAKE UP and one to listeners.

  • Hey thanks Joe!

  • Thank you Dave!

  • Dave Brooks

    You NAILED it, Mark. Again.

  • mary mckenna

    Well said as always Mark. I am inspired and ready to slay the dragon today. And I LOVED the video

  • Wow!!!!

  • Mark, one of your best blogs EVER. Really good stuff.

  • Don Keith

    Not exactly the same but a very similar idea: the film director Steven Soderbergh’s speech on the current state of film vs. cinema. When you see his comments on allowing talent to do what talent does, and his frustrations with business decisions vs. so-called market research should resonate with anyone concerned about where radio is headed:


  • Anonymous

    Well done, Mark. And poignant as usual. How cool would it be to hear one of our industry titans give a speech like this at a convention full of the faithful. Hell, let’s just hire Don Draper to give it!

  • Eric Rhoads

    You nailed it again Mark. There tends to be a little to much “we’re strong so we’ll always be strong” mentality. Seems I remember those same words from Kodak.

  • Thanks Don!

    The only thing that makes me bristle is the association of market research with the “problem.” In my view and in my practice, consumer intel enables better decisions in the right places. It doesn’t have to squelch ideas and relevance, it can provide the context in which they can make the most impact. That’s how I (and my clients) treat it.

  • I’ll have to get Draper at hivio!

  • As someone whose dad spent 40 years working there, I can confirm that, Eric. Thanks for the comment.

  • Dean James

    Awesome! Amazingly well illustrated! Scary how simple this is. It’s about the product.

  • Thanks Dean!

    Yes, it’s about the product. And THAT is why I’m doing http://hivio.com.

  • Don Keith

    Exactly. The age-old problem with any research comes when people attempt to interpret results to match their own preconceived notions. Or when they design methodology to spit out data that is to their liking. Or even worse, use methodology that is shaky at best. SS acknowledges the value of research but questions how it is done or interpreted for an industry where billion-dollar decisions are made on results..

    We all should.

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  • Nice point, Mark! As the technology/idea provider, my job has never been to fix the programming of radio. I just offer excellent, affordable, work solutions and technology enabled pathways to greater opportunities for radio. The NYT article was a decent design attempt at a rich media experience for a print-centric medium. The radio in our future becomes more like TV.

  • That sounds right to me, Robin.

    Although I would call that NYT piece more than “decent” 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Interesting post Mark. Just a couple of thoughts….

    I find it interesting that Draper is really pulling on the heartstrings of the clients with very “rich” words. He is using the theatre of the mind. Something Radio already has in spades, but rarely uses. That’s the “carousel” we have to work with and just, well, for the most part, we throw it away. When was the last time you heard that theatre used well on the radio? Very rarely. Maybe 2-5 percent, hell it’s undoubtedly much, much less than that. It’s mostly just also ran regurgitation.

    The NYT’s article is nice. But lets’ face it, if you look at the code, it’s just html 5 and well designed css. I seriously doubt that many clusters have a code monkey that could handle that.

    But thought provoking post. Well done.

  • Kelly Orchard

    Love this! I work as a consultant and hear these issues all the time. The old adage, “LEAD, FOLLOW OR GET OUT OF THE way really rings true here! I’m working on a plan to help radio get back to basics! The audience needs a reason to fall in love with radio again!

  • I would say the audience needs content to fall in love with and worth falling head-over-heels for. 🙂

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