Exclusive: Seth Godin updates his take on Radio’s Future

This will be one of those interviews you print out and remember long after you first read it.  You will want to pass this around.  And for more from Seth Godin on Radio, pick up my new book, Making Waves: Radio on the Verge.

What follows is only a partial transcript.


For the full audio, click here:


Seth Godin is a well-known marketing thought-leader and author of the new bestseller Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us

The new book is Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. What is a “tribe” and why do we need you and you and you and you to lead us? 

Well, a tribe is not a crowd. A crowd is what radio program directors and marketers and people who make Tide detergent seek. A crowd is a bunch of people who you’re able to somehow grab the attention of. 

A tribe, however, is a group of people who share something, a common culture, a language, a goal. They often have a leader. At their best they are part of a movement – and tribes are incredibly powerful. They are hardwired into us. We want to be a member of a tribe. We seek them out. Different people want to be in different tribes. When we’re in one, it becomes a key part of our understanding of life and gives us a sense of meaning. 

And the reason that there’s an opportunity today is because marketing as we know it is fading away. 

So what’s missing today is not that we don’t have enough tribes, it’s that we don’t have enough people to lead them, and that is the opportunity I talk about in the book, particularly to people who already have a platform, who already are speaking to numbers of people, who already are trying to make something change. 

The opportunity is to realize that what you do for a living now is not interrupt the masses but instead lead and connect a tribe. 

This book opens with a discussion of tribes and then it moves very quickly to become almost a primer on leadership. 

Well, if marketing is now the act of leading a tribe and people say, okay, what are my tactics? What do I do? What’s the “dummies” version? The answer is: The only thing you need is the ability and the willingness to lead. This choice of leading is actually a marketing tactic now because if you’re not willing to lead, no one’s going to follow you. If you try to manipulate, no one’s going to follow you. If you don’t understand what the tribe needs and wants, no one is going to follow you, and so I set out to write a marketing book, but I ended up with a leadership book. 

That was my sense as I read it. Now one of your points is that getting more fans should be the goal, not getting more traffic. If I translate that to radio terminology, you’re implying getting more fans is more important than getting more Cume, more audience, more reach

In fact, the worst enemy of a radio station is the Arbitron ratings because they force you to abandon the tribe. 

They force you to not have insiders and outsiders but instead to try to make everyone an insider, to homogenize and go for the lowest common denominator because big numbers are what you’re after. But what you really want is this: If your station changed format or went off the air for an hour, how many angry phone calls would there be? Who would miss you? 

And it’s not very often that an author gets to gloat after a presidential election but I need to because all the stuff I wrote about is exactly what happened on election day in the United States. If you can connect to people in a way that they will miss you if you’re gone and in a way that they will feel missed if they are gone, then you have created a tribe, and tribes are always more powerful than the alternative, which is yelling at the masses. 

And so radio has this interesting opportunity – the FCC has gifted you a priceless platform and for generations it has been misused to yell at people who didn’t have anything else to do in their car, but now we have something else to do in our car. Now we don’t ever have to listen to radio again. There are plenty of people who have every song ever recorded on their iPod. That iPod is hooked up to their car. They can listen with no commercials and with no one prattling on about traffic in a place they are not located. 

But what they can’t get out of their iPod is the sense of connection and belonging. What they can’t get out of other forms of media is the sense of being in a select community, and the mistake that so many radio stations have made is they abandon that in favor of another point on their Cume. 

Well, the radio station’s argument would be, look, you’re saying that a deeper relationship with a smaller audience is in the long run better for us than a shallower relationship with a larger one, but how do we sell that deeper relationship with a smaller audience when all the models are built around reaching as many ears as possible?

Well, the models are built that way because that’s what advertisers think they want. And you can persuade an advertiser to advertise once with you based on the numbers but you only get them to come back because they made sales. You only get them to come back because they moved product. 

We know that when the Catholic Church runs a fund drive, they never fail. We know that National Public Radio raises more money more easily every year than ever before. Neither one of those groups succeeds because they’re big. They succeed because they have connected people, because people care about each other and the organization. 

So if you’re an advertiser and you have a choice between reaching a ton of people who couldn’t care less, and so you have to talk really fast, yell, and make obscene promises on the radio to get them to show up at your dealership, or reach a smaller group of people about something that they’re very interested in in a very connected way, in the long run advertisers are going to come back to the smaller, more tightly knit group. 

Where you need to have leadership as a station owner is to realize that you can teach advertisers to do business in a way that works for them, but you will only succeed at doing that if you are able to create this tribe. 

Under the new Arbitron methodology, PPM, stations have anywhere from two to three times as many listeners as they thought they did under diaries, and of course those people are listening for shorter durations than they were under diaries. So the spin at the industry level is: “We’ve got reach that approaches television. Let’s sell radio as a reach medium.” Now correct me if I’m wrong, that’s exactly the opposite of what you’re arguing.

What we know is that not one major consumer brand launched in the last ten years succeeded because of TV or radio. Not one. Go down the list. The Amazons, the Apples, the Starbucks of the world, that’s not how they came to be. And for marketers today, especially given where the economy is, the easiest way to make your numbers is to cut your TV and radio budget – and they will. So to go out and say “we’re more like television, except we don’t have pictures” doesn’t strike me as the way to sell local advertising to people who are measuring what is happening. 

True or false: You can more effectively create tribes and rally them around your cause because you’ve got their contact information. You know what they’re interested in. They have trust in you. You have a relationship with them and you have a relationship with the advertisers that have services or products that they need, right?

Exactly, but one thing you left out is they have to be looking forward to it. So if you create a tribe within your station of people who live within four miles of my house and are single, and you connect us to each other, and once a week we get an email about which bar to go to and what the playlist is going to be at that party, and you start connecting us to each other so that we look forward to that email, then you can go to ten bars in the area and auction off that site and whichever bar pays you the most is where you’ll have the party. 

You can do that with 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 tribes just on top of one radio station because the radio station is the beacon that sends out the message to everyone that says this is a gathering place, a totem pole. And then you use the web and email to connect people and to make them feel wanted – it’s what I’m doing that with my blog now. 

My blog is sort of popular. I posted a note in August and I said, “If you buy a copy of my book sight unseen (which is crazy) three months before it comes out (which is crazy) I’ll give you a free invite to this online tribe I’m starting.” And 3,400 people did it in 48 hours – and then I closed it. Now it’s still closed. It’s going to stay closed, but now I’ve got 3,400 people – well, I don’t have them. They have each other. I show up every once in a while to make sure order is kept but they are writing ebooks, consulting each other, connecting, meeting each other, having coffees in Washington, D.C. and lunches in San Francisco because I built a place for them. 

And if I wanted to I could build a new place like that every week on different topics using the blog as a way of announcing it. I’m not trying to make money from these online communities, but if I was, what could be better than an online site where at 4:00 in the morning on a Sunday there are 40 people there, and a new post goes up every 15 to 30 seconds, and there are hundreds of groups and thousands of posts. This is their place. They like to connect with each other there. That seems to me to be better than running a commercial between two Beatles songs. 

Now a lot of stations have had spotty results in creating social networks for their radio stations on their websites. To some degree their listeners say “I’ve got Facebook. I’ve got MySpace. Why do I need this?” 

Well, of course they’ve got spotty results because they don’t really care, and they’re not generous. They’re selfish, and it’s not a useful social network because anyone can join. There’s no curation. I don’t feel special when I’m there and it’s clear they did it to sell me something, right? 

I mean here’s the thing, Mark, and you and I have talked about this before. If you hadn’t gotten that gift – your frequency – from the FCC 20, or 40, or 80 years ago, whenever your station got it, what would you have? Because this has all been about leveraging that. 

Everything radio has done has been about leveraging a rare piece of spectrum, and the thing we have to acknowledge is that spectrum isn’t rare anymore. So the one asset you built your whole organization on is going away really fast and instead of putting your head in the sand and complaining about that, take advantage of the momentum so that when it does finally disappear, you have something else

Because even now radio stations have relationships with many, many, many listeners that would be the envy of Amazon in any local market, relationships with many, many, many advertisers that would be the envy of even Google in local markets, right? 

Right. I mean my wife gets in the car, she hears a DJ from her youth still on the radio, and there’s a connection there, a tenuous one but a connection. And then there’s three minutes of being yelled at about used cars. If the radio station was smart, they would know my wife doesn’t need a used car and she has never bought a car because it was advertised on the radio, so the obvious thing to do is to change the station. You took that great asset you had and you wasted it for what? Because the car dealer gave you a tenth of a penny per person. What a waste, and you keep wasting it over and over again because so many people in the radio business are stuck and unwilling to realize that they could take that and leverage it to a new place. 

And my provocative statement is that five years from now the only profitable radio stations will be the ones that have vibrant, connected tribes of people who want them to succeed. 

In the past year especially, stations have been finding revenue off considerably compared to the same time last year, and thanks to what’s going on now economically, especially as it affects the auto industry, we expect that to carry into 2009, compounding effects related to technology and iPhones, and so on. What do you say to the broadcaster who says, look, all this digital media stuff is great icing on the cake but my cake is shrinking! I’ve got to rebuild my cake and work harder to sell more spots at higher rates. Forget all that icing! 

My answer is in industry after industry we’ve seen that you can’t defend the fortress because the fortress goes away. 

AOL is a fine example. AOL said let’s defend dial-up. Let’s defend the walled garden because the web was too hard for them to understand. They lost billions and billions of dollars. 

Consider the FCC’s ruling recently about the white space spectrum. What white space spectrum is going to mean is that in five years every car sold is going to have an infinite number of radio stations on it. Not 100 or 1,000 but more radio stations than you could listen to in your lifetime, and if that’s true, tell me again why you’re going to win? Tell me again how defending that fortress, how propping up that cake can lead to anything positive? It can’t. 

On the other hand, do you want me to tell you what station I’m going to listen to? I’m going to listen to the station about me, the station that’s filled with my friends, the station that connects people like me with other people like me, because my favorite person is me – like everybody else. 

Now the idea of getting more fans rather than more traffic requires people at the helm who have a passion for what they’re doing, and that requires creativity. It requires art. It requires inspiration. It requires really deeply caring about what you’re doing. Those people are being drained from the radio industry. How important is that kind of passion and spirit among the creators, the programmers, the content-makers?

Well, I think you just said it. It’s everything. The one thing I would add is you need people who are passionate about their listeners, people who are passionate about making their listeners’ lives better. 

I want you to think about the last time someone in your station had a meeting where, in the middle of the meeting, someone said “but that’s not good for our listeners.” That never happens. They say “well, that might not be good for our ratings,” but that’s different. The question is who is going to step forward and shake up the status quo and lead, and it will happen, but how much damage and havoc will be reached before that? Given the history of most industries that are under stress, the answer is a lot. 

If we look at how the music industry melted down to nothing, it happened because the people in charge kept firing or disempowering the people who actually could have done the right work because they cared, and what a shame, because they had everything going for them. It was the perfect business with the perfect medium, and over the last ten years they systematically dismantled it because they kept trying to preserve the status quo by bringing in “yes men” rather than challenging the status quo and building something better. 

Seth, Tribes is another great book. I really enjoyed reading it. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Seth Godin is one of the most popular bloggers on the planet and the author of one great business book after another. Thank you so much, Seth

My pleasure. I’m a fan. 

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