Has Radio lost its guts?

In times of change and disruption, you can generally be sure of at least one thing:

He who innovates stands the best chance to survive and thrive.

So where does that leave us in Radio?

CBS Radio has been celebrated lately for undoing some of the risky moves of the previous CBS regime, an undoing that in many cases is resulting in higher ratings. Now higher ratings are worth celebrating, of course, and anyone who achieves them deserves plenty of credit for doing so.

But what is the message the rest of the industry is taking away from this?

Is it that failure is bad – or that the risk that led to failure is bad?

It’s not CBS’s fault what lesson the rest of the industry takes from their actions, of course. They do what’s right for them. But I think the industry-wide take-away is clearly this: Risk is bad. Trying new stuff will only get you slapped down in the end.

Yet risk and reward go hand in hand, folks. Especially when we are planning for the long-run and not for this immediate quarter. If the previous honchos at CBS were guilty of anything, perhaps it was risking too much too fast.

Most new TV shows fail. A vast majority of new products fail. Despite all the excitement of the recent Consumer Electronics Show, for example, only a tiny fraction of those products will ever make more than a dent in the marketplace.

But talk to the folks who run the TV networks and make the new products and they’ll all tell you the same thing: Hits are hits precisely because they are against the odds. And creativity – risk – is what makes them possible.

So where is the innovation in radio? And where are the guts that such innovation requires?

Where are the new formats? Where is the new talent? Why is Talk Radio pretty much the only form of radio that isn’t music-intensive? Why are most Talkers late-middle-aged conservative white dudes? Our non-music format options are ridiculously thin – why?

I am constantly amazed that with many groups owning hundreds of stations I can’t think of one station in any of those groups that can be unambiguously viewed as a live “experiment.” Yet I know of dozens of stations that are used as format-based pawns, out to destroy better ranked stations rather than make an audience of their own. Why?

Where is the leadership from on high propelling content innovation to the top of radio’s agenda?

Where, in the midst of all this cost-cutting, is the vision that says the future is about attracting more audience, not settling for less and budgeting accordingly?

It’s time for radio to remember it once had balls. To remember that listeners cared because we did.

That spirit lives still in many stations across our land, even if it’s absent from many corporate boardrooms.

And that spirit is our only chance.

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