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“How to Make Radio Relevant Again” – An Interview with media futurist Douglas Rush

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip December 15, 2005

Douglas Rushkoff is the author of eight best selling books on new media and popular culture, including Cyberia, Media Virus, and the latest, Get Back In the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. His commentaries air on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s All Things Considered. He lectures at New York University and created and hosted two must-see documentaries for PBS: The Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders. Rushkoff is a thought leader who has been ahead of many curves in the world of technology and pop culture, and now he turns his sights to radio’s future.

Rushkoff and I talked for 40 minutes, and only a tiny part of that discussion is transcribed here. Click below and you can hear the complete Podcast interview.

What do you mean by getting “Back in the Box”?

I get all these phone calls from business people who ask me to come and help get them out of the box? But what do you mean get ‘out of the box’? Well, they want me to come up with new ads or a new image or a new sense of purpose. And I ask them what they do, do they make shoes? If they make shoes why don’t they just figure out how to make better shoes? Rather than trying to think of how to repackage or re-brand your shoes, why don’t you make better shoes? Isn’t your product itself a better communications medium for the quality of that product than some ad or some marketing scheme or some brand image?

You argue that consumers – listeners – are more than a “target”

I think what we’re starting to realize is that consumers are not just targets to be manipulated but they are really members of your company’s culture. They are part of sneaker culture or shoe culture or computer culture or cell phone culture or the culture of your radio station. And they’re going to want to sign on to a company that can actually accept their contributions and participation in some sort of real way.

Most stations are looking at the listener community as a bunch of consumers to be segmented, targeted, manipulated – the sort of spreadsheet approach to radio as opposed to the passionate approach.

On this end of the spectrum you have a whole bunch of market research, you run your stations at the lowest possible cost, you automate all your processes, and that allows you to get the most bottom-line revenue. How do we reduce the number of offerings? How do we do high volume? This sort of scorched earth policy may generate income in the short term and will be great for shareholders this quarter. But it’s a bad approach for your entire industry in the long term.

The problem with “let’s build the biggest business we can, whatever it takes,” is it doesn’t work unless you’re just acquiring things. What going public really means is you’re no longer in the business that you used to be in. Now you are a brand name. You’re a “word,” Clear Channel or Avon or whatever, that is trying to get people to invest more money in that word. You’re essentially a holding company now which is something very different. So your strategy evolves into doing the kinds of things that will get shareholders to put more money into the “word.” And that’s going to mean increasing certain kinds of measurable numbers in the shortest term possible. Yet that’s how you can attract a real community of listeners, of participants, of fans.

On the other end of the spectrum you’ll have someone saying “you know we’re an interesting group of people at this radio station; why don’t we figure out what kind of music we would like to share with people, become experts in those kinds of music, and then do shows that really do explore and expose our listeners to our expertise and our passion?”

So you’re saying the strategy for a radio station should be to surprise, delight, and lead, not follow?

The great surprise and bizarrely out of the box thing I’m saying is be a true expert in the thing you actually do, and then you will do that thing the best. In this new age the reward will go to people who do things the best rather than people who destroy the actual industries they’re in. Getting back in the box will turn out in the end to make more money and create more success.

I think we’ve reached the law of diminishing returns – the Wal-Martization, the Radio Conglomerization of our world is finally failing. These companies are crumbling under their own weight. And consumers are desperate for people who actually remember the age old crafts of everything from making shoes to making radio.

How does radio magnify the impact of a culture of radio station fans? How do radio managers and programmers get “back in the box”?

If you really are an expert in radio now you don’t have to be scared of your consumers any more. You don’t have to be scared of your employees. How do we, as a community, build the best radio station we can? How can you honestly involve listeners in the development of your emphasis rather than just, say, Sony Music or the other labels in that development.

You should invite not your least common denominator but your highest quality listener to come in and be part of your community. And that’s how you train the DJs of tomorrow. You’re going to have fans that understand that you’re treating them with respect, and you’re trying to answer their needs in a genuine way.

Right now the radio conglomerates are not asking listeners what they need. They’re asking what they can get people to listen to. And that’s a very different question. If you really care about radio, if you really care about what this medium can offer the world then you should ask yourself: “What need can I answer with this medium? What can I do today to actually make someone else’s life better? What unmet needs are there, and how can radio fulfill those unmet needs for community, for civic reality, for music education, for development of new music talent, etc?”

Rather than asking listeners which of our shows you like the best so we can do more of that for you, ask what role could radio play in your life – and that’s not something that you can get from a focus group.

What is the role of “fun” in the business of radio?

Because of my book tours I’ve been in a lot of radio stations, and even from 1995 to 2005 the amount of change I’ve seen has been shocking. There used to be this kind of quality to an FM radio station – I hate to be stereotypical, but there was a certain kind of chick who would be the receptionist at an FM radio station. There was a certain kind of guy that worked in the album room organizing the albums. There was a certain kind of geek figuring out the emphasis rack.

But FM stations are not really like that anymore. They feel much more like almost any other office, and if you didn’t see the control room you wouldn’t know you were in a radio station at all. They don’t ooze their culture anymore.

There was a smell and a quality and a texture to everything radio that I think was the fun of the industry. There was something so real about it. In the early days when I was a kid, you had Ron Lundy and Cousin Brucie – you just somehow knew those guys were there even though they were playing top 40 stuff. You knew it was a world of guys with records and personalities. And there’s so little of that on the radio today.

There’s almost nothing in mainstream radio that has that sense of this as a club of people in a cool place having a great time sharing some of their ecstasy with those of us driving to work or sitting in our bedrooms who wanted to have a taste of what it’s like to be an adult who understands music, who reads “Rolling Stone,” who understands why we’re fighting the Gulf War, or whatever it is. And I want to piece of that.

When I turn on the radio now I don’t feel that these folks have a piece of anything that I can’t get a piece of by going into Allstate to work in the morning. It’s just another working stiff with some computer telling them what to play and when to play it and when to read the ads.

I don’t trust the voice behind the music anymore because I don’t know that he’s really an expert or that he really cares. He’s not part of a living, breathing, fertile culture whereas if I go online and look at these Podcasts I know these people have done it not for the money but for the love of it. And radio is going to have to go a long way now to convince me that there’s somebody there who cares about what they’re doing for some reason other than the cash.

Finally, I would say the purpose of radio is to keep people company. And in order to keep people company there’s got to be a human being on the other side of it. The more truly human your radio station is the better it is at keeping people company. And the more computerized and business-like it is the farther outside the box you’ll find yourself.

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