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Lessons for Radio from Avatar

As I write this, James Cameron's Avatar is fast approaching $1 Billion in box office grosses – within striking distance to overtake Titanic as the biggest box office behemoth of all time.

So what lesson is there in all this for those who create radio?

It's dangerous to generalize, of course, when we're talking about what might be the most expensive movie of all time, since it's foolish to conclude that spending a ton of money will necessarily buy you success.  I think we all know it won't.

That said, however, here are some themes I draw from the wild success of Avatar that are relevant for all who toil in radio's trenches:

1.  You can't cheap your way to success

Not only does Avatar prove this, but so does that anti-Avatar known as the "failed 10:00 pm Jay Leno experiment."

Investing in your products does not require spending record amounts.  It does, however, require that you view your content as an investment and not simply as a cost to be controlled.

Just ask Fox, home of Avatar.

Just ask NBC, home of the cheaper-than-drama Leno.

2.  An original idea, well-conceived and well-executed, can win and win big

In a world where sequels abound and every talk show sounds like every other talk show, original concepts can stand out all the more.

So it is with Cameron's Avatar.  And so it is with another original idea, well-executed that cost a mere few thousand dollars to create and has so far earned more than $150 million worldwide – I'm talking about the spook show phenomenon, Paranormal Activity.

Original ideas are everywhere around us.  The key is to be open to hearing them and giving them the fair shot they deserve.

3.  Make maximum use of new technology

Avatar is ground-breaking on several technological fronts.  In fact, Cameron specializes in creating problems that require technical innovations to solve them.

Any and every content element you create should likewise be conceived from scratch as a range of content offerings across media and across platforms.  Each should contain a variety of flavors matched to the media, the platform, the tool, and the audience.

In other words, when you create a "radio show" you are creating the wrong thing.  You're thinking too small. Instead, you should be creating a content dynamo.  A concept which naturally leads to flavors and executions in numerous ways and numerous places.  And, quite obviously, numerous sources of revenue.

If you create something new which rests on the laurels of something old, then you are not creating Avatar.

4.  Leverage name brand talent

"Stars" shine with popularity before you get your hands on them.  Rarely are they stars because you make them so.

Are they more expensive?  You bet they are.  Are the risks with such talent higher?  You bet it is.  And so is the reward (which is why they call it "risk/reward ratio").

Cameron is the star of Avatar, no two ways about that.

And both the existence of Avatar and the pre-release notoriety of the movie are due squarely to the name brand talent at its helm.

I have written extensively over the years about radio's comparative lack of talent, and it's a problem which has only deepened over time.

Ignore the importance of name brand talent at your peril.

5.  Commit

Too much of what passes for radio demonstrates a lack of commitment on the part of its creators and managers.

"Let's see what the ratings say in five days," one manager might say.  Maybe today's failure will sparkle like diamonds once the next ratings book comes out.  This kind of (common) approach isn't strategy, it's knee-jerk response to conditions that are beyond your control only because you let them spin that way.

Avatar wasn't a whim on Cameron's part, nor (God knows) on Fox's.  These people bet on success and committed to that success from day one.

If you don't have the stomach for this kind of commitment, there's either a problem with your idea or a problem with your stomach.

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