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Navigating Radio’s “New Normal” – A Conversation with Seth Godin

Seth Godin is a well-known marketing sage and the author of many books, including Purple Cow, New Edition: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable–Includes new bonus chapter



Seth’s new book is out now, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

I talked with Seth as part of a series of conversations to introduce the new book, summarized here

I have talked with Seth about the future of Radio before. This time, Radio’s future takes a back seat to the future of the folks who work in it. 

You can hear the entire interview by clicking below or by subscribing to all hear2.0 podcasts at iTunes. What follows is only an abbreviated transcript of our conversation.

Seth, this book is different from your previous ones in some significant ways. Can you talk about that? 

This time it’s personal. 

I think that after many years of going around the edges of talking about how ideas spread and the way people create and sell their ideas, I wanted to get right to the heart of the matter, which is that for a long time most of us have been sold a bill of goods, brainwashed into believing that there’s a way that the economy works for us, and the reality is it’s not true and that recent events have piled up enough that it’s now clear that fitting in, doing what you’re told, complying, being a cog in the giant machine isn’t the way to do work that matters to make a difference and to earn the living that you’re entitled to. 

And what I wanted to do in this book was really clearly and loudly and directly challenge people to take a different path and to do a different kind of work in a way that leaves behind a legacy of making a difference. 

Fitting in may not be the direction for the future, but it certainly has been the path for many of us in the past. I know that many people don’t reply to my blog posts – they will send me personal messages. Some people are afraid – literally afraid – to kind of put themselves out there for fear of the repercussions. 

 Well, there are two reasons for that. 

The first is that we’ve evolved as people to keep our heads down, to not be the center of attention because that’s a good way to get rocks thrown at you. 

The second reason is that school was organized by the powers-that-be to turn the typical student into a compliant, quiet, sit-in-straight-rows, fill-in-little-circles-on-the-SAT, follow-the-path, go-to-the-job-you-get-at-the-placement-office kind of person. And there’s a reason for that: It’s that if you are the organization busy hiring people, the more people you have who want to do the jobs you’ve got, the cheaper you can get away with paying them. As a result, we’ve created a culture where a few people are able to drive the agenda and a lot of people end up working hard to fit in and have a lot of fear about doing anything but that. 

Our economy has changed. The Internet has changed it, outsourcing has changed it, evolving technology has changed it. So that it’s now really clear that if you’re doing a job that can be described in a manual, if you are sitting there using somebody else’s playlist, reading somebody else’s script, and doing somebody else’s bidding, it’s impossible for you to create real value. 

But the good news is that (a) most of us are really talented and (b) that talent is now easier to expose than ever before. So we see people, whether they work in a job or own their own, being able to surface that talent, do the work that I call “art,” making direct connections with other people, touching them, changing them, doing work that people remember. Those people – call them “purple cows” if you want, are the ones that people are seeking out, trying to hire, trying to do business with today. 

I want to talk to you about that process of being indispensable but first, I want to get your advice on that gap between fitting in and being indispensable because it’s really a crisis moment for most people, isn’t it?

You read about people who are making $80K, $90K, $200K a year as middle managers for Fortune 500 companies, and then they get laid off and can’t make $15,000 a year working at a 7-11, and the question I’d ask is: Where did the $70,000 worth of value go? Did the person change or just their income? 

You read about a guy who worked in radio in a middle market, then that station downsized or whatever and now they’ve discovered their income isn’t what it used to be or their leverage isn’t what it used to be. Sure it’s a crisis. It’s a crisis because all these years that we were watching blue collar people lose their jobs, exported to China or wherever… All these years that we watched machines replace people on assembly lines, we just shook our heads and said that’s really sad but that’s not us, that’s them – good thing it’s not us. And now it’s us, now they’ve come for us. 

And so what we have to do is take a deep breath and realize now they’ve come for us, those jobs aren’t here anymore and we can’t have the expectation that 5, 10, 20 years from now, we’re going to be set for life because we have this sinecure doing that just we always did and getting paid a lot of money to do it. 

In terms of being indispensable, what are some of the recipes, the pathways, the advice that you can offer, the strategies towards that goal? 

It’s important to understand I am not arguing that you need to be a superstar. What I am arguing that you need to do is be a human being. You need to bring the skills and talents – and I use the word “genius” a lot – the “genius” that you have in other parts of your life to work. 

As long as you do a job that they can’t write down in a manual, and as long as you connect with real people in a real way, then you’re not easily replaceable because what you’ve done is brought extraordinary insight and talent to a job that isn’t easy to write down. You figured out what to do today or tomorrow, you didn’t wait for the boss to tell you. And these are very scary things to do but they’re not difficult things to do. 

And that’s the leap. The leap is overcoming the brainwashing and realizing that the more you act like an independent agent, and the more you connect with people and change the things around you, the more likely it is that the marketplace will embrace who you are and what you do. 

Isn’t it also likely that some people will really be pissed at you? 

It’s the status quo for a reason: People worked really hard to maintain the status quo. They work very diligently to make sure things stay as they are. 

When I think about an industry like radio, it’s really fascinating because if your goal is to figure out how to get more information and more music to more people in more interesting ways, then 10 years ago radio was the place to go, but now we’ve seen this explosion of technologies that will allow that to happen and yet, most of the people in radio fought it tooth and nail. To them, it wasn’t about coming up with new ways to get more channels and more information to more people; it was about how do we preserve the status quo, how do we keep things as they are. And because of that, so many people in radio missed the boat because they were busy protecting something that couldn’t be protected. 

As spectrum becomes less valuable and as the number of choices goes up, the industry leaders who could have exploited and profited from this change find themselves way behind. They find themselves either declaring bankruptcy or struggling or laying people off when at the same time, individuals have come along and said, “You know what, I can use this to further my recording career. I can use this to build a new kind of website. I can use this to build a following, a tribe of people, so that my future is assured because I’ve connected to people rather than protected a system. 

Most of the people in radio are, of course, nowhere near the tops of their companies and a lot of these people understand quite clearly what you’ve been saying over the years and agree quite fervently with it, but they have been powerless in their organizations to do a lot about it. What I hear you saying is the power is increasingly personal, and the power is increasingly available to you, whoever you are, in your organization to do something and create this “art” which might be well exist beyond the organization and may not be within those four walls, is that right? 

It is, but I want to put a big caveat; I am not saying that you necessarily have to quit your job. 

For example, what marketing used to be at a big catalog company or a big brand marketer is “let’s spend $1 million, or $10 million, or $20 million and see what happens.” In an environment like that, it’s no surprise that there is a factory mindset that you fortify and you bureaucratize because you don’t want to screw up. But when the Internet came along, we discovered that someone way down the ladder could build a website without a lot of permission or start an email newsletter without a lot of permission and drip…drip… drip… build it into an asset that was actually valuable. And in turn, it transformed entire organizations. And the individuals who led that charge, who were never ever at the top, ended up building more and more leverage within the organization because they started with something no one cared about and they tested and measured and evolved their way up. 

We’re going to see that more and more. We’re going to see organizations where people use the design tools, and the communication tools, and the social networking tools that are now available basically for free and build stuff, that sooner or later management is glad to have them doing. If it doesn’t work, what those people will do is they’ll say, “You know what, management, if you don’t believe this is where you want to go, fine, I’ll do it without you.” And they don’t have to take that big a leap, because they already know how to do it and they already know it’s working. 

You talked with Mitch Joel about how you had built one of your companies with a staff of six to become one of the largest sites online. And you made the point that a lot of traction can happen with a relatively small number of people who yield a great deal of leverage. 


So you know, if the New York Times had as few employees as the Huffington Post does, it would be an insanely profitable company. Squidoo, the company that I run, has six people and we’re self-funded and we didn’t take any venture money, and we got ranked #99 in the United States last week in traffic. Now if we were staffed like a “normal” company, we’d be losing a fortune, but you don’t need to have a lot of people now. 

You can run a radio station that broadcasts around the world online with three people. If you do that, instead of 300 people or 30 people, you can discover that that’s quite a profitable business if your niche is the right niche and your organization is the organization. What we’re seeing now is this transition. 

If you look at the pictures of the Ford Motor Company in the 1930s and 1940s when they owned not only their own factory to weave the fabric that they made the car seats out of, but they actually hired shepherds and owned their own sheep, and they made the wool to weave and the factory to make the seat covers out of. They had a lot more people than you need to run a company like Tesla or some other car company that’s going to represent the future. 

This means that as the factory becomes less important, I can outsource the stuff of the factory – Apple doesn’t make any iPhones, somebody else makes iPhones. The Google phone isn’t going to be made by Google. It’s just going to be called that and profits are going to go to them. You don’t need the factory anymore, you don’t need a receptionist anymore, you don’t need a building anymore. What you need are talented irreplaceable people. 

What is it going to take for broadcasters to really get their heads around this message of yours. You have argued that any broadcaster has to focus on creating content which is the best in the world, because there are going to be too many ways to get too many things that sound like you otherwise. You have also said is that to be in the business of offering music or information radio is to be in the business of offering music and information, not simply “radio.” What evidence do you see that broadcasters are seeing this future?

Well, I think that broadcasters have now embraced the fact that spectrum is finally on its way to being valueless. It was an 80-year run, but there’s no intelligent person I know that says that in 10 or 15 years from now they are going to be glad they own 660 on the AM dial. 

So the question is what are you going to do about that?  I love it when we can look back in history and find people who have already done this right. When I talked about tribes, I talked a lot about the Grateful Dead and how they were the highest grossing band for years, even though they rarely sold a record. 

If you work in radio, the goal is to be Wolfman Jack. Wolfman Jack did not have a giant organization behind him, he did not own any slice of U.S. spectrum and yet, he became irreplaceable. He became the one and the only – the Wolfman – and he did that from a pirate radio station, and he did it over time, and he did it by accruing an audience that wanted to hear what he had to say and, just as important, the way he said it. He was artful in the way he did his job. He didn’t just play the top 40 as sent to him by fax or email; he added significant value. 

Think about someone like Derek Sivers, who by himself coded the site that became CD Baby, which he ended up selling for over $20 million after a few years and was the largest independent music seller in the country. 

There is huge opportunity still, but the opportunities don’t belong to large corporations and big black buildings in New York City; they belong to individuals who can find leverage. 

I’m in San Diego, and here in San Diego, we in the past year have lost two of the market’s most prominent morning shows on radio. They simply couldn’t come to terms with the broadcast owners, there is less money available to the broadcaster via advertising and these were high paid morning shows. What you’re saying is these talents remain the talents that San Diego has grown to love, but their path into the future is to exercise this talent, but not necessarily with the radio broadcasters.

The gulf that they ran into was they didn’t have a permission asset, a privilege of going directly to their listeners. They were dependent on the station and its spectrum. What’s going to happen over time is that’s going to change, and over time, individuals are going to have blogs or slices of bandwidth or ways to reach listeners. Once you own that slice, it’s yours. The corporation might sponsor you, the corporation might share part of the profit, but it belongs to you if you’re any good and you’re smart about it. 

Once you have it, that channel … Diane Von Furstenberg owns her name and it doesn’t matter who she’s making clothes for or how she’s making them, people are going to seek her out. 

We’re going to see this again and again – people with talent (“artists”) are going to be able to have a direct connection to their audience, and thus the rents they get paid are going to go up because they’re the ones who own the asset, they’re the ones who lead the tribe. 

So advertising-supported radio stations have taken a 20-30% revenue hit over the past year. What lessons are wrapped up in that?

There are two lessons. 

Lesson #1 is that interruptive radio advertising is a losing proposition. It undervalues dramatically the potential connection between the listener and the radio station. Just because I’m going to put something on you don’t want to hear and charge someone for the privilege of diminishing the value of my station doesn’t mean that I’m going to be able extract enough rent from doing that and I’m going to be glad I did. So the revenue side is down. The other problem, as you’ve alluded to, is there are too many substitutes. I can drive into any city in America and find a station like the station I listen to at home in 2 seconds… click the seek button until it hits a song I know. I can’t do that with NPR. 

If you are more unique, if you have a singular voice, if people will accept no substitutes then, of course, you can charge more, of course there is more value there because you’re the one worth listening to; you’re not just easily replaced. 

There are, as you know, a lot of displaced people in radio. What advice would you offer to these displaced people? 

I’d start by dramatically lowering my overhead, make it so that you can get by longer without giving up your quest. What we see in “artists” of all kinds is that they’re good at living in the attic until they figure it out. You can’t do it on a timetable because it takes more than that. 

Second, I would figure out how do you, as rapidly as you can, get as far away as you can from a compliant model. What they teach you to get a broadcasting license and what they teach you to get a job at a major market station is exactly the opposite of what you’re going to need to do to be someone that people seek out. 

You’re going to have to be the best at something, you’re going to have to be the one and the only, and you’re going to have to deliver it to people, whether they be corporate clients or listeners, in a way that they want to get it. 

I guess the last thing that I would focus on is, going back to this advertising idea, is how do you make it so that the revenue you receive from what you do is related to and additive to the value that you deliver. 

If I was leading a tribe of teenagers in Dallas, Texas on the radio, I would figure out how do I take the connection among those teenagers and between me and those teenagers, and turn it into things that generate revenue. I’d go in that direction rather than the other one, which is how do I interrupt them with a screaming ad for a taco joint, because there is not enough money in that. There is more money in creating “tribal events” where you add authority and thus honestly generate revenue as you’re interacting with this tribe of people. 

Because what’s not going to go away – and this is the really good news – what’s not going to go away is the power of audio, the power of connecting to people in their down time, the power of being in front of them 2, 3, 4, 5 hours a day, and the ability (now that spectrum is gone) to have “your own station” with whatever niche, whether it’s geographic or cultural or demographic, that you think needs your help. 

Your advice over the years has been getting more and more personal. What began as advice to build a database and get consumer names and addresses has evolved to the intensely personal advice you’re offering in this book. I have to ask you the question, what is going on in your life that brings you to this?

I hate to say it but I’m really angry, Mark. I’m really angry… I’m excited that so many doors are open, angry that so many people don’t see what happened to them and don’t understand why. They’re waiting for things to go back to normal and the problem, the challenge, the opportunity, is that this is the new normal. 

All those kids who are in school today, who are learning how to do the jobs of 1960 or 1970, they’re in big trouble. All those 40- or 50-year-old executives who are hoping they’re going to wait this thing out, they’re in really big trouble. 

I get a lot of email everyday – almost as much as you – and when I read the notes from people who are saying “I read this and I read that, but I’m going to wait,” it frustrates me and I wanted to be as direct and compelling as I could because this is the opportunity of a lifetime and some people are going to miss it. 

I don’t want that to happen.

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