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Radio: Change the Industry or Get Out of the Way

"The future belongs to those who take the present for granted."

So says Clay Shirky in the epilogue to his classic book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

, a book full of perfect lessons like this one.

With economic recovery around the corner, many in radio are holding their collective breath, hoping that advertising demand will blossom, that rates will rise, that PPM will open new advertiser vistas, that nobody reminds us how much money we wasted fretting over HD (don't say you weren't warned), that longstanding morning shows won't drop dead from old age, that "reach" will matter as much in the cost-per-click world of 2010 as it did in the cost-per-thousand world of 2000.

Sure, we're dancing the the digital diva, you may say, but where's the real money?  Where's the money we're due because of who we are?  Where's that pot of gold under the rainbow?

There's a joke about the mega-broadcaster who is down to one employee, and that's the guard outside the door containing the laptop which drives every format on every station in every market.  That day may be coming.

At least it's on a laptop so it can theoretically be local.

Into this fray comes a cry for more youth in radio!  A cry for fresher ideas.

The NAB Radio Show is now the annual convening of radio's elder statesmen, while the action and the "new ideas" are happening in other places, other conferences, places with "digital" in the title.

Yes, we need more young people with more ideas, and we need to welcome them to an industry which has done its level best to avoid these people and their ideas since they were, as my grandfather might have said, in "short pants."  

Radio's audience, like its management and talent, is ripening on Mother Nature's vine.  Those who find us important and essential (as opposed to those who simply find us unavoidable) are getting older by the day – literally.  

It is entirely conceivable that future generations will discover this post on whatever supercalifragalistic device Apple is making by then and consider quaint the notion that radio once had stations with popular music, as opposed to All Talk and/or Spanish.

To be fair, this fate awaits us only in the Twilight Zone episode where we view our current hardships as cyclical, punctuated with a passing flirtation with digital alternatives, each one having a worse revenue model than the next.

This fate awaits us only if we fail to take the present for granted, and move on from there.

In times of revolution, writes Shirky, the experienced (i.e., "older") among us are  at risk of regarding this change as a fad.

Writes Shirky, "Young people are taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models, not because they know more useful things than we do, but because they know fewer useless things than we do."

So how do you recruit younger talent at every level?

You don't.

You don't "recruit" youth into radio's sandbox.  You take radio to youth's sandbox.

You play in their backyard, and you play the games they want to play, not the ones you wish they played the way their parents do.  My wife's elderly grandmother has about ten radios in her home.  How many will be in the home of your children when they reach that ripe old age?

We don't recruit youth, youth recruits us.  Only when they stop rolling their eyes long enough to realize its worth the effort because we're actually listening and acting like we care.  

That's right, you want them to listen to you?  Then you need to listen to them.

We need to change radio into the kind of cross-platform, dazzlingly interactive medium young people want us to be.  We can't cover our eyes, count to ten, and open them, squinting to see if any young whippersnappers suddenly find us endlessly fascinating and alluring.  More likely, they'll be wondering why we're wearing our pants so far above the waist.

We need to get out of what radio has been and into what it's becoming.

When talent asks us how much more they will be paid to post to a blog or produce videos or otherwise engage with and respond to an audience of social peers, we must remind them that the universe doesn't care what their contract reads, only when their contract ends.

We need to get out of the NAB Radio Show and into the events native to a digital media-savvy crowd.

If you're in Public Radio, you need to demand that somebody, somewhere toss a wrench into the bureaucratic cogs responsible for a structure that made sense in the days when content didn't exist unless it existed on a local affiliate station.

If you're in commercial radio and your company is structured the same way it was when William Daniels urged Dustin Hoffman to contemplate "plastics," then all the recruiting efforts in the world won't bring you a bevy of youthful saviors, especially when you try to explain why the idea that you can win a prize if only you "fan" the station on Facebook is anything other than a cheap gimmick.

Success is not an entitlement regardless of how successful radio has been before.  Media is now all of us and we are all media.

Youth values what youth values, not what you and I wish them to value.  

Change the industry, and the young will follow.

Weather the storm in the hope that happy days will be here again, and you'll get exactly what you deserve.

Not what you wished for.

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