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Radio, Comic-Con, and the Future of Entertainment

Comic-Con opens this week in San Diego. It’s ground zero for media and popular culture and one of the biggest star-studded events this side of Oscar.

What better excuse to talk to Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture

. But it’s the book’s subtitle that has the most relevance for a media audience: “What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment.”

Comic-Con is a melting pot for media content and platforms. So what lessons should broadcasters take away from an event as likely to attract movie stars as Klingons?


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Rob, what can the “world’s wildest trade show tell us about the future of entertainment”?

Right now the hardest thing in marketing is not just trying to get consumers to your product, but getting fans – raving fans who love your product and will be your ambassadors to the marketplace.

Well let me tell you, the fans don’t come any more raving than they do at the San Diego Comic-Con. This has been the case in the comics industry for more than 50 years. They’ve actually been able to inspire hordes of ordinary people to get so involved in the stories they’re telling and the characters they’ve created that those fans think nothing of flying across the country, dressing up as their favorite characters and wandering around for everybody to see, trumpeting how much they love this stuff.

Now wouldn’t it be amazing if brands out there could somehow tap into some of that energy?

One of the things that Comic-Con tells us is that the relationship between producers and their raving fans is not always straightforward. Ownership of your brands is shared with your fans.

You point out many themes for business readers that are a characteristic of the comics business and of entertainment in general, including:

(1) Complexities of a global transmedia environment (2) Disruptive changes in the delivery distribution platform (3) Generational change within the audience and the business (4) Entrepreneurial innovation putting pressure on incumbents (5) Tension between centralization and democratization in the creative industry

These are characteristics not just of the comics industry but of entertainment at large – television, film, music, radio. How do we navigate these trends?

These are big things that are shaping the world that we’re living in. No industry has full control of where this stuff is going. And I think the biggest mistake many people make when they’re trying to do strategic planning for their business is to lock down on a set of certainties about the things they think they know as if the trend gives us a date certain for when changes are going to happen.

Part of my work as a futurist is to look at the stuff in a broader way – keeping in mind that these forces are pushing in particular directions. Where they may fall out for your industry could be in a couple of different ways, and the most prudent kind of planning looks at a broad spectrum:

What do we do in an expanding market? What do we do in a contracting market? What do we do in a market where these forces of centralization are where the innovation is coming from? Are the “big guys” calling the shots or are the innovations happening at a grassroots level?

Each is a different scenario and has different implications for the future.

So in the last chapter of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture there’s a whole practicum on this scenario planning method and how you can look at changes that are shaping your industry in a broader way.

In that final chapter, you say to pick two dimensions where each has two extremes and plot those extremes against each other; you end up with four quadrants – four different scenarios.

For example in the radio case, radio’s not going away, but it’s also not going to be what it was 20 years ago. It’s going to be some different kind of experience where we’ve got Pandora and other online players, where radio companies re-envision themselves as local marketing companies that help their clients do a better a job of reaching their consumers. All of these things are going to co-exist to one degree or another, right?

Exactly. And what that scenario matrix does (if you define your polarities properly) is to serve as a compass. So as you’re going in one particular direction, you know what lies at the end of that particular path.

There are certain sets of things that travel together and when you know the direction you’re going in, you can start forming those groupings and you can start seeing around the corner a little bit better.

One of the points you make in the book is about the traditional “comic shop.” You say it’s not in the business of selling comics; it’s in the business of selling an experience around comics. I wonder if you could elaborate on that because in my business, if you are a broadcaster, you’re not just in the business of selling listeners or selling airtime or selling content, you’re selling an experience around that.

This was an epiphany that I had a few years ago at Comic-Con because I’m a collector and an old school fan myself. I was going around to the dealers and I was looking at the books and I discovered that most of the books that interested me personally were things that I already had or couldn’t afford or whatever. And yet instead of walking away from that part of the show, I realized that I actually got a lot of enjoyment out of the experience of going through the boxes, of talking with the dealers and at the end, I would buy something just as a way of saying “thank you for letting me have this experience.” And it sunk in that that’s really what separates fandom from consumerism.

Whatever your industry, consumers come and go depending on how much money and time they have to spend. A fan is there for something else. They’re there for more than the transaction. And if you can give them that extra something that they’re looking for, that sense of belonging to a community, that sense of connectedness to things that they cherish, then people will spend the money just to be in the presence of that – it has value to them.

You’re delivering a valuable experience. You’re not cutting corners. You’re not economizing in ways that make them feel cheated afterwards. Everybody leaves happy.

Here’s where I think we get into trouble in the radio business. We have fans. We also have this broader group of listeners who are not fans and in fact, the ratings folks judge us not so much by the number of fans we have as by the total mass of listeners and the amount of time they spend, a lot which is passive and not necessarily passion-based.

You say fans are there for an experience beyond the transactional. Isn’t part of the answer for broadcasters to focus on doing things for those fans which are more than just what you do for every other listener – creating new experiences? For example, public radio creates “clubs” where fans pay $1,200 a year so they can have experiences in the halo of the brands they love. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?

Yes, it’s something like that. Actually NPR has done a really good job of creating a brand ambiance that people want to be part of.

I think that talk radio listeners are the closest approximation in mass media to the fans at Comic-Con. There are legions of people with great devotion and loyalty to particular hosts and particular sets of ideologies that can be mobilized in all kinds of ways. If the host writes a book, they’ll buy the book. If the host goes on TV, they’ll watch the TV show. So, building up these brands that provide that sense of community, I think, is something good.

Your point about the inability of ratings metrics to capture the true value of the fans to radio is important. In this digital economy, a lot of our old productivity metrics are insufficient to capture the value that’s being created and capture the kinds of transactions that are going on. And one of the long struggles that I’m having with a lot of my corporate clients is around creating a richer set of qualitative metrics that better capture how this experience works and how you, as a business, are serving your best customers and creating something that is valuable beyond the next quarterly targets – something that you can really build on.

You mention one word in this book frequently and it’s a word that in radio circles hasn’t been heard much: Transmedia. What does that mean and how does it apply to my world?

I think it’s ironic that radio isn’t in on the transmedia thing, in that radio was probably part of one of the more successful early experiments in transmedia.

“Transmedia” is basically taking a story that originates in one format or medium and extending that story across different formats and different media as a way of capturing new audiences or a way of keeping audiences engaged.

And one of the great early examples of this was Little Orphan Annie, the newspaper comic strip that would contain a code, and you would have to listen to the radio broadcast to decode the message, and then you would have bonus content added to the value of reading the comic strip. Is that really different from, say, pointing an iPhone at a QR code somewhere and getting bonus content around a digital comic book? It’s the same model! It’s the same idea of taking aspects of the story and aspects of the experience and bringing it somewhere else.

So I think radio could be a part of that if they think more broadly about their model.

Transmedia thinking reflects that the content and the fans of that content don’t want to be wed to any particular distribution platform – they are multiplatform out of the box and they expect their creations and their products and services to be experienced across platforms. And a piece of content is not the same across every platform – it takes on a different flavor or a different look or feel across platforms, right?

Exactly. For example, if you make a movie that is too faithful to the comic book source material, it’s going to look ridiculous as a movie.

In the history of radio, one of the most successful media adaptations ever was Orson Welles’ adaptation of War of the Worlds. He didn’t stand there and read the book on the radio. He conceived of it in the format of radio news announcements and things that people were accustomed to hearing on radio to tell that story. It was a brilliant reimagining of the source material and it created a sensation.

That’s a great example of thinking beyond where the material comes from, thinking beyond the story and beyond the platform.

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