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Seth Godin on Radio’s Future

If you like your head stuck comfortably into the sand, then Seth Godin is your nightmare.

Godin, of course, is the author of many books which are probably already on your shelf: Permission Marketing, Unleashing the Ideavirus, Purple Cow, Free Prize Inside, among others. His latest, Small is the New Big is a compilation of blog posts and ebooks and articles from Fast Company magazine. A recent keynote speaker at the 2005 NAB, Seth is also CEO of

If you care about the radio industry, then you owe it to yourself to listen to the full audio Q&A with Seth. You won’t find this interview anywhere else. Only a small part of the interview is excerpted here.

Seth, how, exactly, is small is the new big?

Well, big used to matter. Big companies used to defeat small companies, big armies used to defeat small armies. The whole idea of being successful was to go to a big college, get a big job, run a big organization and do big things. Because you could leverage your factory, you could leverage your marketing money, you could leverage your FCC licenses.

And what happened just in the last five or ten years is that big stopped mattering as much. Suddenly, you didn’t need a big ad budget, you didn’t benefit by being the biggest newspaper in a three- newspaper town, you didn’t have economies of scale; in fact, the economies of tiny – the advantage of outsourcing, the speed to market, the flexibility – suddenly helped little guys succeed.

What we see is not necessarily that you need to have a small group of people, but that you need to think small. And thinking small helps you get big and stay big, because thinking small means you’re going to treat individuals with respect, it means you’re going to be quick, it means you’re going to be responsive.

The radio industry is a big business. What should radio do to maintain its relevance in this era when thinking small is really the key to success?

If you’re in radio today, you have a spectacular asset: The ability to communicate to people directly who want to hear from you. But it’s a wasting asset. And big media companies refuse to acknowledge the fact that their licenses are gonna be worth less in ten years than they were ten years ago. And they’re trying very hard to keep their head in the sand and ignore that.

The smart media companies, the ones who are thinking small, say “we have this really powerful asset, we need to use it to migrate the attention to smaller and smaller buckets of identifiable people who want to hear from us.”

So if I ran a media company today, I’d say, “How can I turn this group of 100,000 listeners into 1,000 groups of 100 people who wanna subscribe to a podcast? How can I deliver exactly what they want, anticipate it, offer them personal and relevant information that they need when they need it.

Do you think that the large broadcasters will figure that out?

Well, if history is any guide, 80 percent of them will not. But 20 percent of them will reinvent themselves for a different future. They will realize that if they go fast and first in a big way, they can start acquiring this asset, earning this privilege of permission.

Why doesn’t my radio station know my zip code and my email address? And why doesn’t it earn the right to deliver to me their audio, or by email, information that’s extraordinarily local in a way that I want to get it? If radio started carving up the world by zip code, they could go to an advertiser and say, “We’re gonna let all the people who live within two miles of here know about your grand opening, but nobody else”. And by being able to pinpoint the right person with the right message on the right day, they would build an asset that’s priceless.

Advertisers for years have been insisting on one or two things at the lowest possible price with a CPM mindset. And the mistake that media companies make is they listen to the advertisers. The advertisers didn’t ask for Google. You build it first, and the advertisers show up second.

Terrestrial Radio, HD Radio, Satellite Radio, Internet Radio, Podcasting, and more. Where do you think those things fit in the constellation of what consumers are going to be interested in? What’s your vision of radio’s future?

You know, I see three or four alternative futures and they depend on some technology and marketing bets.

Scenario A: Everyone has Wi-Fi or WiMAX in their car. Once that happens, we’re not talking about 200 XM radio stations, we’re talking about 2 million, and all bets are off.

Scenario B: The aftermarket people get very focused on putting hard drives and iPod docks in cars. If that happens, again, radio is in trouble, because people are gonna bring their own pre- recorded content with them.

Scenario C: We end up in the satellite world, they figure out how to get a little bit more content through those pipes and we end up with 300 or 400 channels in the car. I had XM radio for a year to check it out. What’s interesting is it doesn’t matter how many stations there are, sooner or later you end up with four. And so the thing is, what do you have to do to be one of the four, and how do you live in a world where you’ve got hundreds of competitors a click away, but if you spend all your time not offending anybody, you’ll never get anybody.

Scenario D: A hybrid of what we’ve got now: Traditional analog radio combined with HD combined with satellite. This scenario will, I think, not make anybody particularly happy, because the advertisers are going to be faced with an increasingly splintered audience that’s hard to address, and as a result, it will be hard for that local car dealership or that politician to do a sensible radio buy.

Well where’s the logic, then, in going down that last path?

If you’ve got a radio station that’s doing okay, you need to figure out how to build non-radio links to your listeners. Look at Google – why didn’t Random House or Simon & Schuster or the New York Times start Google? The technology wasn’t that hard. The answer is because those companies saw themselves as being the “dead tree” business, not in the “how do we help people find information” business.

Well, if radio is about the “how do I leverage my FCC license” business, you’re in trouble. But if instead you say, “how do I deliver multimedia to local users wherever they are”, then you win, because you have such a huge head start over all these little guys who are trying to start web companies or trying to start Internet radio stations. You’ve already got the attention, loyalty and emotional connection with hundreds of thousands of people.

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