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Seth Godin wants Radio to Start Something

Seth Godin is a regular guest on this blog, and for good reason.  He’s the author of many outstanding books including Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us



, and many others.  He is the author of the

world’s most popular marketing blog.  He is a speaker, an innovator, a starter, and a shipper.  And his terrific new book is called Poke the Box


I have talked with Seth several times, and this is one of our most important conversations about radio.  Although I have boiled down our conversation in the transcript below, I strongly recommend you watch the video and share it with your peers.  Your future may depend on it.

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Seth, Poke the Box is all about starting things.  It argues that you should start more things more often despite potential failures.  Why is starting things so important here and now?

Here’s the thing, Mark; the industrial age is over.  I think we can all agree that in the last few years we’ve seen this mindset of average products for average people – assembly lines, cogs doing what they’re told, all of that has crumbled.  And all of that was supported by people who did what they were told – compliant cogs in the system who were good at following instructions and doing the same work over and over again where failure was a bad thing.

Well, the world is shifting, things are changing, and the old system – whatever the system was – isn’t as bulletproof as we thought.  So what will take its place?

Well, it turns out the asset that can’t be outsourced, the asset that every organization needs is the ability to initiate.  The idea of starting, of pushing things forward, of failing often on the path to success, and I found that no one was talking about that.  No one had written a book that said you will do better if you will start and ship and finish things.

And so what I’m trying to do is give people a permission slip.  If you were waiting for someone to say, go, go, go; here you go.

Go, go, go.

Is there a difference between starting things and copying things?  Because people are always asking, “Mark, give me an example of a broadcaster who’s doing a really good job of [blank].”  They want to see what somebody else is doing and adapt that or copy it wholesale.

By the time someone writes a case study for the thing you want, it will be too late.

There used to be this idea that you could be a fast follower.  There used to be this idea that you would wait for someone to invent the digital watch and then you would make digital watches better; that you would wait for someone to come up with a new kind of music and then you would go do that music better.

The thing is the Internet makes it so easy for these ideas to spread, that it doesn’t go “one guy” and then “one guy copy,” it goes “one guy” and then 80 guys copy it.

Apple has the iPad and now there are 90 tablets being produced – 90 – just six months later.  In that maelstrom of noise, there’s only one that people will remember, which is the first one.  And we’ve seen the same thing in other arenas.

You can say, “I’m the next Justin Bieber.”  But you just said his name. It turns out that being “the one” the world of Google is the one you have to be, because that’s the one that people are looking for.

It’s not about copying this and getting it into a new market or copying this and getting a little more shelf space; it’s about figuring how to go first in the right way.

But isn’t that the hard part?  After all, broadcasters are not incentivized by their bosses to try new things.  They’re not incentivized to try or fail, and they’re certainly not incentivized to take risks.  They’re not incentivized to innovate at all, for the most part.  How do you get around the raw lack of incentive to do the right thing?

You’re bringing up a good point, except the really hard part is the failing part, not the inventing.

Everyone has an idea.  Everyone at some time in their life has committed an act of genius.  The hard part is overcoming kindergarten through high school base training of not failing, and we reinforce that by telling our employees:  Don’t fail.  We reinforce that by looking for hints from our bosses that we shouldn’t fail.

So part of my message here is to the boss:  If you’re going to punish the failures don’t expect any successes.  If you’re going to punish the failures, don’t expect anybody to raise their hand.  Why should they?

So part of the deal or part of the contract is that the boss has to say, “You know what, that failed, congratulations.  Here’s a bonus.”  “That failed, congratulations. You get the parking spot for employee of the month.”

Because if we don’t start failing, we’re toast.

You have a line in your book:  “The market is obsessed with novelty.”  And you mean that in the most positive of ways.  But Seth, I don’t think the broadcasting industry recognizes that at all.  Instead what you hear from broadcasters is “we’re listened to by almost everybody, almost every place, almost all the time. Why don’t we get credit for that?  Why doesn’t Wall Street reward us for that?  Why doesn’t the New York Times write that up?”

Let’s talk about broadcast a little bit.

Clearly anyone who has looked at pop music knows that novelty is as important as ever, if not more important, that radio is a merchant of musical novelty, that classical music stations tend not to do very well, and one reason is that there is not a lot of new classical music to listen to.

One of the reasons we listen to music is to hear something new, and yet radio stations seem stuck when it comes to ideas of format, connection to listeners, creating social movements, creating all these other forms of novelty.  And so the Internet says “we’ll do that instead. You don’t have to do it, we’ll take care of it.”  And broadcasters are leaving attention on the floor.  They’re leaving behind all of these ways that they could get people to engage, and what the best people in radio are doing is saying, “You know what, I’ll just start my own radio station.”  That’s what the Internet is. It’s a free radio station for people with the guts to go find listeners.

Leo Laporte started this way not with music but with nonfiction, and Leo takes home millions of dollars a year personally by running what is basically a radio station on the Internet about technology, and it’s going to be repeating again and again.

If you want to talk to people for a living, if you want to use this connection, you can’t rely on the handout of Herbert Hoover in 1928 when he gave frequencies to all these people for nothing, because those frequencies are getting less valuable every single day.

Instead, people are focusing their attention in a different place.  Sure, the radio might be on, but there’s a difference between being on and you having attention.

And the simple example is if you go on the radio and said “please call me right now,” how many times will the phone ring?  Because I guarantee you, if I went on my blog and say here’s Mark’s phone number, please call him, his phone would ring.

Here’s the psychology inside the average broadcaster’s mind.  They recognize that what you’re saying is true.  The revenue that can be derived from those activities is what I call “expensive dollars” compared to the revenue that can be derived because I have this federally licensed frequency and the ability to extract dollars from ad agencies who are waiting in line to hand it over to me for nameless, faceless, anonymous ears who are listening or at least hearing, if not engaging.  That’s the problem – expensive money vs. inexpensive money.  What do you say to those people?

I would say quit whining.  If it’s working so great, what are you listening to Mark and me for?  You should go to the bank and count how much money you have.

You’re not really saying that.  What you’re really saying is you would like the new money to be as brainlessly easy to get as the old money, and it’s not.  And because it’s not and because you’re lazy, you’re not getting any of the new money are you?

If you had listened to me and Mark when we first talked six or eight years ago and said:  “We’re going to start collecting permission by zip code of people who want to hear from us,” by today you’d have maybe half a million people getting your daily newsletter.  You know what that’s called?  That’s called Groupon.  And you know what Groupon’s worth? I don’t know, $8 billion!?

Tell me why Groupon wasn’t started by your radio network?  I don’t know why it wasn’t started by your radio network.  You had everything you needed to start Groupon, except guts.

Seth, between the lines of all our conversations is the central idea that this thing we think of as radio, with the tower and the audience, functioning in the traditional way with the ad agencies, really isn’t what we are at all.  What we are is this permission asset with a community of fans and community of advertisers who connect with each other, and our job is to leverage that community so as to monetize it in natural, organic ways, no matter how:  Off the air, on the air, in the community, online, everywhere.  Why is it so difficult for broadcasters to get their heads around this?

I’ll tell you why.  It’s a little bit like being in a country that has a lot of oil.  Countries that have a lot of oil almost never innovate in almost any way.  There’s a long history of this.  Because if the stuff is coming out of the ground, it’s hard to go to school and do your work, because you can just go outside and get more stuff, but when the natural resource disappears you’re in trouble.

So in my hand is a MiFi card.  In two years it won’t cost what it costs now, and it won’t be as big as it is today.  It will cost thirty cents and it will be in my car.  Now when I have this in my car and my radio is no longer terrestrial radio or Sirius radio, but Internet radio, what’s your license worth?  Once I have every radio station available in my car, and not just the ones it currently has, but any one I want to invent on Pandora, what’s you license worth?

What we’ve come down to is this:  You will not be able to retire before this hits.  You were hoping you could, but you can’t.  So given that that’s the case, what are you going to do about it?

You had better find out where the “expensive” money is.  You had better find out what asset you are going to be able to build because your current asset, your FCC license, is about to be worth zero.

Seth Godin, thank you so much for your time today.

It’s always a pleasure.  Thanks for the work you do.  It really matters.

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