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The End of Radio’s Zero-Sum Game

Years ago, I invited author and technology guru Guy Kawasaki to speak before a group of broadcasters.  The heart of his message was this question: Why does radio focus on a zero-sum game, the idea that for me to win my competitor must lose, and vice versa?

The answer, of course, is that ratings themselves are a zero-sum game. There are 100 shares to go around, and the only way for me to get some is if you don’t.  And revenue is tied directly to ratings, so there are only 100 shares of revenue linked to 100 shares of ratings.  It’s one big pie with only so many slices.

At least that’s how it used to work, but no longer.

The beauty of our digital age is that advantage comes to those broadcasters who grow outside the Arbitron world.  By many estimates, this is the only place significant growth for radio will emerge.  Advantage will come to those who imagine (to take the extreme) that Arbitron no longer exists and that stations no longer need ratings measures to drive revenue.  What they need, in this extreme example, are ideas and fans and clients and results.  And these ideas are cross-platform ideas, even cross-media ones.

There is no zero-sum game in the world of ideas, where consumers and clients can be connected in an infinite number of ways and monetized accordingly.

Years later, Guy Kawasaki is 100% right, and the most successful broadcasters of the future will be those that view their over-the-air prowess as the engine which drives their cross-platform idea machines.

In other words, the future will belong not to those who count their ratings points but to those who exercise those ratings points to create more value for consumers and clients in the process.

Radio – all media in fact – is (as my friend Tom Asacker puts it) in the idea business, not the broadcasting one.  Smart broadcasters will be innovating and testing new content and platform strategies – new ideas.  On-site, online, and on-air.

As Seth Godin once told me, “the worst enemy of a radio station is the ratings because they make you abandon your ‘tribe.'”

The enemy is not the guy across the street.  It’s our obsession with zero-sum thinking.

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