You have to hand it to the Newspaper Association of America. When they book a keynote speaker, they don't mess around or worry about angering their membership. Case in point: Google CEO Eric Schmidt closed out their convention last week, a controversial but important player in the new media game.
I don't know about you, but I keep watching what's happening over in the cratering newspaper world in much the same way you just have to gawk when you drive past a roadside fender bender. I just can't take my eyes off these guys. When I think that home delivery is becoming a thing of the past here in Detroit, that both newspapers in Chicago have declared bankruptcy, the Seattle P-I and The Rocky Mountain News are kaput, and The Boston Globe is on the ropes - that's even worse than radio's plight.
At least for the moment. Actually, I think of newspapers as having been a few yards closer to the ocean when the economic tsunami hit last September. Radio is up the beach a bit, but we're still getting hit pretty hard. And it's questionable whether we are really dealing honestly with our dilemma. Yes, we're slashing expenses. But that's not devising a new operating strategy or a new business model. Now, of course, newspapers are trying to do both - axing, firing, and cutting back, along with trying to figure out the new digital platform monetization puzzle. It's not easy, but they're trying, but it's akin to trying to repair an airplane at 30,000 feet.
And that's why their choice of maven of the moment Schmidt to close out their big convention was of keen interest. So as we've been doing in this space, let's look at a few of his comments, and replace "newspapers" with "radio," "readers" with "listeners."
“Advertising that is useful is going to work."
This sounds so basic - like a Chauncey Gardener bit of advice. But the consumer's notion of advertising has changed. In radio, we've trained ourselves to think that from a listener point of view, advertising is bad, it's interruptive, and gets in the way of what people really want to hear. But in the Internet world, search has changed that construct. When people are looking for something to purchase or are doing online research, advertising can actually be helpful and directive.
Radio puts so little time and effort into the quality of commercials that it's no wonder they're tune-outs. But advertising that is informative, cost-saving, responsive, and yes, entertaining, can cut through and be effective. There are TV commercials we stop for when watching shows on TiVo - because they stand out and look interesting. It's hard to think of any examples in radio.
"Innovation is bizarre because it's very difficult to centrally plan. But you can architect a structure where innovation is welcome, and where it's taken advantage of."
We've talked before in this space about Google's policy to set aside time for their employees to come up with good ideas. For radio, this would have been a great idea five years ago, during the good old days. Today, radio managers are hard-pressed to find time for anything other than their most immediate duties.
But the larger issue is whether those who are left at stations even feel like their ideas and creativity are welcome. Radio has become so top-down that many feel disenfranchised, which isn't going to breed an atmosphere of innovation, precisely at a time when all good ideas should be embraced. Not surprisingly, it's difficult to remember the last truly innovative idea you heard on the radio, whether it was a format, a personality show, or even a sales approach. People keep doing things the same way often because they're not encouraged to think about doing them differently.
Is there an opportunity for a radio company to break out of the pack and try something fresh? While company meetings are becoming a thing of the past, wouldn't it make sense for a broadcaster to bring together their smartest people - inside and outside of the company - to brainstorm new ways of programming, selling, operating, and providing solutions for advertisers that meet today's current needs? Yes.
"Think in terms of what your reader wants. These are ultimately consumer businesses. If you piss off enough of them you will not have any more, or if it makes them happy, you will grow them quickly."
Very Yoda-like, but on the money. Re-thinking the listening experience, giving consumers services, value, and information they cannot get from a website - all ways to make people happy. On the other hand, radio has sadly gotten good at ignoring consumers, not listening to them, failing to respond to their needs and questions, and not providing transparency along the way.
We've largely stopped doing the kind of research that guides improvement, unlike many of the products and services that Americans enjoy. When Apple comes out with its next version of the iPhone, we expect positive change, innovation, and features that we'd like to enjoy in the device. It's not that hard to determine what consumers want, and to give it to them. In fact, radio used to be pretty good at this, but today, there's little time to even answer the request lines, and no money for research. Listeners know that in radio, we continue to behave the same as we always have, not responding to new consumer needs. It's why so many have moved on or divide their entertainment time with more and different options.
Some feel that Eric Schmidt simply lucked out by ascending to Google's CEO, after the company was already well-established. And among hardened newspaper veterans, many felt his "advice" was naive, disingenuous, and too late to make a difference. But you have to give the Newspaper Association of America credit for having the balls to bring Schmidt into their convention. Google is that 800 pound gorilla that is changing an industry. Even bigger than Clear Channel.