Monday, September 25, 2006


"One of the greatest threats that most companies face today is following so-called conventional wisdom."
– Steven Levitt, co-author of “Freakanomics” at 2006 Radio & Records Convention

During his keynote address at last week’s R&R convention, “Freakanomics” co-author economist Steven Levitt shared with the crowd that his own success was based on learning to ask questions that nobody else will. He advised attendees that in today’s business world they must learn to do the same if they want to remain competitive and successful. According to Levitt, "When faced with hard problems to solve, the answers can usually best be found through experimentation and randomizing."

Following Levitt’s problem-solving advice is where radio should begin to address the issue of 12-17 and 18-24 demographics' lower listening levels. Greater Media CEO Peter Smyth stated at the NAB Radio Show, "What’s happened to radio is that it has lost its hipness.” Indeed, it has, and this is a major brand/business problem for radio that must be solved creatively—and aggressively—to increase the hipness and relevance of radio with younger demos.

One of my favorite quotes from futurist Alvin Toffler is: “Change is the process by which the future invades our lives.” Well, the radio landscape has changed. The reality is, radio’s future will be filled with even more competitive media, and, in our increasingly time-squeezed society, listeners'/consumers' future lives will be filled with even more demands and distractions. The erosion of 12-17 and 18-24 demos we are experiencing now is due to the past, and present, lack of focus on these demos—all driven by a “Wall Street” mentality. Consolidation created an environment where even youth-targeted Top 40, CHR-Rhythmic, Urban/Hip Hop station programmers where programmed by corporate—more concerned with improving their stock prices, than improving their products—to contribute to cluster performance 25-54, almost to the exclusion of serving the true targets of the formats.

Now, corporate has come full-circle. Those in the big boardrooms understand that one of the many positive results of a renewed focus on programming is that improving product performance will lead to improving stock performance. In other words, if you don’t care about the product now, sooner or later you won’t have to care about the stock price either. As with all brand/business problems, the key to creatively solving radio’s “hipness” problem is a 3-step process: identify the problem, identify the solution and execute against the solution. We know the problem staring us in the face is the potential loss of a whole generation of radio listeners. But, we must delve deeper to determine, why? We can’t just focus on the obvious: listeners increased usage of—and affinity for—mp3 players, internet radio, satellite radio, electronic gaming, social networking sites, etc. We have to find out how people feel about radio and its role and relevance in their lives.

On the same NAB Show panel as Peter Smyth, Emmis chairman Jeffrey Smulyan, said, "It is incumbent on us to inject hipness. We need to take the chances and be creative.” I believe that creativity must start with changes in our approach to research.

If we continue to do conventional research in conventional ways, we will only get conventional answers—and these are not conventional times. Like the encouraging behest of a life-coach or motivational guru, we in radio must implore each other to ask better questions—provocative and evocative—in better ways to get better answers. Steve Levitt’s “Freakonomics” co-author and fellow R&R keynote speaker, journalist Stephen Dubner, cautioned that answers derived from traditional research methods can often produce a flawed picture of solutions because the circumstances under which people give answers to researchers impacts the data gathered. We have to research differently if we expect to achieve different research results to identify better solutions to execute.

For radio to solve its hard problems and remain competitive and successful, we must ask questions nobody else will. Steven Levitt is right. It’s time for more “experimentation and randomizing.”

Are you ready?

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