Innovation Is Radio's Answer

Daily, we hear about the usual solutions to the radio industry's problems.

Cutting expenses.

Staying positive (or as I call it, drinking the Kool-Aid).

Waiting for the economic downturn to end.

Unfortunately, you never hear the word innovate as it pertains to radio.

Of course, I am speaking of the people who control the business. The CEOs, their lemmings and the industry lobby and trade groups that they prop up.

You may not know that when Cumulus shut down its interactive department, John Dickey moved like lightning to squash innovation. He wasn't the only group executive to do so. That's how decisive these radio execs can be when it comes to cutting expenses. After all, who needs interactive when you can save a few dollars?

And why?

Cumulus has a problem. It's called Susquehanna, a $1.2 billion company it bought with the corporate credit card and now can't make the payments.

Remember Susquehanna?

An outstanding company run by an outstanding individual name David Kennedy. Dan Halyburton, another Susquehanna exec was also a quality guy. If you spent $1.2 billion for Susquehanna's 33 radio stations, you'd think someone at Cumulus would have thought to keep two of the company's brightest executives on board to keep running it.

So, Susquehanna became Cumulus and the end results weren't pretty.

Same for Citadel.

You can lead a Suleman to water, but you can't stop him from drowning in debt when his bean counter eyes got so big all he could see were three letters -- A, B and C.

And, miraculously, with the help of Teddy Forstmann's ability to run up debt, Suleman thought he would become Disney overnight when in the end he turned out to be a mere shadow of the Disney empire -- Mickey Mouse.

The ABC stations were flushed down the toilet with Fagreed Suleman's other best work -- the group he inherited from Larry Wilson and turned into a four cent stock.

Take Clear Channel.

Clear Channel was once a $90 stock -- hard to believe it today because at the start of consolidation it was a major company. When the Mays family saw that there was no way they could run a 1,100 station radio group, they stuck Lee Capital Partners and Bain Media with the debt. They escaped with another pay day and left John Slogan Hogan to be the man of the hour for what was once a mighty and awesome group of stations.

Again, the big and powerful somehow had their way with these Cinderella assets and turned them into -- well, a slipper. The ball was over. The prince was gone. And the expenses were stuck on their Black card.

In each case, major assets with talented people were run into the ground by a small handful of pretenders who have not even earned the right to run one radio station.

Stay with me here.

Suleman, Markie Mark and Randall Mays and the Dickey boys have about as much experience running an actual radio property as, say, NAB CEO David Rehr has in running a broadcast lobby group.

But I digress.

Every day readers have good ideas that could be useful to a radio industry hurt by the economy, crippled by the lack of new listeners and technologically challenged.

Read the press and you still see the establishment hawking HD radio and streaming terrestrial content -- that's not the future.

It will take innovation to secure a place for radio in the digital future.

By innovation I mean new, fresh ideas.

Different ways of doing things. Different ways of deploying talent. Taking chances based on the experience of those who know how to program content -- not the other way around -- CEOs who know nothing about radio.

I'm seeing an unsettling period of time coming up over the next few months where some groups will be bankrupt and more jobs will be lost, more chances to innovate -- lost.

Perhaps you might be interested in what happened and what I learned working with college students in a brainstorming situation. Remember now, they did not have the experience of, say, a radio executive, programmer or talent. But they researched that which they did not know.

Here are a few things about innovation that may turn you on -- and turn the consolidation CEOs off. We worked with broadcast groups, satellite operators and several record labels.

• The first idea is the worst idea
. That means that most people never get a chance to come up with a second or third idea because someone intimidates them, tells them it's too expensive, cannot be done or whatever. Instead we learned to encourage each other to come up with outrageous, useless ideas if that's what it took to eventually arrive at a brilliant one.

• Everyone is treated equally.
It takes a hell of a manager to do this. Never grade an idea ("Hey, that's a great suggestion to do no repetition weekends"). Someone else may say, "Repeat the same song every hour" and once the group rejects that idea, all innovation grinds to a halt.

• The facilitator does not go first in proposing ideas.
When was the last time you attended a meeting where an agenda was circulated in advance asking you to propose solutions to a problem? The facilitator may participate but only after others have had a chance to suggest new concepts.

• Anyone suggesting an idea should be able to do so within a minute -- and then it goes for discussion.
I actually run a stopwatch. The thought should be, "How can I help Susie build that idea to be even better?" Once the participators get into this, they get real sharp.

• Look for people to pair off and further develop ideas that the group likes.
Again, no grading the final product until you have a final product. The energy in the room will drive some fantastic new ideas.

• Don't hold a brainstorming meeting unless you're truly open to trying new ideas. I once attended a meeting in academia where the leader was begging for new ideas. But once such ideas were proposed by the invited guests, nothing became of them. Nothing was enacted other than the ideas the leader brought into the room. In that case, save time and money and don't meet.

• Set time limits on developing the ideas (away from the brainstorming room).
Have them put into writing. Consider a wiki-type arrangement where all participants can have access to the body of the group's work.

• Vote on the ideas that got the most traction then empower the participants to enact the plan.
Set a timetable. A review process.

Of course, you can imagine the experience in one radio station alone that would inspire such creativity. But in radio these days, ideas come from the top down.

"We need to cut x number of dollars" and at Clear Channel they even have a cockamamie formula for who gets fired and who stays.

I can't get the image out of my mind of Fagreed Suleman on the phone with Mickey Luckoff, ABC's KGO longtime moneymaker. I mean, what can Fagreed say? What can he add? He never ran a station. And now GMs like Luckoff get to play monopoly with a man who happens to run the game.

It's silly.

Which is why you'll hear me call out the stupidity of today's radio CEOs when they think they have come up with all the answers they need at their stations.

The good ideas come from the ground up -- you know, the people being "laid off".

But the survivors need inspiration. A mission. Support.

With all due respect to the rich and powerful radio CEOs, you've done a lousy job.

By your own "Arbitrons" (share price), you've turned in a 0.5 share consistently in the stock market. You'd fire a PD who did that in programming. I don't imagine you'll fire yourself as long as you can get away with looting the treasury, but...

How about letting some of your people gather together and show you some innovative ideas -- better than the pap you get at an RAB or NAB convention -- and good enough to maybe one day save your bacon.

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