Monday, January 5, 2015

“Serial” Wisdom

I first learned about “Serial” the podcast from my Twitter feed. It was a day I was thinking a lot about the future of radio and audio entertainment. I was feeling pretty pessimistic. The current crop of news and talk programming on radio wasn’t giving me much hope. The headline style news delivered by most radio stations has become a commodity available on demand on multiple platforms. The superficial reports of common crime, ordinary human misfortune, politics and political process that dominate the radio news menu aren’t distinctive, interesting or relevant to the lives of most listeners. Talk programming is limited to conversations about sports and politics from a conservative political perspective. Digital audio initiatives from radio broadcasters are primarily repurposed radio programs offered as podcasts. The lack of imagination, innovation, and variety in audio content created by radio broadcasters left me feeling depressed about the future of the business to which I’ve dedicated most of my professional life. 

It took hearing one episode of “Serial” to completely change my mood. It rekindled my love of audio entertainment and my belief in its power and appeal. It took me back to the experiences that made me fall in love with radio and audio entertainment. I remembered listening to my first Seattle Rainiers baseball broadcast. I’d never been to a game or met any of the players, but Leo Lassen’s enthusiasm, excitement, and colorful descriptions allowed me to visualize them in my mind. It felt like I was right there in the stadium. I remembered Lan Roberts, the morning personality on KJR, and his fascination with and belief in UFOs. His vivid descriptions and recorded sounds of his midnight experience waiting for a UFO and its passengers that he expected to land in a field east of Seattle were unforgettable. My imagination allowed me to see what he saw and feel his anticipation and then disappointment when it didn’t happen. It was magic. I felt that same sense of magic listening to “Serial”. 

It’s no accident “Serial” has attracted so much media attention and millions of listeners for each of its 12 episodes in just three month’s time. For creators of audio information and entertainment content, especially journalists, news reporters and storytellers of all kinds, there is so much that can be learned from the success of season one of “Serial”. Here is some of the wisdom revealed by the producers of “This American Life” and Sarah Koenig’s experiment in “audio storytelling”: 

·    The ideal length of a story should be determined by the time it takes to tell a complete story that is meaningful to its audience. Sarah Koenig decided it would take nearly 8 ½ hours and 12 episodes to meaningfully tell the complete story she chose for season one of “Serial”.
·    Humans have an insatiable appetite for “truth”. We have a natural yearning to know and understand what is real, honest, and true in our lives. It’s what attracts us all to solving mysteries. It’s the goal and fundamental appeal of great journalism. It was the search for “truth” about the murder of Hae Min Lee and the trial of Adnan Syed that was a primary attraction of “Serial” season one.
·    Crazy curiosity and imagination are essential to great journalism and meaningful storytelling. The “truth” is often found beneath the surface. Sarah Koenig’s insightful, incisive, probing and seemingly endless questions produced the fuel for her truth seeking and storytelling. Her imaginative ability to connect the dots of what she learned from her questions revealed and lighted the trail to the “truth” and exposed the meaning of her story.
·    Listeners love participating in the search for “truth”. Sarah Koenig shared her process in every episode. It’s not something journalists usually do, but Sarah did and others probably should. She constantly revealed her questions, theories, suspicions, speculation, doubts, frustrations, conclusions, successes and failures. It made her storytelling far more interesting and real. It allowed listeners to follow along and contribute if they so desired. Which they did providing some perspectives and details Sarah would likely not have discovered on her own.
·    Journalists and news reporters are often trapped in the current “news cycle” when determining what is news. If it didn’t happen in the last 24-48 hours somehow it’s no longer news. How about adopting some new guidelines to define news. If it’s new or unknown to you or your audience shouldn’t it be considered news? Sarah Koenig discovered all kinds of stuff that was new, interesting, and meaningful to her and “news” to her audience when she began examining a murder that occurred in 1999.
·    News reporters frequently focus on events and often miss the related stories. Events are episodes in stories. Events are obvious and easy to report. Stories not so much. Hae Min Lee is murdered. Adnan Syed is arrested and charged with the murder. Adnan Syed is tried and convicted of the murder. Adnan Syed appeals the conviction. The appeal is denied. All events with obvious conclusions. All reported in 1999. Along comes Sarah Koenig in 2013. She examines these events and notices the untold story of a trial where “something went wrong”. A story that reveals and explores imperfections in our justice system and mysteries of life and human behavior.
·    News consumers want more than a quick superficial headline summary of complex and controversial stories. The main facts of these stories and opposing soundbites are available on demand on every smart phone and computer from multiple sources. “Serial” demonstrated the desire for and appeal of complete stories that provide context, analysis, informed commentary, insight and a sincere search for the “truth”. The real meaning of these stories to listeners.
·    Human behavior is a subject with universal appeal. Why do people think and feel the way they do? Why do people do what they do? These real-life questions and mysteries are things every human being wants to answer and solve. Season one of “Serial” examined and tried to understand all kinds of human behavior in every episode.
·    Vivid, concrete, descriptive language and sound is essential to effective audio storytelling. Words and sounds that allow listeners to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, feel and fully imagine what is going on. Sarah Koenig’s use of language and sound is masterful and makes full use of the “theater of the mind”. Witness this reaction to Adnan Syed after her first in person meeting with him: “The thing you can’t miss about Adnan is that he has giant brown eyes. Like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that actually strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic. I know.”
·    Audio entertainment isn’t going away. Its shape, size, and delivery methods are changing but not its appeal. It can’t be ordinary to compete in a world addicted to “screens”. When done well, “Serial” showed us what it can do. This experiment in “audio storytelling” delivered by podcast attracted a larger audience than many prime time television programs. Lots of people reported replacing their television viewing with listening to Sarah Koenig tell her story “week by week”.
·    Audio is a superior method for storytelling. It compels the listener to use his or her imagination in the “theater of the mind” to participate in the telling of the story. This creates unequaled intimacy and connection to the story and a uniquely personalized experience with the story.
·    Contrary to conventional wisdom among radio broadcasters and PPM data from Nielsen, consumers of audio entertainment don’t all have ADD. They are discerning. If what they hear is not interesting or meaningful, they discard quickly. Enrich their lives and they will definitely listen longer than 10 minutes per “occasion”. The average run time for an episode of “Serial” is 42 minutes.

The Big Questions for Radio Broadcasters

What business are you in? Does your business have a future? These seem like fundamental questions radio broadcasters should be asking themselves right now.

Time spent listening to your AM and FM radio stations is declining precipitously each year. This is particularly true among young people. They’ve grown up in a world of visual stimuli and conditioning addicted to “screens”. They love music, but have minimal attraction to or experience with AM and FM radio. Advertising revenue for AM and FM radio is flat to declining.

There are shiny new high-tech competitors everywhere. Mobile phones and the Internet are sucking up massive amounts of consumer time and attention. Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, and other services and apps offer continuous music customized to listeners moods and tastes as well as individual songs on demand. This competition is becoming widely available and easily accessible in cars where the majority of AM and FM radio is consumed.

You’ve had a virtual monopoly on the distribution of audio entertainment since the invention of the radio. The range of content delivered by your radio stations has narrowed considerably with the advent of television. For the past 50 or 60 years music has been the primary form of audio entertainment provided by your AM and FM radio stations.

Two things made radio broadcasting such a great business the past 50 or 60 years. The monopoly on audio entertainment distribution and not having to create the vast majority of the content it distributed. The music industry took care of that at very little cost to radio broadcasters. It was a sweet deal, but technology has changed all that. The distribution monopoly is gone. Now what?

So, back to the big questions. What business are you in? Does your business have a future? Bob Pittman’s decision to rename his company iHeartMedia started an interesting conversation about the answers to these questions. He says the new name “reflects the company’s success in becoming a one-of-a-kind multiplatform media company and our commitment to being the media company that provides the most entertainment to the most engaged audiences wherever they go, with more content and more events in more places on more devices.” Bob and his company backed that up last weekend by staging a huge “event” in Las Vegas called the “iHeartRadio Music Festival”. It featured live performances by many music superstars. Fred Jacobs joined the conversation offering the opinion that “radio broadcasters have simply got to become multimedia content creators and distributors”. So there you have it, the future for radio broadcasters is the business of “multimedia content creation and distribution” as well as the “event creation” business.

This vision for the future seems perfect for radio broadcasters who create precious little content of any kind. It makes total sense to go compete with everyone in the entertainment business. Sure, why not? Go take on Disney and Live Nation. You have all kinds of talent and experience creating video entertainment. You’ll be great at creating and promoting massive concert events. This is the kind of stuff your current customers have come to expect from you. You have lots of resources ready to commit to these enterprises. They’ll no doubt drive lots of additional listening to your AM and FM radio stations. Like Nike says, you should “just do it!”

Yikes! Let’s get real. What’s wrong with the business you’re in right now? What’s wrong with the audio entertainment business? Doesn’t it have a future?

Audio entertainment is unique and powerful. It involves the consumer in creating the experience it provides. Sound generates pictures and emotions in minds and hearts. The effect is deeper and more memorable than anything on a screen. When you hear someone laughing or crying you don’t need to see them to fully experience their joy or sorrow. Music can change your mood instantly. The sound and the lyrics create a vibe. Music is mind altering, heart penetrating, and memory making. Audio entertainment can be consumed while you’re doing other things like walking, running, driving, or making love. Audio entertainment will never go out of style. Americans spend more than four hours per day with audio entertainment according to the “Share of the Ear” study from Edison Research. Audio entertainment has an enduring future as long as great audio entertainment is created.

Radio broadcasters are in the audio entertainment business. Why not stay there? Why not focus your limited resources on creating extraordinary audio entertainment? How about being really good, even exceptional, at something rather than average or mediocre at everything. Your current consumers are predisposed to using and appreciating audio entertainment. Why not concentrate on creating new audio entertainment content that surprises, amazes, and delights them. Hire gifted artists who love creating content for the theater of the mind. Create content in all shapes and sizes and distribute it on the platform that fits it best. That’s a future that makes sense for radio broadcasters.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Listen to the music. Share the vibe. Make a connection.

The other day a fellow talent coach invited me to listen to one of the morning shows he coaches. It plays lots of music. More than 50% of the total program time, including commercials, is devoted to music. The morning team has just 8 to 12 minutes per hour to present content it creates. I’m thinking to myself, wow, that’s not much time to make a connection and establish a relationship with listeners. I started feeling sorry for the morning team until I realized the big opportunity it completely ignores. The music.

This morning team is totally disconnected from the music in its show. When the music was on the morning team was gone. All I heard in and around the music was station and show imaging, mostly prerecorded. It was like two separate shows all morning. There was the “music show” (more than 30 minutes per hour) and the much shorter “personality show” (8 to 10 minutes per hour). The two shows weren’t connected in any way. There was nothing distinctive about the “music show”. It sounded much like what you’d hear on Pandora.

The big attraction to music is how it makes you feel. The sound and the lyrics create a vibe. Music is mind altering, heart penetrating, mood changing, and memory making.

Music creates a huge opportunity for radio personalities to connect with their listeners. It’s all about the shared experience. Listening to the music with your listeners. Immersing yourself in the songs. Doing a little research. Reading the lyrics. Paying attention to how songs make you feel and sharing the vibes.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I’ll bet you won’t forget this song or the vibe Johnny Vaughan shared with his listeners on the “Capital Breakfast”. It’s no wonder it was the number one morning show in London and the audience loved the experience of listening to music with Johnny.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Don't ask. Don't tell.

There was a big brouhaha last week in Milwaukee. It exposed the realities of achieving the journalistic ideal of "objective" news reporting. It shook management at local broadcast news organizations to their core. It threatened the reputation they've long cultivated for providing "unbiased" news reporting and endangered the trust relationship with listeners and viewers.

All the noise was about the revelation that staffers in the newsrooms of each of Milwaukee's local broadcast news organizations had signed petitions to recall Wisconsin's governor. Talk about a big oops if you're trying to maintain a reputation for "unbiased" reporting.

Management went into immediate damage control mode. Here's a sampling of their responses:

 "Until they (those involved) leave the station, they are not going to be allowed to cover anything related to Scott Walker (the governor)."

 "We want you to know that we consider this a serious issue. We are in the process of dealing with it internally. Our reputation of being a fair and unbiased news source is of paramount importance to us."

 "Station policy prohibits overt political activity. As journalists, our folks know that they must remain totally unbiased."

One television station reported that "many employees" defended the petition signing. They told management "it didn't feel like a political act, but instead felt similar to casting a vote". Management disagreed saying, "Voting is private. Signing a petition is not".

I get it. It's okay to vote because no one, including management, will know how you voted. It's not okay to sign a petition because your bias will be on display for everyone to see. This sounds like the news media version of "Don't ask. Don't tell." Hide your bias and your objectivity and ability to deliver unbiased reporting will not be questioned by management or news consumers.

Milwaukee isn't the only place where "Don't ask. Don't tell." is practiced. Whether it's conscious or unconscious, the policy seems to be alive and well in most major news organizations. It's likely a significant factor in the increasingly contentious relationship between news consumers and the news media. The latest Gallup poll reports a record 57% of Americans "have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly". Ouch.

Maybe it's time to get real about what it takes to deliver on the ideal and promise of "objective" and "unbiased" reporting. It requires reporters to somehow erase from their reporting any influence of their life experiences, personal feelings, and instinctive reasoning understanding that humans do not reason entirely from facts. We all view facts differently based on our life experiences and personal feelings. It's nearly impossible for reporters to eliminate the influence of these things from their reporting. It's not human.

Paul Harvey recognized the difficulty of achieving real objectivity and decided to acknowledge the problem when he chose the name for his news broadcasts. Here's how he explained it:

"I think anyone worth his salt is for or against certain things. It's going to come through if only in the selection of what goes on the air and what goes into the waste basket. So it seems more honest for me to call it 'Paul Harvey News and Comment'. That way listeners know they're getting their news from my perspective."

Paul Harvey decided it was more important to be trusted than attempt to achieve the nearly impossible journalistic ideal of being "objective". It worked pretty well for him. 

A recent poll conducted by Boston's Suffolk University revealed that Fox News and Bill O'Reilly are the most trusted names in news. It's clear from this study and other recent research that news consumers want to know exactly where their news source is coming from; transparency not "objectivity" equals trust. 

So, wouldn't it be better for reporters to reveal their biases rather than hide them? Wouldn't it be better for managers at major news organizations to recognize the biases of their reporters and make assignments accordingly with the goal of reporting from multiple perspectives that might come close to delivering on the ideal of "objective" and "unbiased" reporting?

Hiding your bias doesn't make it go away or enable you to be objective in your reporting. So, why do it?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Checklist for repeating content

Radio personalities often ask if they should repeat content during their shows. Repeating great stuff can help ensure that the content you present is consistently the best it can be. Repeating stuff just because you don't prepare enough content to fill your show is not a good idea or healthy habit to form.

Here are three simple questions I recommend personalities ask themselves to guide their decision:
  1. Is this my best work today?
  2. Is it better than the content I've prepped but not yet presented?
  3. Is it good enough and complex enough that listeners who've already heard it will appreciate hearing it again and, importantly, likely hear something "new" and interesting that they missed/didn't hear the first time around?

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    The untold story of the Rush Limbaugh advertiser boycott

    As Rush would say, folks, what's really going on here is a culture war in America. It's a battle for the soul of our country. There are signs everywhere, perhaps the most notable being the political logjam and overheated rhetoric in Washington DC. Rush Limbaugh's advertisers have become pawns in this culture war.

    The war is between those who believe in the America of our founding fathers and those who believe traditional American values and beliefs are old-fashioned, unrealistic, and out of step with "today's world". They believe our culture is in need of a radical transformation.

    Rush Limbaugh is a relentless, articulate, persuasive, and influential voice for traditional American values and beliefs. He is the inspiration and model for the cultural force that is conservative political talk radio. He was an inspiration for the creation of the Fox News Channel. He is a regular contributor to its programming. FNC's primary appeal is its traditional American worldview. FNC has considerably more viewers than all the other cable news channels combined. It's no wonder Rush has long been a target of those who want to dramatically change American culture.

    Last week, Rush served up the perfect opportunity for his cultural opponents to attack. Rush loves to illustrate absurdity by being absurd. Rush believes it's absurd for the government to mandate that all health insurance plans in America provide free birth control pills for women. You all know the story. He compared the mandate and women who take advantage of it to prostitution and likened mandate advocate Sandra Fluke to a "slut" and "prostitute".

    Most agree Rush accomplished his goal of being absurd. Many, including Rush, feel he went too far with his choice of labels for Sandra Fluke. Rush publicly apologized to Ms. Fluke. I don't want to defend Rush's illustration and choice of words or debate the sincerity of his apology or the propriety of the birth control pill mandate. I want to talk about the protests and threat to boycott Rush's advertisers that ensued.

    Some of the protests were organic and sincere. Why wouldn't people be upset when they hear about Rush likening an attractive young single woman he doesn't know to a "slut" and "prostitute"? However, most people would not take the next step and demand that he be fired or taken off the air permanently and threaten to boycott his advertisers. Make no mistake, this level of protest was well planned and organized by Rush's opponents in the culture war. They want his voice silenced. They want him gone. They'll do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. Unfortunately, Rush gave them some wonderful tools.

    The words "slut" and "prostitute" Rush attached to Sandra Fluke taken out of context by his culture war opponents made it easy to paint Rush as a despicable villain in e-mails, Facebook posts, and Tweets. Many of these digital arrows were aimed at Rush's advertisers and threatened a boycott of their products and services if they continued to be advertised on the Rush Limbaugh Show. This was no accident

    Rush's opponents in the cultural war understood exactly what they were doing. They know most advertisers will do anything to avoid controversy. They knew Rush's words were all they needed to create a "viral" firestorm of protest on social media that would generate high-level news media attention and scare the hell out of Rush's advertisers. They recognized a prime opportunity to deal a lethal blow to Rush and his show. So far, it appears they've inflicted some significant pain on Rush with collateral damage on all talk radio and free speech.

    Social media and the Internet are wonderful tools for spreading information and ideas. They're also great tools for intimidation, spreading misinformation, and making vocal well organized minorities look like majorities. Most people don't want to silence Rush Limbaugh or anyone else exercising his right to free speech. The vast majority of people aren't going to stop purchasing products and services they need and happily use because they're advertised on the Rush Limbaugh program, certainly not his listeners.

    There is lots of research on boycotts like the one promoted by Rush's opponents in the culture war. They seldom, if ever, affect the sale of products and services because the boycott isn't about the advertiser and his products or services. If carried out, these boycotts actually punish the very people who are doing the boycotting if they are truly regular satisfied users of the products and services.

    Sadly, Rush's advertisers have become pawns in America's culture war. They succumbed to a false threat created by a small vocal minority with a hidden agenda.  The irony here is that this is probably the best time in years to advertise on the Rush Limbaugh program . I suspect his ratings have increased markedly as a result of this controversy. The attacks on Rush have likely galvanized his fans and supporters and motivated them to support his advertisers.

    Tuesday, January 17, 2012

    Knowledge and experience can be dangerous

    Children are fearless and naturally curious. They imagine and are open to endless possibilities. They never consider or worry about what can't be done. Every child is an artist and truly creative, but then things begin to change. Fear sets in. Ideas stop flowing.

    So, what happens? We lose something that removes fear, fuels curiosity and powers the imagination and creativity of every child. We lose our naïveté and its effect on what we think and do. Bill Atkinson, one of Apple's super designers and programmers, gained this insight on his successful quest to meet Steve Jobs’ seemingly unrealistic expectations for the Apple Lisa computer. "I got a feeling for the empowering aspect of naïveté. Because I didn't know it couldn't be done, I was enabled to do it."

    When you find yourself thinking something can't be done, try a little naïveté. Set aside your experience and what you think you know. Sometimes knowledge and experience can be dangerous to your creativity.

    By the way, the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson is full of inspiration and wisdom for creatives.