Call it a mostly no radio Saturday. I did do a bunch of talking on the phone in the morning about radio. Rob the carpenter extraordinaire and I spoke about how to build stadium classroom seating for the new studio, and how to move the massive studio table through 36-inch doors. It really is exciting to put something together from scratch. One day you're laying in bed musing on where would be the perfect place to talk on the radio... and then a couple of years later you're almost there. There will be a moment when I turn around in the WJOB bubble, look out the windows to the east at the sunrise and then out the windows to the north at an 18-wheel tanker coming my way... and I'll know that every once in a while a blind squirrel finds a nut and dreams really do come true.
Enough about that. There is a lot of work ahead, so it really wasn't that great of an idea to do a non-radio Saturday. Jordan Beasley called me with an intriguing idea. Jordan's this kid - he's still a kid at 22 - who started with me when he was 15. He'd hang around on the morning show and then when stuff was happening all crazy and he really couldn't leave, I'd call the Hammond High office and tell them that Jordan had a dentist appointment. After a half dozen or so of these "dentist appointments," Jordan would go to the office on the way into Hammond High and he'd be sticking his finger in his mouth like it hurt or something.
"Jordan, we just listened to you on the air. You don't have to do that."
Every one needs a break, and Jordan got his from an understanding office worker in the public school system. Anyways, Jordan and some others want to buy some time on the radio to highlight the good things going on at Hammond High.
"The graduation rate is now 83%, and a ton of people are going to college, like me," Jordan said. "We gotta tell people this."
And he did - for about 30 minutes. I'll leave out the part how I have a soft spot in my rather hardened heart for Hammond High. My mom went there, and she's been dead for - dare I say it - almost 30 years now. As a matter of fact, I added it up the other day and it's pretty close to my mom being dead for more than half of my life. Twenty-seven years ago, I would have never thought that possible.
You see, that's what radio does. It wiggles in to the crevices of your life. It could be that a guy called me this morning and wanted to do a paid show about a high school.
"Talk to Debbie," I would have normally said.
But it was Jordan. He gets my ear no matter if it is a no-radio Saturday. And then he starts telling me about Hammond High, his alma mater, and how the state wants to take it over and we gotta get the word out. Do you think Jordan even knows my mom went there and that before she died she would say the most nonsensical things about the home of the Wildcats - "I love that place, Hammond High. Do you like butterflies?" It doesn't matter. What starts out as a simple request to get on the air turns in to no degrees of separation between 22-year-old Jordan Beasley and an ivy-covered high school and my long-dead mom.
But that's just radio. Don't worry about it. Like "it's just Chinatown, Jake." In the end, Alexis and I went to Whihala Beach in Hammond and there were a zillion kids everywhere and we didn't care. This is our home and even if we can't hear Bob Dylan singing about no direction home, like a complete unknown because some kids are screeching every time they stick a toe in the water. Big deal. We sat on beach chairs and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. After chewing on enough sand to clean Shrek's teeth, we had a beer at Center Lounge and then dinner at Keith's. She had tilapia and I halibut. We both came home and passed out before sundown. That's why I'm up talking to you.
.... And one of the things I'd like to talk to you radio heads about is... Eric Rhoads. He's this guy from Indiana (Fort Wayne) who somehow runs Radio Ink and every once in a while he sends out soul-searching emails about radio and its future. I met Eric at a Radio Convergence conference in 2014 in San Jose, California. He arranged for about 20 of the attendees to get a tour of Google, which was really cool, and I got to talk to Eric a little one-on-one there. A little, because when he realized I was just a one-station owner/operator, he moved on kinda quickly.
But here's an excerpt from one of his meandering emails -
You are I are seeing change unlike any in history.
We, the women and men of radio, must be willing to explore change by watching the patterns and being ready to respond to them with non-defensive action...
Can you honestly, with deep conviction, say you have mastered online media?
Do you feel confident that you understand the trends in media and how advertisers are looking at you, and all of radio, differently?
Do you feel confident that you have a solution?
Are you generating at least 10 -25 percent of all revenues in your station as legitimate digital income (NOT just an allocation so Wall Street can THINK you’re on top of the digital trends)?
... FORCE INNOVATION. Playing catch-up is not an option. Being a leader means being ahead — it means getting where you need to be before everyone else does.
... You get the idea. I go back to a scene by the pool at the big hotel in San Jose for Radio Convergence. I'm talking to a guy about royalties, and how to calculate them if you play on the internet a recording of something you already paid royalties on at the terrestrial radio level. Now the guy I was talking to, he's a radio guy, manages a bunch of stations in the Pacific Northwest, can't remember his name, he says this to me -
You know, I've been coming to this conference for 15 years, and no one's ever asked that question.
Wait, I say, you mean you guys have been getting together for 15 years trying to figure out how to make money in radio on the web?
Yep. And no one I know has really figured it out yet.
That's when it hit me, standing outside at a cocktail party in San Jose, California. Quit fighting it. Accept the end and it won't be so scary.
Now if you read this blog on a regular basis, and I highly doubt that you do, then you know that radio is my third rodeo. I witnessed the decline of the counter-culture in Berkeley, and then I lived the decline of the trading pits of Chicago. In both cases, I fought the idea of the pending death pretty hard. Can't tell you the depths I descended to in search of the Berkeley free speech culture, and it's tough to describe my own denial that the pits were on their way out just as I reached the top step.
But getting back to Eric Rhoads and his admonitions about what to do about the future of radio (besides come to his Radio Convergence conference). Here's what Rhoads says, and it's at the crux of this fruitless fight to save radio -
... FORCE INNOVATION.
For me, after two rodeos under my belt, it has to do with the difference between the active and passive. I no longer wish to fight actively against the death of terrestrial radio. I accept it. Whether radio dies or not isn't the issue. It is my passive acceptance.
Why is it so important to accept the death of radio? At the risk of getting too advice-ridden about it, I already lived the death of two national institutions. Free speech and pit trading, and in both cases I fought the death. That didn't leave any room for what was beyond. Does that make any sense? Once you accept the death of something you really like or even love, then you can accept what might come next.
And that's what this blog is partly about. I'm pretty sure that at some point local radio as we know it won't exist. Sure, we may still broadcast from our towers and some people might still pick us up on their car radios or on their increasingly hard-to-find nightstand radios, but for the most part the distribution will not be through waves but through bluetooth and wi-fi. And to tell you the truth, I'm not even sure if bluetooth and wi-fi are waves or not. What I do know is that they are not radio waves.
And that's the point. Radio waves are dying, and what are you gonna do about it? That's what Rhoads is getting to, in his postulate that you should attend his Radio Convergence conference or die. He says Force Innovation. F**k that. I take the other side. Accept the death of radio and let innovation come to you.
So how you gonna do that when you gotta reach sales goals and you still gotta program a full radio station within the encyclopedia of federal regulations? And maintain ratings in the process?
That's the real challenge, isn't it? But here's my suggestion to Mr. Rhoads, the fellow Hoosier - Quit trying to force innovation down the throats of aging white guys whose stomachs are already full. For your next Radio Convergence, have a mock funeral - Radio is Dead. Play some sad music and have everyone drop a flower on an old Motorola. And then let's all go out to the pool and get really f**ked up. We're gonna need it.
I know that this sounds like heresy - accept the inevitable death of radio. It's really not an option for many of the people like Alexis and me who are still involved in traditional local radio and are the kind of people who would attend the Radio Convergence conference that fellow Hoosier Eric Rhoads offers.
But remember the caveat - it's not necessarily that traditional local radio is gonna die. You just have to accept that it will. That's a big jump for many of us, but if you accept the inevitable, then you can begin the process of plugging your life into what is on the other side.
I'll give you a personal example. As mentioned a zillion times in this blog that nobody reads, I traded 18 years at the Chicago Board of Trade... and then I was phased out, made obsolete, no longer needed by the system that transfers risk from hedgers to speculators and then back to hedgers again. The computer entered the fray and the computer won.
But what did I do during the transition period. I did what I now figure to be the worst thing to do - I fought the battle on two fronts. On one end, I continued to trade in the pits, with a slew of clerks and a few traders who watched my positions and instituted their own. I owned my seat and rented others and pretty much ran my operation as it would have been run 10, 20 30 years ago.
On the other side, I invested heavily in technology. I bought a bunch of computers, put guys and gals in rooms to trade, went to the computer trading conferences, tested all of the latest trading platforms, and even put a trading room in my basement where I had guys trading all night next to a pool table.
I really did think I was getting a jump on the transition to computer trading, as Eric Rhoads would say in the parallel universe of tradition to online radio -
4. Leaders FORCE INNOVATION. Playing catch-up is not an option. Being a leader means being ahead — it means getting where you need to be before everyone else does.
What's happening with radio - and what happened with computer trading - is that those who tried to do what I did, to fight the battle on two fronts, to develop new products for trading that were kinda like pit trading - almost all of us lost. We were either not equipped with passion for computers nor the attending skills to move the industry forward, or we couldn't compete with the young traders who came as computer traders only. The young guns loved the computers and knew how to use them. Case closed.
The only people who really busted through during the transition, then fell into two categories.
1. Those who jettisoned pit trading altogether, giving their whole beings to computer trading.
2. Those who never had anything to do with pit trading in the first place, didn't carry the baggage.
So now you see how I fundamentally disagree with Mr. Rhoads - who, by the way, has already read the above blog. Who gets up and reads their emails and then a blog and then answers by 9am on a Sunday. Don't you know that Meet the Press is on?
A fundamental disagreement with Rhoads is that his conference outlines a way to transition from traditional radio to online radio. A noble enough cause. But from already having lived the devastation in a parallel universe, to me that just isn't possible. What you have to do is one of three things.
Or spelled out in more detail:
1. Deemphasize or even jettison traditional radio altogether, Immerse in the new order.
2. Endure traditional radio, acknowledging that you're headed to a funeral.
3. Quit radio altogether.
There's a fourth part to this that I gotta mention at this point... and that's once again only because I messed up during the long, sweet death of pit trading. You gotta hold ownership of your stations.
What? That doesn't make any sense. And it didn't to me when I quit trading. In 2004, soon after buying a couple of local radio stations, I walked down into the Chicago Board of Trade basement and sold my last remaining seat. That's how I roll, I guess anyhows. I figure most movements in life have a beginning, a middle and an end and when the end comes, just get out. It works for trades, too, by the way.
I actually felt pretty good about selling the last seat. After I did that, its value went down 20%. I moved on to not only work the two radio stations with my wife, but I also bought the local 85,000 a week circulation newspaper. Now that was a trip. Can you imagine buying two local radio stations and a newspaper - and not having a clue on how to run any of it? That's the book one day, you watch.
Anyways, I didn't give the seat another thought. As a matter of fact, I didn't even give the Board of Trade any more thoughts. I immersed entirely into being the publisher of a newspaper, writing the editorials, editing almost the entire paper (I got skills, remember), selling ads, and then going on the air on the radio some also. I also extricated myself entirely from the Board of Trade scene. I wouldn't call back my buddies from the floor, and when they showed up at the door to what I called the radiopaper - I was short and curt and basically told really close buddies that it was time to move on.
Bad move. Not so much about the buddies. After a while they understood that I was a bit of a trading addict and that if I hung around with them they'd turn into what addictions counselors call "triggers." It's been almost 11 years since I made my last trade (10 years sober) and maybe it's time to rekindle some of those relationships.
The bad move was that I didn't keep my seats. I reasoned that even though I could neither entirely Immerse or Endure that radio was gonna die and the membership seats at the Board of Trade would be worth nothing. Since I couldn't Force the Innovation, I reasoned that it wasn't going to happen at all.
Big mistake. One day in 2005 or so, I took my nieces and nephews for Dairy Queen, and then dropped them off to my brother-in-law.
It's a pretty good day for you today, huh? he said.
What are you talking about?
The big announcement at the Board of Trade. Your seats more than doubled in one day.
And then I had to say the words that bely a deep regret - I already sold mine.
Now please don't cry for me, Argentina. I did well enough at the Board of Trade over 18 years to buy the local radio station and weekly newspaper and then had enough to weather the storm long enough to figure out how to not drown. Looking back, it's a minor miracle that we made it through long enough to be sitting here on a Sunday morning criticizing the efforts of fellow Hoosier Eric Rhoads.
And there is one major criticism here, and that is this - you cannot take, on a mass scale, traditional radio heads and make them into the innovative radio guys of tomorrow. It just won't happen. That's why at the Board of Trade anyone who tried to be both someone who fought with pit trading to the finish AND dabbled in the new order trading failed. It's that simple. What Eric's trying to do, gather longtime radio professionals and try to herd them into the new world of radio just won't work. I'm sorry, Eric.
Immerse, Endure, or Quit. But keep your stations.
So what do I mean by Keep Your Stations? It's a waiting game, really. I truly do believe that at some point your stations will be worth a ton of money. Maybe it will be the towers, or the frequencies, or the brands, or some other part of the infrastructure that becomes quite valuable. Or it's regulatory - the FCC releases 90% of their sometimes arcane regulation. Or, more likely, some young guns who are not you will figure out how to repatriate the existing process into a better way of communicating and exchangeing information. In the trading universe, I made the mistake of selling my last seat. At the time, I couldn't even think of a way in which the Board of Trade memberships could become really valuable again. In the radio game, we're at about the same place in the process. It's hard to even think of a way in which the old radio stations would gain a ton of value. It's actually a lot easier to think of ways in which your stations could be worth zero in the future.
That's enough for now...