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An Industry Of Penguins


I can only worry about the things I can control.
I have been a subscriber to this school of thought for a long time. Its been especially effective in the last several years in the radio industry, where growth has been dismal at best and competitive threats abound. The essence of this concept is that old, trusted, and possibly overused word: focus.

I cant change the economy. I cant outlaw the Internet. So Im going to focus inward, on the operation Im running, and make sure its firing on all cylinders. Thats a logical, sensible way of thinking, for sure. Focus, in its best sense, means paying attention to the most important issues and not getting distracted by the wrong things. However, focus can turn into myopia, where, in your honest attempt to stay focused, you miss obvious threats and opportunities. Focus can also be managements code word for control, where you are only allowed to think about things the big bosses deem important. Thats kind of like the captain of the Titanic saying Hang tight, Ill let you know when the ship is sinking.

In times like these, everyone is looking for reasons and explanations or, as some might call them, excuses and CYAs. Over the last few years, Ive classified those reasons or excuses into three main categories: cyclical, self-inflicted, and secular. There is some overlap, but the categories can provide opportunities to find areas where you can control a little more of your situation than you think

Cyclical phenomena are things like the economy in a broad sense. There is no doubt that the advertising economy was hurt worse over the last few years than the overall economy. The recession affected automobile sales, housing, and consumer spending, which, in turn, had a devastating effect on ad spending. Those of us who saw this firsthand know how helpless the situation made us feel. Clearly, there wasnt much we could do to avoid that tidal wave.

But to the extent that we could stem the wave, what would that look like? First, there is one course of action that should not be out front, and that is dealing with the economy by cutting costs. Ask yourselves what changes you made in 2008 through today with respect to your sales staff structure, and how many sellers and managers you eliminated. Was that smart? Would we have come out of the storm in better shape if we had actually grown our sales operations? After all, money was being spent on advertising somewhere. Just look at the growth of the Internet.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but it can also teach us what to do the next time a situation arises. Focusing on revenue growth vs. expense savings in tough times just might be a better solution. How much worse could it have been, anyway?

These are the mistakes we made, the opportunities we missed, and the things we failed to act on. And if thats the case, lets just identify them, fix them, and look like the visionary, brilliant leaders we know we are, right? Well, my experience has been that its not that easy. Why? Usually because the culture of an operation or company practices blame instead of constructive learning. Mistakes cant be acknowledged because that would put your job in jeopardy; why would you ever own up? Good ideas dont get acted on because everyone around you starts judging an ideas success or failure before it has a chance to develop.

If you subscribe to the worry about what I can control philosophy and just fix the things that you, yourself, havent quite pulled off, your operation will be measurably better. Unfortunately, organizations today dont always allow that to happen.

This category deals by permanent, long-term changes that affect an industry. Examples: Newspapers are dead, Radio is dying, and every other prognostication about media that people have made over the last few years. Looks pretty daunting to exert control over something as big as that, right?

However, those prognostications wont prove out until everyone surrenders to the premise. At that point, everyone has the ultimate excuse. But how about quoting John Belushi in Animal House: Nothing is over until we decide it is.

While debate continues (incessantly) within our industry as to our ultimate fate, theres no reason the next innovation in revenue and monetizing content cant be happening simultaneously. Same thing goes for on-air content, local and otherwise, which is going to be the key to radios fate anyway. The problem is, radio has always been an industry of penguins. One guy moves, and the others follow in lockstep.

A large segment of the industry is doing things because economic predicaments force them to and packaging it all as visionary. Dont fall for it. Do the right thing. The thing that makes your station or company better, and radio better along with it. We may not be singing Happy Days Are Here Again, but we could still be singing, nonetheless.

Sometimes "staying focused" can mean missing obvious threats or opportunities.

Reasons (or excuses) for not handling the important things can be cyclical, self-inflicted, or secular. Looking at it that way can help locate ways where you can control more than you think.

Radio often moves in lockstep, like a flock of penguins. But doing what others do may not be the best for your station or company. 

Marc Morgan is the former SVP and chief revenue officer for Cox Media Group; he retired in 2011. He can be reached at

(5/17/2013 11:12:06 AM)
Congratulations on a significant, revealing and articulate article.
As one who has been pounding similar pavement, albeit by concentrating on the development of programming and commercial production, I am nevertheless, extremely impressed by your observations, intuitions and considered comments.
I suspect that even such well-documented arguments as yours will still be read by many clouded eyes and falling on a large number of deaf ears, the messages still need to be communicated.

- Ronald T. Robinson

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