The Day Innovation Stopped

Where were you the day that innovation stopped?

As someone who has been programming radio stations for a long time, I’ve been blessed to work with some of the best talent in the industry. I’ve also witnessed some massive mistakes made by upper management that are the roots of many of the problems we have today.

One of the most memorable mistakes happened when I was working for one of the biggest companies and the former CEO would occasionally schedule “all management” calls that included GM’s, PD’s, and Sales Managers. I dreaded these calls because they were almost always filled with veiled threats, no real solutions, and new initiatives that were obviously aimed at staff reduction and layoffs as the ultimate goals.

But it was one call in particular that forever damaged radio programming innovation in this company, and set the stage for other large conglomerates to do the same. On this call, the CEO declared “we will no longer allow Program Directors to make mistakes.” He then went on to talk about how too many decisions were based on a “PD’s gut” rather than sound research,
and we needed to usher in a new era of “accountability.” Now, let me stop right here and say that #1 – I am a FAN of using research as a tool in the arsenal to make programming decisions… in fact, I believe that research is one of the the most valuable tools at a PD’s disposal…. and #2 – I’ve NEVER had a problem being held accountable for the decisions that I’ve made… in fact, I’ve done my best work in situations where I had lots of autonomy and subsequent accountability for what I do with that autonomy.

But this call was the day that innovation simply stopped in that company. From that moment on, Program Directors were bogged down in paperwork where they had to justify every decision made using data. That sounds great on the surface – after all, PD’s SHOULD be basing their decisions on good data and sound logic. But, on the other hand, creative ideas and innovation never happens in a small box like this…. most great ideas are borne in the part of the mind that I call “educated gut” – where you interpret the data through the lens of your experience and develop a new idea or innovation based on the combination of the two. Your gut can be your mind’s best work!

As things continued to unfold, I started to see a disturbing trend – in the company’s effort to improve the performance of their WORST performing stations, they were stunting the growth of their BEST performing stations. Some of the company’s BEST performing Program Directors stopped innovating because they feared making a mistake. So eventually everybody was following the same corporate template, and it all became so generic and easy to duplicate that the listener was never surprised anymore with standout content. It all became boring and predictable. This was exactly what the company wanted? Why? Because a talented PD or on-air personality is hard to replace. But when everything is following a generic template, everything is equally disposable.

The trend that started back then remains a major issue in the radio industry of today. Thankfully there are still some great companies and innovative programmers left… many have left the big company to join smaller and mid-sized groups that offer more autonomy. And creative PD’s are thriving in those environments because they actually get to use their “educated gut” again.

When you take away the ability of your best performers to perform, you will only be left with mediocre “sameness.” How about instead of saying we no longer allow PD’s to make mistakes, we encourage them to “make NEW mistakes”? You might be surprised at the new ideas and innovations that come from this approach. Every successful new idea has to start somewhere – why not with you?

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