This article appeared in Radio World newspaper March 30, 2005, and may not be reproduced without permission.
Financial success is a limited measure of accomplishment, yet if you read some of the trade publications of broadcasting, you’d think it was the only standard by which effectiveness was measured. This “bean counter” mentality has the excitement of the widget industry.
Historically, broadcasters defined themselves in terms much more expansive. They were professionals who sought to make an impact on the lives of people, both audiences and colleagues.
Early textbooks on station management reflected this approach. There was discussion on community involvement and service. A sense of responsibility was inherent in the profession. It wasn’t simply because the FCC placed the licensee in a fiduciary role, either. This sort of accountability wasn’t external; it was something a broadcast just knew intuitively.
With the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s there seemed to be a gradual paradigm shift in the thinking of the decision makers in the industry. Programming content seemed to take a back seat to profitability. Creativity was no longer associated with the product (content), but with the bottom line.
Broadcasters lost control, the accountants took over. Anything that was profitable was considered “good” in that it got the desired results.
In this new paradigm, success was anything that got the largest numbers or the target demographic. Even superficial lip service about educating and informing the audience disappeared in the trade press. The marketplace measure of success heightened programming aimed being “least objectionable.” Mediocrity was the new standard. “Average” was now the standard of success. Newt Minnow’s “Vast Wasteland” description of broadcast programming was more appropriate than ever.
Jean de la Bruyere, writing in 17th century France, noted, “There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured, such as poetry, music, painting, public speaking.” Could we add broadcasting to that list? I think it would fit with the spirit of Bruyere’s comments. Broadcasters are storytellers. We deal with the mind of our audiences whether we acknowledge that or not.
Both fiction and nonfiction programming influence the way people think. Even music carries storylines about the human condition. People learn what is socially acceptable by what they see, hear and read in the media. They mix this with input from friends and relatives to draw their own conclusions.
Programming for the masses has taken broadcasting down to a lower common denominator. Rather than appeal to the mind, the easy route as been to titillate, tease, amuse and get the easy response. The bean counter mentality hasn’t raised our standards as a society; broadcasters have acquiesced to please the masses.
You don’t have to conduct a scientific study to see that people are less kind and ruder now than they were 25 years ago. Where do they learn social behavior? The songs on the radio, the movies they watch and the television characters coming into their homes. Who were the gatekeepers who let that content into the system? The bean-counters who “succeeded” in getting the bottom line they wanted.
Russell Kirk told us “ideas have consequences.” Some unintended consequences of programming that gave audiences instant gratification plays out in social interactions every day. Themes repeated consistently in the media are accepted as valid by people continually exposed to those messages.
Making a difference
People don’t enter broadcasting with an objective of only looking at profits. Broadcasting attracts people who want to express themselves creatively. This business is unique in that engineers, sales people, programmers and office staff bring vastly different perspectives to an organization. It’s no wonder management feels frustration when so many temperaments are brought together.
No station can remain in business unless it earns a profit. That’s a given, but success as a broadcaster is so much broader than that. Success comes in several layers. A well-rounded broadcast professional will consider these tiers in putting success in a broader perspective.
Let’s look at a few of the measures of success that extend beyond the financial:
Influence. Anyone who influences another person is a leader regardless of the title one holds. When I was 14 years old I became interested in broadcasting as a profession. I looked up to people in the industry, regardless of their function at the station. This continued through my junior high, high school and college years. As a broadcaster, you do not always know who you are influencing on a daily basis. Young people seeking to enter the field observe what you do.
Prominence. Gatekeeping was mentioned earlier in the discussion about various matters getting on the air. By the nature of the medium, broadcasters have a limited inventory; therefore when something gets on the air it has prominence. Not all songs make a playlist, not all oldies are put in rotation, not all stories are included in a newscast. The role of gatekeeper determines what will be on the public agenda. People talk about ideas they’re exposed to. If it’s on the news, it gets on the public agenda.
Community. The FCC didn’t invent the idea of community service. A federal agency doesn’t operate in a vacuum. All businesses are relevant to their communities or they cease to exist. One way to increase the station’s value in the community is by becoming more community-conscious. Service pays positive dividends. Linking to your community gives you more “psychological ownership” in the minds of the people who feel that your station is their station.
Spiritual. Radio World recently ran a feature story on Howard Enstrom, who talked about World War II by saying, “God answered my fervent prayer to survive and allow me to serve Him.” Enstrom has been called the “father of translator service” because of the engineering creativity he brought to the industry in filling a unique niche.
Legacy. One of the most quoted phrases of motivational writer Stephen R. Covey is “to live, to love, to leave a legacy.” Broadcasters have the option of doing that at two levels. The people who observe them, such as family members and colleagues, can be touched directly by their contributions. Audience members can be influenced indirectly through programming. Even a small change for the better is more desirable than no change or a negative change.
Becoming more focused on a broader mission is a matter of expanding one’s awareness of new options. It’s a way of bringing back excitement to a career that may have grown stale by viewing “success” in a distorted way. True success is multi-dimensional. Lives are being influenced by broadcasters. Taking this into consideration causes one to make more informed decisions.
Your job is part of who you are. Your daily decisions define you. A more holistic view of the ramifications of your decisions takes you beyond the familiar. “Ideas have consequences,” and new ideas give you new consequences.
In summary, broadcasters are not accountants. We’re producing an intangible product that influences a lot of people. Being aware of the leadership role we play is a paradigm shift away from limiting success to only a station’s profit/loss statement.
Awareness influences action. Remembering why you got into this business in the first place takes you back to the time when things were exciting for you.
I’ve heard that part of Vince Lombardi’s success was that he kept returning to the basics, reminding his team, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Perhaps we need to remind ourselves and staff members more frequently, “This is a radio station.” It’s a fun business, and there’s no reason fun can’t be profitable in more ways than one. By keeping the focus on what we do, we inform and entertain, positioning us to meet the expectations of our audience.
William G. Covington Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Mass Communication with an emphasis in Media Management from Bowling Green State University. He has taught at colleges and university in Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. He has published widely in the field of station management and has held seminars for media managers in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.