From the Corner Office – Change Agents Wanted

April 18, 2011

Peter SmythI’ve been thinking a lot recently about change.  Obviously, there is no way to avoid it, but our reactions to change are as varied as are people.  Some of us hate having to change; some of us run away from change; some of us are stressed by change; others are energized by it.

We certainly have no shortage of change being thrust upon the radio business these days. I have decided that we need to identify, cultivate and honor the change agents among us.  What is a “change agent,” you ask?   A change agent is an event, organization, or, more usually, a person that acts as a positive catalyst for change.

We in the radio industry want to change; it really is in our core makeup to be drawn to change.  We have a heritage of being the newsmakers and the hit-makers of our towns and cities. We have a history of innovation and risk-taking entrepreneurialism that is filled with colorful characters who challenged the status quo.  Radio has always been the most nimble of the “traditional” media; we can flip a format at the drop of a hat.  Recently, however, radio has been less inventive and has become more risk-averse as we focus on the ROI to our shareholders.   Now we are being challenged by a legion of digitally-based businesses that are creating a new marketplace both for advertisers and listeners to our stations.

What’s a radio operator to do?

First of all, we need to recognize the type of disruptive change we are in the middle of and find those in our ranks who can and will challenge the status quo.  This century is witnessing not simply a change in the type of media available (as it was in the 60’s FM revolution).  This is a profound change in the way communication is created and made available, and it is changing the very way we live and act.  Radio and other “traditional media” are not the central focus of this revolution; we are being challenged – along with every other business and social structure in our society – by anyone with a passion and an internet connection.

In a whirlwind of change such as this, how can we respond?   Senior management has the opportunity to empower change agents within our organizations to help the rest of us rethink our business and focus on new opportunities within our grasp.

What are the characteristics of a change agent?   Have you ever met someone who not only sees the immediate challenge, but also can see the next several steps down the road?  Have you ever had a discussion with someone who challenged every assumption that you based your opinion on – and was usually right?  Have you run into those restless souls who are constantly looking for a better way to do things?   You have rubbed shoulders with change agents, whether you knew it or not.

Many would-be change agents find themselves on the outside looking in, simply because change is hard.  It is easier for an organization to keep its established focus:  the station manager who simply redoubles his or her efforts to make the budget for the quarter; the programmer who is totally absorbed in the specifics of PPM meter logs.   It is not that these people are not hard workers or devoted to their jobs; in many cases, they are valuable employees.  But one person’s “focus” is another’s “blindness to the change around them”.    Radio as an industry has been slow to acknowledge and absorb the change implication of the digital revolution; many among us just wish it would go away and let us get back to business.

That’s where the agents of change can help; they can raise the larger issues that will determine our long term future.   These issues include:

What real purpose do we serve for our listeners?  For our advertisers?

What are the unique resources we bring to that job?

What are the values of our organization that guide our allocation of resources?

What is the process we use to get the job done for our listeners?  For advertisers?

In our business, we seldom stop to ask those questions.  First, they are sometimes just too hard to answer and second, we are running at a thousand miles an hour to get our normal business done.  The urgent crowds out the truly important, the really strategic questions.   It is admittedly easier to go back and switch-pitch the advertiser who didn’t buy our cluster on their last avail.  But every day we fill with that frenetic activity, to the exclusion of the important strategic questions, is a day closer to risking irrelevance in a digitally connected world.

Change agents are at times a royal pain, but their value lies in their ability to ask the right questions, the questions that cannot be easily answered with a stock speech, the questions that might make you lose some sleep tonight.   That’s exactly why they are important.

My advice to those of us in a leadership position in our business is to become an agent of change, or if that is not part of how you are wired, then find one in your organization and give them a platform to ask those questions.   If there was ever a time we needed that type of thinking, it is now.

Let’s recruit some more change agents and give them a shot.  It’s how we will win our future.