THE PERILS OF TOO MUCH DATA AT THE WRONG TIME...AND AN EYE-OPENER AT USC
THE PERILS OF TOO MUCH DATA AT THE WRONG TIME...AND AN EYE-OPENER AT USC
I left Washington around 8pm last Sunday to head out to Los Angeles to spend the day at USC. Took the late flight so I could catch the White Sox lose depressingly to Oakland. I should have taken the earlier flight. Upon arrival, Mike (no relation) Abrams picked me up at LAX as he was out West for a Dance Convention. Not a bad idea since he oversees our Dance channels. We had a quick dinner and I got to the room at 1am. Exactly 1 hour of tossing around and then a 2am, being still on Eastern time, I was up and ready for action, aided by my Blackberry which started spewing out early morning e-mails from the East Coast. At least, unlike many years ago, I was awake naturally and not fueled by the substances of that era.
So, at around 8am I head over to USC to meet up with Jerry Del Colliano who is a professor there. Jerry started Inside Radio, a popular radio trade newsletter. I always had a love/hate thing with Inside Radio depending on what he said. He ALWAYS had a POV on everything which created an always interesting read that could either inform, infuriate or amuse. I will say, Inside Radio was very helpful in giving our AOR format credibility in the early days, as he'd often report glowing th in gs about the formats' progress at a time when it was viewed with suspicion by many radio group heads. Jerry is a real radio guy who has been in the trenches and I gota hand it to him for being a teacher at a time when he could retire from the profits of selling Inside Radio to Clear Channel. Additionally, Jerry shares the common feeling that terrestrial radio has sunk to such lows that it's truly sad for anyone who has lived through the eras where radio WAS relevant and a vanguard of our culture. Jerry has a pretty cool blog worth checking: http://www.insidemusicmedia.blogspot.com
At around 10am, we head to his "Masters Class"...they were working on a research project and I was sort of a 'consultant' to the students, giving them my feelings on new media and music issues they were studying. Sharp group...only about 5 of them but they are clearly engaged in 2006. At around 11, we were met by Dave Van Dyke who runs Bridge Ratings, a research company. It was a pleasant surprise. I first met Dave in February of 1971 when he was a University of Miami student who got hired to be a DJ at WMYQ/Miami. I "broke him in" on the overnight show which meant showing him how the board worked and smoking a joint to see where he was "at". He later went to WWWW (W-4) in Detroit and shortly thereafter I went to PD WRIF and we hung out some more. Later on, we brought him in to be PD of KGON/Portland and KTXQ/Dallas where I was consultant. He later became a GM for CBS in Boston and Los Angeles.
At Noon I went into the Auditorium of the Thornton School at USC. On stage Jerry interviewed me about XM and 2006 Media in general, though interaction with the 100+ student audience was encouraged. Oddly enough Michael Steele from Indie 103.5 was in the crowd...a ringer! Anyways, I did my "raps" but the real magic was hearing the interaction from the students. Incredibly smart questions and excellent dialogue. They may not know this, but I learned more from THEM in 90 minutes than from just about any meeting I've been to in 20 years. A real reality check on....everything. These are very smart and generally sophisticated people. I had to tell myself that their POV is quite different from a 20 year old waitress at Denny's or a baggage handler at O'Hare, but from a new technology perspective, they had incredibly interesting and logical thoughts. I recall all too well when I'd talk to students years ago and see the vast difference between their often sophistacted musical life worshipping Lou Reed and the musical life of a guy working at Sears who barely heard of Lou Reed but worshipped Styx. I was honored to be involved in this forum which was possibly more of a learning experience for me than for them.
Later that day I headed back to LAX for the flight home. I couldn't stop thinking about the input I got. I was already typing emails to senior management here at XM with my "findings". Having not slept for 48 hours, I plied my way onto the 757. Sat next to some guy from Boeing, holding an envelope marked "Extremely Confidential/Military Data"---I really hoped he'd go to the john so I could check THAT envelope out. He didn't go. So, I played "find the terrorist" and 'find the Air Marshall" while looking around the cabin. then remembered that it's United! XM is on United. I started listening to our channels, but then migrated over to Channel 9 the Air Traffic Control Channel and fell asleep. Upon arriving into Dulles, I realized why I like flying myself instead of commercial as there was a 2 hour wait for luggage.
One thing that USC students do is research. I have some STRONG opinions about research because I think a key reason that terrestrial radio is in a creative funk is because of research. Now I do believe the idea of research is critically important as a strategic and tactical tool. An essential component in operating any business. But it's mis-use is devastatingly negative, particuarlly when it intersects improperly with the creative area . From a creative standpont, I think the key is WHERE it is utilized in the execution of an idea. Ideally, research should be used in the beginning. To identify markets and get a big picture understanding. Then, turn it over to the creatives for INVENTION...EXECUTION...then, use research at the end as a report card. I see the problem is when research is used throughout the execution of an idea. That's when it screws everything up....at least in programming (in more pure business areas--research and data is probably best THROUGHOUT the execution--before, during and after). But in content creation (music, radio or whatever) research cannot supersede the creative process. Use it in the beginning and the end, but leave the middle...the execution , to creative invention. Take the early days of FM Rock. The BEST stations often happened because the owner researched and found that there was a hole for FM Rock. Then the station was put together with PURE creativity. Then, after the station was assembled and on the air, there was back end research to see how it was working. Nowadays, on terrestrial radio, research dominates the whole process.
It's all about "creative batting average"--Come up with 100 ideas and if 30 work, you are a 300 hitter. That's strong. Most stations have 000 hitters because they're not taking any creative at bats to begin with. Gotta swing for the fences if you want to hit home runs. When we started XM we had and have a no research policy when it comes to music. Find PD's to "get" the genre and let them create and select based on passion and knowledge. Of course, there's always data to look at and our PD's do. But they are not tied down by the traditional radio research that is often flawed. Before our crack research team at XM keel hauls me, I must say that in non creative areas, it's a different story, where research is absolutely essential...but we don't need data to tell us that Radiohead is a good band, or that we should play more than "the single" from Red Hot Chili Peppers...and then there are so many formats that are genuinely unresearchable--not unlike the way a great piece of music can't be created by research. A quick snappy single can...but I'm talking about something original and lasting.
One thing about research that bugs me is simply the assumption that it's the end all. I AM still annoyed by the idea of guys in nicely tailored suits completely dis-associated from the streets towing phone book sized research projects around... that's fine, but they need BALANCE. Say I ran a hip hop label. It would be like me carrying research books figuring I had the answers. I'd trade in all those books for ONE street savvy hip hop dude that bled hip hop. It was the same thing years ago on FM. We'd have a PD who lived it and our competitor had some rocket scientist guy. We'd destroy them every time. It's like here at XM--we impress PD's NOT to look at airplay charts. Why? Its the blind leading the blind. You can reference them...but make your OWN decisions based on knowledge and vibe. research is important--but it's how and WHERE its used...and how it's balanced into the human equation. The balance of a street smart media person armed with data is a dangerously good thing...as long as science and art are in balance and the unleashing of the art and the science happen at the "right" time in the execution.
Back to the USC thing---I imagine if you had USC students doing the research, and then have someone who REALLY understood that data, you'd have a very potent understanding of the college market. But--- I've seen it before: research denial. Some person WAY out of the college demographics saying "that CAN'T be right", with the end result being more confusion and wrong decisions than before. True story: FM Rock DJ named "Roach" Rogers in '72. Listeners (16-24 guys mainly) LOVED the guy because of his name...figured he was "one of them" (a pothead). The not-too-sophistacted research came back confirmed that. Station owners thought "We can't have this"! That data is wrong! Changed his name to "Rich Rogers"...and that "selective interpretation" lost them 3 points and the daypart. Listeners thought it was "bogus" to change his name. That's research denial. If a 22 year old PD was interprting that instead of way out of the demos owners, "Roach" would by now be in the hall of fame in that market. I like to use examples from earlier eras in radio and music because it all becomes clear. The good and the bad. You can see where things were great and why...and where things gor screwed up and why. Again that magic word--Balance. I believe balancing that sense of history with pure 2006 reality yields the best answers.
Then, there's the issue of good research being effective on the back end, but often unreliable on the front end. Here are three true examples of how research CAN flaw things:
1980: Music tests clearly illustrate that The Police and U2 will never succeeded in the US. To "new wave"
1998: Downloading music will never be a factor because it's too labor intensive
1968: FM will not succeed beyond Classical and "Good Music" fans.
...these were ALL from professional research reports.
Again---research is important. It's about learning...but it must be put in perspective and balanced. It's become "the answer" and it's not. It's part of it. I still would take a street wise instinctual thinker every time. But the thinkers and the data together---- They're both parts of the complex equation of winning ears and fans in 2006. Research CAN create strong content--but often that content lacks soul and is short lived, and at the end of the day is something that was more plastic than organic---more fleeting and cool for the moment than lasting and of high quality. There's an empasis in so many areas of our culture to stress buzz over substance...to "market" change rather than actually deliver change...to create something that'll work for a minute, without understanding WHY it works beyond what the data tells you. I imagine if today's broadcast type research were previlent in the 40's and 50's and 60's, we would have never seen Citizen Kane (too different), heard Rock n Roll (Didn't test well--too ethnic), or watched Star Trek (too cerebral).
Research is knowledge. But WHERE it fits in the creative equation and that it co-operates with human instinct and vision decides long term, quality driven success.