Radio's Interregnum and the Mob

Mark Ramsey, at Hear 2.0, has a terrific interview with Bob Garfield, host of WNYC's "On the Media," a program that you can hear nationally on NPR. I actually subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes, lending lots of credence to the points that Bob is making in his talk with Mark.

The title of Mark's article is "Radio: The End is Near – Unless you heed Bob Garfield," which drove me to thinking in terms of "interregnum," the period between two monarchies. One of the most famous interregnums, the one that is called The Interregnum, was the period between 1649 and 1660 in England. This was a period of great change and turmoil, but resulted in the establishment of a republican commonwealth in England. Many people felt that the world was coming to an end during this time. And, for many (not the least, King Charles I) it did. But, for those who made it through and adapted to the new way of viewing the world, it opened up a whole new vision.

Part of that vision remained rooted in the depths of human nature. And, such it is with radio's interregnum. Garfield points out that those running the "radio" business today have forgotten about the "hoi polloi," the common man, descendants in spirit of The Interregnum's revolutionary Mob.

One quote struck me in particular:

You see, the hoi polloi have much to offer you. They can be idea generators for you, they can be evangelists, they can be your defacto marketing team, they can create for you, they can do product development – just because they don’t pay attention to your advertising anymore doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about your product. They’re a community that you have painstakingly built and they care about you. And instead of just treating them like wallets with circulatory systems, you can start embracing them, exploiting them and having conversation with them, and it can yield enormous, enormous, enormous dividends.

This is the key, fundamental problem that radio (or whatever you call it) faces today. Many (but not all) broadcasters have forgotten this key point - that people want to be deeply involved with the "radio" programming they listen to. It is a connection that has been around since the first crystal sets... probably connected to our ancestral heritage of storytelling and communal experience. But, as Bob says, many broadcasters are treating their audiences " wallets with circulatory systems..." Radio is hard work. Not just on the business side, but on the creation side as well. There are folks who get this, and they have created ecosystems that are not dependent on just the "100,000 watt flamethrower on the top of the Empire State building," as Scott Shannon put it back in the '80s (wow, isn't that imagery great?).

Roger Utnehmer, owner of Nicolet Broadcasting in Sturgeon Bay, WI, has created something that goes down that path. It's called Door County Daily News, and it ties together his cluster of four radio stations with a web "newspaper." Is it perfect? No - but I have a feeling that if you go to the community of Sturgeon Bay (it's about 40 miles to the northeast of Green Bay, on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan) and Door County, you will find a deep connection to these media vehicles. I met Utnehmer last fall, and after a conversation with him it was clear that he "gets it" as far as radio's future goes. He travels the country (I met him in Alaska) spreading the gospel about how to make the transition through the interregnum.

Because that's what this time is - it's the period between one regime and another. Between the regime of single point of origination media and the regime of true multi-media. It is exciting, it is refreshing and the people who know how to do radio well (like Roger Utnehmer) will flourish. Those that don't? Well, read the history of Cromwell. But be aware - Cromwell was posthumously executed.