by John Dodge
In 1972, The Eagles released their second and lowest selling album, Desperado. It was different. It was thematic. It didn't attempt to string random singles along but instead told a story, an allegory about rock musicians as outlaws. Desperado didn't exactly bomb, but it didn't sell very well either, and The Eagles promptly switched producers and went back to cranking out the hits. Enough risk taking and "artistic experimentation," I guess. I mention it because there's a full-bore rocker on that record called "Out of Control" with a line that goes, "You've got to gamble on your story -- you got no guts, you get no glory." That's more than a quip, a slogan, a cliché. Tatoo that sucker onto your knuckles because there's never been a more succinct prescription for success.
This article is about taking chances, about risk and reward, about standing out in a crowd. Sure, it's uncomfortable taking risks. What happens if you fail? It doesn't look good. You might get fired. You might never get another good job again as long as you live and wind up under the freeway sucking cheap stuff from a paper sack. But then again, you might size up a situation with facts in hand, make a decision that goes against conventional "wisdom," and come out on top looking good and getting the notice and respect of your peers and management. Do that more than once and you'll stand out. Do it more than twice and you're on your way up.
We sometimes bitch about the derivative sound of music, but in the high stakes game of risk avoidance, here's how the sequel-itis gets started: record company signs a "new" sound-alike band because the Innovators and their label broke the first ground, took the risk, and reaped the reward. Radio jumps on the Sound-alikes because programmers don't have to take a chance on something new, incorrectly believing that the radio audience only wants more of the same. New bands don't craft their own sound -- why bother? As the Japanese say, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Out rolls the bandwagon and Sound-alikes spawn Sons of Sound-alikes until the musical gene pool is totally inbred and cross-eyed. Radio blames Records who blame Radio for their total lack of guts. But (hunting horn SFX) somewhere a person sticks their neck out and plays (or signs) a sound that's different. They put their reputation on the line and take a chance. Sure, sometimes it's a flop and necks get chopped, but sometimes it flies. And when it does, the risk-taker is heralded as a visionary, possessed of the Golden Ears and promoted right into the corner office where, according to the truly weird ways of human nature (whoopee cushion SFX), they often never take another risk for fear of losing the special parking place.
You talk risk-taking to commercial radio and it's like yelling FIRE! in a crowded theater. We've become a me-too industry of pale imitators, chart-watchers, and wannabees. Many of us draw our professional satisfaction from such challenges as knocking off Wayne's World parodies. We think that's creativity. I hate to bust your bubble, but do you know how many listeners are gonna remember our Wayne's World parodies? Exactly six. They have all the sex appeal of retreads. You could counter this argument with the success of sequels but remember, only Arnold gets to do Terminator 12.
The point is this: if you catch yourself saying, "I'm gonna be the next (fill in the blank with your radio idol)," an alarm should go off in your head. There's only one Greaseman, one Imus, one Production God. You can't be them. You can't be anything like them, so don't even bother to try. There is, however, one hole in the market, one niche you can create, control, then use for ultimate world domination: you can be an original. That's right, you are it, the walking one and only. Gamble on your story.
Let me take some of the six-gun hero out of this picture and admit that I'm not a gambler, per se. More like an investor. I like long strings of little victories. Not a particularly sexy style, true, but success stories are like bricks -- no single one needs spectacular strength, but a pile of them sure gets the wall built. Here's an example. Every format tends to heavy up in certain advertising categories. When I produced rock stations, it was clubs and concerts. Now I program a classical station, and we're loaded with travel, high-end auto and antiques. At one point, we had three different antique dealers on the air, each one tenaciously sticking to their lists of stuff, thinking that a listener would make an action decision based on a description of some old table or chair. Then a fourth dealer, seeing that all his competition was advertising and succeeding, signed on and wanted his list of stuff, too. At which point I said wait a minute -- we have to get this guy to do something completely other and unexpected because if we don't take a risk and differentiate his business, he might get "too little too late" results and join the pack of dissatisfied advertisers who whine, "I tried radio and it didn't work." Fortunately in this case, the new client was advertising-savvy and understood the Very Important Marketing Concept: when everyone else zigs, you zag. We did a campaign that used humor, sound effects, and unusual copy, and he stuck to the plan over time. He definitely did not sound like an antique dealer. Results? Business zoomed, customers bypassed his sound-alike competition to shop him first, and people came into the store saying "I heard your ad on the radio." That normally doesn't happen unless those folks are in cahoots with the salesperson. Real people do not say "I came here because I heard your ad on the radio." But in this case they did because we took a risk and created something different. By the way, you can be absolutely certain if my idea had bombed I would have had one irate Sales Manager in my face who didn't make a goal that month or maybe even lost a client because I gambled on some wacko commercials when I could have played it safe.
It pays to become what's known as a contrarian. Don't go up the middle where all the traffic is; make end runs where there's a shot at breaking out into some open territory. Risky strategy? You bet. You could get sacked and look like a dope. You might get a touchdown and look like a hero, too. It's your option. You want to get a reputation? You have to take chances. I'm not talking about insanity here; I'm talking about intelligent risk-taking. Know your stuff, do your homework, and roll the dice. Don't worry about failure -- when you become known as a person whose different ideas pay off, you'll be allowed to fumble here and there. One more sports analogy and I'll leave them alone. Babe Ruth was also the Strike Out King, but who remembers that part, and who cares?
At this point, you might be saying "Hey man, they don't pay me enough to stick my neck out. It's the salesperson's commission, the radio station's profits, but my take home is the same whether I crank out Big Macs or filet mignon." I really hope you're not saying that because if you are, do the rest of us a favor -- please get out of the business. No offense, you just won't go the distance with that mindset. Radio is becoming encircled by hatchet-wielding new technologies, and to survive, we need all the creative risk-takers we can get. Today, DMX delivers digital quality, blab-free, multi-format music direct via cable for pennies. Today, the GM contemplates replacing one of your drive shifts with syndication or your midday with a satellite. Today the FCC holds another meeting about DAB which will multiply the dozens of competitors you already face. Smell the coffee, friends. If you don't take intelligent risks today, you're out the door tomorrow.
I did something the other night I hadn't done since college. No, not twist up a spliff the size of a turkey leg. With the aid of some dark roasted beans, I stayed up all night to experience what one Boston rock jock called "drifting through a sea of stardust." I really wanted to see the Perseid Meteor Shower. It turned out to be a bust due to cloud cover, but the point is if I hadn't taken the chance, the risk of completely screwing up my energy and productivity the next day (which I did), I might have missed something incredible, an image that would have stayed with me forever. There's a scale to risk and reward -- the farther you go up the ladder, the greater your chance for success...or failure. Playing it safe isn't safe at all -- you'll not only go nowhere, you'll actually backslide. Try climbing a step at a time and getting confident about taking chances. Pretty soon it'll seem like the natural thing to do.