“F!*% Perfect”

January 15, 2014

I know you’ve been there – a radio dinner with smart, passionate professionals trying to get our collective heads around “the problem.”

It started out with a conversation about the rapid changes in the media world, and how they impact radio.  And around about when the entrees showed up, I expressed a theme that JacoBLOG readers have read many times – the notion that radio’s penchant for consistency and predictability have gone from being assets to deficits in a world where concepts like new, different, and surprise are valued more than ever.  On panel at CES, Slacker’s Jack Isquith referred to it as “serendipity.”

We talked about how the conventional wisdom in radio is striving to give listeners exactly what they’ve come to expect, and how every quarter-hour must be a microcosm of the entire radio station.  And yet, despite our best efforts to lock in consistency day after day, consumers keep wandering away to other media and different outlets.  And we know that in the process, they are often so amazed by what they hear from these new outlets and platforms that they feel compelled to share their pleasure and satisfaction with others.

That doesn’t happen often enough in radio, and it may be due to our dogged focus on perfection.

Pristine logs.

Seamless breaks.

Follow the clock.

Benchmarks at the same time each day.

That “set it and forget it” mentality.

Repaired PlatesMaybe it all comes back to that “purple cow” – the colorful bovine Seth Godin dreamed up to remind us that products, brands, and personalities can’t just be good.  They have to be remarkable to stand out in this environment.

And that’s when one of my dinner mates, veteran radio manager and programmer Chuck Browning, uttered a foreign term to describe what we were talking about:

Wabi-Sabithe Japanese art of imperfection.

Of course, outside of feng shui and kaizen, my Japanese is limited.  Wabi-sabi very much describes the spirit of this post, and the need for radio to aim for being more “imperfect.”  Or “imperfecter.”

Chuck explained the principle of wabi sabi – and I did some research on the concept.

Designer and writer Mark Lundegren on his ArchaNatura website refers to reusing natural materials to create objects or designs that are irregular or perfect as “beautifully disheveled.”

But it goes beyond that – there’s a real value in creating the imperfect because of its potential to surprise and delight us.  It is a Japanese tradition and art to repair broken objects by filling the cracks with gold.  In fact, some medieval Japanese craftsmen apparently broke perfectly good plates or objects – just for the joy of fixing them and making them stronger and more interesting.

And it’s more than pottery and plates.  A new – and very hot – restaurant in D.C. is Rose’s Luxury, conceived and “programmed” by Chef Aaron Silverman.

Chef Aaron SilvermanAt his restaurant, the tables don’t match, and the cuisine ranges from Japanese to French to Italian to Southern.  As he notes, “The cohesion is that there isn’t cohesion” and that’s what makes the place compelling.

His philosophy?  Be “perfectly imperfect.”

Interestingly, the music at Rose’s Luxury is programmed with the same POV – culling together users’ playlists and selecting a couple thousand songs from hip-hop to Elvis.  As Silverman points out, “It’s so eclectic that we can’t have a single song that doesn’t fit, otherwise it throws the whole balance off.”

To sum up Silverman’s approach to giving diners a unique experience: “F%$* Perfect.”

And Silverman’s wabi-sabi mindset for his eatery goes to the heart of radio “breaking” its habit of perfection, and instead creating products, hours, breaks, and events that aren’t seamless and perfect – but that resonate with listeners because they’re interesting, different, and more spontaneous in their sound.

In reading over memories of Larry Lujack from late last year, one of the things what made him special was that he was doing Top 40 at a time when everything was happy, upbeat, and perfect.  Yet, Lujack was cynical, rough around the edges, and not afraid to say a song sucked, a contest was dumb, or that management was lame.  His imperfection endeared him to Chicagoans because it stood out and was real.

Our lives aren’t perfect.  Our jobs aren’t perfect.  Our idols certainly aren’t perfect.

And that’s what makes it all an interesting ride.

Radio must get past its obsession with perfection, because the reality is that better playlists are being created every day by consumers who own iPods or who use services like Spotify.

If your idea of perfection is no commercials, there are a plethora of media sources that will deliver that, too.

And if you want to enjoy programming and content at the touch of a button, wherever you are, and on whatever device, you can also do that.

So where does that leave radio?

In search of compelling imperfection.

We have too much perfect in our lives.  We need more interesting, different, and flawed content that reminds us that compelling programming has cracks, spontaneity, and even occasional mistakes.  We need to break some perfectly good china in order to create compelling, different sounding radio because we no longer compete in our self-contained radio ecosystems.

Lori Lewis uses the term “flawsome” to describe her approach to social media, and you can apply that to the content that programmers create.

It takes more work, care, thought, and personal touch to create a perfectly imperfect radio station.  But that’s the kind of channel that’s going to cut through, get talked about, recommended, and shared.

It’s not a matter of old school versus digital.  It is a matter of how does your brand stand out, get noticed, and become a must-listen-to source in an environment with seemingly infinite options?   If that means working around some of the tools – notably music scheduling systems and voicetracking – that save us time, but also lull us into the illusion that perfection is interesting, then so be it.

Radio needs to shake it up and start being real and imperfect…again.  Perhaps that’s a resolution in the new year that we should all strive to achieve.

And we just might find gold inside those flaws.

Thanks to Chuck Browning, Washington City Paper’s Jessica Sidman, the Washington Post & Aaron Silverman for the inspiration.


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4 Responses to “F!*% Perfect”

  1. Dave Nelson on January 15, 2014 at 11:29 AM

    Awesome blog post Fred!! I have thought this for a while now, that radio was too regamented and routine. Hopefully when I find my next gig I’ll be able to bring a little imperfection! :)

    • Fred Jacobs
      Fred Jacobs on January 15, 2014 at 12:41 PM

      And best of luck to you, Dave. Thanks for the kind comments and for reading our blog.

  2. Fred Buc on January 19, 2014 at 7:36 PM

    Formatics, Hot Clocks, talking-up and hitting timed intro posts, following music rotation logs, succumbing to other radio/commercial log road maps, backtiming to hit the top-of-the-hour, strict talk break rules from the PDs, etc… (I could go on and on).

    All of these things have forced us to operate as on-air “perfectionists”. If we ever stepped-on an intro, mis-timed the break, played the wrong music category … it felt like we had an incurable disease.

    Tell me honestly — does anybody outside of radio really care about this stuff?? Have they ever?

    Thanks for the post, Fred!

    • Fred Jacobs
      Fred Jacobs on January 20, 2014 at 7:12 AM

      Fred, thanks for the note & the observations. I believe that structure, rules, protocol and boundary lines all bring a sense of order, familiarity, and consistency to radio. And a consultant, I’ve spent many a memo talking about all the things you mention. But there’s a point reached – and I obviously believe we’ve passed it – where a re-examination of “how we’ve always done it” is sensible. I’m not sure anyone outside of radio cares about this stuff, as you ask. But I do think that the creation of a consistent environment – similar to a TV newscast or “Late Night” – is part of what creates that sense of habitual usage. Question is, has much of this outlived its usefulness? Thanks again.

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