The Talent Gap

Written Sep. 14, 2010 by Tom Webster in Terrestrial Radio with 4 Comments

I was saddened yesterday to learn that Global Radio has scrapped the Galaxy Network (and a few other local stations) in order to consolidate the programming to a new, nine-station "Capital Network" originating in London. I used to provide audience and marketing research for several of the Galaxy stations when they were owned by Chrysalis, and, as a big fan of the music, these ranked amongst some of my most satisfying projects back in the 90s.

I have no specific knowledge with which to second-guess this decision, and I assume it's at least partially rooted in the economic realities of the business. I do, however, want to point out this quote from Ashley Tabor, Global Radio's founder and CEO, from today's Guardian:

[O]n the decision to syndicate programming across the network, Tabor said: "I'm afraid to say there are not 33 good mid-morning presenters in this country and there are not another 33 good afternoon presenters. I wish there were, but there aren't."

You've heard this before, surely - I know I've heard it from a variety of radio clients over the years. Every time an airshift is voice tracked, or a local show is replaced by a syndicated one, the decision is often justified with some version of Tabor's sentiment - Tabor simply had the courage to state it publicly.

We've encountered this piece of received wisdom - the lack of available talent - so often over the past decade that we no longer question it. We simply nod our heads, and commiserate with Global's predicament. From all appearances, the fact that there aren't enough talented and skilled radio personalities is as firmly grounded in reality as PPM, performance royalties and every other perceived constraint of 21st century terrestrial radio. I have no reason to doubt Tabor or anyone else who states that there isn't enough available talent to go around.

And yet, if you take this statement out of the context of the radio industry, and apply it to any other business, you're left with one inescapable conclusion: it's patently absurd.

It's completely ludicrous to think that there couldn't be 33 good morning presenters in the UK, or 12 good afternoon jocks in Milwaukee or even five talented salespeople in Raleigh-Durham. Talent is everywhere. What is in short supply, however, is imagination, and any sense of an HR strategy for the radio industry.

When I began my career in research, I was super fortunate to have been nurtured by some outstanding managers. I made loads of mistakes (still do, don't you?), often rushed to judgement without wisdom, and occasionally told truth to power in a style that did more to hinder my arguments than promote them. In short, I was rough around the edges. I am enormously grateful to the people in my life who made me better at what I do, and patiently worked to develop my talent, passion and style so that I could start to realize my potential. It would have been very easy to look at the Tom Webster of 20 years ago and say that "there isn't enough young research talent to go around." Tom took some work, believe me, and is still a work in progress.

Today, in the radio industry, that work isn't being done on a corporate scale. At the local level, managers are being stripped of time, resources, and yes, airshifts that could be used to nurture and develop tomorrow's Howard Sterns, Scott Munis, Pierre Roberts and Charles Laquideras. Without a strategic reinvention of radio's HR strategy, the systems simply aren't there to attract, develop and retain the talent radio needs to thrive in the 21st century. Look around at all the innovation happening in Internet radio, location-based services/networks, social media and online video. Talent is everywhere. The long-term issue is not the scarcity of talent - it's radio's inability to provide an exciting, entrepreneurial environment to attract the talent that is already there, and a lack of HR resources to develop that talent and create what Radio desperately needs: stars.

The bottom line on the "talent gap" is this: short investment horizons, quarterly strategies and "just give me three good years" are the real strategic problems, not a lack of talent. The difference between coal and diamonds is simply pressure and time. There's plenty of the former in the radio industry, but precious little of the latter.

UPDATE: My friend Nik Goodman has another, eminently sensible take on Capital's move.

Reader Comments

Your 2¢, in chronological order — add your comment below.
1  manfred roxon on September 14, 2010 5:34 PM

Good points. Today's ILR mamagers are talentless themselves and seem to resent it in others. Unfortunately the owners are just as bad.

2  TEDPITMAN on September 14, 2010 5:53 PM

What a bad idea for Trent, Ram and Leicester Sound - they would be better off left alone now they're sounding good.

3  Sam Jarrett on September 14, 2010 6:49 PM

Outstanding piece perfectly summed up.

4  Dave Martin on September 16, 2010 1:19 PM

Well said, Tom. The much often used "there's nobody out there" argument is a symptom, a flashing engine warning light, which tells us we have a leadership problem. Also agree with your take that what we have here is a failure of imagination.

One of the core beliefs of our firm: "the recruitment, development and retention of exceptionally gifted talent is the wellspring of every great enterprise." Further, it is our notion that all employees are "talent."

As a practical matter, there is no real HR function at work in radio that is not related to compliance (e.g., Documentation of and record keeping associated with the filed EEO model). The HR process, such as it is, remains another "additional duty as assigned" to the already overworked business managers in the field.

Regrettably, HRD (human resources development)is not a priority, few, if any, resources are devoted to learning, to helping talent reach their potential. Radio continues to be a business operated without the advantages inherent in formal training programs, where the leaders are (mostly) self-taught, where industry dogma is too often accepted and passed from one cohort to the next. Over time this results in a potentially harmful "genetic blindness" at the senior levels of leadership.

The really good news is this can be changed. What radio now needs most is radical innovation in the leadership function. My sense is smart operators will come around to respect and appreciate this counter-intuitive concept.

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