Engage – or drift

August 31, 2010

I admit it.

In my radio work I’m often jealous of other media.

Not all of it.

Just certain examples where other media THINKS and ACTS in direct opposition to how we in radio think and act – and the results are often quite cool. Then I find myself wondering – why can’t radio think like that?

Most recent example is the ARG going on for the Showtime Original series Dexter. (arg = alternate reality game)

More on that in a moment – but allow me to digress: why aren’t our programming, promotions and creative people expected to have any gaming knowledge/experience?

Why don’t they know basic game theory, or even basic principles of good game design? These are people that are expected to create “contests” to engage listeners.

10 Songs in a row = audience.

Games = engagement.

People that tell you they don’t like radio games aren’t lying. They don’t like radio games. But they play games. Just not OUR games. Because we suck at it.

Caller/texter 10 is not engaging.

Here’s what I do know. There’s more gaming going on in more ways in our audiences than we have ever thought to consider. People that tell you they can’t play radio games at work have no problem playing countless social games like Farmville at the office.

Look at what people – especially women are doing on their iphones on public transit – playing casual and social games.

Games know no bounds and can be designed to work within ANY medium.

But a sense of what makes good game design is crucial. Unfortunately these are not traits we seek or hire for in radio.

Shifting songs around in Selector, plotting your listen to win contests with “Caller 10” attached and you think game theory/design is not relevant to you?

Ok. Good luck with that.

Back to the Dexter ARG.

Dexter/Showtime could easily have said – we’re just a TV network – a PAY TV network – with an hour long drama. We’re no game designers. We make TV shows. That’s all we do. Law & Order doesn’t do ARGs.

Screw this expensive game thing. Go buy some billboards!

Sound familiar? We’re radio people – not__________ It’s too hard, too foreign, too “has KROQ done this yet?” Let me check the charts.

Here’s another issue. Think about this for a minute.

In radio – we forsake everything for MASS.

If it doesn’t reach the largest group possible – we ignore. And we leave a lot of opportunity unexplored in my view. We’re a relatively vulnerable, stagnating medium as a result.

Now look at Dexter.

A show you can only see if you subscribe to Showtime (about 15 million people do) and of that about 2 million watch Dexter. (guesstimates pulled from various reports around the interwebs) But we don’t need the specifics to understand the fractions.

Number of Dexter viewers < Number of Showtime Subscribers.

The Dexter ARG (an incredibly intricate, well thought out and executed piece of entertainment) appeals to an even smaller chunk of Dexter fans still. The hyper-fans. Actually – even a smaller sliver of hyper-fans. Hyper Dexter fans who are into Alternate Reality Games.

How’s that for niche? So why do it?

If modern radio people were running that show we could count on these things.

Dexter would have been re-written so as to appeal to ALL 15 million Showtime subscribers. So – it would suck. At best, mediocre. Can we make it more like Everyone Loves Raymond? That show had great numbers!

An ARG that only interests a fraction of the show’s audience – shelved.

Let’s give away $10,000 instead! Everyone loves money! Oh – and make sure the audience won’t have to jump through too many hoops because, really . . . we’re not worth it and they might tune away.

I could also imagine hearing this sentiment in a conference room meeting – “once we have your $10.00 per month – we don’t need to spend money to “deepen” that relationship – it’s not like you’re gong to start giving us $15 a month – will you? ”

Hmmm.

To be clear – it’s not the specifics of doing an ARG that has me jealous.

Although it would be cool if stations had personalities and stationality traits that would lend itself to such activities. (we came close on kfog in the late 90s with a puzzle based exotic trip giveaway – sounded very cool on the air)

But it’s the THINKING behind the Dexter ARG that I most wish we had more of in radio.

With even greater budget and audience pressures than we have in radio – they are unafraid of engaging smaller passionate communities without an obvious “this = that” action to rating payoff.

The ARG communities is exactly the kind we in radio toss away and disregard as “too narrow” or “too niche”.

So – we give away concert tickets. Because our research shows everyone loves raymond – I mean free tickets! And coupons!

If you’re waiting for your research to say : “You guys should do a really elaborate off the grid type engagement game that requires lots of fan commitment and effort and will only appeal to your most fanatic, engaged fans” – good luck.

We can engage the part of the audience that WANTS to be engaged. They are there. Like Showtime.

We can also ignore them. They are too small to matter.

We can continue to facilitate passivity on the broadest possible scale.

But when we choose that path (it is a choice) – we really shouldn’t be surprised how vulnerable our station is to anybody that comes along playing more (fill in your core music here) with fewer commercials.