I had a friend years ago that hired a decorator to come in and arrange his living room furniture. Mind you, nothing new was purchased, the consultant just re-arranged the room with the same pieces of furniture and accessories. Surprisingly, it actually looked really good. I was astounded, as was he. All this familiar stuff was pulled from the room and re-assembled in a way that looked completely new. Vision.
Steve Jobs did that with technology. If you haven’t seen the recent Malcolm Gladwell piece on Steve Jobs “real genius,” it’s worth the read. Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point and Blink, calls Jobs “The Tweaker”. It’s a compliment, though out of most writer’s mouths, in just the few past weeks after Jobs passing, that label is intended to be the ultimate insult.
I never worshiped at the Apple altar, or for that matter, at Jobs feet, though when I first plugged in my 1987 Apple SE and started playing, I was fairly awestruck. OK, so maybe I genuflected a time or two. I launched Illustrator and that “massive” (you’ll never fill this sucker) 40 MB hard-drive was soon full of my creations. (*sigh*) Since then, I’ve lived in a Windows business world, a pale shadow of the enduring Apple elegance.
It was only weeks before Jobs passed that I relented and bought an iPad2, taking it on a recent station related junket to Ireland & Scotland. Tablets had been around 10 years when Jobs re-invented, re-tooled and re-imagined the tablet into what we call the iPad and what he called the “post computer world”. In a word, wow! You know, it comes close to replacing my laptop…quite close.
Fast forward all the years and several businesses and radio stations later and I find myself identifying strongly with The Tweaker and the role of tweaking in business. Isn’t that, after-all, what we do? Isn’t that what makes the world go ’round. Mozart took a stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais and turned it into what we now know as the opera The Marriage of Figaro, making the idea even better. The world of classical music knows all too well about the concept of “borrowing” themes and motifs, as does the world of inventions and patents. Just ask Edwin Armstrong and Lee De Forest, wranglers over the technology that gave us FM radio.
Not very many of us have ever started radio stations. We take what someone else has built and try to make it better. Few of us have invented anything, well anything patentable, but we slave over minor tweaks to all the old processes and SOP’s that surround us. The music certainly isn’t new, opening a microphone and talking to a radio audience isn’t new, so we find small ways to massage or tweak what has always been done. Mind you, we have made huge strides in making classical radio more accessible, but we’ve a long ways to go. This old medium of radio really isn’t that old and the rapidly evolving new media landscape is presenting opportunities completely unimagined just a few years ago. In other words, we all have an equal chance of seeing that next new platform, or device and adapting it to our station, possibly making it better. We’ve done virtually everything under the sun with what we already have. Right? <wink>
If Steve Jobs were to walk into your station, what would he consider to be the easiest and best first tweaks…on-air and off, to improve on what you’ve started. We may not have the luxury of a Steve Jobs to critique our companies, but we may have something even better: a smart audience and our instincts. Those avenues of interaction we’re building and boasting about, hold the key to those necessary and elegant innovations which will keep us relevant. We may not embrace much of what’s presented to us as a need by our audience, but I believe we’ll know the next best thing when we see it. Let’s grab it, customize it, and one-up The Tweaker. Let’s make it open source. That’s the public radio way.
P.S. Fall is here and is it just me or has the grim reaper had a field day of late, not only with those who are icons in our country (Steve Jobs, Andy Rooney, Amy Winehouse, Joe Frazier) but also within our small public radio industry. RIP, Seth Williamson, long-time classical music host at WVTF in Roanoke, a wonderful talent and wit. RIP, also, Tom Keith, sound effects genius for A Prairie Home Companion. There were none better than Tom – a gentleman and a scholar, a very funny scholar, at that.