It was just a few short years ago that Apple was the most “beleaguered” company in the world. The titans and pundits of industry had put the once towering giant of the computer industry on death watch. Now a decade later, Apple is the darling of the computing world, again. Today traditional media has become the beleaguered stepchild with newspapers across the country on deathwatch and the consolidated radio industry so far in debt, that most see traditional broadcasting as a hulking dinosaur gasping its last breath.
With Apple the new darling, many in the radio industry have called on radio management and the consolidated CEO’s to become more like the Apple Cupertino mother-ship. Honestly, I’ve gotten sick of reading op-ed pieces calling on radio to emulate Apple. Why? Because I honestly don’t believe that most of the talking heads in the broadcasting biz really have a grip on why Apple has gone from being a company on life support to beating HP & Dell in customer satisfaction and even holding a market cap lead over Google.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late ’90s Apple was a company in serious trouble. Under Amelio and Scully, Apple had lost its way with confusing product lines, an aging operating system, clones chewing up profit margins and most importantly, no leader at the top with a clear vision. I remember those years. I was one of the faithful that stuck with Apple through the good, bad and the ugly. Hell, I bought stock in the company, at 12 bucks a share, when everyone told me I was nuts. Needless to say, I got the last laugh there.
Most know the products that have catapulted Apple back to the top of the computing heap: The iPhone, iMac, MacBook, iTunes and of course the iPod. Many of us know some of the history of these devices, and the fact that despite the predictions of the press and computing industry, Apple came roaring back with products that redefined and reinvigorated not only Apple, they reignited the computing, music, video and media world. But how?
No one, unless they were a fly on the wall at Apple and in direct line of sight of Steve Jobs reality distortion field, can know the full answer to Apple’s reinvention and success. But one thing is for certain, without the leadership of Jobs, Apple would undoubtedly have joined Amiga, Compaq and DEC on the slag-heap of computing history.
A couple of years ago I happened to catch Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on the Charlie Rose Show share the most illuminating insight into the mind of Steve Jobs. When asked why Job’s is so great at creating successful products, Wozniak said that Job’s real genius was his ability to clearly understand what people really want. And while Apple spends quite a chunk of change on research and development, when it comes to market research and consultants, Apple doesn’t spend a dime.
Outside of the genius of Jonathan Ive, the buck truly stops at the desk of Steve Jobs when it comes to Apple products. Apple doesn’t need to hire a battery of consultants, run endless focus groups and “experts” to figure out what people want, they have leadership at the top, like him or not, that “gets it.” This, more than any other factor, is what is lacking in radio leadership today.
Sure Steve cares about his shareholders and the bottom line of Apple, but Job’s understands the paramount importance and obvious fact that if the product isn’t right, if it doesn’t deliver what their customers want, no corporate cutbacks or bottom-line wrangling will deliver profits to those stock holders if the product doesn’t deliver.
Unfortunately radio consolidation forced CEO’s to chase higher and higher returns for their shareholders, while cutting back expenditures to increase those margins. Now with debt consuming profits, radio has continued to vivisect the nucleus of its business, the product (along with the talent that creates that product). This is territory that has been visited and revisited by enough op-ed pieces on radio to fill all of the corporate filing cabinets at the Clear Channel headquarters in San Antonio. Sadly, either no one is listening or the shouting from the rooftops is falling on deaf ears.
What the radio biz needs is not to emulate Apple, but a Steve Jobs at the helm, who can steer the ship back on the path of importance and profitability by placing the product at due north. Radio needs a key figure in a position of power who gets “what people want.” This is the lesson the radio business must learn from Apple, if it want’s to continue to be a compelling and profitable force in the media landscape. A broadcaster in command who has a keen insight into “what people really want” and understands that above all else, without the right product, there is no ship to sail. Who would you pick?
*John Ford is a Broadcast programming professional with nearly three decades of experience in local and network major market radio Programming and Consulting. Including stints as a VP of New Media Sabo Media, Network Programming and Imaging at ABC Radio Networks, Greenstone Media. Programming, Imaging and Morning/Talk positions at WIOD/Miami, WLLZ/Detroit, KZPS/Dallas, The Edge/Dallas, Zeta 4/Miami, WSHE/Miami and others. John’s also an uber-geek who holds numerous Apple Technical Certifications and enjoys breaking and fixing code and kit. Reach him at his website johnford.net.