The Research Trap

Caught either way…

I’ve often had a complicatd relationship with radio research. images

On one hand, it’s almost always fascinating, particuarly one-on-one research, of which I never tire.

On the other, I think Radio too often uses research incorrectly, or as an excuse, and in both cases it diminishes the impact of the content artist, the programmers and air talent.

Picasso didn’t research his work. Michelangelo didn’t consult focus groups before sculpting David.

No great work of literature has ever been subjected to “testing” before it’s published and read.

The famous tale of the ET focus groups who hated, and hooted, the story-boarded concept, is well known. The problem with most Hollywood movies now is they’re the product of focus groups, the blanded-down average that no one hates — and no one loves.

I can guarantee you The Artist was not created by focus groups.

There’s an excellent article about the place for research in design work which I read, and saved, last year. (You can find it HERE if you’re interested in design.)

Ah, yes. ‘The research.’ That most magical of phrases. Extinguisher of debate. Oracle. Provider of easy answers to the most complex questions.”

“As an undergraduate physics major, I had grown to understand scientific research as a slow process that took place over years or even decades. Research, as I understood it then, was an attempt to deliberately advance knowledge by eliminating false theories. It was a difficult undertaking bolstered by rigorous debate.”

In the business world, I later learned, ‘the research’ is quite a different phenomenon. …’the research’ is not debateable. Apparently, it’s capable of predicting people’s reactions to decisions that haven’t been made yet. In fact, ‘the research’ seems capable of making decisions all on its own.”

As the article goes on to say, the problem is that the world, especially the creative world, is fundamentally unpredictable.

The brilliant Austrian economist, F.A. Hayek, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, once said, “I confess that I prefer true but imperfect knowledge, even if it leaves much undetermined and unpredictable, to a pretence of exact knowledge that is likely to be false.”

Radio has been using research for decades to eliminate potential negatives, things people tell us they don’t want to hear. Do you like the result of that trend? Do you like what you hear now? Do listeners? Has TSL gone up in any city anywhere in the world since the advent of research into programming?

Sadly, I know lots of radio execs who hide behind research. We’re just following the plan. We all signed off on the plan.

Even more sadly, not one of their stations is truly great.

We need more artistic programmers, men and women who hear the station in their head and know how to create insanely great content in every daypart.


Of course, like most great artists, they’re not going to cede decision-making to 10 women in a mirrored room, or 400 people languishing through a 25-minute telephone survey.

And they’re definitely not going to be bullied by a VP of Programming or the consultant du jour. They’ll just quit.

Business schools often ask me what Steve Jobs teaches us about leadership…It’s that he took total responsibility for his products from end to end, that he put products above return on investment and that he wasn’t a slave to focus groups. *

Creators create.

And we need to find some owners and GMs with the guts, and the money, to let them.





*Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. This quote is taken from TIME Magazine’s article, “What Would Steve Do” by Rana Foroohar