I've just finished reading a pre-publication copy of Seth Godin's newest book, All Marketers Are Liars. Liars in the sense that good marketers tell great and remarkable stories. And, as Seth says, "If they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass... we believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better - and look cooler - than $20 no-names... and believing makes it true." Seth's philosophy is in alignment with that of my partners, since we're all about storytellling.
Near the end of the book, Seth mentions Sirius, one of two satellite radio companies striving to revolutionize the radio industry. This, combined with Bill Breen's recent article on Sirius in Fast Company, reminded me of a personal experience with disastrous storytellers.
I was brought on board at Sirius way back in 1998 to create and develop the classical music programming for the company. Back then, Sirius was brand-spankin' new (I think I was employee number 14). In fact, it wasn't even called Sirius; the company's original name was CD Radio. The world wasn't aware of us yet, but we knew that if those damned rockets launched the satellites into the right orbit, we would have traditional commercial radio shaking in its boots. The thought of 100 commercial-free channels of digital music and talk, delivered to an automobile that could drive from California to Maine without losing the signal, took our breath away.
Those were heady days, with a programming department that included the most knowledgeable, passionate and iconic figures from the music and radio worlds. This must be what heaven is like, we thought to ourselves... complete authority and freedom to create our "dream" channels. Give listeners the music they deserve but never hear. Give artists the exposure they deserve but never get. We'd spend hours running up and down the hallways of the studio, sharing music that burst open and glittered and nearly shattered our hearts at times with its beauty. We loved what we did, we loved each other, and we loved the world.
Then, the marketing department stepped in.
Months and months of meetings and directives from above slowly eroded our soul. From the desk that bore a copy of "The Art of War" (so 1990's) flowed inane ideas and delusional thoughts, all wrapped up and topped with a corporate bow. The final blow came when the senior members from programming sat across from the heads of marketing to discuss an initial promotion agenda for the company. Marketing talked about the satellites, the receivers, and the antennas; Programming talked about... well, the programming. At one point, a marketing VP held up her bottle of orange juice, thrust it toward me and said, "This is how I market, whether it's satellite radio, Kleenex, or orange juice. It's all the same thing - marketing is marketing."
From the back of my mind, a tiny little voice whispered, "We are so f***ed."
Marketing was missing the story completely. They were focused on the delivery system when, in reality, it was all about the entertainment. Yes, technology is cool, but are people really wowed by a DIRECTV satellite dish and receiver, or that they can receive more channels than the brain can handle? I'll put my money on the entertainment factor everytime.
While it broke my heart, I survived the Sirius era quite nicely; in fact I left the company before the bottom dropped out and all hell broke loose. But to see a company with such a thunderous dream (and more than a year's lead on its competitor) struggle today is hard to watch. Most of the original dreamers are gone. What's left is simply a shadow of traditional radio.
Will they make it? I guess, as Seth says, that depends on how good they are as liars.