Parachute Stitching 101, or “Blame the Boomers for Today’s Media Hellscape”
1 year ago today I jumped from an airplane without a parachute, so it’s a little ironic (in an Alanis Morissette kind of way) that I’m writing this from one. Instead of leaving a Michael-sized crater in the Earth, I managed to stitch my parachute on the way down from the 30,000 foot perch in mainstream media I had enjoyed for 18 years.
I left an industry with the motto, “if you’re sick, show up. If you’re dead, bring a doctor’s note.”
Quick recap: 2018 marked my 30th year in broadcasting. I got into radio at 17, working overnights. After my shift would end at 5:30am, I’d take the subway to high school and crash in the cafeteria until classes started at 8:40. I’d fall asleep, ironically (in the true sense), in my 2pm business class (Sorry, Miss Aguilera). Three decades later I took a hard look at the lack of thought leadership in mainstream media and decided it was time to reinvent myself for an age management was in denial had already arrived (“we have to make TV for TV” was the response to my pleas to rebuild my shows to be digital-first). Besides, 30 years is a career milestone. You know what’s not? A pink slip at 31 years because a beancounter sorted the spreadsheet a certain way.
So here I sit high above the Earth enroute to Los Angeles for my new documentary platform, Futurithmic. I have the best seat of my team: in an exit row with plenty of legroom for a 5 hour flight. It wasn’t until this third trip to interview some of the brightest brains in technology today that I realized my ace associate producer has been deliberately giving The Boss special treatment. One of the benefits of being the guy who signs the cheques, I suppose.
What a long, strange year it’s been.
I’ve long said broadcasters make terrible managers, and MBAs make terrible broadcasters. And here I am a broadcaster-manager. Awkward.
You can’t cut your way to ratings success
I left an industry with the motto, “if you’re sick, show up. If you’re dead, bring a doctor’s note.” Broadcasters make terrible managers because they’ve only ever had other broadcast managers as teachers. Every single one of us has a cache of stories about that garbage can-kicking boss. Once, when I was frequently sick thanks to a germ-attracting toddler in day care, (and a yet-to-be-discovered 150 square feet of inch thick black mould in my home’s walls) a manager advised me, “maybe you shouldn’t hold your kid when she’s sick.” Really. Sorry baby girl, but the boss says he is more important than soothing you in your moment of suffering. I’ve had a manager who deliberately teamed me up with a known back-stabber because he believed conflict created more productive employees. And I once had a station manager admit, “I usually only hire women, and usually only women from Fanshawe” and clearly wanted me to express gratitude for her willingness to take a flyer on me all because I had a penis and a Humber College diploma. Another former boss, now a successful cable news anchor who has allegedly mended her ways, threw a stapler at a colleague’s head because she didn’t like the direction of a story.
The Boomer generation, handed a perfectly healthy news business by Edward R. Murrow, rode it to the top, then drove it into the ground
MBAs, meantime, all take the same Business 101 course that states: when revenue declines, costs must be cut. This doesn’t work in media, and MBAs make terrible broadcasters because of it. You can’t cut your way to ratings success because it’s ratings that determine revenue. Fewer resources leads to an inferior product. When I left BNN, for every person sitting in a seat, there were three empty chairs. Who’s doing the work of the 75% gone? The remaining 25%. You can’t expect top-notch ratings-generating content from them.
A strong news media needs a benevolent benefactor who recognizes democracy requires a strong free press. You won’t get that from the MBAs who run the phone company.
The Boomer generation, handed a perfectly healthy news business by Edward R. Murrow, rode it to the top, then drove it into the ground out of fear of crossing the beancounter from the conglomerate that now owned them. The decline and fall of mainstream media is directly tied to the “dumb pipe” utilities that bought them up. High on leverage, low on risk, they broke the business model: revenue from selling ads on vapid soap operas, Entertainment Tonight, and hit radio funded the news departments doing Important Work. The fact they greedily broke the Social Contract between the viewers and television producers with increased advertising frequency that created TiVo and ad-skipping is a topic for another day. But the cable company conglomerate was never interested in the news business. It bought media megaphones to sell services, and has been frustrated by it’s failed attempts to make journalists peddle cable packages and smartphones, though it tries all the time. A strong news media needs a benevolent benefactor who recognizes democracy requires an independent free press. You won’t get that from the MBAs who run the phone company.
Boomer media managers see a light at the end of the tunnel. For them it’s retirement, and no disruption in the business model is worth the risk of derailing the vision of a paid-off mortgage, a cottage up north, and a time-share in Florida. For the rest of us, the light has been the oncoming train of digital media.
As the saying goes, “if one man says it’s raining and another says it isn’t, it’s not your job to report both. It’s your job to look out the fucking window and determine what’s fact.”
Want evidence beancounters shouldn’t run mainstream media? Count the number of pre-roll commercials in any MSM video today. It’s going to be two, and they’re going to be traditional 30 second ads in the age of the 15 second commercial and the 5 second “Skip Ad” button. Every middle manager in media I’ve ever talked to about this has rolled their eyes and admitted the decision came from someone above their pay grade.
“You’re telling me that despite 99% of our audience liking what I’m doing, I have to stop this thing because 1% complained?”
And, it’s not “digital dimes and analogue dollars” anymore. And thanks to spineless managers fearful of accelerating the decline in analogue revenue they’re responsible for creating, a generation of journalists has been raised with the belief that we have to report “both sides” of a story. Wrong. As the saying goes, “if one man says it’s raining and another says it isn’t, it’s not your job to report both. It’s your job to look out the fucking window and determine what’s fact.” That lack of testicular fortitude is borne out of the fear of being called “biased” by critics of fact-based reporting. And when people don’t like what you’re doing, the argument goes, they’ll tune-out. It’s not true of course, but why risk it? That irrational fear of declining consumption leading to lower revenue created U.S. President Donald Trump, normalized white supremacy (the term “alt-right” was chosen because we didn’t want the pitchforks and tiki torches in the lobby by calling these people “white supremacists”), and drove the authority of news media into the shallow money trench that is already littered with the carcasses of good men and women who have died like dogs.
I can’t recall the number of times in my past life I concluded a dressing-down wasn’t the result of my manager’s displeasure with my reporting, but that of the higher-ups. “You’re telling me that despite 99% of our audience liking what I’m doing, I have to stop this thing because 1% complained?” The answer was always yes (back to that fear of derailing the retirement train). I’m also being generous. I’ve run the numbers, and a single complaint typically represented 0.003% of my audience. (Pro-tip: want to silence a mainstream media reporter you don’t like? Send an email to their boss’s boss accusing them of bias. They’ll be shut-down PDQ).
I spent most of my career listening to these micro-managers, then doing the exact opposite. It’s been the secret to a journeyman career that typically sees people flame-out after 3 years or cash-out and into PR after 10.
I don’t always do the opposite of what my so-called managers taught me.
My favourite example of doing the opposite of what my “mentors” did came on the very first day we launched pre-production on Futurithmic. I found myself sitting across from the assembled team that I had largely met for the first time that day. And as I pontificated on what what Futurithmic would be about, I received frequent push-back on my ideas from one of the members of the team. I felt the stress well-up in me: after all, I was the brains behind the operation. It was me and my big ideas that brought all these people together.
As the push-back built, I found myself asking how the worst boss I ever had would have dealt with it. I realized he would have done something before the meeting even started that I never would have thought to do: piss in every corner of the conference room to mark his territory. Upon hitting an obstacle, he then would have gone up one side of this person and down the other, using the dressing-down as a reminder of Who’s The Boss. At the end of the meeting everyone would have walked away thinking, “what an asshole. What did we get ourselves into with this guy?” So I didn’t. I quietly reminded myself that I was still cutting the cheques and that I was still in charge. I politely put my foot down where needed. Media is a team sport and everyone needs to feel like they’re contributing.
I don’t always do the opposite of what my so-called managers taught me.
One of the dumbest bosses I ever had knew the secret to management success: hire smart people then get out of their way. So that’s what I do. I recognize it’s no longer my job to do everything. Today, it’s my job to course-correct and largely stay out of the way of the insanely smart people on my team.
It’s also my job to act as a filter, not a conduit, to the money people who ultimately hold my purse strings, and to push-back when I feel I know better than everybody else.
Which is, most surprisingly to me, not as often as I thought.