Fix The Chairs First
If the business of podcasting is in a retrenchment right now, that doesn’t mean this is a time to stand still. NOW is the time to make some of your ideas happen.
Welcome to Dispatch #36 of The Audio Insurgent.
My favorite part of creating these dispatches isn’t coming up with ideas (though I do love that), nor the quiet early mornings when I write (though I certainly love that too), nor finishing it and hitting send (that too). My favorite part of the process is the emails I receive back in the hours and days after sharing a dispatch. Sometimes they are from people I know, sometimes from readers who are otherwise strangers–all sharing back their thoughts, experiences, and ideas. I love it. It’s the reason I do this.
The last dispatch of The Audio Insurgent provoked a lot of that response, which was great. But what surprised me was how 90% of the reaction (as well as the reaction online) was tied to this passage:
“Everything good that has happened in my life came from moments when I stopped listening to what other people told me, embraced my optimistic and tenacious belief in what was possible, and fought like hell to make it real. Personal life and professional life. Everything.”
What came back to me were two types of responses: some recalling similar moments they’ve experienced in their lives/careers they wanted to share, but then there were a much larger number of responses of people who felt powerless to make change or unable to execute ideas. It was a bit hard to read.
They said that now, in a moment of retrenching in podcasting, they felt like change and opportunity have become impossible.
And while I’m grateful that they wrote–I don’t buy that thinking.
If anything, now is the time to make change in your show and your organization, so that you and your work are stronger as the industry regains momentum (and remember that all the problems podcasting is facing today are on the business side, not the creative or audience sides).
Today I’m going to start a short series of dispatches centered on how to be an effective change-maker, even on a small scale in your show or organization. And if this is too long for you, make sure you don’t skip the final section below the picture.
This newsletter/dispatch/whatever-this-is focuses on audio: radio, podcasting, streaming, and the explosion of creation and opportunity in digital audio. And if you’ve read a number of my dispatches, you know my attention and bias is always focused on the listener: make them happy and coming back for more…and you’ll be successful.
But success in digital audio is not built on Pro Tools alone. Every once in a while we delve into other subjects that you kind of need to master in order to be successful in audio today. Things like social media, fair business practices, and how to be a better leader, even if you haven’t been asked to lead.
Having a vision for the future (or even modest ideas about how things could work better) is useless and pointless unless you’ve got the skills to make your ideas happen, and happen well.
So I’ve decided to not focus the next few dispatches on story structure, crafting ideas, or how to engage audiences. If there is a consistent legacy I’ve had through my career, it is having a reputation as someone who can not only find a good idea, but can make shit happen, especially in areas that others discounted or felt change wasn’t possible. And we aren’t always talking about making HUGE, MASSIVE change. Sometimes change-making can be how you can make a simple process better or more impactful.
So I’m going to spend a few dispatches sharing some of my tricks and methods for turning a great idea into something real. And even in times when you are not in a position of power and only have scarce resources at hand.
And here is a spoiler: it is 95% about how you treat those around you.
Today we start with some foundational ideas: how you create the environment in which change can happen. Next time, a bit deeper into tactics.
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: SAVE THE DATE LONDON MEET UP]
Londoners: Let me buy you a pint!
Save the date for the first ever Audio Insurgent reader meet up in central London on Friday, March 10th, 2023 from 5-7pm.
As much to my surprise as anyone’s, London is the biggest metro for readers of The Audio Insurgent (NYC is #2, and LA is #3–no surprises there). For companies, the BBC has the most subscribers (followed by Spotify at #2, which has recently widened its lead over #3, NPR). So if I was going to say that I’d buy readers a beer who show up at a random pub on a random afternoon–it makes sense to start with London. Specifics on location will come soon, but we’ll make it easy. Just put it in your diary for now.
[TODAY’S FIRST CHANGE THING: MOST PEOPLE DON’T FEAR CHANGE, THEY FEAR RISK]
I know I recommend a lot of books, but I consider Chris Voss’s Never Split The Difference to be required reading for anyone who ever has to negotiate…which means, pretty much anyone. The title is really unfortunate and misleading, because I feel it has a slightly aggressive tone and that could undercut the book’s main message: the key to successful negotiations is to understand what’s important to the other side of the conversation and find ways for them to feel like they win, too.
This applies to a multi-million dollar rights acquisition as well as to an editorial table conversation about who will be the lead producer on an upcoming episode. (The book is great and has lots of examples and ways to practice the ideas. You really should read it.)
You have probably experienced this scenario in the past: One person proposes an idea, even a simple, tiny adjustment to work flow, then others in the conversation come up with reasons why it might fail, slowly pecking it to death. Often these failure scenarios have a tiny likelihood of actually happening. This banter goes on until the originator gets exhausted or deflated, or the group concludes that there’s no way to make the idea completely risk-free. The unspoken falsehood in these situations is that an idea cannot have both merit and risk at the same time.
By trying to eliminate all risk from every promising idea, stigmatizing failure, and only pursuing what everyone can agree on, you diminish the potential impact of the new ideas. The idea may not fail, but it will not significantly move the needle against the problem it was designed to solve either. The solution everyone agrees on is often the one that will fail to solve the problem.
So one way to deal with this is a central tenet of Voss’s book: the power of “no.” When someone says no, you should steer the conversation to get at the reasons why the answer is “no.” (And Voss has lots of tips on how to do this without putting someone on the defense.) Voss suggests the REAL negotiation starts with the “no”--because once you learn “why,” you can start solving for the reasons that stand in the way of “yes.”
The best way to deal with risk aversion isn’t by bullying/pushing through or shaming others for their reaction or further rationalizing what you want–it is to remove the obstacles they articulate to moving forward.
[TODAY’S NEXT CHANGE THING: THE IMPORTANCE OF LEARNING FROM FAILURE]
Not every change is going to work–or work as you plan. And creative work is stuffed full of failure. So if you want creative things to happen, you need to learn how to deal with failure, not avoid it.
I am not Nostradamus–neither are you. We cannot predict the future. However, an important part of making any change, large or small, is knowing how to admit when things aren’t on course and how to learn and adjust.
And this is really difficult–you worked so hard to get everyone on board and get the change happening. It is difficult to admit that even change…needs some change. That takes some muscle building.
When we started the original content team at Audible in 2015, we were moving so fast–doing a lot of things right…and a lot of things wrong. I knew we had to take a break periodically, be honest with ourselves, and see what we can learn from what didn’t play out as we hoped. We even went as far as to have EVERY person on our team do their own “show and tell” about a failure, in order to (a) show that we all experienced it and have, on occasion, royally-screwed something up, and (b) de-stigmatize the act of failure.
This is something we picked up from our indoctrination into Amazon culture. In that world, one of the biggest sins you can commit is to pretend that a failure isn’t a failure. You will get scorched if that happens. Instead, you are expected to share what you learned from failure and how you can take that lesson forward. So I worked on a framework for our discussion.
For that gathering, I created a list of five questions that everyone had to answer about their shared failure:
What really went wrong here? (Without focusing on the Blame Game or venting frustration, anger or disappointment, try to identify what is the honest root cause of the failure.)
Were there any cues or signals I missed along the way that could have changed the outcome?
What other projects are we working on that would immediately benefit from this experience?
How do I share what I’ve learned?
How did the failure make me feel?
That final question was a suggestion from David Cox, one of my team members at Audible, when I asked him for some feedback on the questions. He persuaded me to add it by saying, “Failure doesn’t feel good. And people usually try to avoid not feeling good. But in order to learn from the failure, first you have to be open to feeling those feelings.”
If you try this, keep this in mind: Like the response to question #5, this exercise should be all about you. You should not only answer the question, but answer each question in a way that identifies your specific role in the failure. In short, frame every error from how you touched and influenced what happened, as if you are the only one responsible. You can’t say, “It was marketing’s fault for not doing a solid PR campaign.” You can say, “I did not set expectations and outline the necessary work with marketing to launch a successful PR campaign.”
Everyone (including me, to be honest) expected that “failure show and tell” meeting to be cringey and hard–and surprisingly, it wasn’t. It was the opposite. While people did make some difficult admissions–there was a lot of affirmation and support, a surprising amount of laughter, and we walked away a better, tighter team. Creating a tiny place for vulnerability opens people up–and destigmatizes the notion that everything needs work out perfectly, on the first try, all the time.
And speaking of starting the original content division at Audible…
[TODAY’S FINAL CHANGE THING: EVEN WHEN YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING IT ALONE, YOU AREN’T DOING IT ALONE…AND FIX THE CHAIRS FIRST]
This picture is one of about two dozen in my “Favorites” folder on my phone. I use my Favorites folder a lot when I want something to make me smile on a bad day or need a boost of inspiration. It contains stuff you might imagine: pictures of my family and my co-workers (the main reasons I take my work seriously). It contains pictures of my dogs or a beautiful view one summer morning out an open window in Paris. A few pictures of friends. And this. Not only do I keep this picture close–but I regularly show this picture to others I’m advising or mentoring.
Why do I hold a picture of an empty office so dear?
This is a picture I took during my first week at Audible. I had just left NPR after an incredible run of making great things, building best-in-class teams, and making change in an environment that wasn’t always open or ready for that change. And this is where I went.
During my first week, someone asked me, as the new SVP of Original Content, if I would like to see the Original Content division.
“Sure!” I exclaimed.
Then I was led down a flight of stairs and this is what I was shown: empty rows of desks and chairs, a number of them non- or barely functional, as others working on that floor had been using this empty section to swap out their broken office furniture.
That was the moment I truly realized the enormity of what I was undertaking. I had left a big establishment job at NPR for what you see here: basically nothing. I was so aware of the magnitude of the moment and the task that I pulled out my phone and took this picture because I knew I’d want to remember it as it was: A bunch of broken office equipment. No people. No computers. No recording or mixing equipment. And rows of cabinets filled with either nothing or the forgotten remainders of previous occupants.
And then there were the also-absent things you don’t see: No strategy. No systems. No slate of projects. No infrastructure. No policy. No legal forms. No budgeting or financial procedures.
It was at that moment that I realized I had to build it all, “all by myself.” From this.
Nine months later we dropped our first show and within a year after that were pumping out 40+ projects a year, in three different countries–eventually spreading to territories around the world in multiple languages (and I spoke none of those languages, by the way–I barely speak English). Those empty desks and chairs (I got them fixed or replaced) were eventually occupied by a dream team of several dozen of the best audio makers and operations people around.
We could stop the story there…and it’s a good story. But you would miss the lesson this situation can teach–and why this photo brings me so much joy.
The joy-inducing lesson is what happened in-between taking this photo and that first published project nine months later. It was a time I learned a lot of things, but most importantly: how to be better at asking for help.
It was an humbling experience–but in a good way. It forced me to embrace that I know nothing about many of the things that I need to have concrete, actionable answers for. I am not an attorney. I am not an accountant. I only started working there that week–I didn’t even know how to requisition a pen.
The first thing I realized was that even though this was my quest to do “by myself”--it was never something I could actually do alone. I needed help. I needed co-conspirators. I needed experts. I needed collaborators who were as excited by doing this new thing as I was (even if I had to MAKE them excited).
I had to find my “coalition of the willing” and take advantage of their expertise and knowledge. Otherwise, none of it would have worked.
I’m surprised how frequently people ask what it's like to have the relationship therapist Esther Perel in my professional life (you probably have heard of the podcast we do with her, Where Should We Begin?) Now, my relationship with Esther is a very small fraction of Jesse’s, who works intimately with Esther pretty much daily. But having such a world-class deep thinker about relationships hanging around your office leads to a lot of direct and indirect learnings.
Something Esther said once, in passing, that has stuck with me deeply since, is that whenever she is asked to do something new, she immediately asks herself who she knows that can help her. I really admire that instinct. She is a capital-E “Expert”--yet her first response is to ask who she can turn to in order to make sure she is on the right track. Ever since, I’ve tried to build that same reflex into my own life. I’m confronting something new–who can I turn to? The exchange also implicitly means that I need to make myself available to others to reciprocate–a version of paying things forward.
The success of our work at Audible–and what Audible Originals has become today–wasn’t my success, even though I was the leader. It was all of our success. I couldn’t be successful unless I let go of the “alone” part.
And I believe this applies to everyday challenges and change as well. Lesson #1 is to realize that no real innovation or change happens in a vacuum. Seek out your co-conspirators in making change on your show or within your organization. They are everywhere–and once people start to notice you are making progress, others will want to join you.
So the lesson is whenever you have to, by preference, circumstance, or design, “go it alone”--that’s never actually the case. Embracing and understanding that is the first step on your journey to make any change–big or small.
There is another important lesson embedded in this story as well: fix the fucking chairs. You can have all the big brain strategic ideas you like, but it doesn’t mean anything when your team doesn’t have a comfortable place to sit or tools that work. And you can’t expect that team to take your “big thinking” seriously if you walk through their area every day…and don’t happen to notice that they don’t even have a functioning chair or that the printer has been out of toner for three weeks or a required system doesn’t work half the time.
So lesson number one for any strategic initiative or change-making process: fix the chairs first.
Next time: we’ll talk about where to start making change in your show or company.
Okay, that’s it for today. Remember, next time–more tips on making change! I also have a couple other cool things in the works too. Watch this space.
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.