In today's terminology we would call it a pivot. In those days it was called a re-organisation. I believe the reason it worked against all odds is because it was an example of disruptive innovation. In 2014 I keep seeing other industries who urgently need an impulse of this type if they are not going to go the failed route of Blackberry, Nintendo.
Mission ImpossibleBeing Programme Director at an international radio station is an impossible job by definition. You're always going to take the wrong decision for someone. Because of your heritage, there is always at least one culture that "you don't understand". I believe the reason the process succeeded is because we saw that risk-taking disruptive innovation was the only way forward. And that in The Netherlands which seems to have the highest number of insurance companies per capita.
|Radio Netherlands broadcast centre in Hilversum (in 2000)|
He appointed interim director Bart Gribnau to lead the process. He spotted me as someone passionate about effective broadcasting and eager to develop a different path to benefit as many as possible.
|Bart Gribnau at Radio Netherlands 1993 (photo Mieke Hoek)|
|Discussion with local station editors in Benin|
Deliberately Do Things DifferentlyWhat we did was analyse the big picture. What were the other players doing? (They were stations like BBC World Service, Radio France Internationale, VOA, Radio Liberty, Radio Beijing (now China Radio International), and Radio Moscow World Service. We mapped out what each were doing into a large table, point by point. And then we made a conscious decision to do completely the reverse.
We took a long hard critical look at the assets we had on board. We assumed the worst case scenario; that we had lost most of our shortwave audience to competing technologies like FM local radio, satellite TV - in-fact anything that took away people's time. So we had an opportunity to reboot under the radar.
I'm grateful that we didn't try to make things "better". Incremental innovation only works to a point. Then others come along and take everything away. Fortunately, we didn't have the resources to make a better product than our colleagues. We were already operating on very thin production budgets. People couldn't do more, faster.
We needed to look well outside our own building for inspiration. We needed to rediscover areas of the world where we could make the biggest difference.
|Building relevant media|
Some found it curious that we were not trying to identify people in the building who "made the best programmes". The truth is, discussions about quality are meaningless unless they involve listeners. I was looking for disruptive thinkers and doers. I found allies by watching them work in their own context.
|Soulé Issiaka in Hilversum|
|Get out of the building and discuss your ideas with others|
We could see that other international broadcasters were working in competition with local stations. So was there another way?
"We've seen horrific use of radio in Rwanda (1994). An estimated 800,000 people have been killed through hatred broadcast by stations like Radio Milles Collines in Kigali. The perpetrators knew exactly how to manipulate the medium. They didn't use bullets. They isolated communities by using FM radio and only local languages. In effect, they put a community into solitary confinement - the worst form of punishment you could think of. Of course people look to violence as a means of escape".
|Crafting programmes in West Africa exclusively for women|
Radio Netherlands closed French shortwave broadcasts to West and Central Africa in September 1994. It was a tearful farewell. But it liberated resources and new ideas blossomed fast. It took us two years to open a production office in Cotonou, Benin. By that time we'd turned everything around. Hilversum was contributing to a local network of 39 stations. We focused on programmes about women's issues, (cooking, entrepreneurship, social issues). We had a great set of science programmes that had been dramatized. Our goal was simple: we wanted to be a catalyst for a conversation. We cherry-picked relevant resources from Europe and across Africa, and we made it easy for local stations to adapt our content (in French) into far more popular local languages. We didn't need to control - we needed to make more effort in making valuable contributions.
|Members of the Radio Netherlands Latin American team on a brainstorming session at the pyramids|
|Working with a community station in La Plata, Argentina|
Twenty years later, I see the Voice of America has recently discovered our strategy was right. I would argue today that we were doing an early version of the Lean Startup Methodology, exchanging the word "customers" for "audiences".
This disruptive approach created different jobs and certainly a new meaning in what we were trying to do. Two decades later I see similar processes as being the only way forward for clever tech companies who want to game change a different market. Media platforms are vastly different. But the process is as robust as ever. Want to know more? Then get in touch. There are plenty of insights we can share.