Friday, December 24, 2010

RIP Neil Rogers

I was a music promotion guy when I first encountered Neil, who was doing middays on WINZ in the early eighties. I’d been turned on to his show by my brother, Steve, who’d lived in Chicago and was a fan of the city’s free-form talker Steve Dahl. He’d send me cassettes of Dahl and his partner Garry Meier. Fun stuff!

When my brother returned to South Florida, he started talking incessantly about Rogers, saying that I really ought to check him out. But I’d heard that the guy had an issues-related show and I had no interest in listening to some radio guy’s interminable pontifications on boring politics and “serious” issues. Besides, I’d rather listen to music. That was my business and my pleasure.

But I finally tuned in just as Neil was making his incredible and unprecedented transition from issues to free-form rants and comedy.

I was hooked.

Here was a very smart, sharp guy who had strong opinions and a powerful personality. But most of all, he was endlessly entertaining and hilarious; cynical and compelling; an older guy from a generation before me; hip but not au courant — in some ways, even old-fashioned. So professional, he could break the rules and make his own. Eat on the air? Sure! Play bits and clips from other shows? Yup. Not take phone calls for weeks on end? Faxes only? He did it.

I followed him from WINZ to Zeta to WIOD to WQAM, listening live when I could or taping the show for later playback. It was as engrossing as (and grosser than) any rococo novella, with melodrama, subtext, plot, characterization and daily themes.

Rogers, who’d started out as a Top-40 jock, was the undisputed King Of Talk Radio in South Florida. Or Queen, if you’d ask him. That he was an out-of-the closet gay man was interesting, perhaps, but just another facet of his on-air persona. His disdain for what he called “mincing queens” might’ve had something to do with his appeal to the mostly young male heterosexual audience that he amazingly carried with him from station to station to day-part to day-part, as they followed him up and down the radio dial — from AM to FM and back — an unprecedented and singular feat in the industry. But mostly, he was a real voice and pulse of South Florida — even when he broadcast from Toronto.

His peak, in my opinion and others, was at WIOD when he was part of a lineup of Mike Renieri, Phil Hendrie, Rick& Suds, Randi Rhodes and others. But radio management, as Neil always said, had to mess with success. It was short but amazing.

Over the years, I called him a few times. Okay, A LOT of times, and because I was in the biz, I sent him a bunch of songs: Dennis Leary, Timbuk3, “Be True To Your Shul” and others. I even collaborated lyrically with his resident geniuses Boca Brian and Guitar Man on a few parodies and bits: “Walk Away Rene,” “Ron and Ron,” “Jeff The Florist” and others.

Naturally, that didn’t stop the “Old Man” (as he was semi-affectionately known) from ripping me on the air after any real or imagined transgressions against him. One had to take it in stride, of course. After all, as Neil constantly said, “It’s only a radio show,” and it was… but so much more.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Our future is shaping the way we live, work

The future is what we make of it and what it makes of us.
BY RICHARD PACHTER

I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted 
I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works. Nick Bilton. Crown Business. 304 pages.

Toward the end of Nick Bilton's stimulating and provocative new book, he quotes the visionary science fiction author of Neuromancer, William Gibson: "The future is already here — it is just distributed unevenly,'' and that's about right. Some of us readily embrace new technology and are early adopters. Others move more cautiously, either clinging to whatever older technology they came up with, or treading carefully with the new stuff, though only when forced to do so by bosses and/or clients.

It's pretty clear that we're still in the midst of a metamorphosis that's transforming the ways we live, play and work. Bilton, a talented journalist, is the lead writer for the New York Times "Bits'' blog, a cool position that barely existed a few years ago. He also toiled in the Times' R&D Lab, which sounds like a fun gig, testing different technologies as the Gray Lady tries to stave off its extinction.

Bilton is a good writer and an inquisitive reporter. His book is sort of a quick survey of the changes in technology and its effects on the human interface. His palpable fascination with the digital landscape makes this an enjoyable and breezy read, despite the fact that some of the stops along the way are pretty serious indeed.

But not all of them are. For example, he takes a look at the porn industry, long a leader in finding new ways to extract revenue from customers, and sees how they were hit (just like every other content provider) with unsanctioned downloading and ``free'' content, and how they adjusted.

Unlike the doofusses who run the music business, some of the pornsters were smart and learned how to leverage this behavior rather than try to stifle innovation and sue their own customers. The music biz has yet to figure this out, though musicians, fortunately, seem to have done so and are in the process of finally freeing themselves from the onerous shackles of their evil record company overlords.

In addition to porn, the author looks at the ways online communities form, how we communicate differently as media changes, how our brains change (and actually grow) as we use various technologies, and more. Bilton fearlessly jumps into the middle of the spate of arguments for and against the efficacy of multitasking, concluding that it may not be the best way to work for everyone, but for some (especially the young people who grew up doing it almost 24/7), it's no big deal.

There are also little nuggets studded throughout the text; how you can identify a good surgeon by his affection for video games, Twitter in Iran, how the Web-fueled "me-centered'' business model will soon be the rule and not the exception, and more.

Bilton doesn't know everything, nor does he know where everything is headed, but he boasts an excellent sense of culture, context and technology. We can cry about wanting things to be as they were, but we really need to use our heads and hearts to learn how to deal with what we have, and get ready for what comes next.

Hasn't the future always been like that?

Best Business Books of 2010

The best biz books I reviewed during 2010

BY RICHARD PACHTER


As always, I know I read more biz books than any pedantic autodidact oughtta. But even when I was reviewing ‘em on a weekly basis (it’s now monthly-ish), I always had a growing pile of books I wanted to read but just didn’t have the time and space to deal with. So, too, with this list; I can’t read everything, so it’s totally subjective and based on the things I read and reviewed, and not the books I couldn’t and didn’t. And in the spirit of Spinal Tap, my list goes all the way to eleven. It’s one more! Happy New Year.

(Books listed chronologically. Date of  publication and link to the original review follows each title.)


Maybe his best book yet, it's also his most personal. Rather than explain marketing, pontificate about the urgent need to be unique, how to spread ideas or when to quit, the über-guru and mega-blogger aims his squarely message at the growing ranks of anxious employees who wonder what lies ahead for them and their jobs. Right-brain activity — creativity — is the answer, he says, but takes it farther by declaring that to ensure job security, one must imbue their work with “art'' and make every effort a “gift'' rather than a chore. Heady stuff!


Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us 

In this ideal companion piece to Godin's tome, Pink examines motivation and finds that the most powerful drives come from within, and are more important to us than the material compensation we're given. His findings seem counterintuitive to those of us who have long accepted Pavlovian doctrine that we work mainly for “rewards'' like salary and other external reinforcements. But harnessing the power of intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic remuneration can be thoroughly satisfying and infinitely more rewarding.


Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard 

The authors of Made To Stick recount episodes from business, government, healthcare, academia and other areas of human interaction where needed change seemed difficult or impossible, yet someone still found ways to get from here to there. Minor moves achieved dramatic results. Now, when business needs to be more nimble than ever, reading this great little book could well be among the most effective small steps one could take.

Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the Informal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results 

In many organizations, informal structures that bypass established hierarchies are the ones that actually get things done. These loose confederations of doers may respect the authority of those above them on the corporate food chain, but they nonetheless developed and implemented ways to circumvent and subvert them. Katzenbach and Khan look at the phenomenon and reveal ways that these ad hoc, informal groups can be reliably mobilized and engaged.

The Referral Engine: Teaching Your Business to Market Itself 

Jantsch, the “Duct Tape Marketing” author, identifies humans' inherent need to refer and recommend, and offers some really good nuts-and-bolts suggestions for getting closer to customers and eliciting their kudos. His suggestions apply to a variety of businesses, so whether you proffer products, services — or any combination thereof — there's an abundance of ideas for making the most of and extending each client interaction.

The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity 

Florida’s flood of data forms a nice mosaic of snapshots as he explains how the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression morphed the largely rural, agrarian economy and population of the United States into an urban manufacturing powerhouse. As in his earlier book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Florida argues effectively (with stats, naturally) that the country's diversity has been its most powerful, important and, ironically, subtlest strength, despite teabaggers' and nouveau-nativists' assertions to the contrary.

 I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted

Bilton, a talented journalist and lead writer for the New York Times’ “Bits'' blog, doesn't know everything, nor does he know where everything is headed, but he boasts an excellent sense of culture, context and technology as he smartly surveys the digital landscape. We can cry about wanting things to be as they were, but we really need to use our heads and hearts to learn how to deal with what we have, and get ready for what comes next. Hasn't the future always been like that?

Bury My Heart at Conference Room B: The Unbeatable Impact of Truly Committed Managers 

Slap's avowed goal is encouraging genuine and visceral connections between managers and employees, tying personal values and goals to the daily routine of working together. His text includes individual testimonials from executives who, after a head-slapping moment or two, linked their moral standards to their business ethics and operational methods to great effect. There's also one from Slap himself, detailing his challenging (to say the least) upbringing, which serves as both an inspiration and an invitation to amateur psychologists to connect it to his ongoing passions and methodologies.

The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century 

This sprawling, old-fashioned biography of Albert Lasker bring to life an important figure in the world of advertising and politics. Among his accomplishments, according to the authors, is the prominence given to content and copywriting; the consumer-centered ad; modern political advertising; branding commodities (particularly produce); selling previously unmentionable female hygiene products and more, including the “creation'' and popularization of orange juice as a daily morning beverage.


The Art of Choosing 

If you choose to read Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar's fascinating book, you may have a slightly better idea of how humans formulate decisions. We like to be in control but often consciously (or not) defer to parents, authorities or even strangers. We often say one thing then do something else. Choices we feel strongly about one day may fade into an afterthought with time. Iyengar's frequent digressions and asides are as cogent and interesting as her main points, and certainly as descriptive; an amazing feat for a sightless person but her vision extends far beyond the physical domain.


Program or Be Programmed 

The author’s mission is to raise awareness of the human implications of our technologies — the context (if you will) of our actions. His Decalogue is a set of rules of conduct. To wit: Do Not Be ‘Always On;’ Live in Person; You May Always Choose ‘None of the Above;’ You Are Never Completely Right; One Size Does Not Fit All; Be Yourself; Do Not Sell Your Friends; Tell the Truth; Share, Don’t Steal; and Program or Be Programmed.” On the surface they seem pretty obvious, but like their Biblical counterparts, they add up to a wise and ethical way to conduct oneself, in this case, mostly within the online and virtual worlds

From small steps come big changes, Heaths say

Engage the rider and the elephant, and you will get results, say Chip and Dan Heath. 
BY RICHARD PACHTER

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Not a big fan of change, per se. Change my underwear, change the channel, change tables, change the scenery (once in a while, for a weekend or so) or hope that my favorite pitcher throws a change-up, but when it comes to big, hairy, fundamental changes, include me out. It's not that I'm averse to change; I'm not, truly. But I've pretty much got it down, so I'm not looking to change wives, kids, favorite sports teams, preferred breakfast (steel-cut oats, please) or any number of other elements in my life. And I'm not alone. But life is change and if we fail to alter our behavior when required to do so, dire fates often await.

The Heaths' previous book, 2007's Made to Stick, looked at the reasons some ideas gained traction and made it through the morass of marketing, media and more to attain "stickness'' in our consciousness. Good one! But this new brotherly collaboration is something completely different. The pair looks at why we're resistant to change and the means by which we can, er, change that.

As with Made to Stick, the text is smart, breezy and humorous, but no less elegant, well researched and insightful. The biggest takeaway, for me, was not anything new. In fact it's a variation of one of the most important tenets of child rearing, "Praise the good.''

How does that apply here? Well, they start with dividing the brain (similar to Godin and Pink in their recent books) into "the rider'' and "the elephant.'' The latter is our emotional and instinctive side, say the Heaths, and the former is the part of us that tries to stay on track and get things done. The Heaths contend that in order for change to take place, both the rider and the elephant need to engaged and satisfied. And instead of focusing solely on problems that need to be solved or negative behaviors that must be eliminated, they advocate seeking the bright spots and replicating them (aka "praise the good''). They also offer the idea that small adjustments can make more of a difference than seeking the root causes of the dysfunctionality.

They tell the story of a frustrated psychologist who was having trouble with her golf swing. The pro who helped her didn't examine her childhood for clues or ask about how she related to her mother. Instead, he suggested minor changes to her swing and achieved immediate favorable results. It was a revelation that informed her approach to dealing with her patients, henceforth concentrating on small, achievable steps that worked.

There are plenty of similar anecdotes herein from business, government, healthcare, academia and other areas of human interaction where change seems difficult or impossible, yet someone found ways to get from here to there. They also offer specific steps for a variety of scenarios.
While not every transition is easy, the Heaths show that it can be done, and how to do so when it seems impossible. Now, when business needs to be more nimble than ever, reading this great little book could well be among the most effective small steps you can take.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Be a driver or a passenger

Douglas Rushkoff's Digital Decalogue
by Richard Pachter

Program or Be Programmed 

Having read and reviewed Rushkoff’s previous books, Think Outside The Box, which was good, and Life Inc., which was nothing less than brilliant, I wondered what was next for the media maven. This new one is short and concise, but a highly worthy successor. His mission is to raise awareness of the human implications of our technologies — the context (if you will) of our actions.

The author’s Decalogue here is a set of rules of conduct. To wit: Do Not Be ‘Always On;’ Live in Person; You May Always Choose ‘None of the Above;’ You Are Never Completely Right; One Size Does Not Fit All; Be Yourself; Do Not Sell Your Friends; Tell the Truth; Share, Don’t Steal; and Program or Be Programmed.” Each of the command(ments) comprise a chapter.

On the surface they seem pretty obvious, but like their Biblical counterparts, they add up to a wise and ethical way to conducts oneself, in this case, mostly within the online and virtual worlds. After all, many of us blithely mouse over, click and agree to website terms we’re asked to give our assent to, with little thought to the implications or the consequences, and whatever rights and responsibilities we may shed as we do. Beyond that, there’s an insidious role reversal, says Rushkoff, whereby the supposed programmer becomes the programmed. Our tools define us, whether we like it or not. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Rushkoff is no Luddite. Far from it. He was and is an early adopter of all things digital, and rhapsodizes nostalgically for those thrilling early days of weak computers, inbred electronic bulletin boards and other relatively quaint and low-tech solutions that marked the dawn of the Internet Age. But as he’s grown with the times, so, too has his very healthy skepticism blossomed. Different technologies are biased in different ways, he declares, based upon the facility of each application to enable and elicit specific behaviors. We need to be aware of this effect and do what’s right for us, not the website owners or software developers.

Minor quibble: I had a little problem with his 10th command, the one employed as the title of this book. I don’t want to do any programming, thank you very much. I certainly don’t mind cooking a meal or (occasionally) fixing a toilet, but if I want to go to the store, I’d prefer to just drive my car, not design and build a car. Apparently, mine was a common concern among readers. In a recent interview with NPR, Rushkoff laughed, saying that one needn’t learn to build that car. The difference he’s seeking is being a driver and not just the passenger. Whew. I can live with that! Slide over. I’ll drive! But seriously, it’s an important distinction that he could have made clearer in this otherwise excellent book.

And Rushkoff is apparently driving, too, as he bypassed big publishers to accelerate the publication of this book, a pretty ballsy move, which he explains here. It’s not an isolated case, either. Seth Godin waved goodbye to his publisher, too.

Author looks at why we choose what we choose

Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar's engaging book shows how we formulate decisions.
BY RICHARD PACHTER

The Art of Choosing
The Art of Choosing. Sheena Iyengar. 12/Grand Central. 329 pages.

Choice is good, right? We don't want to be dictated to by anyone. We prefer autonomy and fight for the right to choose what we want, when we want it — except when we don't really want to rock the boat or appear dramatically different from everyone else. But sometimes that's exactly what we want to do.

Make sense?

Well, if you choose to read Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar's fascinating book, you may have a slightly better idea of how humans formulate decisions.

We like to be in control but often consciously (or not) defer to parents, authorities or even strangers. We often say one thing then do something else. Choices we feel strongly about on one day may fade into an afterthought with time.

We may say that we like to have a broad field to choose from, yet greater selection often makes decisions more difficult.

Iyengar writes: "The expansion of choice has become an explosion of choice, and while there is something beautiful and immensely satisfying about having all of this variety at our fingertips, we also find ourselves beset by it. We think the profusion of possibilities must make it that much easier to find that perfect gift for a friend's birthday, only to find ourselves paralyzed in the face of row upon row of potential presents. Which one is really her? Which one is truly the "perfect' gift?''

The answer is that there is no answer, but Iyengar's curiosity about what affects our choices shows just how complex this simple question really is.

She's a scholar, so her anecdotes and examples are thoughtful, illustrative and well documented. She's also an excellent and engaging wordsmith, and her writing throughout the book is rich and quite engaging.

Her frequent digressions and asides are as cogent and interesting as her main points, and certainly as descriptive; an amazing feat for a sightless person but Iyengar's vision extends far beyond the physical domain.

For example, she riffs about choices of nail polish and how descriptions (or lack of same) may alter women's preferences for a particular color. And she takes us with her as she lines up at the Apple Store in Manhattan to pick up an iPhone for her husband, who also shows up to tell her that his original choice of a black device has changed to a white one -- because everyone else will have a black one. Go figure!

Iyengar also extensively explores cultural differences and peer pressure, and recounts a funny tale of committing a faux pas in Japan by requesting sugar for her green tea (featured in her presentation at the TED conference here.

All in all, after reading The Art of Choosing, you'll have a broader context — cultural, personal, about why we choose the way we do.

Despite her title, by the way, I'm not convinced there's any "art'' involved, nor craft, for that matter, but I choose to honor the author's nomenclature as a marketing decision. That's her choice, after all.
Originally published in The Miami Herald.