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Mainstream Media Managers: Predictably Irrational

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On May 3, Media Daily News's David Goetzl wrote: "No surprise here: the Tribune Co. has tapped an insider to take over its broadcasting division. Jerry Kersting replaces Ed Wilson, who departed last week."

Why was it no surprise? Because Kersting is an old radio crony of controversial Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels, the former shock jock who clueless media mogul Sam Zell hired to run the Tribune Co., which, of course, is now in bankruptcy.

What does a beleaguered mainstream media company executive trying desperately to emerge from bankruptcy do? Innovate? Find new sources of revenue? Inspire the troops? No, he does what he's always done, surround himself with cronies.

Cronies are loyal; no matter how many mistakes you make, how many employees you harass, or how you completely demotivate associates with top-down, silly directives, such as Michael's banning of 119 words in newscasts on Tribune-owned WGN-AM, cronies will tell you how brilliant, funny, and absolutely right you are.

And Kersting isn't the only crony hired by CEO Michaels. In 2008 Broadcasting and Cable reported that:

Tribune made the announcement in an off-beat press release, headed, "Surely You Can't Be Serious?," and then went on to make light of the hire because Chase doesn't have experience typically required of the head of an Internet division. In response to follow-up questions, a Tribune spokesman said the release was meant to demonstrate a "'new' Tribune and a new way of thinking about things."

Chase joins Sean Compton, who was brought on last week as Tribune's senior VP of programming, leaving his position as VP of programming at Clear Channel/Premiere Radio Networks.

Michaels also hired Lee Abrams away from XM Satellite Radio, where he was chief creative officer for the past 10 years. At Tribune, Abrams is chief innovation officer.

There may not be any correlation between cronyism and bankruptcy, but then again, there could be. But there does seem to be a correlation between Michael's hiring decisions and the hiring practices and outmoded management practices and beliefs of many mainstream media executives.

It's as though all they read is their own press releases slopped out by PR flacks and their own blogs. God forbid they keep up on the latest management and leadership trends and ideas -- they'd call them fads. Their attitude is, "I know best because I've done it."

Yes, they did do it -- they did it in an era when you had to be a moron not to make a living in the newspaper or, especially, the broadcasting business, with its FCC licensed oligopoly in which all managers knew how to do was price and sell their inventory based on scarcity.

However, radio and TV station and broadcast group executives today are virtually unemployable (unless via cronyism) because they have no idea how to compete in the disruptive internet age in which inventory is not scarce, attention is.

Instead of reading their press releases, they should be reading Drive by Daniel Pink that aggregates the latest research on motivation, and that clearly indicates that you can't motivate people with just money and that straight-commission compensation systems are the worst way to pay people.

Ex-broadcast executives looking for work should read The Game-Changer by A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan that reveals "how you can drive revenue and profit growth with innovation" (the book's subtitle). Lafley, the former CEO of the world's largest advertiser, details how to manage for innovations that lead to profit growth, and not how to do the same old things over and over again and expect different results.

They should read Googled: The End of the World as We Know It by Ken Auletta that details how Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page not only invented a brilliant new way to search for information but also invented new management structures in the internet age in which engineers rule, not self-absorbed, all-about-me moguls.

Broadcast dinosaurs should read Predictably Irrational by Daniel Ariely that uses examples from behavioral economics research to show that the theory of economic man -- a rational decision maker -- is flawed. According to behavioral economics, people make decisions based on emotions (irrational) and try to rationalize them post hoc.

Broadcast executives (squadrons of whom are now seeking work) will probably never consider reading The Curse of the Mogul: What's Wrong with the World's Leading Media Companies by Columbia Business School professors Jonathan Knee, Bruce Greenwald, and Ava Seave because the book points out that "content is not king" and the current problems in the media business are caused largely by the egomaniacal moguls that head the big, old-fashioned media conglomerates (Iger of Disney is an exception).

And reading Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer that pulls together some radical ideas about advances in neuroscience, and makes the argument that science and art are about the same thing... fuggetaboutit.

But expecting intellectual curiosity and openness to workable ideas from me-first broadcast and former broadcast executives is probably too much to ask. They will probably continue to have silly ideas like the one Randy Michaels had of measuring the Tribune's reporters' productivity by column-inches of words. The management of the paper would assume that the more words a reporter writes, the more productive he or she is.

Ideas like this one are what you'd expect from an old-line mainstream media executive: predictably irrational.