Disruptive Technology

Last week or so I have bumped into the term Disruptive Technology a couple of times. This kind of thing has always fascinated me because it is so often the other side of the success coin. Think of all of the things that can stand in your way just trying to come up with a new way of doing something. Now imagine this new way either obsoletes an entire industry or needs to create one.


I’ll give you one example. Many of you know I had a brief radio career in my twenties. In ScottsBluff, Nebraska, at one of the radio stations I worked with the second-generation of the family that started things back when there wasn’t radio, at the start of the Great Depression. The owner used to work on the air at the radio station he started all morning, then in the afternoons he would alternately go into town to meet with businesses to sell advertising—or—he would actually go door to door through the neighborhoods and out into the countryside, actually selling radios, so people could hear this new radio station.

How hard must that have been? Get up in the morning and go in and present a morning radio show as if you had listeners when it might well be that it was as if you were playing records to a dozen of your friends in your own basement! And then after lunch to head into town and try to explain to the local hardware store or men’s clothing store or bakery that they should be buying advertising on this new radio station because it would help their business, all the while knowing there were only three-dozen radios in the whole county! Then, you load up the trunk of the car and head out to try to make that number four dozen.

From our Department of Irony: in the late 1970s, I beat feet on the same streets of ScottsBluff with a portable radio trying to explain to people what our new “FM” radio station, KMOR, was going to sound like when it signed-on one day soon. People didn’t know the difference between AM radio with all of their commercials and static and flat sound, and FM radio with its better signal fidelity, stereo, and our promise of playing far fewer commercials (a promise very easy to keep in those early days). So we actually played cassette tapes of what we were hoping to sound like one day. But when we came along we at least had some fraction of cars with FM radio in the dash, and most homes had at least two FM-capable radios.

People love to talk about progress, but rarely mention what’s left in its wake. Our president promises to return miners to the coal mines but nobody knows how he can do that today, or why he should. Sure, it’s awful so many people are out of work, but how about all of those Blockbuster Video employees, huh? Where’s their champion? Who is out there telling people we are going to reopen a thousand VHS video rental stores and get everyone to Be Kind and Rewind again? We’ve all moved on. Blame disruptive technologies.

How do you lift this?

Can you imagine toiling in this field without going quietly nuts?Who is going to buy a commercial on a radio station nobody listens to? And yet, who is going to listen to a radio station that can’t afford to stay on the air? And why would anyone buy a radio set if there were no stations to listen to?

Who is going to buy a commercial on a radio station nobody listens to? How much would you pay for a commercial that might, literally, be heard by half a dozen people? What’s it worth to have someone come into your store and say “Hey, Earl! I heard your ad on the radio this morning!” even if your sales don’t actually increase because of it?

And why would anyone buy a radio set if there were no stations to listen to? Would you pay $50 in today’s money for an appliance you might only be able to use for six or ten weeks? Sure, someone would probably come along some day and put up another station… but maybe not. Certainly not for a while, anyway.

Everyone involved had good reasons—good reasons—to wait for someone else to make the first move. But nobody had moved first they still wouldn’t have radio.


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