Broadcast media is my roots. Even in sixth grade, I was fascinated by radio, and the air personalities that filled it at the time. (This was before hard-core automation and when ownership limits prevented Clear Channel and Infinity from owning everything.) I did some government access TV in high school, then in college made radio/TV my major, fortunately having the good sense my last three semesters to double in journalism as well. My senior year I got work at a commercial station in Mansfield, and shortly after graduation, managed to enter the Cleveland radio market. It was a hell of a ride.
But radio kicked my ass because the money was horrible and the decay of local radio was already in full swing. Having to obligate someone else's contract for sucking in the Arbitrons, I got shifted to a part-time gig and quit.
Six months later (and a term working at a CompUSA), I landed in another government access TV gig. It was perfect... know-it-all kid lands a job in a department that doesn't exist yet. Being the only person there, I was free to do everything I loved about TV, from the engineering and production, right up through air talent. I even got to build a little Web site. I spent nearly a half-million dollars before I left.
Fast forward to 1999, and the lure of the Internet and its money. I made a radical change and left broadcast behind to be a Webmaster at Penton Media, the company that would eventually own Internet World, among others. The Internet was really still kind of crude unless you had a lot of cash to throw around and hire real programmers. At that point in time I knew HTML, and a little Perl and ASP. Fortunately, working with an outside firm, I also got to know COM, SQL and application architecture.
You know how things went after that. Penton eventually was de-listed from the NYSE and the ensuing shit storm of business failures caused by a lack of common sense put me out on the street. .NET appeared in 2001 and that eventually led me to where I am now, contracting at ridiculous rates and writing an ASP.NET book. What a crazy ride.
But I still think about traditional media and its relationship with the Internet. When I went to Penton, it was essentially print media, and not totally outside of my expertise. I was able to thrive in my radio days because I “got it,” and that media savvy got me in the door at Penton. It turned my hobby Web sites into a business. But the question remains, how is the Internet different?
If you put the Cluetrain Manifesto clichés to rest (”markets are conversations” my ass... stop conversing and put out a fucking product), the thing that makes the Internet so different from traditional media is that your audience knows better than you do. The problem is that if you don't give them what they're looking for, they won't bother to tell you what it is they want. They might not even know, but they'll know it when they see it.
There are times when you can get lucky and mimic something else, of course. My inspiration for CoasterBuzz was to mimic VoodooExtreme, only instead of video game stuff, it would be roller coaster stuff. The premise was simple, and even back in 1998, it was what we now identify as a blog. Get news from your audience, post it as you go and let them comment on it. Turns out that's what my audience was looking for, and my site dominates that market.
Other times you come up with something people don't really need. CampusFish was supposed to be blogs and photos for dummies. Actually, it was more for me than anyone else, but I figured I'd open it up to see if anyone else was interested. A few people were, but it never really took off. What I've seen since launching that site is that the audience isn't that dumb, and much of the blogging audience can set something up themselves, even writing their own style sheets.
Programmers are the worst at identifying audience needs, which is ironic given that most I assume have had to deal with requirements at some point in their careers. Most programming sites suck, but a few have made good marks. There's so much fragmentation in the market that it's hard to find someone that really does it right and covers your specific interests and level of expertise.
Don't even get me started on Channel 9. I mean, the theory was pretty good, but the execution ended up being way too narcissistic and “look at me!” for my tastes. With all of the brilliance in Microsoft, you'd think they would've understood that the personalities, outside of Ballmer, aren't even remotely as interesting as the things they're doing. I'd add that those things are better communicated in text, not video.
So with all of this in mind, I'm trying to figure out what my next big idea is. Even with the media experience I have, my success has largely been dumb luck or right-place-right-time. It's time to be more deliberate. I'm done being interpretive and reactive.