“Take some chances,” Inside Radio reports…”That turned out to be the dominant theme of the NAB Radio Show. Keynoters like Seth Godin and Randy Jackson are supposed to say stuff like ‘don’t be afraid to fail.’ But the imperative to “try new things and take chances” was also on the lips of John Hogan, Joel Hollander and other speakers…”

It’s true…we are in an era where bold moves have paid off big in more than one industry…

In the car biz, Chrysler “zagged” with its 300. The car’s Bentley-like design is a huge departure from the “bar of soap” look of other cars. And mechanically, the 300’s rear-wheel drive is a “180” from the front-wheel drive common in family sedans today.

Chrysler and its dealers were nervous about selling an RWD car in the snowbelt. They were unsure about selling a car that looks so different. But the 300 has been a huge success, helping spur Chrysler to record-breaking sales and a bigger market share.

In contrast, Ford took the conservative styling route with its big sedan — the 500 — making it look much like an Audi clone. Ford’s design guru J. Mays shrugged off criticism of the 500’s bland looks with a flippant:“You can never look too much like an Audi, can you?” Well…you can. Sales of the 500 have fallen short of expectations, and now Ford is now scrambling to give it more “edge.”

Closer to our industry, long-suffering ABC took a risk last year with edgy new shows like Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and (especially) Desperate Housewives — a campy prime-time soap. Housewives was pitched to NBC, CBS, Fox, HBO, Showtime and Lifetime before ABC gave it a shot. It was the most popular new show of ’04-’05 season, and ABC’s risk-talking took it from #4 to #2 among the networks.

In contrast, NBC reacted to the loss of its mainstays Frazier and Friends with more of the same…for example, the Friends spin-off — Joey. This conservative approach landed NBC in the #4 spot, behind Fox!

And in radio, we have “Jack” — which became the hot format by challenging conventional wisdom with its extended playlist, “car crash segues” and irreverent attitude. While some stations have made a mistake in their rush to the format, the success Jack has had reveals the upside of thinking differently and taking chances.

The point of these examples is: bold, risky moves often succeed, while the so-called “safe” route isn’t always safe after all!

So what’s standing in the way of more risk-taking in radio?

Some will point to research. But used the right way, research does not dictate a station’s direction or impede innovation! At its best, research provides a reality-based “springboard” for radio managers’ creativity, so that their format concepts are grounded in serving listeners’ needs (rather than simply pulled out of someone’s butt).

For example, research tells that listeners like the idea of broad variety, and that an irreverent, “no bullshit” approach has strong appeal. Jack is a creative exploitation of these attitudes.

Research reveals what listeners like and what listeners think. It’s up to us to figure out what their attitudes, preferences and perceptions mean for a station’s direction.

I do think consolidation has played a role in radio’s risk-aversion. If anything, consolidation should facilitate more risk-taking, since clusters don’t have to “bet the farm” on any one station! But it hasn’t worked out that way. Managers have less time and less incentive to fix the weak stations in their clusters…after all, they’re just one of five (or whatever).

Before consolidation, format innovation was born of necessity… failing stations had every incentive to try something new and different. Given the competitive pressures coming at radio from multiple directions — XM, Sirius, iPods and the Internet — radio will again have to cope creatively and take chances, just as it has in the past.