Bill Roedy made his channel a hit, but can’t get out of the way of his story.
In the 1990s MTV was to the youth what Facebook and Orkut are today. It was where they hung out, a brand they identified with, a place to check out fashions, trends, attitudes and the other sex. It defined popular culture.
By the middle of the last decade, however, MTV seemed to have lost “it”. The brand is no longer a power to reckon with on any of the media the youth hang out on — including online and mobile. Nor is it now considered a youth icon. It is just another music channel.
That, then, is the first problem with Bill Roedy’s What Makes Business Rock: its timing is off by at least five years. MTV was a hot brand, it no longer is one. You could ignore that and pick up the book just for the pleasure of reading about how MTV’s head of international business managed to take it across 165 countries and many cultures.
In India in 1996, for example, MTV was a foreign channel playing songs that were incomprehensible to a large mass of the audience. By the turn of the century, however, MTV had come to define popular culture and youth in India. The channel gave niche genres such as ghazals, fusion and devotional music a new lease of life. It gave birth to what was then called Indiepop or “independent” pop albums in a market dominated by film music. The music video added a whole new dimension to the Indian music industry. Lots of talented singers and VJs were discovered, thanks to MTV — remember Kailash Kher and Cyrus Broacha.
The MTV office in Tardeo in Mumbai was in complete contrast to any of the offices you had seen in India till then. Ad agencies were sober in comparison. MTV’s was an open office stretching for about 100 metres with graffiti, paintings, and open pipes hanging about. Even the CEO had no privacy. If he scratched his nose somebody would see it.
These, however, were just the trappings. What MTV did was to revive the whole idea of popular music, its connect with the youth and, therefore, the entire music industry. MTV’s Youth Marketing Forums used to be eagerly awaited events.
This is the change that Roedy and MTV brought about in markets ranging from Europe to Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Australia. Roedy spent 22 years “globetrotting and audience building”, as a memo from the company announcing his decision to quit describes it. He took up the cause of AIDS and tied MTV to it at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to do so. And everyone from musicians to media executives and politicians seem to love him. Bono, Bob Geldof, Mick Jagger, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, all are talked about and displayed in the book. Clearly, Roedy left MTV on a high note late last year.
Therefore, the story of what he did and how ought to fascinate anyone, whether or not they are from the media business. But it does not. And that brings us to the second and bigger problem with this book. Roedy is too busy talking about himself. The book is an endless line of “I did this”, “Then I thought...”, “I really think...”, and so on. If there is a soft copy of the book, a search for the number of times the word “I” appears should throw up a gargantuan number of results. If you choose to ignore the “I”-centric tone and read on, as did yours truly, you will find gems hidden in the long-winded, self-glorifying paragraphs.
The story of how MTV Europe was built, from a hole-in-the-wall office in London, is interesting. Everything from distribution to programming was a mess when Roedy landed in London in 1989. On his first day at work this former HBO man discovered that the company was having “distribution” problems in Greece, which at that point provided about half of MTV’s business in Europe.
And, clearly, Roedy cracked it — because MTV Europe did become very big in the 1990s. Trying to fathom how he did it, however, is most frustrating. You are told about totally unrelated things like how he managed to tackle distribution in Germany (he paid the cable guys a fee to carry MTV) or programming in the UK. But these are tidbits you get as reward for having waded through all the rest. The book is full of badly told anecdotes, witticisms and pop wisdom on everything from leadership to corporate culture, none of which tie up.
And yet the fact remains that Roedy was, after Tom Freston, a highly respected Viacom executive. His 11 years in the military clearly gave him an edge in a business in which creative chaos usually reigns. He is a big name in the fight against AIDS, has been invited to speak at the UN, and so on and so forth. The book in many ways reflects his breathless, action-filled life. Maybe treating it like a business book is wrong, but that is what the cover promises.
One review from the Publisher calls it a “business book masquerading as a memoir”. That made me laugh, because this book is really a memoir pretending to be a business book. Pick it up if you want to know who Roedy is and what he has achieved, not to find out what makes business rock.
WHAT MAKES BUSINESS ROCK
Building the World’s Largest Global Networks
Author: Bill Roedy, with David Fisher