Howard Stern

How ideas happen

I recently came up with a good idea. What I did to make it better than my others, I couldn’t tell you. Transport myself to a state where thoughts readily manifest themselves? Wait for the stars to align? Be a good person?

I didn’t know it then, but I likely navigated a course described more than 70 years ago in a little advertising book called “A Technique for Producing Ideas”  by James Webb Young. Once I stumbled upon this classic, I was thirsty to understand the process I followed subconsciously and what marketers do all the time in the pursuit of ideas.

Just for the record, my good idea was to create our own theoretical Mount Rushmore for the radio industry, which quickly went viral on social media and eventually landed us on The Howard Stern Show live to present Howard with a plaque and tell millions about our company, CRN.

Step One. Young theorizes that ideas are nothing more than new combinations of old, existing elements, or pieces of knowledge. The first of his five basic steps is gathering raw materials—not only specific information about the project and product, but also general information about the world around you and the people who make up that world (and presumably might be a target for whatever you’re selling).

Step Two. Then Young recommends going through a mental digestive process, in which you take bits of material and examine them from every perspective. “Take one fact and turn it this way and that; look at it from different lights and feel for the meaning,” Young says. “Bring two facts together and see how they fit.” He suggests to “listen” for the meaning—don’t “look” for it. This places the mind in a very different vantage point.

Step Three. This is a step for which I typically feel great discomfort, so I was pleased to see Young list it as an essential part of the process. “Drop the whole subject and put it completely out of your mind,” Young says at this stage. “Turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.” In his book, Young cites the example of Sherlock Holmes stopping right in the middle of a case and dragging Watson off to a concert. While it irritated Watson, author Arthur Conan Doyle, as a creator himself, “knew the creative processes,” he writes.

Step Four. Young believes ideas will appear and come to you when you stop straining to find them. The “Eureka” instant when the idea appears is his Step Four.

Step Five. This is a hard step to tackle, especially for those with inflated egos. The idea must be tested internally, and as Young observes, “It is not quite the marvelous child it seemed when you first gave birth.” Yet Young argues the process “requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit for the exact conditions or the practical exigencies under which they might work.” Typically, a good idea has a “self-expanding quality; it stimulates those who see it to add to it.”

You’d think a book written before technology, before the Internet, and even before us would lose relevance by 2014. As professionals charged with developing new ideas and obsessed with the art and science of how they happen, Young’s book gives us much to think about as we stare at the bedroom ceiling insistent that the marketing Holy Grail is right in front of us, if only the lights were on.

Jim Alkon is Marketing Director of CRN International (, which uses radio differently to solve marketing challenges for major brands. It is based in New Haven, CT, and has offices in New York; Minneapolis; Detroit; Houston; and Hershey, PA.

"Rushmore" to judgment?

Our recent naming of a radio industry Mount Rushmore has continued to spur great debate over whom we selected and whom we didn’t. We anticipated the dialogue and the passion. We did not anticipate a live appearance on The Howard Stern Show to talk about it.

As we said in our original post, we could have made the case for about 20 people to perch on our virtual mountaintop. So just for fun, we thought we’d show you every name nominated by industry professionals (in no particular order) we felt obligated to consider along with Marconi, Paley, Harvey and Stern. Did we make the right choice? Let us know!

Earl Nightingale

Orson Wells

Jonathon Brandmeier

Jack Buck

Chuck Blore

Bob & Ray

Harry Caray

Norman Corwin

Dr. Demento

Bill Drake

Sonny Fox

Steve Inskeep

“The Local Broadcaster”

Gordon McLendon

Randy Michaels

Arch Oboler

Dick Orkin

Ryan Seacrest

Charles Osgood

Janet Parshall

Elvis Presley

Rick Sklar

Jeff Smulyan

Todd Storz

Nina Totenberg

Bob Uecker

Art Vuolo

Paul Galvin

Jim Rome

Jim Williams

Roy Williams

Wolfman Jack

Radio's Mount Rushmore


It is our honor to present the Radio Industry Mount Rushmore, at least according to us.

Why did CRN International set out to create a Mount Rushmore for the radio business in the first place? In truth, we didn’t. Here’s how it happened:

It started as a series of innocent LinkedIn group discussions in which we raised the question: “If radio had a Mount Rushmore, who would you put on it?” We felt it would be fun and thought provoking but couldn’t have anticipated the number of nominations or comments, some of them heated. As the debate raged, we already saw the inevitable finish—we would have to close the loop by offering our own version of radio’s Final Four, using the groups’ inputs as guide points.

What criteria did we specify? We didn’t. We intentionally left it vague and let people determine whatever Mount Rushmore meant to them.  As we reviewed the nominations, we tossed around words like contribution, influence, impact, good standing and popularity. Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of the real Mount Rushmore, picked the U.S. Presidents himself and said his choices “commemorated the founding, growth, preservation, and development of the United States of America.” Sounds good to us.

We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble by naming the “popular vote” winners: Paul Harvey, Edward R. Murrow, Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. That would have been an easy cop-out.

The biggest question was: Should Rush Limbaugh make the cut? Whether you “love him or hate him”—stop right there: Those very words tended to overshadow the merits of the arguments for or against him.

It hardly stopped there. But in the end, we settled on these four for the CRN Radio Industry Mount Rushmore:

Guglielmo Marconi: The Italian electrical engineer known as the inventor of radio. Without him, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. He shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics “in recognition of contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.” An entrepreneur and businessman, Marconi succeeded in making a commercial success of radio by innovating and building on the work of previous experimenters and physicists. Interesting fact: The two radio operators on the Titanic were employed by Marconi.

William S. Paley: Flat out, the driving force who recognized the business potential of radio and acted upon it. He changed broadcasting’s business model not only by developing successful and lucrative programming but also by viewing sponsors as the most significant element of the equation. As CEO of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Paley and his ability to recognize and harness the potential reach of broadcasting was the key to growing a small chain of local stations into what would eventually become one of the world’s dominant communication empires.

Paul Harvey: The conservative American broadcaster who became a friendly and familiar voice to American listeners for generations. Best summed up by his New York Timesobituary: “He personalized radio news with his right-wing opinions, but laced them with his own trademarks: a hypnotic timbre, extended pauses for effect, heart-warming tales of average Americans and folksy observations that evoked the heartland, family values and the old-fashioned plain talk one heard around the dinner table on Sunday.” He was more than a storyteller, as the Times noted. He rallied around major issues such as “the national debt, big government, bureaucrats lacking common sense, permissive parents, leftist radicals and America succumbing to moral decay. He championed rugged individualism, love of God and country, and the fundamental decency of ordinary people.”

Howard Stern: The controversial “shock jock” who helped steer our communications system to a greater open-mindedness by pushing the boundaries of freedom of speech. While his career and his aura have extended to other media, it is radio that can take the credit for putting Stern on the map, drawing in a new generation of listeners, and creating a style of programming that can only be described as off the charts. As for his greater contributions, Rich Mintzer says in Stern’s biography, “Stern has been the focus of debates between censors and those fighting for freedom of speech… He has used his stature to redefine the FCC guidelines repeatedly, support or denounce politicians, rile celebrities, build careers, infuriate or gratify sponsors… and change the face of radio… He has played a major role in making it permissible to talk about once-taboo topics on the air.”

That’s our opinion—CRN International’s Radio Industry Mount Rushmore. Do you agree? Disagree? Tell us what you think.