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Friday, February 27, 2009,12:23 AM
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Thursday, February 26, 2009,10:06 PM
Business Strategy: Execution Is the Key
By Lawrence G. Hrebiniak.

Execution is a key to strategic success. Most managers, however, know a lot more about strategy formulation than execution. They know much more about "planning" than "doing," which causes major problems with making strategy work.

Strategy execution is difficult but worthy of management's attention across all levels of an organization. All managers bear responsibility for successful execution. It is not just a lower-level task.

Part of the difficulty of execution is due to the obstacles or impediments to it. These include the longer time frames needed for execution; the need for involvement of many people in the execution process; poor or vague strategy; conflicts with the organizational power structure; poor or inadequate sharing of information; a lack of understanding of organizational structure, including information sharing and coordination methods; unclear responsibility and accountability in the execution process; and an inability to manage change, including cultural change.

Knowing execution hazards (opportunities) is necessary but not sufficient. For successful execution to occur, managers need a model or a set of guidelines outlining the entire process and relationships among key decisions or actions. A "roadmap" is needed to help with the order of execution decisions as managers confront obstacles and take advantage of opportunities.

This overview of execution is vital to success and is developed in the next chapter. Subsequent chapters can borrow from this model and focus more specifically on aspects of it to achieve positive execution results.

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,10:03 PM
Business Strategy: Execution Is the Key Part 5
By Lawrence G. Hrebiniak.

The Execution Challenge

There are eight areas of obstacles or challenges to strategy execution. Or, to put it positively, there are eight areas of opportunity: Handling them well will guarantee execution success. The areas relating to the success of execution are as follows:

Developing a model to guide execution decisions or actions

Understanding how the creation of strategy affects the execution of strategy

Managing change effectively, including culture change

Understanding power or influence and using it for execution success

Developing organizational structures that foster information sharing, coordination, and clear accountability

Developing effective controls and feedback mechanisms

Knowing how to create an execution-supportive culture

Exercising execution-biased leadership

Having a Model or Guidelines for Execution
Managers need a logical model to guide execution actions.

Without guidelines, execution becomes a helter-skelter affair. Without guidance, individuals do the things they think are important, often resulting in uncoordinated, divergent, even conflicting decisions and actions. Without the benefit of a logical approach, execution suffers or fails because managers don't know what steps to take and when to take them. Having a model or roadmap positively affects execution success.

Strategy is the Primary Driver

It all begins with strategy. Execution cannot occur until one has something to execute. Bad strategy begets poor execution and poor outcomes, so it's important to focus first on a sound strategy.

Good people are important for execution. It is vital to get the "right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus," so to speak. But it's also important to know where the bus is going and why. Strategy is critical. It drives the development of capabilities and which people with what skills sit in what seats on the bus. If one substitutes "jet airplane" for "bus" above—given today's high-flying, competitive markets—the importance of strategy, direction, and the requisite critical skills and capabilities necessary for success are emphasized even more.

Strategy defines the arena (customers, markets, technologies, products, logistics) in which the execution game is played. Execution is an empty effort without the guidance of strategy and short-term objectives related to strategy. What aspects of strategy and planning impact execution outcomes the most is a critical question that needs answering. Another critical question deals with the relationship between corporate- and business-level strategies and how their interaction affects execution outcomes.

Managing Change

Execution or strategy implementation often involves change. Not handling change well will spell disaster for execution efforts.

Managing change means much more than keeping people happy and reducing resistance to new ideas and methods. It also means knowing the tactics or steps needed to manage the execution process over time. Do managers implement change sequentially, bit by bit, or do they do everything at once, biting the bullet and implementing change in one fell swoop? The wrong answer can seriously hamper or kill execution efforts. Knowing how to manage the execution process and related changes over time is important for execution success.

The Power Structure

Execution programs that contradict the power or influence structure of an organization are doomed to failure. But what affects power or influence? Power is more than individual personality or position. Power reflects strategy, structure, and critical dependencies on capabilities and scarce resources. Knowing what power is and how to create and use influence can spell the difference between execution success and failure.

Coordination and Information Sharing

These are vital to effective execution. Knowing how to achieve coordination and information sharing in complex, geographically dispersed organizations is important to execution success. Yet managers are often motivated not to share information or work with their colleagues to coordinate activities and achieve strategic and short-term goals. Why? The answer to this question is vital to the successful execution of strategy.

Clear Responsibility and Accountability

This is one of the most important prerequisites for successful execution, as basic as it sounds. Managers must know who's doing what, when, and why, as well as who's accountable for key steps in the execution process. Without clear responsibility and accountability, execution programs will go nowhere. Knowing how to achieve this clarity is central to execution success.

The Right Culture

Organizations must develop execution-supportive cultures. Execution demands a culture of achievement, discipline, and ownership. But developing or changing culture is no easy task. Rock climbing, white-water rafting, paint-gun battles, and other activities with the management team are fun. They rarely, however, produce lasting cultural change. Knowing what does affect cultural change is central to execution success.


Leadership must be execution biased. It must drive the organization to execution success. It must motivate ownership of and commitment to the execution process.

Leadership affects how organizations respond to all of the preceding execution challenges. It is always at least implied when discussing what actions or decisions are necessary to make strategy work. A complete analysis of execution steps and decisions usually defines what good leadership is and how it affects execution success, directly or indirectly.

Controls, Feedback, and Adaptation

Strategy execution processes support organizational change and adaptation. Making strategy work requires feedback about organizational performance and then using that information to fine-tune strategy, objectives, and the execution process itself. There is an emergent aspect of strategy and execution, as organizations learn and adapt to environmental changes over time. Adaptation and change depend on effective execution methods.

As important as controls and feedback are, they often don't work. Control processes fail. They don't identify and confront the brutal facts underlying poor performance. Adaptation is haphazard or incomplete. Understanding how to manage feedback, strategy reviews, and change is vital to the success of strategy execution.

These are the issues that impact the success or failure of strategy-execution efforts. Coupled with the issues previously mentioned (longer time frames, involvement of many people, and so on), these are the areas that present formidable obstacles to successful execution if they are not handled properly. They also present opportunities for competitive advantage if they are understood and managed well.

The last words, "managed well," hold the key to success. Knowing the obstacles or potential opportunities is necessary but not sufficient. The real issue is how to deal with them to generate positive execution results. The major significant point or thrust of this chapter is that execution is not managed well in most organizations. The remainder of this book is dedicated to correcting this woeful situation.

The Next Step: Developing a Logical Approach to Execution Decisions and Actions
So where and how does one begin to confront the issues just noted? Which execution problems or opportunities should managers consider first? What decisions or actions come later? Why? Can an approach to strategy execution be developed to guide managers through the maze of obstacles and problematical issues just identified?

The next chapter begins to tackle these questions. It presents an overview, a conceptual framework to guide execution decisions and actions. Managers need such a model because they routinely face a bewildering set of decisions about a host of strategic and operating problems, including those dealing with execution. They need guidelines, a "roadmap" to steer them logically to execution success.

Priorities are also needed. Tackling too many execution decisions or actions at once will surely create problems. "When everything is important, then nothing is important," is a clear but simple way of expressing the issue. Priorities must be set and a logical order to execution actions adequately defined if execution is to succeed.

Having a model, finally, also facilitates a "simultaneous" view of planning and doing. All execution actions cannot be taken at once; some must precede others logically. A good overview or model, however, provides a "big picture" that enables managers to see and anticipate execution problems. Execution is not something that others should worry about later. Planning requires anticipating early on what must be done to make strategy work.

Development of a logical overview is a step that has been ignored by practitioners, academics, and management consultants alike. Execution problems or issues typically have been handled separately or in an ad-hoc fashion, supported by a few anecdotes or case studies. This is not sufficient. Execution is too complex to be approached without guidelines or a roadmap.

Managers cannot act in a helter-skelter fashion when executing strategy. They can't focus one day on organizational structure, the next on culture, and then on to "good people," only to find out that strategy is vague or severely flawed. They need guidelines, a way to see and approach execution and the logical order of the key variables involved. A roadmap is needed to guide them through the minefields of bad execution decisions and actions. Managers require a "big picture" as well as an understanding of the "nitty-gritty," the key elements that comprise the big picture.

The next chapter tackles the essential task of providing this overview by showing the order and logic of key execution decisions. It begins to confront the obstacles identified in this chapter as it lays out this sequence of decisions or actions. These decisions and actions simultaneously define the areas needing additional attention in later chapters of this book. Having a model of execution is vital to making strategy work, so let's take this important and necessary step.

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,9:58 PM
Business Strategy: Execution Is the Key Part 3 & Part 4
The Third part is based upon data that is too complex to post here so here is the link

Part 3

Part 4

Making Sense of the Data and Going Forward
Given the responses from managers just noted, what does all this mean? What really affects execution? What should we focus on in subsequent chapters of this book?

The first thing I did to answer these questions was to include all items that were ranked fifth or higher in either or both samples of managers. If either or both groups felt that strongly about an execution obstacle, I felt that the item deserved consideration. The far right-hand column in Table 1.1 shows checkmarks by these items.

Second, I looked to the open-ended responses, panel discussions, and my own notes taken during the Wharton programs and panel discussions to flesh out the items in Table 1.1. This proved to be enlightening. I determined easily that "managing change" included managing cultural change to many of the respondents, a point emphasized earlier. The impact of culture itself on execution and company performance was often emphasized, even though culture was not one of the 12 survey items. Managers basically said that culture was an underlying explanatory element in responses dealing with incentives, power, and change, items that were included in the survey. Some argued strongly for the importance of culture as a separate factor affecting execution success.

From these discussions and open-ended responses, I learned why there were many strong comments for certain items, such as the need for an execution model or plan. If a plan existed to guide execution efforts in their company, managers did not rank it as a significant problem. If such a plan didn't exist, it was considered to be a major shortcoming that gave rise to yet additional problems in the execution process.

I read and heard the lamentations of many about execution problems that arise from poor strategy or inadequate planning. Vague strategies cannot easily be translated into the measurable objectives or metrics so vital to execution. Unclear corporate and business plans inhibit integration of objectives, activities, and strategies between corporate and business levels. Poor strategies result in poor execution plans. Points such as these derived from the panel discussions and open-ended responses provided helpful insights into the meaning of the survey items and the factors affecting execution.

Finally, managers told me about the importance of controls or feedback in the execution process. What they were emphasizing is the importance of strategy reviews that provide feedback about performance and allow for changes in execution methods. These points are consistent with the importance of managing change and organizational adaptation, issues already discussed, but the managers' additional emphasis on the importance of controls, feedback, and change were duly noted.

After carefully examining all the data, I then tried to "cluster" the items logically to see which obstacles to successful execution seemed to "stick together." Here is my take on what the data seem to be saying.

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,9:56 PM
Business Strategy: Execution Is the Key Part 2
By Lawrence G. Hrebiniak.

Additional Challenges and Obstacles to Successful Execution
The issues previously noted are serious, potentially impeding execution. Yet there are still other challenges and obstacles to the successful implementation of strategy. These need to be identified and confronted if execution is to succeed.

To find out what problems managers routinely encounter in the execution of strategy, I developed two research projects to provide some answers. My goal was to learn about execution from those most qualified to give me the scoop—managers actually dealing with strategy execution. I could have relied solely on my own consulting experiences. I felt, however, that a more widespread approach—surveys directed toward many practicing managers—would yield additional positive results and useful insights into execution issues.

Wharton-Gartner Survey

This was a joint project involving the Gartner Group, Inc., a well-known research organization, and me, a Wharton professor. This is a relatively recent project, with data collection and analysis in 2003.

The purpose of the research, from the Gartner introduction, was as follows:

"To gain a clear understanding of challenges faced by managers as they make decisions and take actions to execute their company's strategy to gain competitive advantage."

The research instrument was a short online survey sent to 1,000 individuals on the Gartner E-Panel database. The targeted sample comprised managers who reported that they were involved in strategy formulation and execution. Complete usable responses were received from a sample of 243 individuals, a return rate that is more than sufficient for this type of research. In addition, the survey collected responses to open-ended questions to provide additional data, including explanations of items covered in the survey instrument.

There were 12 items on the survey dealing with obstacles to the strategy-execution process. They focused on conditions that affect execution and were originally developed in conjunction with a Wharton Executive Development Program on strategy implementation. Let's briefly consider this program and the survey it generated, and then we'll look at the items involved.

Wharton Executive Education Survey

I have been running an executive program on strategy implementation at Wharton a number of times a year for about 20 years. I have met hundreds of managers with responsibility for strategy execution, many of whom confronted major hurdles in their attempts to execute strategy successfully. As part of the formal program, managers brought their real-world problems with them. Time was allocated to air out the problems and focus on their solution in the course of the program.

Based on these presentations and my discussions with managers, I developed a list of execution hurdles or challenges to the execution process. I discussed this list with managers, asking them to rank the problems or obstacles in order of importance. Over time, items were modified, added to, or deleted from the list until I settled on 12 items that made sense and had "face" validity. These items, managers felt, clearly had a relationship to strategy execution.

Using the 12 items to gather opinions over a large number of executive education programs provided me with responses from a sample of 200 managers. They provided a ranking of the items' impact on strategy execution. Open-ended responses to questions about execution issues, problems, and opportunities were also collected over time, providing additional valuable data. Coupled with the data collected in the Wharton-Gartner Survey using the same 12 items, I had complete responses from more than 400 managers involved in strategy execution who told me about their execution problems and their solutions to them.

Panel Discussions

In subsequent Wharton executive programs after the data collection, I held informal panel discussions to collect additional insights into what the data were actually saying. I asked managers why, in their opinion, people responded the way they did. "What are the surveys telling us about execution problems or issues?" was the predominant question.

These discussions forced managers to read between the lines and interpret the formal data. They also enabled me to probe into what could be done to overcome the obstacles and achieve successful execution outcomes. Insights were collected, then, not only on the sources of execution problems but their solutions as well.

The surveys and follow-up discussions provided data right from "the horse's mouth." These were not idiosyncratic data, the opinions or observations of a few managers or CEOs who, against all odds, "did it their way." The number of managers providing answers, coupled with an emphasis on real problems and solutions, added a strong sense of relevance to the opinions gathered about strategy execution

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,9:52 PM
Business Strategy: Execution Is the Key Pt. 1
By Lawrence G. Hrebiniak.


Two decades ago, I was working with the Organizational Effectiveness Group in AT&T's new Consumer Products division, a business created after the court-mandated breakup and reorganization of the company in 1984. I remember one particular day that made an impression on me that would last for years.

I was talking to Randy Tobias, the head of the division. I had met Randy while doing some work for Illinois Bell, and here we were talking about his division's strategic issues and challenges. Randy later moved into the chairman's office at AT&T and then became a successful CEO of Eli Lilly, but his comments that day years ago were the ones that affected me most.i

Here was a new business thrust headlong into the competitive arena. Competition was new to AT&T at the time. Competitive strategy for the business was nonexistent, and Tobias was laboring to create that elusive original plan. He focused on products, competitors, industry forces, and how to position the new division in the marketplace. He handled expectations and demands from corporate as he forged a plan for the business and helped position it in the AT&T portfolio. He created a strategic plan where previously there had been none, a Herculean task and one well done at the time.

On that day, I recall asking Randy what was the biggest strategic challenge confronting the business. I expected that his answer would deal with the problem of strategy formulation or some competitive threat facing the division. His answer surprised me.

He said that strategy formulation, while extremely challenging and difficult, was not what concerned him the most. It was not the planning that worried him. It was something even bigger and more problematic.

It was the execution of strategy that concerned him above all else. Making the plan work would be an even bigger challenge than creating the plan. Execution was the key to competitive success, but it would take some doing.

I, of course, sought further clarification and elaboration. I can't remember all of his points in response to my many questions, but here are some of the execution challenges he raised that day, referring to his own organization. He mentioned the following:

The culture of the organization and how it was not appropriate for the challenges ahead

Incentives and how people have been rewarded for seniority or "getting older," not for performance or competitive achievement

The need to overcome problems with traditional functional "silos" in the organization's structure

The challenges inherent in managing change as the division adapted to new competitive conditions

This was the first elaboration of execution-related problems I had ever heard, and the message has stayed with me over the years. It became clear to me that day that:

Execution is a key to success

It also struck me in those early days with AT&T that, although execution is a key to success, it is no easy task. Here was a company with an ingrained culture and structure, a set way of doing things. For the company to adapt to its new competitive environment, major changes would be necessary, and those changes would be no simple cakewalk. Obviously, developing a competitive strategy wouldn't be easy, but the massive challenges confronting the company made it clear to me early on that:

Making strategy work is more difficult than the task of strategy making
Execution is critical to success. Execution represents a disciplined process or a logical set of connected activities that enables an organization to take a strategy and make it work. Without a careful, planned approach to execution, strategic goals cannot be attained. Developing such a logical approach, however, represents a formidable challenge to management.

Even with careful development of an execution plan at the business level, execution success is not guaranteed. Tobias's strategic and execution plans for the Consumer Products division were well thought out. Yet troubles plagued the division's progress. Why? The problem was with the entire AT&T corporation. The company was about to go through a huge metamorphosis that it simply was not equipped to deal with and make work. Execution plans at the business level founder or fail if they don't receive corporate support. AT&T was, at the time, a slow-moving behemoth in which change was vehemently resisted. Well-prepared and logical plans at the Consumer Products business level were hampered by a poor corporate culture. Tobias' insights and potentially effective execution actions were blunted by corporate inertia and incompetence.

Although execution is critical to strategic success, making strategy work presents a formidable challenge. A host of factors, including politics, inertia, and resistance to change, routinely can get in the way of execution success.

Fast forwarding to the present, I just finished a few weeks working with managers from Deutsche Post, Aventis Pharmaceutical, and Microsoft, talking to them about execution problems. I also just participated in a Wharton executive program on strategic management and was debriefing with a few of the participants.

The major point cutting through all the conversations is the importance and difficulty of executing strategy. Two decades after my conversation with Randy Tobias, managers are still emphasizing that execution is a key to success. They are arguing that making strategy work is important and is more difficult than strategy making. Plans still fail or wither on the vine because of poor execution.

The striking aspect of all this is that managers apparently still don't know a great deal about the execution of strategy. It is still seen as a major problem and challenge.

Management literature has focused over the years primarily on parading new ideas on planning and strategy formulation in front of eager readers, but it has sorely neglected execution. Granted, planning is important. Granted, people are waking up to the challenge and are beginning to take execution seriously.

Still, it is obvious that the execution of strategy is not nearly as clear and understood as the formulation of strategy. Much more is known about planning than doing, about strategy making than making strategy work.

Is execution really worth the effort? Is execution or implementation truly a key to strategic success?

Consider one relatively recent comprehensive study of what contributes to company success.ii In this study of 160 companies over a five-year period, success was strongly correlated, among other things, with an ability to execute flawlessly. Factors such as culture, organizational structure, and aspects of operational execution were vital to company success, with success measured by total return to shareholders. Other recent works have added their support to this study's finding that execution is important for strategic success, even if their approach and analysis are less rigorous and complete.iii These works then, in total, support the view I've held for years:

Sound execution is critical—A focus on making strategy work pays major dividends
Despite its importance, execution is often handled poorly by many organizations. There still are countless cases of good plans going awry because of substandard execution efforts. This raises some important questions.

If execution is central to success, why don't more organizations develop a disciplined approach to it? Why don't companies spend time developing and perfecting processes that help them achieve important strategic outcomes? Why can't more companies execute or implement strategies well and reap the benefits of those efforts?

The simple answer, again, is that execution is extremely difficult. There are formidable roadblocks or hurdles that get in the way of the execution process and seriously injure the implementation of strategy. The road to successful execution is full of potholes that must be negotiated for execution success. This was the message two decades ago, and it still is true today.

Let's identify some of the problems or hurdles affecting implementation. Let's then focus on confronting the obstacles and solving the problems in subsequent chapters of this book.

Managers Are Trained to Plan, Not Execute
One basic problem is that managers know more about strategy formulation than implementation. They are trained to plan, not execute plans.

In most MBA programs I've looked at, students learn a great deal about strategy formulation and functional planning. Core courses typically hone in on competitive strategy, marketing strategy, financial strategy, and so on. The number of courses in most core programs that deal exclusively with execution or implementation? Usually none. Execution is most certainly touched on in a couple of the courses, but not in a dedicated, elaborate, purposeful way. Emphasis clearly is on conceptual work, primarily planning, and not on doing. At Wharton, there is at least an elective on strategy implementation, but this is not typical of many other MBA programs. Even if things are beginning to change, the emphasis still is squarely on planning, not execution.

Added to the lack of training in execution is the fact that strategy and planning in most business schools are taught in "silos," by departments or disciplines, and execution suffers further. The view that marketing strategy, financial strategy, HR strategy, and so on is the only "right" approach is deleterious to the integrative view demanded by execution.

It appears, then, that most MBA programs (undergrad, too, for that matter) are marked by an emphasis on developing strategies, not executing them. Bright graduates are well versed in strategy and planning, with only a passing exposure to execution. Extrapolating this into the real world suggests that there are many managers who have rich conceptual backgrounds and training in planning but not in "doing." The lack of formal attention to strategy execution in the classroom obviously must carry over to a lack of attention and consequent underachievement in the area of execution in the real world.

If this is true—if managers are trained to plan, not to execute—then the successful execution of strategy becomes less likely and more problematic. Execution is learned in the "school of hard knocks," and the pathways to successful results are likely fraught with mistakes and frustrations.

It also follows logically that managers who know something about strategy execution very likely have the advantage over their counterparts who don't.

If managers in one company are better versed in the ways of execution than managers in a competitor organization, isn't it logical to assume, all other things being equal, that the former company may enjoy a competitive advantage over the latter, given the differences in knowledge or capabilities? The benefits of effective execution include competitive advantage and higher returns to shareholders, so having knowledge in this area would clearly seem to be worthwhile and beneficial to the organization.

Let the "Grunts" Handle Execution

Another problem is that some C-level and other top-level managers actually believe that strategy execution or implementation is "below them," something best left to lower-level employees. Indeed, the heading of this section comes from an actual quote from a high-level manager.

I was working on implementation programs at GM, under the auspices of Corporate Strategic Planning. In the course of my work, I encountered many competent and dedicated managers. However, I also ran across a few who had a jaundiced view of execution. As one of these managers explained:

"Top management rightfully worries about planning and strategy formulation. Great care must be taken to develop sound plans. If planning is done well, management then can turn the plans over to the grunts whose job it is to make sure things get done and the work of the planners doesn't go to waste."

What a picture of the planning and execution process! The planners (the "smart" people) develop plans that the "grunts" (not quite as smart) simply have to follow through on and make work. "Doing" obviously involves less ability and intelligence than "planning," a perception of managerial work that clearly demeans the execution process.

The prevailing view here is that one group of managers does innovative, challenging work (planning) and then "hands off the ball" to lower levels for execution. If things go awry and strategic plans are not successful (which often is the case), the problem is placed squarely at the feet of the "doers," who somehow screwed up and couldn't implement a perfectly sound and viable plan. The doers fumbled the ball despite the planners' well-designed plays.

Every organization, of course, has some separation of planning and doing, of formulation and execution. However, when such a separation becomes dysfunctional—when planners see themselves as the smart people and treat the doers as "grunts"—there clearly will be execution problems. When the "elite" plan and see execution as something below them, detracting from their dignity as top managers, the successful implementation of strategy obviously is in jeopardy.

The truth is that all managers are "grunts" when it comes to strategy execution. From the CEO on down, sound execution demands that managers roll up their sleeves and pitch in to make a difference. The content and focus of what they do may vary between top and middle management. Nonetheless, execution demands commitment to and a passion for results, regardless of management level.

Another way of saying this is that execution demands ownership at all levels of management. From C-level managers on down, people must commit to and own the processes and actions central to effective execution. Ownership of execution and the change processes vital to execution are necessary for success. Change is impossible without commitment to the decisions and actions that define strategy execution.

The execution of strategy is not a trivial part of managerial work; it defines the essence of that work. Execution is a key responsibility of all managers, not something that "others" do or worry about.

Planning and Execution Are Interdependent

Even though, in reality, there may be a separation of planning and execution tasks, the two are highly interdependent. Planning affects execution. The execution of strategy, in turn, affects changes to strategy and planning over time. This relationship between planning and doing suggests two critical points to keep in mind.

Successful strategic outcomes are best achieved when those responsible for execution are also part of the planning or formulation process. The greater the interaction between "doers" and "planners" or the greater the overlap of the two processes or tasks, the higher the probability of execution success.

A related point is that strategic success demands a "simultaneous" view of planning and doing. Managers must be thinking about execution even as they are formulating plans. Execution is not something to "worry about later." All execution decisions and actions, of course, cannot be taken at once. Execution issues or problem areas must be anticipated, however, as part of a "big picture" dealing with planning and doing. Formulating and executing are parts of an integrated, strategic management approach. This dual or simultaneous view is important but difficult to achieve, and it presents a challenge to effective execution.

Randy Tobias had this simultaneous view of planning and doing. Even as he was formulating a new competitive strategy for his AT&T division, he was anticipating execution challenges. Competitive strategy formulation wasn't seen as occurring in a planning vacuum, isolated from execution issues. Central to the success of strategy was his early identification and appreciation of execution-related factors whose impact on strategic success was judged to be formidable. Execution worries couldn't be put off; they were part and parcel of the planning function.

In contrast, top management at a stumbling Lucent Technologies never had this simultaneous view of planning and execution.

When it was spun off from AT&T, the communications, software, and data networking giant looked like a sure bet to succeed. It had the fabled Bell Labs in its fold. It was ready to hit the ground running and formulate winning competitive strategies. Even as the soaring technology market of the late 1990s helped Lucent and other companies, however, it couldn't entirely mask or eliminate Lucent's problems.

One of the biggest problems was that management didn't anticipate critical execution obstacles as they were formulating strategy. Its parent, Ma Bell, had become bureaucratic and slow moving, and Lucent took this culture with it when it was spun off. The culture didn't serve the company well in a highly competitive, rapidly changing telecom environment, a problem that was not foreseen. An unwieldy organizational structure, too, was ignored during Lucent's early attempts at strategy development, and it soon became a liability when it came to such matters as product development and time to market. More agile competitors such as Nortel beat Lucent to market, signaling problems with Lucent's ability to pull off its newly developed strategies.

One thing that was lacking at Lucent was top management's having a simultaneous view of planning and doing. The planning phase ignored critical execution issues related to culture, structure, and people. The results of this neglect were extremely negative, only magnified by the market downturns in 2000 and thereafter.

Execution Takes Longer than Formulation

The execution of strategy usually takes longer than the formulation of strategy. Whereas planning may take weeks or months, the implementation of strategy is usually played out over a much longer period of time. The longer time frame can make it harder for managers to focus on and control the execution process, as many things, some unforeseen, can materialize and challenge managers' attention.

Steps taken to execute a strategy take place over time, and many factors, including some unanticipated, come into play. Interest rates may change, competitors don't behave the way they're supposed to (competitors can be notoriously "unfair" at times, not playing by our "rules"!), customers' needs change, and key personnel leave the company. The outcomes of changes in strategy and execution methods cannot always be easily determined because of "noise" or uncontrolled events. This obviously increases the difficulty of execution efforts.

The longer time frame puts pressure on managers dealing with execution. Long-term needs must be translated into short-term objectives. Controls must be set up to provide feedback and keep management abreast of external "shocks" and changes. The process of execution must be dynamic and adaptive, responding to and compensating for unanticipated events. This presents a real challenge to managers and increases the difficulty of strategy execution.

When the DaimlerChrysler merger was consummated in 1998, many believed that the landmark deal would create the world's preeminent carmaker. Execution since has been extremely difficult, however, and the six years after the merger have seen many new problems unfold. The company has faced one crisis after another, including two bouts of heavy losses in the Chrysler division, a series of losses in commercial vehicles, and huge problems with failed investments in an attempted turnaround at debt- burdened Mitsubishi Motors.iv Serious culture clashes also materialized between the top-down, formal German culture vs. the more informal and decentralized U.S. company. Angry shareholders at the 2004 meeting created and mirrored internal dissent and issued an ultimatum to Jurgen Schrempp to turn things around fast.

The six years after the merger presented problems unforeseen at the time of the merger. Execution always takes time and places pressure on management for results. But the longer time needed for execution also increases the likelihood of additional unforeseen problems or challenges cropping up, which further increases the pressure on managers responsible for execution results. The process of execution is always difficult and sometimes quarrelsome, with problems only exacerbated by the longer time frame usually associated with execution.

Execution Is a Process, Not an Action or Step

A point just made is critical and should be repeated: Execution is a process. It is not the result of a single decision or action. It is the result of a series of integrated decisions or actions over time.

This helps explain why sound execution confers competitive advantage. Firms will try to benchmark a successful execution of strategy. However, if execution involves a series of internally consistent, integrated activities, activity systems, or processes, imitation will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.v

Southwest Airlines, for example, does many things differently than most large airlines. It has no baggage transfer, serves no meals, issues no boarding passes, uses one type of airplane (reducing training and maintenance costs), and incents fast turnaround at the gate. It has developed capabilities and created a host of activities to support its low-cost strategy. Other airlines are hard pressed to copy it, as they're already doing everything Southwest isn't. They're committed to different routines and methods. Copying Southwest's execution activities, in total, would involve difficult trade-offs, markedly different tasks, and major changes, which complicates the problem of developing and integrating new execution processes or activities. This is not to say that competitors absolutely cannot copy Southwest; indeed, other low-cost upstarts and traditional airlines are putting increasing competitive pressure on Southwest. This is simply arguing that such imitation is extremely hard to do.

Execution is a process that demands a great deal of attention to make it work. Execution is not a single decision or action. Managers who seek a quick solution to execution problems will surely fail in attempts at making strategy work. Faster is not always better!

Execution Involves More People than Strategy Formulation DOES
In addition to being played out over longer periods of time, strategy implementation always involves more people than strategy formulation. This presents additional problems. Communication down the organization or across different functions becomes a challenge. Making sure that incentives throughout the organization support strategy execution efforts becomes a necessity and, potentially, a problem. Linking strategic objectives with the day-to-day objectives and concerns of personnel at different organizational levels and locations becomes a legitimate but challenging task. The larger the number of people involved, the greater the challenge of effective strategy execution.

I once was involved in a strategic planning project with a well-known bank. Another project I wasn't directly involved in had previously recommended a new program to increase the number of retail customers who used certain profitable products and services. A strategy was articulated and a plan of execution developed to educate key personnel and to set goals consistent with the new thrust. Branch managers and others dealing with customers were brought in to corporate for training and to create widespread enthusiasm for the program.

After a few months, the data revealed that not much had changed. It clearly was business as usual, with no change in the outcomes that were being targeted by the new program. The bank decided to do a brief survey to canvas customers and branch personnel in contact with customers to determine reactions to the program and see where modifications could be made.

The results were shocking, as you've probably guessed. Few people knew about the program. Some tellers and branch personnel did mention that they had heard about "something new," but nothing different was introduced to their daily routines. A few said that the new program was probably just a rumor, as nothing substantial had ever been implemented. Others suggested that rumors were always circulating, and they never knew what was real or bogus.

Communication and follow-through for the new program were obviously inadequate, but the bank admittedly faced a daunting task. It was a big bank. It had many employees at the branch level. Educating them and changing their behaviors was made extremely difficult by the bank's size. Decentralized branch operations ensured that problems were always "popping up" in the field, challenging employees' attention and making it difficult to introduce new ideas from corporate to a large group of employees.

In this example, the number of people who needed to be involved in the implementation of a new program presented a major challenge to the bank management. One can easily imagine the communications problems in even larger, geographically dispersed companies such as GM, IBM, Deutsche Post, GE, Exxon, Nestlé, Citicorp, and ABB. The number of people involved, added to the longer time frames generally associated with strategy execution, clearly creates problems when trying to make strategy work.

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posted by R J Noriega
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,9:51 PM
Poor white South Africans blame reverse discrimination

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posted by R J Noriega
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Monday, February 16, 2009,12:52 AM
Soil & Pimp Sessions Summer Goddess


posted by R J Noriega
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,12:50 AM
Gilles Peterson Interview (Part 2)
From Emmerald,

Emm: What’s up in New Orleans?

Gilles: I just want to go there. They’ve got that French thing there. I’d love to go to Atlanta as well, yes. But I don’t want to go back to other places in the states. Like I went to Detroit; it’s such a dark city, isn’t it? I mean I don’t mind going there and hearing the music because there's some great stuff coming out of Detroit, but I don’t really want to go and play there. There’s a film I saw, I think it was filmed in New York, but it was dark like Detroit. “21 Grams”, have you seen that film yet?

Emm: No, I haven’t seen that.

Gilles: Yes, it was a really heavy film. It was nominated for an Oscar, I think. I actually, I was in Australia on tour and I was like I am now, a bit jetlagged, and I was like three days in and I had to do a gig that night, and I wanted to do something. It was three in the afternoon, it was too hot, so I was like I’m going to see a film. So I went to the movies in the afternoon in Brisbane, but the film was so heavy in dialogue I had to leave half way through.

Emm: (laughs) I’ll have to check that out, but I’ll wait until I’m in the right mood for that. What were you doing in Brisbane?

Gilles: I did a festival. It was a tour; it was a really good tour actually with Miguel Migs, Bugz in the Attic, Soul to Soul, Blackalicious, Gang Starr, Mad Professor, Nitin Sawney. It was a really good lineup, some reggae, some broken beat too. There were like twenty-five thousand people at the show in Sydney.

Emm: Wow.

Gilles: Yes, we did Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, yes, the middle of nowhere.

Emm: Yeah, literally.

Gilles: Yes, it was fantastic. New Zealand’s actually much better for music, but I like going to Australia because the girls are better looking there. (laughs) That’s not true actually; I prefer it in New Zealand. But then the weather’s always better in Australia, a little bit. It goes to ten degrees hotter. New Zealand’s like being in England in the summer. How did you discover Worldwide?

Emm: I was looking for that Irfane song. (laughs) “Just a Little Lovin’”.

Gilles: And how did you hear that?

Emm: At the Jazzanova show. Jazzanova played down in Athens Georgia, and they played that, “Just a Little Lovin’ “.

Gilles: Right.

Emm: And I was like what the hell is that?

Gilles: Right.

Emm: So anyway, and I guess I must have done a Google search for it and it probably came up on a play list of yours.

Gilles: Wow.

Emm: And then I found the show. However, I have the “Incredible Sound of Gilles Peterson”, which is one of my favorite CDs, and somehow I never connected that with your radio show.

Gilles: And then you just sort of, then you listened to the show?

Emm: Listened to the show and I was like…

Gilles: And was it good quality?

Emm: (laughs) Yeah, it was alright for an internet radio show.

Gilles: Right. And then you got onto the messageboard. It’s great having that community, the messageboard. But it’s a bit weird sometimes. You kind of, I mean the people are really, really nice, the people who are on it, are really, really nice cool people, they’re not… they’re not the people you’d think.

Emm: You would think they’d be crazy.

Gilles: Yes, a little bit. I was thinking if I was to go away or something, it’s almost, even though. . . I mean I do know most of them now, but I’d feel really, really sad about it, if I had to go.

Emm: Oh, yes, yes.

Gilles: You become emotionally attached to the people there.

Emm: Absolutely. Like when I started my new job, with the transition, I couldn’t be on the messageboard all the time, and I was missing all these people I have never met, it was strange.

Gilles: Yes, yes. The people there are really dedicated. But they could be that dedicated and they could be a little bit -- it could become a bit too anal and boring. I mean it does get a bit boring sometimes I have to say. But there are a few people on that board who are really intelligent and interesting and say some really cool things that are not related necessarily to music, it’s just a lifestyle.

Emm: Yes, yes, I think that’s what everybody likes about it. Like we can all talk about music, but we also talk about other things. We could talk about sports. We talk about movies. We talk about food. We could talk about whatever, and that’s what’s really cool.

Gilles: Are they controlling it a bit too much? They have a controller, don’t they?

Emm: Yes, the mods. They get blasted. (laughs) But I've only gotten whacked because I’ve done stuff I wasn’t supposed to do, like if I put an email address on or something. I never had a post whacked because it was inappropriate or off topic, but I know other people have. I don’t know how they come up with what’s off topic though.

Gilles: I’d love to get pictures up of some people on it.

Emm: Oh, that would be awesome. We need a little facebook, like a yearbook or something. (laughs)

Gilles: Have you spoken to anyone, does anyone mail you?

Emm: I have corresponded like with Dayo, Ade P, Bailey, and Marilyn, and I’ve traded CDs with Matiji and Paulboards. . .

Gilles: He writes really well.

Emm: Ade P? Yeah, he’s an amazing writer.

Gilles: There’s a guy on there from Japan, I think, Samba Magic. That’s the other great thing. There’s people from all over on there, not just the U.K. Like I had no idea you were in the states. I just thought okay, Emmerald, whoever that is. (laughs) But there’s all kinds of people.

Emm: Oh yeah, it’s great. The musical knowledge on that board is absolutely insane.

Gilles: Yeah. It used to be quite heavy man. Like, I used to get a lot of criticism, which is great, of course, but then again you sort of take criticism to heart a little. But it can be kind of difficult.

Emm: Yeah, that’s got to be hard. I wonder sometimes if people are more cautious about what they say because they know you’re reading it.

Gilles: I don’t know, but I like that. I like for people to be comfortable and say what they want to say. I think it’s an easy community for people to feel comfortable in.

Emm: Yeah, I think people are honest for the most part. And it’s cool that they can be. What’s really cool is that you actually check it out. I mean, you could easily be like, oh these crazy kids, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Gilles: Is it a bit addictive?

Emm: Uh, yeah. (laughs)

Gilles: From my point of view, sometimes I wonder like. ..if it’s an ego thing. Like I wonder what are they saying today. (laughs) It is good though, because I really get a lot of information from it. You learn what people really like.


posted by R J Noriega
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,12:39 AM
Gilles Peterson Interview Part 1
From Emmerald

What started as a simple and inexpensive CD purchase ($7.99 at a used CD shop), literally changed my whole outlook on DJing and music. I’d just started learning how to mix records when I purchased “The Incredible Sound of Gilles Peterson”. Like all DJ larvae, I was trying to make sense of my records and trying to determine how best to convey the collection of sounds I’d amassed. Since I started relatively late in the game, my collection reflected my broad taste in music as it had developed over the years. It wasn’t a large collection (still isn’t), but I had everything from Sixousie and the Banshees to John Coltrane to The Bar-Kays, to 4 Hero, and I had no clue if any of that would ever make sense together, until I heard Gilles Peterson.
A master of what he terms “joining the dots”, Gilles’ weekly radio show “Worldwide” on BBC Radio 1, and his various compilation CDs (“Incredible Sound of Gilles Peterson“, “Worldwide Programme” 1, 2, and 3, and his 2 “Trust the DJ” comps) have paved the road for those of us searching for the strand of harmony that connects various, sometimes incongruous, genres of music. Every Wednesday, for two hours, Gilles takes his listeners on journeys through jazz, funk, hip-hop, and dance, through the old and dusty, the new and never-to-be-released, classics and classics-to-be. For his faithful listeners, Gilles sets not trends, but standards, conveying and inspiring above all else, a pure love and appreciation of music. Gilles taught me that music has a life all its own, and the best way to determine how to put songs together, is not only to listen, but to watch and feel how and where each tune grows. The dots come together naturally; you’re just there to draw the line.

Emmerald: You must receive a ton of music a day. How do you decide what gets played and what doesn’t get played?

Gilles Peterson: Well I tend to look at labels that I know first of all. And my radio show goes through a production company, so I have a producer--

Emm: Is that Karen?

Gilles: Yes, that’s Karen. A lot of music gets sent to her and the real rubbish, she’ll clear out. So before it gets to me most of the rubbish is gone. But if ever I find out that Karen’s not given me a record that I like that she thought was rubbish, it’s always bad for her, (laughs) so it hasn’t happened for a while. I’ve only got two hours on the radio and it’s quite an influential radio show. There are a lot of bands and artists and producers coming through who want exposure. So I feel I have a responsibility to those people that I listen to their music. And that means that I play a lot more new music than I used to.

I try not to listen to too much music on the day of a show, so I tend to hit my music on Mondays and Tuesdays. Otherwise I could end up listening to music all day on a Wednesday. I do three different shows. I do the one on the BBC; I do a syndicated show which goes out to lots of different stations around the world, and I do a show which is for things like British Airways. I keep really busy with the shows and other things. For example, coming here in Miami this week, I’ve had to record two Radio 1’s, two syndicated shows, and a British Airways show all like in three days, which is a lot you know. So, anyway, to cut a long story short, I usually try to pace it with my music. I clear my music out regularly as well. I used to keep everything, and then I realized I can’t do it. I just can’t live with all this stuff. I’m so badly organized as an individual anyway that if I had too much music there it would just kill me, so I do clear out my music often. I mean obviously the stuff that I’ve played and I like, I’ll keep, but all the other stuff that’s half and half, I just clear out. Every now and again I realize I’ve made a big mistake and I’ve let something go that I’ve heard some DJ playing somewhere in a club. Then I’m like oh my God, I used to have that album and I got rid of it. That kind of thing happens but that’s the way it goes.

Emm: How long have you and Karen worked together?

Gilles: Well I had a guy called Benji B who used to work with me. He came to me when I was working on Kiss FM. He was like fifteen then and he was still at school. And he said he wanted to work on my show and so I started got him into Kiss, and we just became really good friends. He came all the way through until I did Radio 1. Now he’s become a DJ and a broadcaster himself, and so last year we had to basically let him go so he could do his own thing. When I started off at Radio 1 he brought in Karen as an assistant producer for himself so she’s been there for a bit of a while. She’s given the show a really nice twist. She's my little angel.

Emm: How does your syndicated show differ from your Worldwide show?

Gilles: I do the syndicated show at my house. And there’s less talking, more music.

Emm: Is the music the same?

Gilles: Sometimes. I kind of amalgamate them a bit, but it depends. Sometimes I’ll do a completely different show for both of them.

Emm: Do you plan out what you’re going to play on your shows?

Gilles: Not really. I mean I have some idea of what I want to play. But there are definitely times when I bring records to play, but I don’t end up playing them, you know.

Emm: You're doing a new night in Paris?

Gilles: Yes, I’m doing a night at the Rex Club in Paris. The thing about the Rex is that it’s a techno club. It’s the club where Laurent Garnier made his name. It’s a rave club, quote unquote. So it has a reputation for being quite young and ravey, but it has the best sound system in Paris by miles. Last year they asked me to come and DJ for the fifteenth anniversary of Rex. I think it was their fifteenth or twentieth year. I played there with Laurent Garnier, and they had all these other different DJs; it was a really good set of people. I’m half French so I’ve always been going to Paris, but I’ve never really had a good time there because there's always something wrong with the sound, or the people are just not into it or whatever. But in the last year it’s really changed in Paris, so I’m really happy to get on the train and go there on Thursdays and pop it out. It’s really massive; it’s great fun and a there’s great sound system at the Rex, so I’m really enjoying it there.

It’s funny, Paris has got a few musicians, good DJs, but they’ve never really had a club scene, no club culture. Like England’s done really well with this music and taking American music and kind of repackaging it a little bit and creating a club culture. And in America, the club culture scene was obviously really important in Detroit and Chicago, but it was quite gay a lot of it. A lot of the house music was very gay so you had to really want to go and get that music. A lot of people would not play in those sort of places. Whereas in England, club culture is very essential to carry on with everything. I think club culture has been really important to spread a really good circuit around the world. Japan and Germany have taken the club culture thing, and they repackaged it really well for themselves. And you’ve got the music festival down here and all that stuff.

So yes, so that’s Paris. It’s good in France. I’ve already been on the radio in France actually. They’re into jazz there as well. They’re quite intellectual, the French. They like to talk about the music. They’re the kind of guys--if I’m DJing immediately after I’ve finished they all discuss it, you know what I mean. They’ll always have a meeting. They enjoy the breakdown of the thing more than they do the thing itself. Some people go to see film, go to the cinema, they kind of enjoy talking about it more than actually seeing the film, that’s what the French are like.

Emm: So have you see any kind of drop off in the London club culture? There seems to be a drop off in dance music in general. The music isn’t selling that well, and some artists seem to be having a hard time with it.

Gilles: Not really for me, because I’ve got the radio, you know. And I’m lucky that I can always travel, so I’m not overexposing myself in one place. If you play every week in the city, you're not special to that city. Your people just take you for granted and it’s like whatever. I can always travel, so I can always be fresh wherever I am, and luckily the scene is very international. And, I mean I still do my residency in London now, I play there when I can if I’m in town.

Emm: Is that Bar Rhumba?

Gilles: Bar Rhumba, yes. London isn’t about being hot or selling out Fabric or whatever, London to me is just where I love to go out. On a Monday I’m in my town, London people come and see me. We get a couple of hundred people. I always have the best time in there and I have my fans and my people who work in there, and I can let off and have a good time. But I don’t think about it like if I’m going to play then, I’ll just do once every three months in London, then I’m going to be a real big pull. I don’t look at London like that; do you know what I mean?

Emm: Yes, yes.

Gilles: But I think club culture has definitely been hit. There are all sides of the scene that seem to go through these things. I’m really pleased that the dance thing has gone anyway, I mean has gone down, because it was rubbish a lot of it. And a lot of the people involved in it were rubbish as well. I didn’t really want to be associated with those sorts of people in what I was doing, because it was just cold and corporate and everything. So I’m kind of please that everyone's come out of that, and then the people who are really into the shit survive. It’s the men and the boys thing. I’ve been DJing for twenty years now and I’ve been through so many ups and downs and in the end you just keep going. If you’re hit listed, if people like you at the moment it’s great but if they don’t, then I don’t care either. That’s how I approach it, and I’m still enjoying it and making it.

Emm: Cool, that’s good. Twenty years?

Gilles: More actually, it’s twenty-five, yes, I’m forty this year.

Emm: How did you initially get into radio?

Gilles: I started my own pirate station. I got some transmitters and stuff. In those days pirate stations didn’t go on for twenty-four hours. They’d go on for like four or five hours on a Sunday. There was one station called Radio Invicta, which was the first black music pirate in London back in the day, and they lost their equipment. Their gear got taken by the home office, by the police, and they were like, oh my God, we haven’t got a transmitter. And they’d heard there was this young boy that had a transmitter. The guy who built their transmitter put them on this annoying little bloke who lived in south London (laughs). So they the called me and they said can we use your gear. And I said, well as long as you give me a show.

Emm: Right, sure.

Gilles: I was seventeen by then and I started working for Radio Invicta, and that was really cool, because that was where the best DJs were and they were playing good shit. It was like just all soul so it was quite urban. It was very much to the London audience rather than the suburbs. In England you’ve got two scenes. You’ve got the kind of urban scene, and then you’ve got the suburbs. And so if you look at like the DJs who are here in Miami, people like Pete Tong or Judge Jules, they’re very suburban, you see what I mean? And these stations were very much more urban, so they were blacker in a way, but it appealed to a more mixed crowd. So for me being on that station, it was really cool. From that point onwards, I started working at little clubs. My mum didn’t know I was DJing, so I’d have to lie. I’d tell her that I was just going out. I used to work in a gay club actually, on a Sunday. And I’m not gay, but I mean basically I’d go there because they kind of liked the look of me. I used to do nine to one on a Sunday and they wanted gay music. They wanted a kind of gay disco, and I played more boogie kind of stuff like Prelude, D Train and Unlimited Touch, things like that. I started getting a bit of a black crowd coming into the club, and the gays started complaining because it wasn’t a strictly gay thing anymore, so I got barred from that. That was my first sort of travesty. And then I started working in clubs all over the place. I had to earn my money, you know, because I didn’t have a job and I’d fucked up my exams. My studies had gone out the window. I was really into football. I was a sports boy when I was little. I played quite seriously, football, and rugby amazingly.

Emm: Which is your favourite football team?

Gilles: I’m an Arsenal fan. Yeah, so I was doing a lot of sport but then suddenly I just got into music and that really took me away. I never really thought of it as being a career thing, as a child. My mum and dad left England when I was seventeen. My dad is French, so they moved over there, but I stayed, and I just made it on my own. I made a living, so I’m happy about that.

Emm: How do you compare the experience of being a radio DJ versus playing out? Are there aspects of one that you like better than the other?

Gilles: Well, I’ve got a family and I’ve got kids and so I need to do a little bit less DJing and clubbing, but I love it. That’s the thing; it gives me a lot of energy which I hope I bring onto the radio. I think that’s what gives my radio show that edge in a way. I’m listening to music from a club and radio perspective. So I can hear how certain records work. If I’m listening to them at home, I’m like that’s alright. But if I’m playing in a club, certain records just take a whole different light. So in that respect I think the show’s been a quite good line between the club and the home with the headphones kind of thing. And actually I get more money doing gigs. That’s my main source of income. You don’t really make a lot of money on radio, in England anyway. I don’t know but it’s probably the same here.

Emm: I’m sure it’s the same here, yes.

Gilles: The money side is good, but the real the truth is I love DJing. I still love going out and meeting people, and it’s when I’m in clubs that I hear the other DJs playing and that keeps me in the scene. Part of what I do is upfront and I’ve got to be upfront. You’ve got to be on it. Maybe there will be a time when I’ll just stop and find a new role. I mean, I want to do a jazz show, really, that’s what I’d like.

Emm: Yes, I’m sure you do.

Gilles: I get into trouble if I play too much jazz on Radio 1.

Emm: Really?

Gilles: Well I don’t really get into trouble; they don’t dare say anything to me. They’re very cool with me actually. But I hear “if you play too much of that jazz, you don’t get a better show”, (laughs) and I want a better show so it’s a fine line. So I think, again, the whole thing about what I do, you know, if I can play “Impressions” by John Coltrane next to new tunes. That’s what it’s about for me. The show I loved recently was-- I don’t know if you heard the Roy Ayres show? That was a great show.

Emm: Yes, definitely. That was one of the best shows I’ve heard, honestly.

Gilles: If you can just spend time with people and let them talk. I mean the thing is with these legends you’ve just got to set it up right. You can’t just go up to them at the end of the gig and say can we do an interview. That’s really one of the most fantastic things about this job, the fact that you can listen to these people talking. They’ve got so much to say. I want to get more with them because there’s not that many of them left and they’re going to fade.

Emm: Right.

Gilles: I wish I had interviewed Miles Davis, and big people like that. I interviewed Q-Tip last week though, and that was good. It was over the phone. I really want to meet him.

Emm: You’ve never met him?

Gilles: No, no. I mean, I know a lot of those people but I’ve never met him. I don’t think Q-Tip likes Europe. He’s a New Yorker. He’s very New York. Whereas people like Madlib or Jazzy Jeff, those guys, they see what the UK has and what it can do for them.

Emm: Right.

Gilles: Q-Tip’s just a home boy from Brooklyn or whatever, but yes, he’s my hero actually.

Emm: Yeah?

Gilles: Yes, I think he’s my hero. Because when he put out that first album, that freaked me out.

Emm: The one that got shelved?

Gilles: No, the very first, the first…

Emm: The first Tribe album?

Gilles: Yeah, you know with “Push It Along” and all that stuff, that was just amazing. It blew De la Soul apart, which, I mean I like De la Soul, so that was just like spot on. That was spot on because it was hip-hop and it was a bit dark. I like it that way. You need that record in every record collection. And then he went off and did “Low End Theory”, and he got Ron Carter to play bass and I was like you’ve got it going more than anyone. And now he's just done this film, he’s acting and he’s good. The thing is, I didn’t realize that his house burnt down, you know?

Emm: I heard that, yes.

Gilles: With all his records.

Emm: Yeah, that’s crazy, very unfortunate. Actually, speaking of record collections, tell me about yours.

Gilles: Well my record collection took my life over and I had to leave my house. I truly had to leave my house.

Emm: (laughs) I believe you.

Gilles: So I had a house in Finsbury Park, which is near Arsenal in north London, a flat, a four bed roomed flat actually. And I had my wife and we had the kids there. And then by the time the baby was one, the records had--there wasn’t any room for any adults or children. So either we had to move out and buy a big house for everything or—then,I thought actually no. What I’ll do is I’ll buy a house down the road. So I live down the road now and my records are in the house. I’ve got like, I’ve got six bedrooms worth of records. Big rooms, big rooms. I’ve got a lot of records. I’ve got some good records though. And that’s very important as long as you’ve got quality, that’s very key.

Emm: Right. Quality is number one, right. There’s a lot of music out there and a lot of crap.

Gilles: Yes. I’ve spent a lot of money on records, a lot. I mean I’m really bad. I mean I’ll spend all my fee. I’ll do a gig and it will go that way. I’ve done that all my life. If I’d have saved all that money…

Emm: What does your wife say about that? I mean clearly she deals with it but…

Gilles: There are no records in our new house, so it’s fine. We don’t have a record player in our house. We’ve got a CD and that’s it. And I think it’s important also to have my other space. We have a really lovely house, a lovely family and I’m very much in love, and my wife kind of accepts my job. Not really in January, February or March though.

Emm: Yeah?

Gilles: Because I go to Australia in January, it really fucks her up. Because it’s cold she’s got to take the kids to school.

Gilles: So that’s not a good one. And coming here for the week I had to work on that one pretty much. But we get on, it’s all OK. She understands. I was already fully into it when she met me.

Emm: Oh, yeah, so she knows it’s an occupational hazard. You have to know that.
Gilles: Yes. It’s not easy though.

Emm: Absolutely, it’s not.

Gilles: So who do you think is going to win the elections this year? Is Bush going to win again?

Emm: I would say so, barring something really crazy. I mean, he’s so powerful, and is still pretty popular.

Gilles: And he’s quite good in a way. I mean I hate to say it. I’m not a Bushite whatever, but I just saw him doing a few speeches when he came to England and he's got better at that.

Emm: Talking? (laughs)

Gilles: Better, yes, he’s got better at that. He’s got a bit better standing in England.

Emm: Yeah, it seems like he has. You know I love to watch Question Time. I always wonder how Bush would fare if Congress could just fire off questions at him like that.

Gilles: Do you get that here?

Emm: Not the show “Question Time”, but the parliamentary questions. They show it on C-span.

Gilles: Oh, oh yes. The parliamentary question time, where they’ve got the cameras in the House of Commons.

Emm: Right. I love that.

Gilles: It’s pretty controlled though, I think.

Emm: I bet. I wonder if Blair gets the questions ahead of time, do you know?

Gilles: I don’t know, I’m sure he does. Nothing really surprises him.

Emm: I liked Blair a lot when he was--- I guess it was when Clinton was in office, and they were boys. I really liked Clinton too, though. I was really surprised Blair bought into Bush and this war thing the way he did.

Gilles: Yeah, he had to. I couldn’t believe how he sold his soul on that one. He came across as very admirable. He had a lot of humility as Prime Ministers, people in power go. He came across as very honest, and he just basically, he was told you’ve got to go with us. And he had to lie through his teeth to go. Actually, last year, when we were here, the day that I did my show from here, he was on the seven o’clock news, which is midnight England, and when I started, I could hear the news bulletin saying how America, all the allies had just started bombing Iraq. It was such a downer. And so it just felt really strange being here actually.

Emm: Yeah, I remember that. Such and unfortunate day. So what’s next for you? You’re here in Miami this week and then. . .

Gilles: Well I’m doing a show in New York on Thursday.

Emm: That’s cool. You don’t play over here in the states that often.

Gilles: No, I don’t really. I really want to play in New Orleans too, man.


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Sunday, February 15, 2009,9:48 PM
Black Colleges Fight Erosion of Their iche

Historically black colleges and universities, like many other schools, are struggling with both fewer resources and a growing demand from students for financial aid.

But the institutions known as HBCUs have another problem that some leaders contend is theirs alone: Many African-American students are finding their needs met elsewhere.

In 1977, 35 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to black students were from historically black colleges. By 2002, the share was down to 22 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, even though the number of African-American students earning bachelor’s degrees from historically black colleges actually grew.

In the days of segregation, African-American students had limited options. Now, with a wide range of choices, only 13 percent of African-American college students are enrolled in HBCUs.

Kristin Mason, a junior English major at Atlanta’s Spelman College, is one. Mason, who is from Colorado, chose Spelman, she said, because of the “sense of belonging” she felt surrounded by smart black women.

Morehouse College senior Shaun Harris, a business major from Illinois, said he was “looking for brotherhood” at the Atlanta men’s school whose alumni include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But Mark Gamble of Columbus said he “embraced the diversity” at Georgia State University, where about 60 percent of the students are white, 26 percent African-American, and the rest are other ethnicities or identify themselves as multiracial.

“I like being around whites, blacks, Asians and all the other minorities,” said Gamble, a sophomore film major.

Georgia State freshman Mercedes Callaway of Atlanta said she chose the state research university over Spelman, a private women’s HBCU, because of money. A friend at Spelman is “getting a good education,” said Callaway, who is on the HOPE scholarship. “But she’s in debt to pay for school.”

HBCUs are losing students to a range of institutions, said William “Sonny” Walker, who graduated from a historically black college in Arkansas and has served on the boards of three others, including, currently, Atlanta’s Morris Brown College.

“Many of the students who came from middle- and upper-income families, whose parents could afford to pay tuition, are going to Harvard, are going to Georgia, are going to Georgia Tech, are going to Vanderbilt,” Walker said.

Many historically black schools have lower endowments than other colleges, making less money available for scholarships, school officials say. But those institutions play an important role, said Leonard L. Haynes, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

At historically black institutions, he said, students of color can “get an education, get nurturing, get to mature and get to be good citizens after they graduate” in an environment that celebrates their cultures. “If they didn’t exist today, they would have to be created,” Haynes said.

The current economic climate — which is hitting universities across the country, public and private — is making it harder to pay the bills, exacerbating problems both for families of students and for the schools themselves, officials of local colleges say.

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman all revealed this month that they are cutting back on expenses.

Clark Atlanta President Carlton E. Brown said 70 faculty members and 30 other staffers were being laid off because of an “enrollment emergency” after years of declining numbers. At least 200 students recently dropped out or transferred to state colleges because they could no longer afford Clark Atlanta, Brown said.

Morehouse officials confirmed that they had not renewed the contracts of about 25 adjunct professors, about a third of the school’s part-time instructors.

And Spelman officials announced that they are eliminating 35 positions, 23 of them staffed, phasing out the college’s department of education and discontinuing some programs.

Spelman, whose donors include Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, is in high demand among black women, said its president, Beverly Tatum.

“Students want to go to Spelman,” she said. “The issue is whether they can afford to go to Spelman.”

Morris Brown has struggled for years. It faces a Feb. 17 deadline to pay the remaining $214,000 of past-due water bills to the city of Atlanta. The college lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2002, largely because of financial instability.

The Morris Brown board and its president, Stanley Pritchett, say they are looking at specialty programs and projects that might save the school, which, he said, would probably not be able to continue as a traditional liberal arts college.

Despite their troubles, historically black colleges and universities have fierce defenders.

“We need to find a way to preserve these institutions,” said state Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus. “Our universities have struggled

to survive just as we as a people have struggled to survive.”

Historically black colleges “speak to the legacy of our forefathers,” he said.

Jones, whose degrees are from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, packed his oldest child off to college this fall.

He’s a freshman at Johns Hopkins University.


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,1:49 AM
Aaliyah - More Than A Woman


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,1:46 AM
Egotistical Bastards
Dead mag helps VH1 talk about race, from Ice Cube to Elvis to Costello

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Deep in the Broadway offices of VH1, Gabriel Alvarez and Elliott Wilson, two-fifths of the Ego Trip brain trust, are debating an issue that could forever alter race relations in the Empire State—should Puerto Ricans be allowed to use the word nigga? "If these Spanish kids are on the train saying 'nigga this,' 'nigga that,' " says Wilson, "this old black man is looking at them like they're crazy because he's experienced some real-ass racism."
"I try to explain to him," says Alvarez, gesturing at Wilson, "that Puerto Ricans have African blood in their ancestry."

Oh yeah, that's real convenient coming from a goddamn Puerto Rican.

"That's the thing," notes Alvarez, laughing awkwardly. "I'm Mexican."

It is this type of inane yet complex racial debate that has helped Ego Trip go from defunct underground zine to arbiter of the color line. The Ego Trip crew has produced two books and, this year, a special for VH1's TV's Illest Minority Moments. Now they're slated to make three more specials for VH1 under the rubric of "Race-O-Rama." Proposed shows include Dude, Where's My Ghetto Pass? and Black-O-Phobia!

"Most of the time VH1 just looks back at the stuff we love, or makes us laugh or whatever," says Joey Anuff, supervising producer at VH1. "But when you take a look at Ego Trip's books, you see they're looking at the same stuff with a much more charged lens. In a way they're the perfect VH1 project."

Well, not on the face of things. While VH1 likes to focus on the intricacies of John Hughes flicks and the "Where's the Beef?" lady, the Ego Trip aesthetic wallows in such highlights of racial dialogue as Elvis Costello calling Ray Charles "a blind ignorant nigger," Ice Cube threatening to "go down to the corner store and beat the Jap up," or the black community's penchant for conspiracy theories.

Ego Trip came into being in 1994 as a magazine co-edited by Sacha Jenkins and Wilson, who at the time were both working as hip-hop journalists. The duo borrowed $8,000 and printed up a new issue whenever they had the funds. Ego Trip began strictly as a hip-hop zine, but later expanded to rock and finally to what Jenkins calls "the new pornography"—race. "A lot of people thought that a magazine that covers rock and hip-hop and has decent writing had to have some white boys behind it," says Jenkins. "So, we created a fake publisher, and he was a white, racist, and out of touch. He'd write these editorials he thought were progressive. That attitude that we created in the magazine trickled out into our other projects."

The magazine stopped publishing in 1998, which didn't bother Jenkins and Wilson much, because they'd always seen Ego Trip as a concept that could take a variety of forms. "We didn't look at ourselves as businesspeople," says Wilson, who now edits the hip-hop magazine XXL. "We were creative people, but we recognized that we were creating a brand. The Ego Trip brand became a magazine but it also became our own joint sensibility."

After shutting down the magazine, the Ego Trippers added three more members to their cabinet (Alvarez, Brent Rollins, and Chairman Jefferson Mao) and then published two books—Ego Trip's Big Book of Rap Lists and Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism. Both featured exhaustive research, but the second is both more arresting and more disturbing. What passes for race talk today usually amounts to painfully stilted arguments that seem not to have shifted since 1970. Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism replaced discussions of ethnic diversity and democracy with more pertinent questions like "Whatever happened to baseball players named 'Whitey?' " and "If I should associate with the knights of the Ku Klux Klan, what will be required of me?"

Flippant as it all may sound, Ego Trip's brain trust is convinced that the truth lies not in the polemic but in the mundane—and the insane. "We are always fascinated by ignorance," says Alvarez. "When you listen to people talk and say things that are ignorant, you have a better understanding of where they're coming from, and maybe they'll hear what they're saying."

The Big Book of Racism's penchant for abrasively noting the places where pop culture and race intersect eventually attracted the attention of VH1, and thus spawned "Race-O-Rama." And while the relationship has produced the occasional corporate headaches (like "Race-O-Rama" being slated to air during Black History Month), it's also afforded the crew an opportunity to launch a discussion that demonstrates exactly how much race matters—not that anyone will ever mistake them for Cornel West. "We're down with Cornel West," says Jenkins. "We think he looks like Gene Shalit. We're down with that."

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,1:26 AM
Riffing On Race
In their latest book, the multiracial maniacally funny guys of the defunct hip-hop magazine ego trip turn their smart-ass, studiously well-informed attention to the subject of race.

With the disclaimer that "we just hate everybody," the book is a reference guide of sorts, crammed with lists, trivia, rants, and parodies. Together, they make a hilarious and occasionally insightful commentary on race and racism in culture, media, current events, and entertainment, with sometimes silly ("the hidden hate in Wite Out") and sometimes biting ("10 Popular Films in Which Middle Easterners Must Die in Order for the Good Guys to Win") results.

Have you ever been guilty of racial/ethnic stereotyping of certain groups-if so, which ones and why?

BRENT ROLLINS: This country was built on two things: competitiveness and racism--how can you not be prejudiced? Even blacks who talk a lot about white-man-this and white-man-that, go and turn around and treat some other struggling group like basura, sometimes. That's pretty hypocritical. People think that once they've established themselves, their little piece of the pie is sacred and no one can touch it, instead of realizing that we can always bake more pies.

JEFFERSON MAO Asians are constantly embarrassed or coming to grips with the stereotypes of our own behavior. When I watch the kids version of Jeopardy, I see the little Asian kid killing the math and science categories and then, when its time for "Final Jeopardy," he calculates and bets just enough to win the whole thing by a dollar. I'm both proud and horrifired.

What do you think of the contradictions of race in American culture today compared 'with those of previous decades?

GABE ALVAREZ People are so far removed from history it boggles the mind. How a white person can feel totally comfortable saying the n-word as a term of endearment is nuts! My feeling is that white people can't stand being told what they can and can't do.

The difference between those signs at restaurants that stated: "No Negroes, No Mexicans, No Dogs" as recently as the 1950s, and trying to figure out what happened with the last presidential election--where scores of black voters in Florida were kept from the polls through various devious means-comes down to what's worse: being obviously discriminated against? Or being opressed in manners that you have to dig beneath the surface to see?

BRENT ROLLINS: The '70s were great. GREAT. You had open dialogue and acknowledgement of other races and ethnicities--like the "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's bread" ad campaigns--showing black kids, Chinese, and Native Indian men eating Jewish rye bread. Who would have the balls to do advertising like that now? In our book we have a spread entitled "Whatever happened to?" which lists all these kind of "forgotten" racial pop-ephemera and terminology. It just sort of illustrates how American culture sort of neutralizes race.

What might the more recent immigrant groups do well to understand and be prepared to confront while in the U.S., in terms of race and how it's determined/experienced here?

SACHA JENKINS: They must understand that, at the airports, anyone who is a shade darker than J-Lo (hey, she's white now...ask her sexy hubby) will be detained and derailed and then told to have a nice day--and that that is their patriotic duty, this detention.

And they should ask: how come every time a boat load of Haitians arrives on American soil, looking for a better way...the Haitians are sent to detention camps while their Cuban hermanos often find warm soup and a nice firm bed waiting for them, just inches away from South Beach?

What aspects of race and racism do you take on in the book and how would you describe your approach?

GABE ALVAREZ: We tackle everything with humor, in a way that only non-white people could--and as the comedic greats like Richard Pryor proved, the best humor is based on truth. The book's info is presented in bite-sizes, and there's plenty of silly shit in it--but we were fully aware of all the jokes we were making, even the more offensive ones.

BRENT ROLLINS: Our approach is a blender. Throw it in there and watch it spin around. The entire concept of punk rock and hip-hop is central to our process.

While you have to be already a little predisposed to this topic to even think about picking up a book with the title Big Book of Racism, even those people are going to have preconceptions about how the topic of race should be presented. The intelligentsia and other people who write books spend too much time talking to themselves, but don't affect change. I respect anyone who devotes their lives to this race-shit, but really... who has more impact on shaping American culture--Cornel West or [pro wrestling star] The Rock?

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,12:36 AM
Camp Lo - Black Nostaljack AKA Come On

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,12:33 AM
Green Carpet
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The carpet outside last Monday’s Hip-Hop Inaugural Ball was not red but green, in honor of Heineken, one of the event’s sponsors. The green also could have stood for the price of the ticket—five hundred dollars for general admission, twenty-five hundred for “Sky Level.” The proceeds were promised to Russell Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a group that has spoken out about everything from ending the Rockefeller drug laws to defending hip-hop lyrics before the F.C.C. The ball was held at the Harman Center for the Arts, on F Street, where heated white tents had been erected to contain the green carpet and any overflow. Nick Cannon, a long white scarf around his neck, shook hands outside the main lobby. On the green carpet, Don King, in rhinestone-studded denim, posed in profile for the paparazzi. A few feet away, Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam records, took questions. He wore a long dark jacket, a black Yankees cap, white shell-top Adidas, and a pin-striped shirt buttoned to the collar with no tie.

Upstairs, the V.I.P. area was called the Hennessy Lounge. African-Americans reportedly purchase as much as eighty per cent of the Cognac imported to the United States. Hennessy, knowing its customer, was premièring a limited-edition bottle “in honor of our 44th president,” with a portion of the proceeds going to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Smiling women in black blouses served cocktails engineered with the Presidential hooch. A flat screen flashed images of the bottle. A row of models of indeterminable race, wearing black dresses, stood off to the side having their photographs taken with various guests.

Simmons ambled in with a small entourage, and the room got tighter. He pulled aside the rapper T.I. and talked to him about the importance of mentorship. In March, T.I. is expected to go to jail on federal weapons charges. He was to be honored at the ball for “bringing an awareness to this election season,” according to his Web site. He introduced Simmons to a teen-age boy from Georgia whom he’d taken on as a mentee, along with a few others. “This is just one of them,” he told Simmons.

Simmons had flown in from Utah, where he’d been screening a new movie about Run-DMC’s late d.j., Jam Master Jay, and marketing SpongeBob diamonds, part of a jewelry line that he and his ex-wife had helped start. He stood next to a display of Hennessy 44 bottles and did a series of TV interviews, rattling off several packaged points. He called Obama’s election a “shift in consciousness.” He mentioned his own work on three elections. He talked up the environment and compared Obama’s rise to Run-DMC’s. “Nobody from the black congress believed,” Simmons said. “I remember when Run-DMC was on MTV. Nobody else black was on there but Michael Jackson.”

When he was done, he mentioned that Obama’s security team had come by earlier to check the place out. “I don’t think he’s going to show up,” Simmons said. But, he added, “I wouldn’t expect John Kerry to come.” Ushered onward by a handler, Simmons began making his way out. At nearly every step, he was stopped by an admirer and was asked to pose for a picture. He was tired, and his smile was work—the mouth forced to spread, the eyebrows at half-mast. Once outside the lounge, he darted down several flights of stairs, past different ballrooms with different d.j.s playing different music, until he was in the basement. He went through a door with his name taped to the front, into a makeshift dressing room,and introduced an Abercrombie & Fitch model named Katie Rost, his date. “She’s smart and she writes,” he said. “She went to Boston University and got a degree in journalism.” (Later, on her blog, Rost quoted from T.I.’s acceptance speech at the ball: “So I’mma thank Him for everything. . . . I’mma thank Him for making me sell crack. I’mma thank Him for making me have shoot-outs. I’mma thank him for allowing me to watch my partners die in my arms, so I’d be fearful enough for my life and paranoid enough to go out and cop machine guns and silencers so I catch a fed case and I have to put up $3 million for my bond . . . just so I be validated enough to get out there and touch the youth because they know that I done been through it.”)

In 2008, Simmons took a leave from H.S.A.N. and went around the country campaigning for Obama. The President’s relationship with hip-hop is complicated. Nas hosted an official event for the campaign, and the President’s staff has noted that he has some Jay-Z on his iPod. But he was forced to denounce the rapper Ludacris for writing a song with the lyrics “Hillary hated on you, so that bitch is irrelevant.” The inaugural concert featured performers of all strains of American music, but, aside from Will.i.am singing a duet with Sheryl Crow, there were no rap performances.

Simmons talked a bit about Obama and hip-hop. “He embraced it as much as a politician can,” he said. “I was amazed by his willingness to put some of us in the room. If I was running for President, I wouldn’t want me to speak for me, so I was amazed. He let those of us who love him work for him.”

He also mentioned hosting Louis Farrakhan at his first Hip-Hop Summit: “I’m a big fan of Minister Farrakhan, but I was concerned that my association with him might rub off on Obama.”

Simmons had two more balls to get to, but he was considering heading to bed instead. He then ticked off his various projects—working with 50 Cent on the Jam Master Jay film, pushing Governor David Paterson toward retroactive repeal of the drug laws, teaching yoga classes sponsored by Smartwater. He said, “Every morning, I stand on my head for five minutes.” ♦

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,12:29 AM
Funny Boys
Success and the city.

by Rebecca Mead

When Josh Abramson, Ricky Van Veen, Jakob Lodwick, and Zach Klein decided in the spring of last year that they wanted to live in New York City, their preparation consisted largely of what they called “Sex and the City” nights. They would rent DVDs of the HBO series and watch for hours at a time, while drinking gin-and-tonics and imagining what delights the city held in store.

Their purpose in watching the programs was not really to learn about the habits of women they were likely to encounter in Manhattan; Josh, Ricky, and Jakob are twenty-three, and Zach is a year younger. Most of the girls they knew who’d moved to New York were not so much juggling lovers or purchasing fabulous designer clothes as struggling to get a job, or find an apartment. Instead, the four friends found themselves identifying with the four television characters. Josh, Ricky, and Jakob had been living together for a year in San Diego (while Zach was completing his senior year), and they had discovered that, although the California sun and beach were pleasant enough, San Diego was the kind of place where, as Josh liked to put it, if you were motivated you bartended four nights a week.

The friends finally arrived in New York last summer, and took up residence in a newly renovated, forty-two-hundred-square-foot, five-bedroom loft in Tribeca, which rents for ten thousand dollars a month—a move that bears about as much relation to the typical postcollegiate experience as “Sex and the City” does to the demographic it purports to represent. The friends have avoided the hardships endured by some of their peers, such as being obliged to live in the outer boroughs, owing to the business they run out of their fifth bedroom, a Web site called CollegeHumor.com. The site features articles written by students or recent graduates on subjects such as “Everything I Learned About Life I Learned in First Semester” and “The Guide to a Great IM Profile,” but the mainstay of its content is visual: digital photographs and video snippets of dorm-room fun submitted by the online readership, and updated daily. It is visited by nearly eight million unique users a month.

CollegeHumor.com was started in 1999 by Josh and Ricky, who grew up in a suburb of Baltimore called Timonium and have been friends since sixth grade. The site began as a place to collect all the jokes, links, and silly photographs that college students like to e-mail around, and served as a kind of nerdy diversion for Josh, who went to the University of Richmond, and Ricky, who was at Wake Forest. Eventually, they recruited Jakob, a student at Rochester Institute of Technology (whom Ricky and Josh met online, although he also grew up in Timonium), to help manage the site; Zach, a college friend of Ricky’s from Wake Forest, joined later.

The site came to dominate the waking hours of all four collaborators, whose formal educations were neglected. In certain instances, this was probably not a bad thing: the textbook used for one class in e-commerce that Josh took toward his degree, in finance, had been rendered obsolete by the dot-com crash of 2000; according to its calculations CollegeHumor.com should have been bringing in fifteen million dollars a month.

The numbers were nowhere near that good, but they were good enough for the friends to decide that they could attempt to make the site their full-time job. In the year and a half since Josh, Ricky, and Jakob left college, traffic to the site has grown three hundred per cent. In December of 2003, CollegeHumor.com generated $45,400; in December of this year, the revenues were $405,000, nearly half of that coming from sales of faux-vintage T-shirts with slogans— “What Would Ashton Do?”; “I Gave My Word to Stop at Third: 1987 Teen Abstinence Day Suffolk County Public Schools”—which they started marketing last spring under the brand name Busted Tees.

Hence the apartment, which is decorated, in only semi-ironic fashion, according to the CollegeHumor guys’ idea of urban sophistication, with a mixture of purchases from stores in SoHo and from Bloomingdale’s. These include a leather couch; a dining table perpetually set with a runner, placemats, and napkins in napkin rings, in readiness for grand dinner parties of which they have so far had one; a piano on which Josh, who supplemented his income in high school with piano-bar appearances, is able to play the entire Beatles catalogue; and a cabinet filled with crystal wineglasses donated by Josh’s mother. In perhaps the best measure of post-adolescent male luxury, there is a cumulative total of a hundred and fifty-three inches of flat-screen television scattered around the dwelling.

Although the quartet has not avoided some real-estate pitfalls that savvier New Yorkers might have been able to anticipate—the empty lot outside the loft’s windows was transformed, within weeks of their move, into a construction site, the future location of a twenty-one-story apartment building—their home serves not just as a workplace and a shelter but also as an expression of how they would like to be perceived. Readers of CollegeHumor.com might suspect, or hope, that its creators live in a den of beer bongs, pinball machines, and unwashed dishes. This is just what the College Humor boys, who have recently discovered the joy of port, wanted to avoid. “Josh was at this advertising convention, and they were giving out drinks, and the waiter looked at him and said, ‘I can get you an orange juice,’ ” Ricky said one recent afternoon, while lounging in the apartment and explaining the drawbacks of youthful success. “It’s hard being taken seriously when you are our age. But, here, people can walk in and say, Obviously, these guys are doing something right.”

What does college humor consist of, judging from the contents of CollegeHumor.com? Girls without their tops on are one very popular source of college humor, as are girls kissing each other. Vehicular mishaps also count as college humor; in one, a crane being used to fish a car out of the water topples over and itself falls in. Cute animals, such as a sleeping kitten propped between the pipes of a radiator, are funny, and so are highway signs, like one outside a McDonald’s that reads “Our salads are the shizzle dizzle.” But what is really funny is beer. “People love to send in photographs of their refrigerators filled with beer,” Josh said. Also popular are photographs of beer-can mobiles hanging from dorm-room ceilings, and of beer cans incongruously placed around the foot of a potted plant, which is, in turn, incongruously placed in a men’s communal bathroom, and so on.

In addition to receiving random submissions, the guys of CollegeHumor have recently seen the advantages of generating their own content—or branding content in the public domain as their own. In October, the site made available, thanks to TiVo, a video clip of Ashlee Simpson’s “Saturday Night Live” meltdown—she hurried offstage after her band and her lip-synch track didn’t mesh—only minutes after the event had actually occurred. That clip garnered close to a million hits in two days. The site has similarly been a popular destination for those who didn’t see Ron Artest’s assault on an N.B.A. spectator sufficient times in replay, and who want to witness it over and over again in Windows Media. Clips like these have earned CollegeHumor.com its first links from such heavily read sites as the Drudge Report, which is to the world of Web sites what having your book promoted on “Oprah” is to the world of publishing.

Another innovation was the Election Erection ’04 contest, which served as an opportunity for first-time voters—a bloc that was thought by pundits to hold the key to the nation’s future—to state their political preferences by decorating their bodies with the names of favored Presidential candidates. By Election Day, the site featured more than three hundred mostly female students, who showed a considerable range of inventiveness in their use of display type. Many opted for a message (“Kerry Me Away” or “Bush ’04”) written in lipstick or marker pen in more or less the place where a T-shirt logo would have been, had a T-shirt been worn. There was also, in a number of instances, the innovative use of official campaign stickers as pasties; and the witty pairing of a full Brazilian bikini wax with the slogan, inscribed just below the navel, “Say No To Bush.” The final tally of submissions, which had Kerry beating Bush nearly two-to-one, demonstrated that the moral values of at least some Republican voters do not exclude posing, “Girls Gone Wild” style, with “Bush” scrawled on one buttock and “Dick” on the other.

The responsibility for choosing which photographs will be featured falls to Ricky, who serves as the site’s editor. Josh handles business, Jakob deals with the technical side of things, and Zach takes care of design. The workload at CollegeHumor.com has grown so great that recently the four advertised on Craig’s List for an intern, a position for which they received more than a hundred applications, mostly from recent college graduates, although there was one from what Josh called a “forty-five-year-old guy” with a background in retail sales.

“Ricky doesn’t actually have to think it’s funny; he just has to know that college kids think it’s funny,” Josh explained. A key to college humor, the four have realized, is that students like to think they belong to a small in-crowd that understands the joke, while the public at large remains clueless. Take the phrase “More Cowbell,” which is a slogan appearing on one of the most popular of the company’s Busted Tees; it comes from an instruction given in a skit on “Saturday Night Live.” “Not everyone saw that episode, so the people who did see it think it is that much cooler because nobody else knows,” Josh said. Another familiar trope of contemporary college humor is a hand gesture known as the shocker, in which the ring finger of the hand is held down by the thumb while the remaining three fingers stay rigid. “No one over the age of twenty-five knows what it means, but I guarantee you that ninety per cent of college students know what it is,” Josh said. (The gesture indicates a method of pleasuring a female partner, though not one that looks to be easily undertaken without incurring hand cramps.) Ricky had the idea of manufacturing a large foam hand, the Big Shocker, like those on sale at sports events. So far, close to twenty thousand have been sold through CollegeHumor.com, for a profit of about ten dollars apiece. “We figured that other people would copy them, so we took a patent out on it,” Josh said. “So we have a U.S. government document that has a picture of the shocker on it. It’s kind of funny.”

Advertising is also a source of revenue, some of it from such companies as DreamWorks, some of it from sports-gambling sites, and some of it from other manufacturers of T-shirts and venders of novelties. The CollegeHumor team has been struggling with the question of whether it is worth sacrificing the raciness of the site’s content—which does not stray beyond the equivalent of being R-rated, but does not stop much short of it, either—in order to attract more prudish but more lucrative advertisers. “The Navy won’t want to have its ad on a page with a girl lifting her shirt on Mardi Gras,” Josh said. “But that’s why people are coming to our site, to see a girl lifting her shirt on Mardi Gras.”

Attracting female readers other than its exhibitionistic contributors to the site is another concern; right now, the readership is about seventy-five-per-cent male. There is one female columnist, Mindy Raf, who writes about “Sex, Relationships, and NYC Life” (examples: “Single and Braless: A Sunday Afternoon in New York City”; “Alcohol and Ovulation: Another Saturday Night at the Bar”). Other strategies are being considered, such as having a regular column devoted to “The O.C.,” the Fox show, which is a huge hit among girls in their twenties—so much so that the CollegeHumor boys have discovered that discussing the show’s plotlines is an excellent way of striking up a conversation with a girl.

Attracting females, not just to the site but to themselves, is also something of a preoccupation of the four pals. But dating in New York, they have discovered, is unlike dating in other places. “It is a more difficult scene to penetrate if you are not used to it,” Josh explained. “Going out and starting to talk to somebody and having them automatically not like you—it’s not like that in other places.” Another potential dating hazard identified, if not yet experienced, by the four is the possibility of attracting women whose real interest is in their purchasing power rather than their personalities. “I thought New York girls would be higher maintenance than what I have experienced, but I haven’t had to take anyone out to really nice restaurants or anything,” said Jakob, whose dates, toward the end of last year, included a visiting British student who was, he declared one night before going to meet her, perfect for him, her perfection including the fact that she was returning home at the end of the semester. The friends do go to nice restaurants; one of their new favorites is Landmarc, on West Broadway, which they think is a good place for steak frites, so long as you don’t mind being carded.

Students have been prone to bawdy humor since at least the Middle Ages—witness Chaucer’s “The Milleres Tale”—and the themes of American college humor have proved remarkably resilient over time. An editor of a book published in 1950 entitled “A Treasury of College Humor” remarked that “although the atomic bomb, and other timely trivia, may momentarily intrude, broad and universal themes—the fate of the football team, the perusal of sex, and the imbibing of alcoholic beverages—remain predominant.” (The Iraq war does crop up among CollegeHumor.com’s photo collection: one picture, entitled “2004 Shocker World Tour Hits Kirkuk,” shows three men and a woman in U.S. uniform on an airstrip giving the shocker.) College humor publications date back as far as 1830, with the publication, at Princeton, of the short-lived Chameleon and of The Thistle; by the late eighteen-hundreds the Yale Record, the Princeton Tiger, and the Harvard Lampoon had all been established. Some of the pages of those publications would not provoke a smile among today’s undergraduates—those featuring punning poems requiring a knowledge of Greek verb declensions, for example—but there is much that differs only in degree from what is now considered hilarious. (The Emory Phoenix ran, in the last years of the nineteenth century, a guide to “The Art of Kissing,” which advises, among other things, “Don’t glue your face to hers and have a good time all to yourself while you’re flattening her nose all over one of her cheeks.”)

The nineteen-twenties are regarded as the golden age of college humor magazines, when writers such as James Thurber and Robert Benchley could be found making remarkably unfunny contributions to their pages. By that time, more than a hundred comic periodicals were being produced at colleges around the country, their contents aggregated periodically by a single magazine called College Humor, which sold as many as eight hundred thousand copies. By the late nineteen-thirties, the culture of college humor was sufficiently depraved to merit note in the Times, which quoted Irving H. Berg, the dean of New York University College of Arts, as saying, “What college students seem to think funny is pitifully lacking in real humor.” Berg also complained that “the so-called humorous publications emanating from various college and university campuses seem to deal exclusively with the subject of sex.” (Berg’s present-day successor at N.Y.U., Dean Matthew Santirocco, who admits to having been unfamiliar with CollegeHumor.com until it was recently brought to his attention, says of the site, “It is commercial and self-promotional, and it seems to me that what is essential about humor is that it is not commercial or self-promotional.”)

College humor suffered a decline in currency in the nineteen-sixties and the first half of the nineteen-seventies, when campus concerns such as civil rights and the draft proved impossible to translate into the magazines’ typical vernacular of antic japery. But there was a restoration in the late seventies and early eighties, aided by the National Lampoon, which was founded in 1969 by several graduates of the Harvard Lampoon and which had its greatest success with the release of the film “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” in 1978. The National Lampoon, in its heyday, is the media model to which the CollegeHumor boys aspire: a book, “The CollegeHumor Guide to College,” is in the works, and they have had informal talks with program-development people at VH1. A CollegeHumor Comedy Tour has just been launched, and the goal is to develop a stable of talent with which to produce TV shows or movies, though the four founders have yet to figure out how, exactly, to translate beer-and-breast-based amusement into forms more dependent on narrative. (Even “Porky’s” had a plot.)

A more direct descendant of the style of humor favored by the National Lampoon can be found in The Onion, a parody newspaper that was started by two undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1988. Josh, of CollegeHumor.com, is happy to point out that his site has surpassed The Onion in traffic, “though I can’t say we are better.” There is a crucial difference in content between The Onion and CollegeHumor.com: while the success of the former depends on the wit of its writers, the appeal of the latter is closer to that of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” CollegeHumor.com offers found humor of the sort pioneered by, among others, Steve Allen and David Letterman. Yet CollegeHumor.com isn’t the expression of a governing comic sensibility determined to entertain an audience with, say, Stupid Pet Tricks; rather, the audience decides what is funny, and entertains itself. CollegeHumor.com doesn’t just cater to the lowest common denominator; it’s cooked and served by the lowest common denominator, too.

On Thanksgiving weekend, Ricky and Josh attended their five-year high-school reunion, which took place in a bar in downtown Baltimore. The bar was decorated in the manner of an Upper East Side frat-boy hangout, with sporting equipment such as lacrosse sticks and rowing oars mounted on the walls, and large TV screens displaying a college basketball game. Ricky ordered a gin-and-tonic from the open bar, while Josh, anticipating future crowding, ordered two beers at once, holding a full one in his left hand while drinking from the one in his right. Neither was driving—they’d got a ride with a classmate who was studying at night for his M.B.A., working for a brokerage firm during the day, and living at home with his parents. All of Josh and Ricky’s old friends knew, of course, that the pair were living in New York and doing well, but no one paid it very much attention. Most classmates had stayed in the Baltimore area, including Ricky’s high-school girlfriend, who had just bought a house with her boyfriend, and a woman who had gone to the same college as Josh and was now working as an accountant. The class president, who had been very cool and had ridden a scooter, was now attending motorcycle-repair school in Arizona. One young woman, who was wearing a high-necked white sweater and black pants rather than the low-cut top and low-cut jeans favored by most of her classmates, was rumored to have become a nun, but that rumor was soon determined to be false, if diverting.

Someone had brought a shoebox full of photographs taken by the class archivist, and they were scattered across the bar, there for the taking by those who wanted a memento of their even younger, even fresher years. There were shots of costume parties, shots of jocks mugging for the camera, shots from the prom, where girls with wrist corsages slow-danced with gawky boys, and lots of shots of kids just hanging out in the cafeteria or the gymnasium, grinning at the photographer. They weren’t very different from the pictures that appear on Ricky and Josh’s Web site—amounting to a simple visual statement: We were here.

Ricky flicked through the pictures and slipped a couple into the inside breast pocket of his jacket, which he’d recently bought at H & M, going into the store and ordering a whole outfit directly off one of the mannequins. There was one of a girl whom he said Josh had always had a crush on; and there was one of himself holding up a big, cumbersome camera—the kind of camera people used before students started snapping themselves with tiny digital cameras or cell phones, and before photographs became things to e-mail or look at online. Josh picked up one or two pictures at random, and for a moment looked nostalgic—not so much for the content of the pictures as for the form. “I kind of miss these,” he said.


posted by R J Noriega
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