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Startup Report

IBM's Unlikely Silo Buster: An Intranet Radio Station

During daily programming, about 5,000 employees tune in, and they can talk about whatever they want.

IBM's Unlikely Silo Buster: An Intranet Radio Station

[Photo: flickr user derrickcollins]

Last week, Miroslav Azis sat in a makeshift radio studio and waxed philosophic for an hour about an issue he often thinks about: the relevance of human-centered design. He hosts his weekly show, Public Services, on intranet-based IBM Radio. Broadcasting from IBM's offices in Austin, Azis discusses a range of "complex, heady topics" that often revolve around the deeper questions many technologists and designers think about. "We have a lot of things we do in our everyday work," Azis says. "But we don’t have time to think about those things."

Although popularity of podcasts continues to grow (an estimated 98 million people are expected to tune in this year, according to Edison Research), the only people who can listen to Public Services are IBMers. Azis fits under that umbrella, having worked at the company for over three years as a designer. What the show creates, he asserts, is a way to feel more a part of the more than 370,000 -person global IBM juggernaut. "This has really flattened the organizational structure," Azis says. IBM Radio creates a space for many people—from designers to executives—to take part, all on their own time. "You meet people in other organization silos," he says.

IBM Radio is a live-streamed intranet community station cofounded by Azis and a few other company designers in Austin. Over the last year, the station has blossomed, and now anyone else in the company can either listen in or record their own show. Those who take part consider it a community hub for the company, and IBMers around the world tune in every day.

The Idea

Azis and other designers wanted an internal outlet to share and discuss work. The original group was all on the creative side—all have music and/or college radio backgrounds—but they work on myriad IBM teams and hardly had the chance to talk with each other. Soon, they formed the idea of a radio station.

Azis says the program "came together overnight." After finding a bunch of spare servers in Raleigh, the group tinkered with some software to make it possible to broadcast live streams. Over the course of a day, they'd built a system that was able to transmit the content. IBM Radio was born, granting listening privileges to any employee within IBM's firewall.

Today, IBM offices throughout the globe have radio "studios," although Austin is its headquarters. The station heads have a conference room there that’s been soundproofed and filled with recording equipment.

IBM Radio runs nonstop from 9 a.m. Central until usually around 6 p.m. And it’s no longer merely design-centric. Employees from around the world contribute their own shows that include call-ins about career advice, a show that features weekly guests who talk about what’s going on at the company, and even shows where upper-level executives just tell interesting stories. The tie that binds is the internal workings of IBM. Azis says proudly that the radio station is meant for "open discussions about what we want to talk about."

Flattening The Organization

Azis is considered a station manager, but he doesn’t get paid to keep the station afloat. Neither does anyone else who participates. This is just something that started for fun and has grown exponentially.

The company seems to have taken to it. The station tracks unique listeners—the number of individuals listening in—and found that it reaches between 5,000 and 6,000 people daily, according to Azis. While that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the overall size of IBM, it’s definitely more than just a few designers talking shop. Over the last year, more employees have begun to contribute their own shows to the weekly programming. Azis says there are no hard and set rules for program topics. Of course, they shouldn't talk about things too risqué, as managers could very likely be listening in.

In some ways, the radio station almost serves the purpose of a student union in college. The studio space in Austin is "a safe space for people to hang out, have fun, and talk with each other," Azis says. "This whole thing is about the community of people," he adds.

Ultimately the goal is to have the station broadcast 24 hours a day. That could prove challenging, given that it’s just a side project for all the people involved. However, employees in other countries (and time zones) have begun to take part, to include the U.K. and Singapore.

"We want to be able to talk product strategy, talk road maps," Azis maintains. The shows need to reflect the concert of people and roles at the company, he says, but as long as it stays behind the IBM firewalls and allows anyone to take part, the project persists. In the end, Azis says, "this is for IBMers by IBMers."

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