By W.B. King
If you have been in and around the credit union space for the last 10-plus years, chances are you’ve seen the enthusiastic host and creator of CUbroadcast, Mike Lawson.
From technology coverage to lending to security to social media, his video interviews cover a broad range of topics. The show’s guests are comprised of in-the-know credit union executives, industry experts, seasoned vendors and folks from up-and-coming fintechs.
Lawson’s staunch support for the credit union movement began in high school. When in search of a loan for his first car, his father brought him to their family’s trusted credit union. Soon after, with his father as the co-signer, Lawson had his first set of wheels.
Years later after graduating San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in broadcast journalism, Lawson began his career in communications. He served as a reporter and photographer at The Coastal News and Ranch, the San Diego Union-Tribune and SURFING Magazine before becoming the associate editor of Copley News Service.
It wasn’t until 1993 that Lawson would officially enter the credit union space. At the time, he was hired by Finopotamus co-founder, John San Filippo, who, as Symitar’s then marketing manager, brought Lawson on in a communications capacity.
“Symitar was definitely the hot core back then and credit unions, the forward-thinking ones at that time, were looking for advantages to start their path in staying ahead of the tech curve,” said Lawson. “It’s fun to look back and see the evolution, or even the beginnings, of financial technology and being in the middle of it in its infancy.”
During those early days, he remembers interviewing many product designers about upcoming technologies and was “blown away” by what was on the horizon: mobile banking.
“One of the people I would consistently talk to had an Apple Newton and he told me people would be doing their banking on a mobile device like that someday,” said Lawson. “It gave us all an idea of how important technology had to be and was going to be to compete and serve the masses that were discovering how important technology was in their lives. Financial services had to coincide with that trend. It still has to, as we all know.”
While the world of banking and technology has drastically changed since the early 1990s, the credit union ethos of “people helping people” has only strengthened. Lawson believes the industry is truly unique and creates an attitude of generosity, compassion and sharing.
“Having a journalism background, working at different publications prior to stumbling into credit unions, getting people to talk to you was sometimes a challenge,” said Lawson. “I worked in the semiconductor industry before credit unions and nobody wanted to say a word for fear of a secret being leaked out to give the competition an advantage. It was understandable but frustrating.”
The job he referenced was a two-year stint as the public relations manager for the Oddo Group, a position he accepted after leaving Symitar. He next founded DML Communication in 2003. While a separate entity from CUbroadcast, his first company’s mission is to work with financial tech services companies to enhance their exposure within the credit union and banking industries.
“DML Communications is still doing a bunch of marketing and public relations projects for folks out there. It’s a lot of fun,” said Lawson. “But the journalism bug bites hard and I had to get my big toe back in the storytelling waters and start CUbroadcast — just to see if video interviews would work.”
‘You Want to Talk with Me On Video?’
It was in November 2010 that Lawson began recording video interviews and positing them online. He had discovered an app that would work with Skype to create a split-screen format and he was off to the races.
“The kicker was that nobody had to leave their office — or wherever they were. We could connect on Skype, do the 10-minute interview and get right back to work,” he explained. “There were no lights, cameras, or mics to physically move in and out of buildings, as well as travel. Time and costs were almost nothing.”
From the start, Lawson said he wasn’t trying to compete with other credit union industry publications nor was he looking to “step on anyone’s toes.” Rather, he wanted to provide content that would complement the breaking news of the day.
Initially, Lawson interviewed friends in the industry who he endearingly called “guinea pigs.” The idea was to get a few episodes in the queue to see if there would be interest. And at first, he said the only people watching were his wife, kids, a few other family members, and his dog.
“It was pretty meager for a while. Even getting interviews in the beginning was challenging. I would ask them if they wanted to do a video interview on CUbroadcast via Skype,” he said.
“The general response was: ‘You want to talk to me with video via…what is Skype?’ It took a lot of explaining in the beginning,” he continued. “But the more episodes I did, the more examples I had to show them as well as credibility.”
While the app and Skype combination worked well theoretically, there were significant bandwidth issues. At best, 50% of the interviews would work with the balance disconnecting or having extreme pixilation issues.
“I remember interviewing Bill Cheney when he was CUNA’s president and CEO and our connection probably dropped 10 times,” said Lawson. “He had so much work to do, but he stayed with me until we completed the interview, which probably took an hour for 10 minutes of actual footage. That told me right there he was a good dude.”
Another early turning point for CUbroadcast was when Lawson first interviewed Gigi Hyland, who was then employed by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA).
“I think once people saw that episode, the doors for everybody else kind of opened,” he said. “Shortly afterward, I had Debbie Matz, Pete Crear, Chip Filson, Fred Johnson, Dennis Dollar, among many others, on the show, which enhanced our credibility.From then on, it took a little less convincing.”
Today, especially in light of the pandemic, Lawson said no one really thinks about bandwidth issues anymore, especially considering the countless number of daily Zoom calls, which by and large go off without a hitch.
“Pre-COVID-19, I was doing 99% of my calls via Skype. When the pandemic hit, Skype disappeared and Zoom took over. I haven’t used Skype in well over a year,” said Lawson. “Now 99% of my video interviews are done via Zoom. How quickly things change.”
And while he enjoys the concept of live streamlining interviews, there have been some “epic” fails. As a result, most of his broadcasts are currently pre-recorded.
“I love doing the live stuff just because it’s fun, intense and unpredictable. It’s exhilarating," he said. "But you really have to promote it like an upcoming television show, sporting event, or movie to get the viewers to watch live."
Due to the popularity of streamlining services like Netflix, he also said people generally prefer to watch content on their own schedule.
“In addition, many folks are hesitant to do live interviews because they fear they might say something wrong in the moment and it can’t be taken back,” he explained. “In a recording, if anything goes awry, it can be edited out.”
Comfortable Risk Taking
When determining what technology stories he airs, Lawson has a checklist, which includes: timeliness, credibility, impact, longevity and wow factor.
“Timeliness is my main draw with technology because this sector moves so fast. You read enough fintech stories, talk to enough fintech experts, watch consumer behavior in this space and you get a sense of what’s hot and what’s not,” he said.
A benefit of interviewing so many different people is that Lawson has a handle on tech trends in the industry. Lately he is most intrigued with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
“How a technology can get smarter over time based on the data it receives is mind blowing. And we’re only scratching the surface right now,” he said. “So who knows how smart the AI solutions will be five or 10 years from now — let alone in one or two years.”
As Lawson looks forward, he does so with a continued focus on building the CUbroadcast brand as well as his other business aspirations, including Fitxec. This initiative marries Lawson’s passion for health with journalism.
“I decided to combine the two creating a video interview show like CUbroadcast on how successful people leverage good health habits, such as diet, exercise, sleep and time management, to maintain or excel their success,” he said. “I’m not necessarily looking for the uber athlete or mountain-top guru who goes to massive extremes to stay at peak health. I’m looking for real-world examples of how busy executives maintain their health and how that maintenance helps them succeed in their job, which can be infectious to others around them.”
When he’s not busy recording and broadcasting countless substantive, quality interviews, Lawson loves spending downtime with his wife and children — all of whom share his affinity for outdoor activities like camping, and sports like swimming, baseball, tennis, golf and skiing.
“My passion is surfing. There’s no other sport or activity like it on planet Earth. Riding a surfboard on waves generated by a storm thousands of miles away is such a rush of adrenaline,” said Lawson. “It’s almost addicting the feeling you get — no matter if the waves are 10 feet or two feet.”
Ever the measured optimist with infectious positive energy, Lawson said he remains hopeful for the continued growth of the credit union industry. And in the same fashion he is always looking to innovate and grow the CUbroadcast model, he noted that credit unions have to do the same with the understanding that, like with some of his efforts, there will be snafus along the way.
“Conducting these interviews for more than 10 years, I’ve seen what’s possible. Credit unions can innovate, embrace and incorporate the latest technologies. They can lead the way, yet retain that stellar member service, as well,” he said.
“Credit unions were the original disruptors and they still can be. But it takes risk and you have to be comfortable with that — and that might mean being uncomfortable," he continued. "To me, that’s where you truly grow and progress.”
Editorial note: In June 2021, CUbroadcast and Finopotamus announced a content sharing partnership to bolster the amount and quality of technology coverage for credit unions across North America.