Cumulus Radio CEO to Turn Stations Around: Telling Them to “Grow a Pair”

I think the radio industry needs to grow a pair.” That was CUMULUS CEO MARY BERNER when asked for a wide-angle perspective on the medium during a one-on-one keynote address at COUNTRY RADIO SEMINAR (CRS). BERNER’s response to EMMIS/NEW YORK VP/Market Mgr. CHARLIE MORGAN, who conducted the Q&A, was actually an enthusiastic endorsement of radio, as she pointed out that “Radio does have strong ROI; it does have an audience; it has the goods. But we act like an ugly stepchild.” BERNER cited pricing as an example, which she described as “A race to the bottom.
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The hour-long interview also touched on BERNER’s business background, which included no previous radio experience. But her strong publishing credentials with READER’s DIGEST and VOUGE magazines to name a couple, have served her well during her time at CUMULUS. BERNER described radio as “same church, different pew,” by comparison, and said an important lesson learned in print publishing was, “It begins and ends with the content.”

Upon taking the CEO chair in 2015, BERNER described the company as experiencing “a free-fall,” which necessitated an immediate culture change. A corporate jet was sold within two weeks, the profits of which helped fund company raises, which — as she found out from numerous station visits — had not been granted for years. The now-famous company survey sent soon after her arrival at CUMULUS revealed a consistent keyword in responses, said BERNER: “Toxic culture.” After consulting with the executive team to determine what kind of company CUMULUS wanted to be, BERNER said the answer was, “Everything we needed to be was the opposite of where we were.”

The company focus became twofold, said BERNER; “What we put on the air, and our employees.Programming decisions and authority were restored to station level, with the caveat that accountability went with that. Asked how her non-radio programming background may have helped things, BERNER said, I told MIKE [MCVAY], If I ever give you advice, ignore it.”

BERNER once again expressed commitment to, and faith in, the Country format at CUMULUS, praising the NASH brand, which she feels is better executed now; the NASH NEXT talent contest, “which helps us give back to the industry.”

The recent restructuring of CUMULUS was brought up as well, something BERNER say will not affect day-to-day operations at all. “When I arrived, I knew the debt was untenable,” said BERNER. The decision to file Chapter 11 was voluntary. “We have plenty of cash,” she added. “We swapped debt for equity on our house.” Asked for a forecast of the next three to five years for both CUMULUS and the radio industry, BERNER said, “I’m not saying; I don’t think anybody knows.”

About Shauna "WhiskeyChick" Castorena

Shauna "WhiskeyChick" Castorena is a freelance writer for both Country Music News and Country Music On Tour. Want to collab on some content? Email me. Want my rates for commercial promo work outside of music? Get them right here.