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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

CBS Radio: Righting a Sinking Ship

News of Dan Mason being named CEO for CBS Radio came as somewhat of a surprise this week, not so much because I don't think Dan is a good choice - in fact I think he's the best choice. The surprise comes from the wisdom shown by the company's fearless leader Les Moonves. And it's not Les specifically that's so surprising here, it's the fact that it took a TV guy - not a radio guy - to make the first major move at righting a troubled radio industry.

The radio industry has no shortage of brilliant minds. There are plenty on the beach who have suffered the slings and arrows of consolidation. There are many more who have slid into good jobs in related industries such as the Internet and other technology companies. And, yes, there are many still employed by the industry. In fact, the radio industry's 'bench' is so impressive that the consolidators out there have essentially decimated the brain trust that would've led them down the primrose path into a new era, and there are still plenty of good minds in the business.

Why, then, did it take a TV guy to make this kind of decision?

Traditional radio has lost its fighting edge. Consolidation has taken the courage out of the heart of middle and upper management. These are the people who, in the past, would've knocked on their boss's door and been invited in to discuss tough decisions and look to the horizon with senior level management and strike a path that would take their company, their radio station, their industry to a logical next step. There is little of proactive thinking left.

Instead, many middle and senior level radio executives have been emasculated. Their reason for being there has been eliminated or severely reduced in many cases. How do I know this? After more than 25 years programming and managing radio stations in mostly major markets, in recent years I have had the privilege of consulting programmers and general managers who, since 2000 have had their job descriptions changed - not necessarily on paper - but rather in real-world experience. Each week I spend several hours discussing management challenges, personnel issues, strategic and tactical solutions and discussions on 'how to manage up'. Their frustrations come from being highly paid, becoming ineffective managers who used to have autonomy over their stations and who could run their own businesses and deal with the fall-out depending on whether they failed or succeeded. These days every decision is second-guessed and because there is so many stations to manage, their management style has become one of defense. They miss the days when they could plan, plot and be proactive with their teams.

As consolidation's black shadow crept over our industry and settled deep within its joints, more and more top-down management style became the preferred centralized system of controlling so many stations. An arthritic management style became the norm. Clear Channel wrote the book on this subject. During my years with CBS, all of us general managers knew we were a fortunate lot because we actually had senior management who trusted us and gave us the resources we needed to win and run successful businesses. Many thanks to Nancy Widmann, CBS Radio President pre-consolidation, and Dan Mason, CBS Radio President immediately post-consolidation. Dan ran a different ship than Nancy, but his style still focused on fiscal responsibility and earned autonomy at the station level.

After Dan, there was Mel, then Joel and the rest is history.

It took a TV guy, Les Moonves, in one grandiose decision, put CBS radio, if not the entire radio industry back on track. It's because perhaps the TV guy is used to making bold decisions. TV is a different business than radio in many ways often because decisions about programming and people are made with the courage of making a bet on tomorrow, of seeing the positive side of trusting people and of giving good people the chance to prove themselves. Sometimes those decisions end up being wrong, but more often than not, those decisions generate exceptional results.

So, my hat's off to Les. I met him a few years ago at a CBS Radio managers' meeting. He struck me then - as he does now - as a bold decision maker who wasn't intimidated by the job; someone who had the courage to make bold decisions. He also had a supportive Mel Karmazin and then Sumner Redstone to give him room to make those decisions.

Courage. Faith. Confidence. This is why it took a TV guy to right a sinking ship. Many of us are optimistic about our industry for the first time in many years. We look forward to seeing how this plays out.

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