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Former ABC PD Speaks Out

She's been a Program Director for 14 years, the last 3 at New York City powerhouse WABC. Laurie Cantillo started her new job in February 2009 and as she was making plans to move from Chicago to New York her phone rang. It was her new boss who said "a plane has just landed on the Hudson River, hurry up and get here, we need you. The hustle and bustle of big city news stories came to an end for Cantillo this week when she resigned from her position at Cumulus owned WABC. Last night we spoke to her about her future, her second book, working with Imus and much more. 

Talk a little about your career and how it progressed.
It's been three decades. I know it's cliche but I was one of those kids who had a transistor radio under the pillow. I was the high school newspaper editor and was wow'd by Woodward & Bernstein's role in Watergate, so I went to college to save the world by being a journalist.  I stumbled into a radio news class and subsequently worked as an intern at KBOL in Boulder, where they hired me right after graduation as a reporter and anchor.  I made $4 an hour and drove my own car to cover Boulder City Council meetings.  I loved being on the air and couldn't believe I was being paid to have so much fun.
I was bitten by the PD bug when I was the Executive Producer for 50,000 watt blowtorch 850 KOA in Denver.  I filled in for Robin Bertolucci when she was on maternity leave and never looked back.  I learned of the PD opening at heritage KTAR in Phoenix, sent a resume, and was hired in 1997. When Clear Channel bought KFYI and XTRA Sports 910 in Phoenix, J.D. Freeman lured me to KFYI in 2000 with the marching orders to "narrow the gap" with 800-pound gorilla KTAR. Within a couple years a scrappy group of radio geeks not only narrowed the gap, we hit a streak of #1 books (KFYI's first ever) and gave XTRA the highest power ratio in Phoenix.  
In 2006 Oprah came calling about the new "Oprah & Friends" channel on XM, and - of course - you can't say no to Oprah.  I had an amazing run in Chicago, working with the legendary John Gehron and learning the nuances of female-targeted programming.  While it was a thrill to work with Oprah, Gayle, and Dr. Oz, the highlight of my tenure was being treated to a private dinner prepared by Dr. Maya Angelou, whom I'd admired since I was a girl.  
What is the pressure like working in the #1 radio market in America?
Don Imus likes to say that New York radio is a "b-tch", and it's certainly earned its reputation as the toughest market in America.  However, I found 77 WABC to be like KFYI on steroids.  The programming line-ups and talent issues are similar, and I was already pals with Sean Hannity as KFYI was one of his earliest affiliates.  I recall meeting Farid Suleman before I was hired, and he warned me that, "Imus is going to eat you alive."  I was careful to learn the market first before making any moves, and when I did, the result was two #1 shows (John Batchelor and Red Eye Radio) and an amazing line-up of local talent we call "New York Weekends".  I followed my gut, laughed at jabs from the I-Man, and didn't pay attention to critics on the message boards.
I put the pressure on myself.  My challenge was to evolve a station with an amazing heritage but a dated sound into the new Millennium.  I did this through a strong imaging campaign and by strengthening the programming line-up, writing, and news presentation. I also led the way into the digital realm, taking 77 WABC into the brave new world of Facebook, Twitter, podcasting, and encoded streaming.  Our stream is #1 in New York and the monthly podcast metrics are north of one million. The best way to handle pressure is to have a sense of humor.  
What is it like to be under a ratings microscope on nearly a daily basis? 
Looking at PPM ratings and Media Monitors is like weighing yourself every day.  You'll drive yourself crazy if you overanalyze.  I prefer  to look at trends over time so as to avoid making knee-jerk decisions.  I also teach my hosts and staff that ratings don't occur in a vacuum. You can be up when politics is the big story and down when the Yankees are in the playoffs.  You learn to worry about what you can  control, not what you can't.
What is your fondest memory about working at 77 WABC in New York?
I'll never forgot blowing up air mattresses in the conference room and stockpiling food and drinking water during Hurricane Irene.  We  were all working on little to no sleep.  We were a lifeline for millions without power, providing 28 hours of nonstop coverage with a core group of about 12 people, including hosts, producers, and station employees who acted as weather spotters.  As an added bonus, our coverage was simulcast on 95.5 FM; I threatened to jam the simulcast switch into the permanently locked position, but Scott Shannon wouldn't hear of it. 

What would you like to do next and where would you like to do it? 
I love this business and am aggressively seeking my next opportunity in content creation. I love a challenge and I want to make a difference.  When radio is no longer fun, I'll hang it up and be a full-time writer.  I'm working now on my second book, a sequel to Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World.
Name 3 people in the radio industry you most admire.
Only 3?  Names that immediately come to mind:  Jim Farley, Robin Bertolucci, Harvey Nagler, Grace Blazer, Lee Larsen, Jack Swanson.  There are so many more.  They've all been there for me in the last 24 hours. It reminds me that this crazy business is all about people.

Reach out to Laurie or leave your comments below.

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