Cox Radio’s Kim Guthrie: “I’m All About The People” (11/01/04)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-In-Chief
Forget the “C” players. You can maybe even forget some of the “Bs.” Cox Radio Regional Vice President Kim Guthrie is interested only in motivated, intelligent, focused,
“A-level” people to play on her team.
“We want to have teams full of ‘A’ talent so we can attract more ‘A’ talent,” she explains, passionately insisting that success stems from having the best people surrounding you. “Really good people want and need to work with other really good people,” she says. “If you’re a mediocre person, you will hire more mediocre people, but if you’re a highly talented person, you need to be surrounded by people like that. You can’t teach brains. If you’re stupid, you’ll be stupid forever. There’s no helping that. Give me smart people any day of the week, and I’ll win the ballgame.”
Considered by her peers as one of the strongest managers in radio today, Guthrie notes that her career veered into sales and management only after she became disenchanted with the television news business. She graduated from Iowa State University in 1984 with a B.A. degree in journalism, and worked for five years as a TV news reporter/anchor. After determining that she had far less control over her career than she wanted, however, she segued to radio as an account executive at WLXR-AM/FM in LaCrosse, WI. “I never felt I really had control of my own destiny, and that was something that sales did offer,” she recalls. “In sales, everything is directly related to how much I put into it — and I liked that. I absolutely fell in love with the business. If I worked harder, I actually got paid more.”
Moving across the state to Milwaukee, Guthrie spend six years at WLUM as account executive, local sales manager, and general sales manager, and she worked with Green Bay Packer legend Willie Davis. She later launched the first sales duopoly for Heritage Media in Milwaukee in 1993 with WMYX, WEZW and WEMP.
Following a 3-1/2-year stint as GSM with Hubbard Broadcasting’s KSTP-FM in Minneapolis, Guthrie was named general manager of Cox Radio’s Long Island radio cluster. In just two years, she rebuilt the property, overhauled both stations’ on-air line-ups, assembled a new management team, and more than doubled the profits at the two stations.
Guthrie says that a major turning point for two Long Island stations occurred with the World Trade Center attacks. With full support from Cox Radio’s corporate office in Atlanta, she pre-empted regular programming for six days on both WBLI and WBAB and converted them to a commercial-free, News/Talk format. During this period, the stations raised $1.4 million in cash for the victims’ families and sent 50 semi-trailers of rescue supplies directly to Ground Zero. This decision, to scrap the regular music format and commit 100 percent of the stations’ resources to assist the local Long Island community, helped propel both stations to record ratings levels. For first time in 14 years, WBLI and WBAB toppled the perennial Long Island radio leader in virtually every major demographic and daypart in the Fall 2001 Arbitron.
That same month, Cox promoted Guthrie to regional vice president, responsible for 20 radio stations in Louisville, KY; Dayton, OH; Greenville, SC; Stamford/Norwalk, CT; Bridgeport, CT; and New Haven, CT. She also serves as market manager of Cox Radio-Connecticut, and she is GM of WEZN, WPLR and WYBC.
Guthrie was honored by the March of Dimes as its “Woman of Distinction” in 2002; she was a Long Island Business News honoree for “40 Under 40” in 2001; and she was named “Humanitarian of the Year” in 2000 by the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She is a board member of the New York Association of Radio Stations (NYMRAD), the Suffolk County Red Cross and the organization called Promote Long Island. Guthrie also has been one of Radio Ink’s 20 Most Influential Women in Radio for the past three years. Guthrie, her husband, Todd (a former radio program director), and their three daughters reside in Connecticut.
With this issue’s recognition of the “Best Managers in Radio” of 2004, Radio Ink recently sat down with Guthrie to discuss frogs, brains, localism, and the fine art of leadership in a post-consolidated radio industry.
INK: How have your responsibilities changed over the past few years as the industry has consolidated?
GUTHRIE: It just kind of creeps up on you; before you know it, you have quite a few stations. You must keep in mind that you can’t lose sight of the trees in the forest. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges of a regional job like this. Our Louisville cluster isn’t just a cluster; 80-90 employees are there, and I want to know all the people by name. I always try to stay in touch to know the soldiers who are carrying out the day-to-day operations. When you’re overseeing this many stations, there’s a tendency to paint the whole market with one brush, instead of painting all the individuals that make that cluster successful.
How do you deal with the challenges of wearing so many hats — and having to change them as often as you do?
The best people are those who can multi-task. For example, part of my job is to be the point person for all of our national business, so one day I’ll be making a group pitch for Cox for Home Depot, and the next day I’m doing my GM duties back in Connecticut, and the third day I’m in Louisville or Dayton on a strategic perceptual study. The ability to juggle a lot of balls and remember which hat you have on is critical.
How different is radio sales today from when you first started in the business?
My first sales job was in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and I then moved to Milwaukee, where I worked selling one radio station. I didn’t have to worry about the ownership control of other stations. I had my own little window; I could just worry about what I needed to worry about. But the real difference — I feel like a wise old sage, saying “back in my day” — is that we didn’t have the technology that we have today. We didn’t have fax machines, so if someone wanted something, I got in my car and drove it over to them. We didn’t have e-mail or voicemail. To some extent, the technology is good, in that it allows different ways to contact someone, but it also allows the buyer or decision-maker to avoid you. There’s no more face-to-face communication like there was in the “old days.” Now, if you’re able to multi-task, with e-mail and voicemail, you can get more done, but I don’t think the quality is as good as when you meet with someone face to face.
Have economies of scale and critical mass materialized in the way many people were predicting — and expecting — at the start of consolidation?
We did see radio revenues go from 7 to 8 percent in the last 10 years, and that doesn’t happen by accident. I still think it comes down to some fundamental basics. You can talk about economies of scale and benefits, such as paying one sales trainer to train three staffs, instead of one; but it still boils down to having the very best people. I don’t care how much stuff you consolidate, if you have a bunch of “C” players on the team, you’ll have a “C” performance. If economies of scale or consolidation ever become a reason or an excuse to accept mediocrity, then I’ll have to think of a different business to get into.
How difficult is it to find good salespeople who understand how to sell radio in today’s situation?
I believe we have to kiss a lot of frogs to get to the prince. If you spend the proper time kissing all the frogs at the front end of the interview process, you won’t hire as many of them. Back when I got into the business, they said 90 percent wouldn’t make it through the first year in radio sales. That number is better these days, but there are still a lot of frogs. We have a fairly exhaustive interview process, and we insist that candidates meet with all of the sales managers at a cluster on different days. A lot of people can do a one-hit wonder on a great interview, but they can’t reproduce it three, four or five times. Ultimately at the end of the process, I want to meet every full-timer before the person is officially hired.
What specifically do you look for?
I’m not perfect, but I have a pretty good mediocrity detector. Give me some up-and-coming talent, and I will teach them the skills to sell. If you have the raw brains, the common sense, the street smarts, and the courage, I’ll teach you the radio business. Too often people say, “Wow, look at this guy’s impressive résumé. He’s had all this fabulous experience.” Maybe all that really means is that he’s had 10 jobs in 15 years; I’m not interested in that person. Ultimately, a person has to be smart. You can’t teach brains. If you’re stupid, you’ll be stupid forever. There’s no helping that. Give me smart people any day of the week, and I’ll win the ballgame.
How important is the culture of a company, and what has Cox done to define its culture? How do you promote this within your daily responsibilities?
Highly principled people with integrity will do better in the Cox culture. One reason I came to this company six or seven years ago was because a bunch of radio companies were starting to add inventory. They saw the opportunity to make more money back in the big fat years of the 1990s, and they were just adding more commercials. In my mind, that cheapened both the product and our integrity, and ultimately it wasn’t good for the listener or the advertiser. Some companies did that all the time, while a handful of companies never did. I thought that type of company was a better fit for what I was all about. Because I came from that news background of integrity and credibility, those things are very important to me.
How does this approach affect people who are hired within the Cox framework?
Cox has a very humane approach in how it treats its employees. Some people may misinterpret this by thinking we’re soft on the issues or soft on performance, but that’s absolutely wrong. We are high performers. We want teams full of “A” talent so we can attract more “A” talent. Really good people want and need to work with other really good people. If you’re a mediocre person, you’ll hire more mediocre people, but if you’re a highly talented person, you need to be surrounded by people like that. Mediocrity will drive such people crazy, especially if you try to put together a team full of people like that — they’ll weed out the C talent in about 10 seconds.
What’s your management style? Are you a hands-on manager, or do you rely on your people to be self-sufficient?
The key is to hire smart people, define your expectations, and give them the autonomy to figure out how to do their jobs well. That’s usually what talented people want. On the other hand, different people need different things from their managers, so I don’t have one way of managing. Some managers need me to ride them a little more, but being on them all the time will drive some managers crazy. As long as they don’t need me on their back, I won’t be on their back. I like to be treated that way, too: Be there for me when I need you, but don’t micromanage me or make me crazy; let me make my own decisions. If you ask my GMs, I think they’ll give you a common theme — I’m tough and I have high standards, but I also like to have a fun environment. It’s much more enjoyable that way.
What do you consider the difference between being a good manager and being a good leader?
Leaders have a vision. They know how to point to center field and say, “That’s where the ball is going.” They define a destination; then the team figures out how best to get there. I like to think of myself as more a leader than a manager. The old idea is that I would rather be seen more as a coach than a manager, helping people grow and develop. The title of manager seems to imply more administrative BS, and there’s no fun in that. I’d rather lead.
Recent emphasis has been on accountability and return on a client’s investment. How focused are you on working with clients directly to solve their marketing problems?
I like to think we’ve always been held accountable for our results. If you’ve done your job at the front end of the sale — if you’ve identified the clients’ key needs, and if you address those needs in your marketing plan — then it’s like the old Einstein phrase: “A problem well-defined is half solved.” So if you’ve done a good job at the front end, the solution should fit those needs. If you don’t do a good job at the front end, accountability is a moot point at the back end, because we don’t know what the front end expects or wants. Too often, these spot-schleppers peddle their little packages without really addressing what the client wants or needs.
How do you make sure you don’t have spot-schleppers on your team?
I always want an environment where all the good people in the market want to work at my stations. After I have all the good people on my team, there should be no “You shouldn’t be buying that station; they have two-tenths of a point of an audience smaller than ours.” That approach is so silly and so shortsighted. The successful sales are always those in which we’ve taken someone who hasn’t used radio, or hasn’t used it on a regular basis, and turned them into a huge advocate for the radio station — and for the medium in general. If you do it right, they’ll want to buy more radio, and that’s good for all of us.
What training is available to your salespeople and managers?
Cox Radio believes that, if you come to the table with brains and passion, they can teach you how to coach or lead. We’re under the umbrella of Cox Enterprises, and we have 75,000 employees. So we have a lot of leadership training, executive leadership training, diversity training and training to have the proper workplace environment. The company gives us all the tools we need to get the job done, so it’s really big into sales training. All Cox Radio stations use the Center For Sales Strategy program, which is probably one of the most expensive and valued sales training programs in radio.
A lot has been said — positively as well as critically — about Clear Channel’s “Less Is More” initiative. What are your thoughts on spots loads, clutter, and commercial length?
Cox has always had limited inventory. It’s a “job loser” to be caught adding inventory. We’ve never subscribed to the Doritos mentality of “if you sell more, we’ll make more,” and we’re not going to start now. I give Clear Channel credit, because they have 1,200-plus radio stations to manage. I just hope they actually deliver on their “less is more” promise, but if they take 14 units, turn it into 18 units but call it 12 minutes, that’s not really less — it’s more. It may mean fewer minutes of time, but it’s actually more commercials; and in the end, that sounds like a shell game.
There’s been criticism that radio has lost much of its inventiveness and innovation in the last few years. How does a company that has to watch its share price invest in the future of its product?
I think we’ll see a lot more risk-taking. For instance, we just put on a Country station in Louisville and went head to head with WAMZ, the big Country leader for the last gazillion years. They had 15 share, but we’re trying to produce a new Country with an Alternative flavor. There is a tendency to take more creative risks, but we have to get the people in the building to think like that. I learned from working at a CHR station that a 38-year-old woman can’t pretend to know what’s cool — that’s foolish. We always had college interns around so that we’d know what was in and what was out. We need to continue drawing young blood into the business. These young people don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what’s been tried and hasn’t been tried. Sometimes that ignorance brings the best ideas.
Recent criticism says that the radio medium is losing much of its local flavor. How critical — really — is remaining local (and live)?
I’m a pretty good person to ask that question. I’m sitting out here in suburban New York and running nine stations. We’re very close to New York, and we’re embedded in the New York metro. Now, why would someone listen to my big CHR station — WBLI on Long Island — over Z100, which has 2.5 million listeners to our 500,000? The reason that station does so well is that it’s programmed for Long Islanders, and it’s programmed by Long Islanders. You hear Long Island accents on the air, and it’s Long Island traffic and news. We deliver local stuff that means something to our local markets. Satellite will never be able to do that, and I don’t care whether they have traffic channels or not. We’re impacting lives in our communities, and we’re members of those communities — and that means something.
At this point in the fourth quarter, you’re in the middle of the budget process. How much autonomy do you and your managers have in creating your budgets?
Cox always takes a very realistic approach. It’s never going to hang us out there to dry with a number that’s just designed to make analysts happy. We want numbers that are attainable and feasible. At the end of the day, it still is about the business at hand, and I can only control what I can control.
My job is to make sure I have the very best talent on my team in the key management, on-air, sales, and engineering jobs. I don’t care how great the economy is, if you have a bunch of “C” talent, you’ll do okay; but if you have “A” talent, you will smoke. Likewise, if business is bad but you have really good team of people, you will do better than your competition, because you have a better work ethic and higher expectations and standards. All I do is control the world I can control and treat people as though they’re going to make a difference.
Is radio doing enough to attract a teen or 20-something listener who has so many other media choices?
I have three daughters — 14, 12 and 8 — and I constantly ask them, “How do you know this song?” or “Where did you hear about this song?” They look at me and say, “On the radio.” They may have music on their iPods, but someone had to turn them on to it first. They could say, “My friend Alison turned me on to it.” Okay, so who turned Alison on to it? That said, I think we must stay relevant and topical and hip and important to those young people. I don’t know if it ever will be like it was when we were kids, because there are so many choices and places to get music these days, but I still think radio brings it to life. I’ve had a CD player in my car for years, just like most people. Shouldn’t CDs have put radio out of business a long time ago? Did The Sopranos and cable put the top three networks out of business? No. They got just another slice of the pie, and the pie gets bigger as a whole. In the end, we just need to stay relevant.
What do you foresee as radio’s single greatest challenge over the next 10 years?
Sometimes radio suffers from an inferiority complex. That’s not a new thing; it’s an old thing. We need to shake that. If you want something that targets specific markets, makes a great impact on a local retail level, builds a brand, or makes people turn out and buy your product, I can’t think of a better medium than radio.
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