Susquehanna Radio President Nancy Vaeth-Dubroff: “Success Is Not A Gender Thing” (06/06/05)
In April, Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff, the parent company of Susquehanna Radio, announced it would be looking at options to sell its radio, cable, technology and Internet holdings. As part of the conditions of this cover interview, Radio Ink agreed not to pursue questions that involved this possible sale or its effects on the company.
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
Next time someone tells you that women have made great strides in achieving executive-level success in the corporate world, remind them that only eight Fortune 500 companies currently have women chief executive officers or presidents. The U.S. government isn't much better: Following November's elections, women accounted for just 14 of the 100 senators on Capitol Hill, and only 33 women have served in the Senate since it first met in 1789. Similarly, only 24 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives elected or re-elected last year were women, accounting for merely 5.5 percent of that governing body. Only two women serve as U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and we have yet to see a woman occupy the Oval Office.
The radio industry has only a slightly better record. Just a half-dozen radio groups of notable size have women serving as chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chairperson or president. Interestingly, only three of these operate in major markets, and until February of this year, that number was two. But when Susquehanna Radio President David Kennedy was promoted to president/CEO of Susquehanna Media, Nancy Vaeth-Dubroff - who had served as regional vice president for the company - was tapped to fill the position.
A 25-year veteran of Susquehanna Radio, Vaeth-DuBroff joined the company in 1980 as an account executive for KPLX/KLIF in Dallas, and two years later was promoted to general sales manager. In 1985, she was named general manager of WFMS in Indianapolis, and in 1989, was given the additional responsibility of overseeing WRRM-FM in Cincinnati. Later that year, she was promoted to vice president/general manager of KRBE-FM in Houston, a position she held until 1999, when she was promoted to senior vice president/regional manager, with responsibility for the company's Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and Kansas City operations.
A member of the Radio Advertising Bureau board of directors, Vaeth-DuBroff has served on Houston's American Women in Radio and Television (AWRT) Advisory Council, and currently serves as spokeswoman for the Radio MIW group. Additionally, she was the 2004 recipient of AWRT's Lifetime Achievement Award for Houston and also a 2004 Women On The Move honoree from Texas Executive Women. She is a 2004 graduate of the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation broadcast leadership training, and served on the executive committee and board of Sheltering Arms Senior Services in Houston for the past 14 years.
Radio Ink recently invited Vaeth-Dubroff to share her views on leadership, corporate culture, gender issues and the radio industry in general - in fact, just about anything except the possible sale of Susquehanna Radio.
Describe your working relationship with the managers at your stations. Are you hands-on, or do you they have the latitude to work autonomously within their stations and markets?
It's important to find the very best person for every job at any radio station. Obviously, the roles of market manager and general manager are incredibly important, and finding the right person is the key component of any regional manager's job. It is important that the manager has the authority to do his or her job, understands his or her roles and responsibilities, has set very clear expectations and is a strong cultural fit for the company and the people. They have a job to do; it's not my job. My job is to be a resource to them, to help them, to ask and answer questions and to help them solve a problem if and when they need it.
As president of Susquehanna Radio, my responsibilities are a little broader. This company has always had a very special culture - we've always been a customer-driven company, and we will continue to be.
Who are your customers?
I define our customers as listeners, advertisers and all of our co-workers. Those three components are extremely important to us, and will continue to be. I see my role as fostering that culture, and doing everything I can to help build and maintain it throughout the company. We must remain consistent in the practices that have brought us to this point. We have a strong emphasis on quality, over-the-top service to all our constituents and customers. It is important that we celebrate and recognize peoples' contributions to the entire effort, and encourage them to find new and better ways to connect with our customers.
Susquehanna currently has 27 stations in eight markets. What operational differences do you see between stations in large markets vs. smaller markets?
The same basic, fundamental way of operating crosses all market lines. It is highlighted by the cultural aspects we discussed, and it comes from using sound hiring practices in which you define the talents, skills and expectations you need for each position. It's finding the people to put in a specific positions, then nurturing and growing those people, and making sure they have the opportunity to focus on their strengths and do their best work. This doesn't change, no matter what the market size is. Sure, the dollars are bigger in the major markets, and the promotions may be bigger, but the concepts aren't that much different. The people are the same, and it really is all about the people who work in the radio business.
What qualities do you look for when hiring manager-level employees?
The first step is thinking through exactly what you need the person to do. In the past, we might have been in too much of a rush to fill a spot. If we had an opening, we might hear of somebody with a good reputation who might be a little unhappy, so we would connect with that person and maybe hire him or her. That's not the right way to do it.
What is the right way?
The first step is determining what this person must be really good at to excel in this job - creativity, or high organizational skills or good problem-solving. Define those characteristics so that you cast your net out and write your ads to attract just the people you need. Hiring goes beyond the interview, and beyond experience and education. It goes into the personal characteristics that will make this job work. Through the interviewing process, it becomes easier to say, “While this person may be a good candidate, he or she might not be a good fit for this particular job.” Knowing exactly what you need makes it is easier to go through the applicants and find the best person for that spot.
Has consolidation made it more difficult to identify talented, quality people for management positions?
I don't think so - you just have to take the time to do it. The people certainly are there, but finding them sometimes takes longer than you would like. Because we go through a fairly lengthy interview process, job candidates talk to several different people within the station and the organization. While we are interviewing them, they're also interviewing us. The fit has to work both ways.
How do you identify good managers within your organization, and how do you know if they will make good leaders?
Leaders have an ability to inspire people to see a greater future. Leaders have the ability to energize people. When you walk into a radio station with proper leadership, you can feel the vibe of the place; everybody is really committed, and “gets it.” Those people are working hard, and they are excited about what they're doing - as opposed to working in a place where there isn't that energy level. Leadership makes that energy happen.
Is it important to have a definable culture within a company?
The culture is very special. It's about getting the right people. It's about nurturing and growing the talent you have. It's about recognition. It's a culture of service, understanding and taking care of your customers, which is the focal point. We have a very customer-focused, customer-driven atmosphere throughout each station. It's not just in the sales department or the programming department - it's throughout the entire station, from the receptionist through the market manager.
Do you sense any trepidation in your people about what might change when the company is sold?
If there's one thing most people in the radio industry are familiar with, it's change. Change always presents an opportunity, and the way to deal with those opportunities is to determine whether it will be good for you or not. Our response to change defines us. If something happens that's out of your control, how do you deal with it? Do you adopt a positive attitude? Do you look for the opportunities? Do you take advantage of them, or do you sit back and say, “I didn't want this change, so I'm not going to play”? People who respond well to change say, “Okay, maybe this isn't what I expected, but here's what I'm going to do about it.” They have a good attitude, and they find a way to move forward. The change is good for them. Of course, it can bring about anxiety and doubt, and if you let that overwhelm you, it's hard to move on.
What does it mean to you to have reached this point in your career?
I've worked my entire career for this. It's a wonderful feeling to achieve what you've worked a very long time to achieve. It's a combination of feelings: You think, “Oh, wow, this is so great,” and then you have the moment of self-doubt: “Uh-oh, what have I gotten myself into?” I went through both stages, but then quickly went back to the “Oh, wow, this is great” part, and started making plans for the future. This is a terrific and flattering opportunity, and I'm going to do the very best job I can.
How do you feel about being singled out - along with several dozen other individuals - as one of the most influential women in radio?
I have mixed emotions about it. I don't think women have to work any harder than men to get promoted, or to work their way up in a company. No matter who or what you are, if you want to get promoted within a company, you must work harder to show that you can handle additional responsibilities. I don't think it's a gender thing. That being said, I understand why Radio Ink highlights this group of influential women. You want to give them a little publicity, and show other women that there are women in these roles. You're saying, “If you don't have any women role models in your market or your company, here are some women who are making it happen.” That's a good thing. Likewise, one of the most important things the informal Radio MIW group can do is provide mentoring to women who want to move up in the industry. That's really important, and Radio Ink gave us a platform from which to launch that.
Are radio groups taking the strides necessary to move closer to parity between men and women in management and executives positions?
I believe the radio industry is moving more toward that. All of the companies understand how diverse our customer bases are, and how important it is to have a workforce that can respond to that diverse customer base. There are good business reasons for doing this, and I think everybody understands that. Of course, understanding it and getting there are two different things, which can delay the process.
You've been recognized for a number of years as one of the most influential women in radio. How would you quantify or qualify the concept of “influence”?
You read about people all the time who speak at seminars or conventions. They've done trendsetting things within their companies, or they've taken risks that have paid off, and brought them notoriety and respect. But other people are influential in a more quiet, one-on-one way. You don't read about those people, because not everyone likes the spotlight. They prefer to do their work behind the scenes.
Let's move this discussion to some of the more pressing issues facing the radio industry today. How critical is it to reduce the amount of clutter on the airwaves?
Advertising clutter has been a problem in the past, and probably still is in some places. Susquehanna has always kept our commercial loads in check; we have always believed in keeping a lower commercial load to enhance the effectiveness of the advertising. We never added the units in the first place, so we didn't have to adopt a Less Is More policy. No one can argue that reduced commercial clutter is good, and it's very positive that the entire industry is focusing on it. Each station must look at its programming, audience and competitive situation, and figure out the best move. Ultimately, a station's job is to take care of the customers.
Has the FCC been as clear as it should be about what constitutes indecent programming?
We've always been a more conservative company, so this hasn't been a major issue for our group. It's an ongoing process of examining what we're doing and finding ways to make sure we're within the boundaries of our own corporate culture. That was going on before the Janet Jackson incident, and it continues today.
Is it necessary for the commission or Congress to identify just what and what isn't permissible?
The industry can and will police itself.
How critical is it to fast-track the implementation of HD Radio?
It is very critical. We are offering terrific sound quality for free. It's very important that we move ahead with these plans, and get radios in people's cars and hands so they can hear it. At Susquehanna, about half of our stations are HD now, and the rest are moving forward. And remember: On top of the better sound quality, you also have the free services, such as additional audio channels and text displays. These opportunities provide things not only for listeners, but also for advertisers. It's a win-win for both sides, which is all the more reason to move ahead at as quick a pace as we can.
How much of a threat to radio are such emerging new media as the Internet, iPods, satellite radio, WiMax and rapidly evolving cell phones?
All are other ways that people can spend their media time and access music. There are more and more options for people right now, so it's definitely getting more competitive. But, there's more competition for all media, not just radio. It's important to note that radio has a leg up. We have 230 million listeners on a weekly basis, and it's habit for these people to listen to radio. To continue that habit, we must focus on the content and creativity of our products, and do a better job than we've done in the past to engage the audience, so they listen to our radio stations again.
What do you consider radio's greatest competitive challenge today?
I'm inclined to look at the industry internally on this. We can be our own worst enemy, by looking at other radio stations and trying to get a higher share of the budgets that are already out there for radio. The Radio Advertising Bureau and Radio Ad Effectiveness Lab committees are doing the right things: communicating how radio works, studying how radio works and demonstrating ways that advertising can have a greater impact on a company's bottom line. All companies and advertisers employ different strategies and media mixes, and what this says is: “Here's how this can work; here's what this can do for you.” That's pretty powerful.
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