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Mary Quass: Climbing The Glass Staircase Through The Glass Ceiling (06/05/06)

By Joe Howard, Editor-In-Chief

For someone who proclaims, “I really don't play well with others,” NRG Media CEO Mary Quass has a pretty long track record of success in the radio business. Quass bought her first radio station in 1988, and has since become a pioneer for women who aspire to radio station ownership. She now holds the reins to a group of 88 stations in mostly small markets, and is looking to add significantly to that total.

“I'd like to try and get another 50-75 stations within our region,” she says, noting unabashedly that the notion of nearly doubling the size of her company isn't that farfetched. “I can stand next to a bigger market now, because people are much more open about buying numbers of stations as opposed to focusing all in one community or city. From that aspect, there's more opportunity for people like me who have smaller market radio stations to be able to sell on a platform than there was five or 10 years ago.”
With talk swirling that the acquisition market will start heating up later this year, Quass says she's ready to strike some deals. “I remain hopeful, because I'm sitting on a bucket of money, and I've got things to do,” she says.

Whether or not she winds up emptying that bucket, Quass has solidified her place as one of the top women in the radio business, and once again has landed on Radio Ink's Most Influential Women In Radio list. In a wide-ranging interview, Quass discusses the path she followed to radio, shares her outspoken views on business practices that she believes are hurting the industry, and explains why she believes Opie & Anthony's return to terrestrial was one of the best things to happen to the industry in years.

Radio Ink: Congratulations for once again being nominated to our Most Influential Women In Radio list. Let's start with how you wound up in radio. It wasn't your first choice for a career, was it?
Mary Quass:
No - I graduated from college with a degree in home economics! I was actually a clothing and textiles major. I was rather large for my generation - there weren't many 6-foot women back when I was a kid. My mother, being very practical, thought it would be good for me to make sure that I could always dress myself!

I got into the radio business totally by accident. I was looking for a job, and a friend said I should try radio sales because you get to talk to a lot of people. And, silly me, I fell in love with the business. It satisfied a real competitive streak. I love selling, because it presents an opportunity to take a situation or problem and solve it. The competition was really what drove me; money was never the motivation.

I stayed in the business and chose to pursue upper management because I love the people in the business. In radio, I've never had a boring day, and I've never had two days that were the same, because you get to work with a whole bunch of nuts!

After I bought my first station, I remember driving home one night thinking how cool it was to have this whole group of people who every day - every single day - showed up at that radio station because they wanted to. Not because they had to, because Lord knows radio has never been the highest-paid business around, but because they wanted to. They cared about the audience, and about each other. How great is that?

RI: You stand apart as one of the few female CEOs in radio. How did you reach this rare level in the business?
MQ:
I didn't know, when I bought my first radio station, that women didn't buy stations. I remember going to the bankers back in the '80's and having them look at me kind of weird. It became a challenge, because it was what I really wanted to do. I never let the fact that I was a woman stand in my way - at least I tried not to. I don't think it was an issue, although I'm sure there were situations that were a little more challenging because of it. But I love a challenge. Make something more difficult, and I'm cool. My attitude is: I can do this. Let's go.

RI: The Mentoring And Inspiring Women In Radio group recently released its annual surveys of women in station management. The results indicate slow growth over the past few years. This year's Most Influential Women In Radio list proves that there are plenty of successful women in radio, so how can you explain the slow growth on the station level?
MQ:
It's a really interesting question. There are some amazingly talented women in this business. I'm in some very small markets, and I'm continually impressed by the bright and extremely good women in radio stations, whether they're on air, selling, or working in an administrative capacity. When I go into meetings, I'm perplexed that women are still the exception rather than the norm.

I think the statistics would bear out that more than half of all sales associates in radio are women, as are a decent proportion of mid-level managers. By now, I would have thought we'd be closer to 50-50 on GMs, and clearly we're not.

Here's a scary little secret: Maybe women don't find this business interesting enough to commit the time and effort required to move into management roles. Maybe they find opportunities in other areas that are more compelling than those in radio. As I look around our radio stations, I don't have enough women. It isn't that I wouldn't promote them, but I can't tell you that I've got a full bevy of women saying, “Make me a GM.”

I don't think the gender bias is as strong as it was 20 years ago, but I still would encourage women to speak up. Women sometimes have a harder time asking for what they want. We like to think that people can read minds, but I've learned the hard way that if you don't ask, you don't get. What's the worst that can happen? They say no? Then you're in no better or worse shape than you were before you asked. If they say “Not now,” your next question is, “If not now, when?” But I do believe choices for women are much broader than they were 10 to 15 years ago.

For women in this business, sales is a great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you're male or female, red or green, animal, vegetable, or mineral - if you can sell, you're assured a position within the company. It's not just radio; great salespeople are needed in any industry, and we lose good salespeople to other industries that are willing to compensate their salespeople better than radio. I don't think this only affects women.

RI: You have a reputation as a bit of a rule breaker. Do you think this developed because of the reactions you got when buying your first radio stations? Did you have to make waves to get what you wanted?
MQ:
Probably. I know that I create chaos, and that the status quo is pretty hard for me, so I'm a difficult fit in a corporate environment. I'm probably at my best, and do my best work, as an entrepreneur, because I really don't play well with others.

I suppose it goes back to your roots. My mother was 43 when I was born, so she was older by the standards in those days for raising kids. My father died when I was very small, and she raised two of us for a few years before she remarried. I watched her life, which was very difficult, and saw her not achieve some of her dreams for the sake of her kids. So, I learned at an early age that you need to set your sights, go out and do things, and not let circumstances stand in your way.

I am an outspoken loudmouth, but if everybody else was like me, it would probably implode the business. There's got be some sanity, so I guess I'll leave that to the big boys. I'm very frustrated with our business right now, because we don't as an industry have the guts to do what we should do.

RI: What doesn't radio have the guts to do?
MQ:
From a programming aspect, we've been pushing stuff at people instead of trying to pull out of them what it is that they want. We should be challenging our people to do better every day, and pay attention to what works and what doesn't. Listen to your radio station and say, “Does it make sense to have this many commercials?”

Have faith in your people and your business. Don't let Mr. Advertiser or competitors set the price simply because we can't stand up and defend our own product. If this guy sells an ad for 50 bucks, so you drop to 49 bucks, that's not selling. But if that's the case, then shut up as an industry, because we're doomed to be a commodity industry and we deserve everything we get. Instead, go in and tell advertisers that it's going to cost more to be on this radio station this year than last, and tell them why.

Every single radio station in this country - mine included - could halve their number of commercials tomorrow at double their rates, and we'd be a better industry for it. We could build from there. I have a radio since 1988 that's probably getting less per commercial in morning drive today than it did in the late '80s early '90s. That's just wrong. And we can't blame the agencies, or the advertisers, or the fact that we're regulated.

Look in the mirror, because you're the one who set the price, and who decided to sacrifice the future of this business for today. We'll always have that guy who's willing to sell for less, but we as an industry have to start believing in our product again.

RI: What will inspire that kind of confidence?
MQ:
I think Opie and Anthony coming back to radio was a watershed event that we ought to be talking about. That's one of the greatest things that happened to radio in the past two years. These guys were among the first to leave radio and go to satellite, and they never were heard from again. They went from “Who's who” to “Who's he?” Now, all of a sudden, they're back on radio. Why? Because all of us in this business have healthy egos, and we don't want to just go away, because then nobody buys commercials and pretty soon you don't have a job. The fact that they're back on terrestrial radio speaks volumes about this business, and proves that radio really works.

When XM signed Oprah for a five-minute show every six months, it was front-page headlines. Everybody knew about that. Well, here was an event that was probably more significant. As an industry, we could have been shouting it from the mountaintop.
The challenge will be to keep the ball moving and recharge the guys in the field - the jock who wonders how to make his morning show better. If we could get that guy or woman interested in how to jazz their audience, why wouldn't you listen? This goes for kids, too. Kids aren't listening anymore because we haven't made it interesting for them. If there was something of as much interest to them as a plug-in device, they'd be there.

RI: Can HD Radio provide that?
MQ:
I think HD is a step. It provides improved sound, gives us better coverage, and will overcome some of the inherent problems we have in terrestrial radio, especially in AM. I think those are a real positive. But make no mistake about it : You can have 150 signals in the market, but if all you're doing is pumping out crap, it doesn't matter. It's all about the goose bump factor - listening to a radio station and saying, “Right on. Awesome That's my radio station.”

Ten years from now, when you and I go out to our respective vehicles, the “radio” in there will look a lot different than it does today. The box may look the same, but you'll be able to choose the kind of information and entertainment that you want, and you really won't care how you get it. It can come in off of satellite, terrestrial radio, streaming Internet, CD, tape, carrier pigeon - you won't care. You'll just know that when you hit the button, you'll get what you want when you want it. We're never going back to fewer choices; the number of choices is only going to grow.

The question is, 10 years from now, does radio want to be a choice, or a memory? Remember records? Go through attics, and you'll find them. That's a memory; people aren't running out buying records. I don't think the delivery method will determine our success or failure, as long as the content is there. If the content is there, it doesn't matter. If the content isn't there, kiss it goodbye, because nobody will sit around listening just because radio has been with us so long. They won't just keep it around for nostalgia.

RI: Do you think radio's migration toward HD will be seen by listeners and advertisers as an indication that radio is taking a step into the future? Will it improve their impressions of radio?
MQ:
Yes. I will also tell you that slowly - and I mean slowly - people are coming back. I think all the hype about new media has re-energized people in radio. For all of the talk about satellite radio and everything else, I think broadcasters are focusing more on their product, which is terribly invigorating for somebody who's been in this business as long as I have. It gives me hope that we haven't totally stuck our heads in the sand with no intent of taking them out.

RI: Are initiatives like Clear Channel's Less Is More plan and the growth of Adult Hits, “Jack”-style formats an indication that radio is ready to take some chances?
MQ:
They're starting to pay attention again, albeit slower than we probably should.
I challenge every broadcaster in this business - from [Clear Channel Chairman] Lowry Mays to some little schmuck like me - to ask: Is this the business I want to be in? If so, why? And what are they doing to make it better tomorrow? If you could get every single person to answer that question, tomorrow would be better.

RI: To some degree, people probably take radio for granted. What can be done to make them notice it again?
MQ:
Bond with people. I'll give you an example that says it all. My husband was in the car trying to listen to a NASCAR race. One of the radio stations in our market that used to carry NASCAR had dropped it. So, he tried to find it somewhere else - he was up and down the FM dial and couldn't find it. Then he flipped to AM and found this scratchy, low-power station that's a gazillion miles away. We were sitting there cranking the volume up so he could listen. The sound was terrible, but he didn't care! I'm was saying to myself, “Holy buckets! That's how people use our products, that's why they come to it.” We've already got their hearts and souls - if anything, we're just pushing them away. But we're working on it. This is all about user and content.

RI: Your story illustrates a point about why XM and Sirius are spending money on content. If your husband had XM, which is losing NASCAR to Sirius next year, he could have tuned in to the race. But the subscription model is obviously different from radio. If a station can't make any money off NASCAR, won't that make or break whether the station will carry it, especially if it's also on satellite radio?
MQ:
If I have the only radio station in the market that's carrying NASCAR and I'm not making money on it, it's because I don't know what I'm doing. It's one of the biggest spectator sports in America, so there's something wrong in the sales process. It's not the programming and it's not the audience; it's a matter of being able to connect the two.

Why does a station drop NASCAR in this day and age? Whether or not you like it doesn't matter; look at the sponsorships they have. It's just a matter of how it's sold, and nobody wants to take the time and effort to sell it. Then, it's pretty easy to say, “Nobody wanted it. We couldn't make any money on it so we cancelled it.” To me, that's an excuse, as opposed to a reason.

RI: Still, with so much pressure on radio companies to constantly improve revenue, especially with public companies, isn't there a temptation to shoot for the middle and not take chances?
MQ:
I do believe that's a problem, and something that, as an industry, we never had to face before radio companies became public. Do I think that it has doomed the industry? No. For example, if you have eight radio stations in a market, and four have to be middle of the road because they're cash cows, those stations probably won't be the ones to take chances. On the other hand, there is nothing to say that you can't give somebody a little more flexibility on a station with less to lose. But most innovations don't come from the big Kahunas, or the IBMs of the world. They come from some obscure, unknown spin-off industries or collateral businesses that really don't have any choice but to take chances.

I see broadcasters that way, to a certain degree. You have privately held companies - small companies like mine - that can afford to have some guy who's just outlandish enough to jump naked in the Rhinelander River on the first of January. He can do that, and I think that's where the innovation comes from.
Here's the other question: Can we attract those kinds of people back into our business? And therein lies a change that has to happen: As a business, we have to invest in our products, but maybe in different ways than we did years ago. And that doesn't just mean technology, which is obviously very important, but also in the people that provide the product. With the proliferation of other media, everybody is talking about how they all need content.

RI: So, how do you motivate the people in your markets to generate great content? What do you say to them?
MQ:
I tell them that the difference between success or failure is you. And the only way this company is going to work is if you lie awake at night thinking about how you can make the radio station better. To your audience, you are the single most important person they know. And it is up to you to determine whether or not they come back tomorrow.

We can help with the resources, and we can give you the tools to do your job better, but at the end of the day, it's up to you. In my organization, I'm the least important person; it really is the guy on the air, at the front desk, etc. We try to give them the resources and empower them to do great things. And some of the best radio in this country happens in these small markets.

What we must do is help them understand it is a business, and help them understand the relationship between commercials, content, selling, how they position everything, how ads are priced, etc. But they can learn that stuff. As long as they have the passion, we can help them with the rest of it.

I try to make myself as accessible as possible. We have an intranet within our company, and everybody has my e-mail address and phone number. I try to get to the markets and spend time talking about what's going on in their part of the world.

I have a passion for the business that is hard for me to disguise, but I don't have a lot of time and patience for people who say it's somebody else's problem. If you want to whine about the business, call somebody else; if you want to make it better and think outside of the box, that's really cool. Let's do it.

RI: Tell me the number one thing radio is doing right today, and the number one thing it is doing wrong.
MQ:
The number one thing radio is doing right today is staying fundamentally rooted in making a difference in the lives of the people who listen - making that one-to-one connection.

What it's doing wrong is it is selling itself short. As an industry, we have given up on it before our audience, and I think that's wrong. If you can't say, “I'm in this business because I love it and I want to make it better,” then maybe you should get out. If we don't remain relevant to our audience, we will be a memory.

RI: Every top radio executive proclaims to love radio. So, who are the ones out there spoiling the business?
MQ: I think we've all gotten complacent, and we've all started to look internally way too much and wonder, “What's in it for me?”

While I think radio going public has been extremely good for this business, it's made it more challenging. While we are a business and do have a product, you still have to have a little show business. We sometimes get too hung up in making it better this quarter. It's not right or wrong, it just is.

In some ways, the fact that radio is considered a growth investment instead of a value investment may be one of the best things that could happen to it. Maybe it will take the pressure off for high growth every quarter. Maybe we shouldn't expect double-digit increases in bottom line every year, but instead an upward trend over a period of time. Maybe paying dividends instead of high quarter-over-quarter growth is a better posture for this business, so we can regroup, come back to the fundamentals, and get to work on a great product. We have to take some time to dream with our people, people who care about the business and want to have this business around, so that long term, we can get better.

The women on Radio Ink's MIW list are absolutely phenomenal. They really make a difference, and for that I am eternally grateful, because they're doing things day in and day out that make this business better. I encourage them all to stay in the business. We've lost a lot of really good people in the past five years - both men and women - so bravo to these women for hanging in there and making radio better.

I used to say that I was going to be out of this business in five years, because I didn't want to be around when the last guy turned off the lights. But right now, I want to stay in the business, help drag people across the digital divide, and help them stand up and start living their dream again.




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