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Clear Channelís Greg Ashlock: Fearless In The Face Of Change (11/20/06)

By Joe Howard, Editor-In-Chief

While the temptation to focus more on the basics of selling advertising and less on expanding into new and potentially riskier directions might tempt some in radio station management today, Clear Channelís Greg Ashlock understands that to thrive in the years to come, radio must actively seek out new revenue opportunities, and open up the possibilities the digital and online worlds present.

For Ashlock, who lands atop the Radio Ink list of the Best Managers In Radio this year for Major Markets, exploring how to embrace those new avenues while keeping a focus on delivering the basics ó good ratings, solid revenue, etc. ó comes down to understanding how consumers of mass media have evolved.

ďConsumers today are savvy,Ē says Ashlock. ďIf itís raw and real, itís appealing. If itís manufactured or produced or scripted, they think its vanilla. For the future of radio to be rich, it has to be led with a transparency that consumers expect today. That is critical. Weíve got a product team that absolutely loves what they do, and it can be heard over the air. That passion is contagious. When you hear something contagious, you can feel it. And when people are having fun, the product is just better.Ē

In fact, Ashlock says a key to that success is as simple as waking up in the morning looking forward to the day ahead. ďAre we having fun because weíre doing well, or are we doing well because weíre having fun? I would argue the latter.Ē

But part of that fun also lies is making sure that he and his sales management staff get out in the trenches to meet with clients, and set an example for a sales staff that numbers over 90 account executives. ďIt sounds very clichť, but the best way to lead is by example,Ē says Ashlock. ďWeíre out there talking to our biggest clients or new potential clients every day, and that hands-on experience and leadership on the front line allows us to make better decisions about how we should be moving our business forward.Ē

Radio Ink: What is the biggest challenge you face as the manager of a vitally important cluster to your company?
Greg Ashlock:
The challenge is changing the perception of the radio industry. We have so many rich programs outside of traditional, over-the-air broadcasting. Everybody assumes radio is just over-the-air, and thatís not the case anymore. Once everybody sees that radio has a variety of touch points with consumers, things will become a lot easier. Weíre on the front end of that curve; our listeners and our core clients see radio is not what it used to be, that itís changed for the better.

RI: It could be argued that changing that perception has become more important as national advertising continues to outpace local. Why is local struggling?
GA:
Thatís something we look at internally. Itís hard to manage in any given year, because one year it can look like nationalís up and localís down, and the next year it's the opposite. Half the time, itís just the result of clients that were using a local agency shifting to a national group. The difference is how it's bought; itís still the same advertiser spending the same dollars. An agency that has a variety of offices has a choice to either place those dollars locally through our local reps ó and we have 93 of them ó or through a national sales arm. So the distribution of money will hit a different line. But itís still the same client, and the same money. And the sales process has changed quite a bit in the last two years too, on what actually weíre selling in radio vs. what was traditionally sold.

RI: Describe those changes
GA:
For the future of radio, itís not just over-the-air broadcasting that we're selling. It's critical from a content standpoint and for the sales process that we create multiple touch points with listeners. It might be streaming, listener loyalty programs, or podcasting. We also have producer blogging after shows to tell listeners about exactly what goes on behind the scenes. Creating these multiple touch points not only creates more rich content with time shift ability for our listeners, it also creates more opportunities for advertisers.

RI: Can you share an example of how you're doing this?
GA:
When people sign up for our listener loyalty program, we ask them their birthday. On their birthday, they get a greeting from one of our air staff. I can have a sponsor like an ice cream shop offer that listener a free ice cream. It's not necessarily a sponsorship, but itís an integration with something that reaches the listener, itís a natural tie-in, and it benefits all parties involved. It's not just about affecting the consumer on the air, but how we can hold onto them.

RI: Are those kinds of deals just added revenue, or are they vital to radio's future?
GA:
I think we're moving in that direction, and itís critical that we embrace it. Even if consumers donít ultimately use it as much as a traditional, over-the-air station, itís something that they want. And when they decide they want it, we have to be there to provide it.

RI: What about more conventional forms of non-traditional revenue, like concerts and events? How does that fit in going forward?
GA:
We absolutely will continue with that. You donít want to lose that local connection; thatís what makes radio so powerful, and that connection canít be replaced. How we integrate this with the things we were discussing earlier is what is enticing. Take an event like the KIIS-FM Jingle Ball. We're going to sell 18,000 tickets ó it's an important marketing tool for the station. Concerts like this connect with our listeners, but the way we tie it to the connectivity of the future is by going through our listener loyalty program and offering the tickets for sale before they go on sale to the public. All those tickets will be gone in about an hour and a half. We can fill a stadium of 18,000 to 20,000 tickets just by hitting the send button and waiting for our loyal listeners to reply. Of course, weíll pull aside a few thousand tickets strictly to give away on the air to drive TSL, but that's the only way you can get those tickets beyond that initial sales period for loyal listeners.


RI: Finding new ways to generate revenue must be especially important for you, since you run such a large cluster for a public company. Do you often hear from corporate with suggestions or direction regarding sales?
GA:
We definitely have conversations about the direction of the business, where weíre pacing, and what weíre forecasting as it relates to product. Weíll run any kind of product decisions weíre making by them, but one of the things that Iíve always found appealing about Clear Channel ó particularly the people Iíve worked for ó is that it's really about local market decisions. People may think thatís a myth, but it's a myth for those who donít work here. You have the autonomy to go out and get things done, but with that autonomy comes accountability. I like that, and I like the fact that they trust people on the local level to make decisions that will move the business forward.


RI: Do you feel the pressure for management of public broadcasting companies to grow revenue is more intense because they must answer to investors and Wall Street analysts?
GA:
They do a pretty good job of shielding us from that pressure. When you are in a market like Los Angeles, you know thereís a tremendous amount of interest in what the cluster is doing. But I donít feel daily or weekly pressure from corporate to hit a certain number. We all know the plan, and weíre going to stick to the plan and make it successful. Iím not suggesting that I donít hear from [Clear Channel Radio CEO] John Hogan maybe more than somebody else, but I am suggesting that I donít feel an intense amount of pressure to hit some number, because they know I understand what I need to deliver.

RI: How do you keep your staff motivated and focused?
GA:
This was something I had to learn, because I used to be a bit of a perfectionist. One of the lessons I learned four or five years ago is how critical it is to hire the right people, then just let them do their jobs. It can be a heavy load, but that load isnít nearly as heavy when everyoneís lifting. My department heads wouldnít have it any other way, because they donít want the burden on one person. They desire autonomy, and theyíre willing to accept the responsibility that goes with it. People want to own something, and be in control of their destiny.


RI: Are you allocating more money for new initiatives in your 2007 budget? Are you cutting back in certain areas to increase spending on these initiatives?
GA:
The integrated media department is an area where we have invested considerably for the future. I think youíll see that happening across all the major markets.

RI: What is the mission of your integrated media department?
GA:
To increase content online, and sell it. The key to any of our integrated media efforts is that the online content be compelling and relevant enough to our listener to keep them there, because if we donít have content to keep people, they wonít come back. There are too many options for todayís consumer. Itís critical that we have compelling content every day, both over the air and online; the experience must be entertaining enough to bring them back.

RI: Integrated media is one place where spending is increasing. Where will you be cutting back in the year ahead?
GA:
Thatís a tough one. Depending on the stations, you may see some of the research being diverted into other areas. But I donít really have any specific departments where weíre making cuts; itís really an expansion into new areas.

RI: Many believe radio is slow to adopt change. What will be the catalyst for the industry step up and really focus on change?
GA:
Here in Los Angeles, Iím in the middle of it right now. These things are not only a focus, but they're happening on a daily basis. It's been happening for months here, so while change may come slowly across the industry, weíre already in the middle of it right now.

RI: Is that a function of the importance of your station cluster? Is it more important that your operation try new things than it is for a small- or mid-market station? Because you have the capacity and resources some others don't, does that have some impact?
GA:
Our managers here are a big family, and this family has one purpose: They all understand the importance of moving forward, and they not only embrace change, but are excited about it. This is something that our cluster has embraced because the leaders at each one of those stations ó the program directors, marketing directors, etc. ó have demanded that this be part of the focus for the future of radio and, as a result, everybody is getting on board.


RI: How do you ensure that research and marketing resources are used effectively?
GA:
Just as I see a shift in how people are listening to radio, I also see a shift in how weíre doing research. Weíll continue to do some of the traditional music tests like callout, but weíre also doing more online music testing, where we have four or five thousand people listening to 15-second hooks. Weíve already begun with members of our loyalty programs and people who are considered P1s of the station. It might take them an hour or hour-and-a-half to go through, but we get a really good idea of the interests of our core consumers with real-time results. The more that we connect our online capabilities with our on-air product, the more it will improve the content.


RI: What is your outlook for radio in 2007?
GA:
Youíll see what some might call non-traditional campaigns. The economic outlook for the industry as a whole is certainly not robust for í07, so I think itís critical that we move our business forward by not relying on traditional means.



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