Peter Smyth: Radio Executive Of The Year (01/08/07)
By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard
Peter Smyth’s enthusiasm for the radio business is infectious. Talk with him about the state of the industry, and listen to the pace and volume of his speech increase as he outlines with zeal the factors that he believes make radio as vital and powerful a medium as any in media today. He truly believes in radio’s ability to serve both listeners and advertisers, and has been increasingly taking that argument to the streets since becoming president/CEO of Greater Media in 2002.
For example, his company is a charter member of the HD Digital Radio Alliance, and he sits on the group’s advisory board. And with his recent appointment as chairman of the Radio Advertising Bureau, Smyth now has the opportunity to extend this enthusiasm — and his ideas for improving radio’s standing in the advertising community — across the entire industry.
“This is a very exciting time,” he says. “The message to everybody in radio today is: Don’t expect just one company to step up. A thousand different people in the radio industry must stand up and say: I’m going to take my share of this medium, I’m going to introduce this type of interactive marketing, this type of creative program; whatever it may be.”
As for his own company, Smyth carries on the tradition of employee empowerment that’s been with Greater Media since its inception in 1956. “I want the men and women who work in my radio stations to go home at night and say: ‘I’m glad I’m part of that team, I’m proud to be a part of that company.’ The greatest investment is making sure they feel better about themselves.”
A forward-thinking leader, Smyth is steering Greater Media toward electronic audience measurement for radio. Starting this month, Arbitron’s Portable People Meter becomes commercially available in Philadelphia, one of Greater Media’s key markets. And Greater Media is on board. Smyth is also a believer in expanding into online initiatives such as podcasting and interactive features on station websites.
It’s that careful balance of eagerly pursuing growth while also looking out for the people making it happen that sets Smyth apart as an accomplished leader. And it’s his bold vision for the future of radio, and his efforts to make a positive impact on the business, that make Peter Smyth Radio Ink’s Executive of the Year.
RADIO INK: What is your broad outlook for 2007?
PETER SMYTH: I think ’07 will be a good year, but not the best of years. It will be a transition year. It will be the year we cross the digital divide, the year we start to find the intersect between the interactive world and the broadcast world, and how these two benefit our customer base. Radio has been the premier provider of a community setting since its inception; we have to find the economic benefit between those two worlds and monetize them.
The biggest challenge we face is to take back radio and make it a primary medium in the marketplace. We have to come to the realization that we’re no longer just in the radio business, we’re in the audio entertainment business. The more we grasp onto that, the better off we’ll be. Radio must take off the blinders. We no longer can have a short-term view of where this industry is going; we have to look at it long term. Collectively, we must be the unabashed advocates of the power and the strength of American radio. It’s got to start at every individual station across the country, from the mid-markets all the way up to Madison Ave. It’s a time of innovation, vision, and boldness. These are some of the most exciting times we’re going to experience.
This is the year of the operator. You must have smart operators who really know what they’re doing. You must be willing to embrace the vision of the men and women who work here, and take the lid off creativeness and let the creative juices start to flow. There is a fine line between art and science. We can rely only so much on the science, then we have to let the art take over. HD2 channels offer a fabulous opportunity to do that.
RI: You mention taking a long-term approach, how do you quantify "long-term"? And how is taking a long-term approach different for a private company, which doesn’t have to answer to Wall Street every 90 days?
PS: You can’t change anything in 90 days. We deal in a business of attitudes, and you can’t change a perception or any fundamentals in 90 days. Looking at a business in those terms is just not fair, and it’s not objective. Being a private company, you have to be able to look at the business in terms of 12 to 18 months. The next 12 to 18 months will be crucial for us. We’ve got to reinvest in infrastructure, marketing, research, and talent. We have to put money back into the marketplace to make sure that we’ve reaped the benefits.
In Philadelphia, WMMR has had an incredibly successful run, and so has WRIF in Detroit. But the reason that those radio stations do so well is because we have great management there, and we’ve invested in talent, research, and marketing. We’ve actually built brands — and when the men and women who built those brands go on to do whatever they do next, those radio stations should continue to survive. That’s what has to happen in American radio. Radio stations have to be built with strong foundations, understand what section of population they own, and move with that generation. You cannot cut your way to profitability; you build your way to profitability. If we don’t invest in our HD channels, our technological facilities, and the men and women who actually run, program, and sell these radio stations, then we are at peril.
RI: With Clear Channel’s privatization deal and the Cumulus/Susquehanna deal, private equity investors have acquired a considerable stake in radio business. How will this trend affect the industry?
PS: The only way that private equity money will benefit the radio industry is if these investors hires great operators who understand the value of the media and what is necessary to make these radio stations successful. If they don’t have that appetite, then they’re in the wrong business; it’s not going to work.
RI: Do you think they do?
PS: The equity firms coming into our industry — and there’s more and more of them —want to get a good rate of return for their investors. They are looking for anywhere from the high teens to 20 percent rates of return. The only way you can get those rates of return is by putting money into the things we just talked about, and giving these brands chances to grow. The private equity firms have to look at these products for the long term. If they do that now, they have a greater chance of achieving the rates of return they’re looking for than if they try to starve these radio stations with no investment whatsoever. They have to look at radio stations’ need to breathe, and must make smart investments. That includes investing in talent. This is a great opportunity for stations that lost Stern to develop great morning shows.
This is also a great time to invest in different types of advertising. Television has traditionally been the medium of choice for most radio stations; maybe there’s a more cost-efficient way. Research the market, understand the radio landscape, understand how your radio station fits into that niche it services, and how you are going to super serve that audience.
What will help lift radio in general is having stronger radio stations in some of our top markets. People must view radio as a primary medium — not a medium that is constantly being sold, or flipping formats, or that isn’t embracing growth and investing in new products and technology.
RI: Does investing in electronic measurement fall under that category?
PS: There has to be some type of electronic measurement. Our clients are telling us that they want to see some accountability on the rating structure. We have to move to one form or another of electronic measurement. We live in a digital age. We live in an age when a UPC code can tell us how many cases of Taster’s Choice moved last night. Networks can look at television programming the night before and see if The Office is working or not. They can look at all these different metrics and see what is working and what is not.
When you read a ratings diary, you are looking at history; you’re looking at what happened, not what’s happening. Digital technology will lead us to more information sharing – we’ll have the ability to send maps to individual GPS systems, and to monetize music downloads. Once we stop that technology growth, we’re stifling the industry’s growth, the whole sector’s growth.
My company chose Arbitron, because I feel today that it is the best product I can find for our company and for what our clients are telling us. For my peers in the industry, that’s an individual decision. Emmis, Bonneville, and CBS all felt it was good for radio to move now with Arbitron. I respect what Clear Channel is doing in their RFP. If they can bring that to closure, it would be terrific to have some competition in the marketplace.
For the past six months we’ve been educating the men and women in Philadelphia about the programming and sales aspects, and how we are going to deal with that. I don’t think managers should react when it happens — it’s the reaction to those actions that I worry about. We made this commitment — the harder part is how we as a company are going to adjust our selling, our training, our market presence on the street. How are we going to program our radio stations to win in this new environment? What are the tools that these men and women need to win? When I talk about investment, that’s what I mean.
RI: This month, one of your key markets — Philadelphia — will become the first to commercially launch the PPM. Are you worried about the short-term effect that the PPM may have on your business?
PS: Sure, I’m a little anxious. But if there is a dislocation in the first or second quarter, I’m prepared to see that through because I have to think about the long-term impact of PPM on my business. Will it show that the cumes in Philadelphia are twice the size they are today? Will it show that the way we sell radio — or the commerce of radio — might change? Maybe all of the dynamics have to shift. But that dialogue should have been taking place parallel to all this talk about PPM. My biggest questions to Arbitron President/Sales and Marketing Pierre Bouvard and CEO Steve Morris were: What will happen in the marketplace? Who’s training the salespeople of tomorrow to market this? Who’s teaching the agencies and the clients and the decision makers how to interpret this data? That’s what we have to get our hands around. We must recognize that there might be a paradigm shift in the way radio is viewed in the marketplace.
We’re taking a $20 billion business and turning it upside down. Are we taking the time to educate our staff — and our clients — how to use this data?
RI: How are your sellers reacting?
PS: They’re very excited. There is some trepidation, but they are very encouraged because they are being informed about what’s going to happen, to the best of our knowledge. We are living in a brave new world. I’ve always said, don’t be afraid of technology, embrace technology, just push through it. We might fail, but don’t be afraid to fail, because if you don’t fail, you will never succeed. It sounds bold, but it’s got to be bold, because these are bold times.
RI: As the new RAB chairman, will you take steps to promote the PPM, either to radio groups or advertisers?
PS: I don’t think it is the RAB’s position to endorse any technology or supplier. That’s not their job. The RAB’s job is to make sure that the key account management and the top eight key advertisers in America today know the value proposition of what’s going on in our medium. If you went to the heads of some of these companies and big agencies, they wouldn’t have a clue. I am going to make sure that we talk to these people about how strong an industry we have and stop apologizing for being in the radio business.
RI: How about RAB-sponsored training programs for sellers in the PPM world?
PS: I think that’s Arbitron’s responsibility in the beginning, but when it’s adapted the RAB should offer training. The RAB does have a very good sales and training program, but it has to be modernized. We have to get better in how we teach people what the interactive world is all about. I think we can do a better job. RAB President/CEO Jeff Haley is a brilliant young guy with a lot of great skills. He does not come from a radio background, which is intriguing in itself. He understands how to market a product, what the task in front of him is. He also understands why private equity firms are diving into this business — because they know there is a lot of value here.
RI: What’s wrong with local business? Why is it weak?
PS: I don’t think we sell the value of radio. We’re concerned that it is too expensive. Radio’s been perceived as a “cost-efficient” media. Cost-efficient means cheap, and I don’t want to be cheap. I want to get paid for the value that I deliver. If the PPM does anything, I hope it shows people how this medium should really be valued. Somebody told me that a morning drive spot in New York goes for 200 bucks. I find that hard to believe. But if it is true, and there are 10 million people in New York, would you pay 200 bucks to reach 10 million people? That’s the deal of the century. We’ve got to get a better understanding of the value proposition and sell radio for what it’s worth. There is nothing wrong with getting paid for what you deliver — 280 million people a week. If you’re selling product for people, they will pay for it. If you’re coming in with creative solutions to marketing problems for companies in your local marketplace, they will pay you for it, because you are making their cash register ring. It’s no longer about just selling spots; you have to understand the marketplace and economics, and you have to understand that we are in the business of selling product. We’ve got to bring more people into the radio pie, and bring different sources of business in here.
RI: What are some of the initiatives you’d like to launch at the RAB to help improve the image of radio?
PS: The first thing we have to do is speak from one voice to the right people. The RAB has done a good job to this point, but now we have to make sure we run it like we run our businesses, and adapt the same key account management structures that we have in our own organizations today. We must touch base with the chief marketing officers of some of the major companies in America today —Wal-Mart, Target, McDonald’s, soft drink companies, automotive companies — about why radio is the solution provider. We can’t just say hey, we’re in the radio business, we’re cool, we’ve got the tallest towers and we reach all these people. We must understand their business, ask for a homework assignment, take a problem they are having and resolve it using radio as the primary medium. We have to take a marketing approach, and become partners with these major corporations instead of expecting that they should buy us because we’re — because we’re what? It’s not the quantity of stations you own, it’s the quality of station that you have and its ability to move product. I want to make sure that we are driving more funds into radio. The litmus test of success should be: Did we grow the radio pie? We have to develop a clear vision of where we’re going and a clear strategic plan to achieve those objectives. I want people to say we’ve got to do radio, before TV or anything else.
I also want to make sure that training is still important for a lot of stations. I’m going to serve as RAB chairman the same way that I run my business.
RI: How important is the Internet in radio’s marketing mix?
PS: Most advertisers today are looking at the Internet and saying to themselves: How does this work? I know I have to be here, I don’t know why, but I know I have to be here. It is our job to say explain why they should use it when it is applicable and why they shouldn’t when it’s not. But I don’t believe anybody who tells me that they have the silver bullet to how the intersect between the interactive world and broadcast is going to work. Streaming was supposed to make millions. Well, stations were making about $69 a year and spending fortunes. Streaming is very important, but it is only part of the mix. Podcasting and blogs are also important. Those are the things that have to be built out, where the solution for the client is best settled in both those worlds.
Having a two-way relationship with the audience is important, community is important. Our rock stations are all doing fine because they have great street presence. They have great interactive websites where people can participate in the whole rock experience. For us to grow this industry, we’ve got to understand how people use our products.
RI: Is making money through the station website a priority?
PS: It is important, but the website has to have an interactive role. It has to have a digital music store, video, podcasts that I can download from a great morning show bit. I want to go there to find out more about different types of music or artists. The website just can’t sit there; it has to participate in the listener’s life. It has to bring a benefit to a listener. The more engaging it becomes, the more lucrative it becomes. I think WMMR gets 4.2 million hits a month. That is a big number.
RI: Almost 40 percent of Clear Channel’s radio stations are on the market. What does this say about the radio business? How will this change the industry?
PS: I’ve never believed that the number of stations you own is that important a metric. I respect what they are doing. They’re in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles — that’s about $2.5 billion worth of revenue right there. If you do a stellar job in the top 20 markets, you’re going to have a great company. There is nothing wrong with the other markets, but you want to make sure that your management is positioned so that it can bring the most attention and the most resources to the radio stations where you can get the best rate of return for your size operation. My company may have 20 radio stations, but it generates over $230-$240 million. What Clear Channel is doing makes sense to me. If I had a company that size, I probably would have done something similar. It is not the quantity you own, it’s the quality.
RI: Do you think they just had too many radio stations?
PS: I can’t judge them. I don’t know the inner workings of the company. It takes just as much time to run a station in Peoria as it does in Detroit.
RI: Will Greater Media buy any of those stations?
PS: I don’t know. We’d like to look into the southeast, southwest, Washington, DC. If an opportunity presented itself, we would. Our capital structure is strong, and our balance sheet is clean. Most of our stations are all paid for, so we’re probably one of the companies that could participate in this without any problem. If the right opportunity presents itself and Clear Channel wants to do something with us, I’d welcome a conversation with Clear Channel CEO Mark Mays. I would never take this company any bigger than 30 stations, tops. But they would have to be strategically placed.
RI: Do you expect more private equity investors to move in?
PS: Diversity is important to our industry. It brings back more creative people, different types of formats, innovative ideas. It will be an interesting year.
RI: What are the odds that some of the existing groups will buy up a chunk of the Clear Channel stations? Do you think that some company out there is going to grow by 50-75 stations?
PS: I would tell them to go back and look at the stable of stations they already own. People are always readjusting their portfolio of stations to make sure they are properly suited to the skill sets they have. Make sure you think it through. Don’t just think about being able to say in a magazine that you own 2,000 radio stations. Can you run them effectively? Do you have the infrastructure that will bring you and the people who work there a profitable experience? Those are the things that you’ve got to think through. Can you do all of that and still run a successful company? Capitalize on your strengths, manage to your weaknesses.
RI: You mention that markets can only sustain a certain number of stations, but with HD, the industry will have many more stations. How will that play out?
PS: I don’t know where the endgame will be with HD. HD provides a tremendous opportunity to bring in diverse voices, and I see HD stations augmenting the community and filling niches. But what role will they play four or five years from now? We as broadcasters must figure out the best application for them. They will be incredible in terms of pushing out data and receiving data back. The music today is just the first generation of HD. The 2nd and 3rd generation will make radio even more important in the community.
RI: So, will HD thrive more with data distribution than with music?
PS: First we’ve got to get the distribution. We had a great sale in Detroit with Radio Shack, and we are starting to see the sales pick up. The automotive companies are getting more receptive. In the beginning it will be music, but all of a sudden you’ll start to see channels used for reading, where authors will come in and read from books for community groups. And then they will be used for interactive applications, exchanges of data back and forth.
RI: And where will the money be made?
PS: I don’t think the HD2 channels will ever be marketed the same way traditional radio is. You won’t hear units per hour. You’ll hear, “This show is brought to you by….” like the PBS model. The experience today is totally different. When people first experienced FM in the ’70s, it was this underground funky thing that didn’t run any commercials, it just played Jimi Hendrix. These channels are coming on without any commercials, and the HD Alliance is going to keep them commercial-free for the time being. That is very important. The way they will be monetized will be a lot different. The economics will change demonstratively.
RI: It has been over a year since the HD Digital Radio Alliance was formed. Back then, the plan was to keep HD2 stations commercial free for an unspecified time. Can you give us an update?
PS: The original plan was to go commercial-free for 18 months, and I think we’re going to extend it for another year. CEO Peter Ferrara is doing a fabulous job. CBS Radio CEO Joel Hollander, Mark Mays, and I serve on the executive board, and we’ve been working hard with Peter, traveling around the country, and talking about the value of this technological advancement. It has been fun. We work well together. Peter Ferrara really deserves a tip of the hat.
RI: What are you hearing from the receiver manufacturers and the automakers?
PS: I’m hearing very positive things. We’ve got great response from the manufacturing base. On Black Friday we were selling them for $99. The Polk stuff is great. The Boston Acoustics stuff is great. The auto companies are starting to recognize that this thing is for real. They’ve got to see that you can build a very significant distribution platform, which Peter and his crew have done. The radio industry as a whole came together and put up over $200 million in marketing muscle, and we’ve spent a lot of inventory on this. It is not like some other incarnations where the radio industry would come together for 22 seconds and then they would all go shoot each other. We all realize the importance of this, and we all realize the applications down the road are far, far greater than what we are talking about today. We have to be in this space. We are a digital medium, and the sound quality is just incredible.
RI: Greater Media has been actively rolling out its HD2 channels. What have you learned so far?
PS: It’s expensive. You have to manage an HD station just like you manage a regular station. When you meet with your regional guys, make sure they are committed to it. Make sure they assign people to it and commit economic resources to it. Don’t think that once the engineers finish building up the tower you can walk away from it. The challenging part is programming it and assigning warm bodies to it so the user has a positive experience. Do research, have brainstorming sessions. Ask yourself: How can we do it better? What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? We do labs with the listeners to see what they think. We bring people into our buildings to talk about it. What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it? How is the audio quality?
If you are going to be in the business, then be in it. If you are going to commit, then commit to it. It is a constant investment. We’re not there to play, we’re there to win. When I first got into it, I thought I can just build these and that’s it. Then, sitting around with some of our general managers one night, I said we’ve got to win this thing. We’re going to have the best-sounding stations in the country. And they said there is nobody listening. I said there is nobody listening today. That gives you time to screw it up, so when they are listening it will be great. And that is what we did. Next year I want to have a Marconi award for the best HD2 channel in the country.
RI: What do you think of the rumors about XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio merging?
PS: I have read all the rumors, but who knows what is going to happen there? I think that business should be video-on-demand. That’s the best application. I’d take those 120 channels and burn them down to 10 video-on-demand channels beamed into the back seats of cars so parents could have their kids watching Bambi in the back seat. Would a young parent with a screaming two-year-old pay $3.95 to shut the kid up? In a heartbeat. I think that is a better application than what they are doing now, because people are tired of paying for things, and this next generation thinks things are free.
RI: Are you concerned about how the recent shift in political power in Congress could affect the radio industry?
PS: As long as the Republicans control the White House, there is some check and balance on which bills will pass, and which bills won’t pass. A lot of centrist Democrats were elected, so they have to be very careful that the liberal wing of the party doesn’t hijack it. Because if it does, and Congress gets bogged down with endless investigations, it will be two years of nothing until the next election.
RI: Do you expect the indecency debate to crop up again?
PS: I think that will eventually become a First Amendment issue, right or wrong. Here is the problem: It’s very hard to get a clear-cut vision of where it is supposed to be. I’m not trying to be a wise guy, but how do you define indecency? According to their standards, I don’t know what it is. But the fine amount — $325,000 per utterance — that is pretty definable. But does one complaint letter mean that we get a $325,000 fine?
RI: The FCC is conducting another review of its ownership rules. Do you expect Congress will once again get involved?
PS: I think the temperature is going to increase dramatically, but I don’t think anything will happen. It’s going to be very difficult to get some of these bills passed, because I don’t think the centrists want to deal with the liberal wing. There are going to be a lot of competing agendas, so it will be difficult to get a lot of these bills through. Some in Congress think that there is too much concentration, but I think it would be very difficult to roll back the limits because you’d have to unwind a lot of companies, and create a lot of dislocation. I don’t see the rules being repealed, and I don’t see them being expanded, either. I think it’s the status quo.
RI: The local market ownership caps and the Arbitron-based radio market definitions are back on the table. What do you expect will happen?
PS: With market definition, I think it goes back to laws of nature. I never thought the Arbitron method was the right one. The physics of radio should dictate that. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is going to bring up a lot of different things and the rules will all get re-introduced, but I think they’ll all end up back in an appeals court. It will be a challenging time on the legislative front, there’s no doubt about it.
RI: It seems that the harder the FCC tries to set clear limits, the more questions that arise.
PS: As long as you can continue to appeal them and get stays of the rules, you will never get the proper balance. Once you get to four or five stations in a marketplace, the next three or four are used as spoilers. They decrease the price structure of the market, and you cannibalize yourself. There are only eight basic formats, and then there are flankers of that. When you get into eight stations in a market, it gets hard to run them. That is to the detriment of radio, so maybe you have another operator in the marketplace. I don’t like the fact that the government can come in and tell you you’ve got to do this or that. Greater Media just went through it here. I had to get rid of one station in Boston, and I think it is ridiculous. Kevin Martin will be under a lot of pressure, and people will be pounding on him to do certain things. But I don’t foresee major changes.
RI: It was only the numerical limits that the court remanded, so all the FCC has to justify are those limits.
PS: But I still don’t think they will get it done. What have they gotten done? Not a hell of a lot.
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