Good Neighbors: Mary Beth Garber Explains The Virtual Neighborhood That Unites Radio And Its Listeners (06/04/07)
By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard
Mary Beth Garber has it made. She lives in sunny Southern California, and she works in one of the coolest businesses around. President of the Southern California Broadcasters Association since 1998, Garber works with radio stations in some of the nationís top markets, helping sellers better understand and market radio to their clients, and educating both advertisers and consumers about how the medium can and does contribute to their lives.
A key part of her message is what she describes as the virtual neighborhood radio creates with its listeners, which bonds listeners to their stations in a way other media cannot. ďItís the only medium that can actually speak to you in a human voice,Ē she says. ďItís directed only to you, and includes you in the conversation, in the selection of music, in whatís on the air. Youíre part of a conversation, part of a social circle, accepted into a group.Ē
This virtual neighborhood connects listeners to not only their favorite stations, but also to each other. And when the power and uniqueness of this relationship is explained to advertisers, Garber says it can be a real eye-opener. ďFrom an advertiser standpoint, we ask: If you were going to build a new store, what would your requirements be of the neighborhood around it? Have them tell you exactly what they would tell their real estate people. Then we say: OK, hereís what my audience ó my virtual neighborhood ó looks like. If it were a brick-and-mortar neighborhood, would you build a store here?Ē She adds, ďWhen account executives understand that and sell that way, when program directors understand that and program that way, it winds up being very good all the way around, because all you put on the air is stuff that is relevant, and relevance sells.Ē
Indeed, while her primary focus is on the Southern California market, Garber firmly believes that the tenets of the virtual neighborhood resonate in radio markets everywhere, and hopes that the lessons she imparts to local sellers and advertisers permeate throughout the industry. ďThe account executives who come through my classes are being taught and challenged to sell 360-degree access ó brand access; they donít just sell air time. As these people move to other markets, it will change the other markets.Ē
She adds, ďRadio stations now have over a dozen ways listeners can actually become a part of the programming, be on air, or be connected to the people who are on the air. The key is that radio is the most easily accessible medium there is, and ease of access is the key to being able to get a message across. The more likely people are to spend time with your medium, the more likely you are to be able to deliver a message to them.Ē
RADIO INK: Describe the key functions of the Southern California Broadcasters Association.
MARY BETH GARBER: Our primary function is to market radio, Southern California radio specifically. We go to agencies, clients, into the public in general at schools, colleges, rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, and every conference we possibly can to talk about how and why people use radio. Conversely, we also go to stations and talk to the programming people, the on-air people, and the salespeople about how and why people use radio, and how to explain this to clients so they know how to buy and use it correctly.
RI: How does the message vary depending on the audience?
MBG: The core element doesnít vary; the examples we use vary so that theyíre relevant to whomever weíre speaking with.
RI: When youíre talking to advertisers, what are you saying to them? What are you hearing from them?
MBG: We get a lot of what I call consumer questions from advertisers. I was speaking to the head of a furniture store chain that has come into the marketplace recently, and the first thing he asked was whether or not satellite radio had decimated local radio listening. So you start with that kind of education, and bring them back into reality. Iíve sat with clients who are ó and whose children are ó extremely privileged. They live in a world where theyíre surrounded by iPods and satellite radio and TiVo. They assume that no one watches television, no one listens to radio, and everyone is like them; so it usually winds up being an eye-opening experience for both them and for me.
RI: What do advertisers see as the key weaknesses with radio?
MBG: What the advertiser sees and what the ad agency sees as weaknesses are actually different. Once theyíve used it, the advertisers donít see any weaknesses. Iíve interviewed a number of people who have said ďI do lead generation, Iíve used the Internet, Iíve used television, and nothing delivers the way radio does.Ē Once theyíve used it and made it work, theyíre fine. If theyíve never used it, itís more a fear of its perceived weaknesses rather than actual weaknesses.
RI: Surely there are advertisers for whom radio didnít workÖ
MBG: Absolutely. Then itís a question of sitting down with them, going through what happened, ways it did work, getting them involved in how it can work better. I had a hardware store owner who had been sold radio by someone who didnít understand anything about radio, and had used it quite badly. Of course it didnít work for him. I went with an AE who did understand radio, and whose station understood, and talked with this advertiser about how people use radio. We helped him develop his unique selling proposition, and the writer helped him develop copy. So, he was involved in it, he could relate to and understand it. I find that when you bring radio ó which really is a huge part of all of our lives ó back to people the way they actually relate to it, then suddenly the lights go off, little bells ring, and they say, I get it!
RI: In your research, what have you learned about how radio factors into peoplesí lives?
MBG: With consumers, the first thing I ask is what radio stations they listen to. The other day I asked a group of 150 advertising students at Cal State Northridge: How many of you listened to radio today? Virtually every hand went up. I started naming stations, and hands went up. Did I miss any stations? A couple of odd stations came out of the crowd. Then I did the virtual neighborhood presentation for them.
RI: What is your virtual neighborhood presentation?
MBG: We live each day very differently from the way we might have 20 years ago. With the American way of life, traffic is so bad and technology is so good. We donít spend a lot of time at home; therefore, we donít build a lot of social circles. The majority of our socializing is done out of home or online or on cell phones; not a lot of it is done face to face. The majority of people canít name five of their neighbors. People can name the dogs of the neighbors, but not the neighbors.
Because we need to socialize, weíve invented things like Facebook and MySpace. But long before that, we invented radio. Itís the only medium that can actually speak to you in a human voice. Itís directed only to you, and includes you in the conversation, in the selection of music, in whatís on the air. Youíre part of a conversation, part of a social circle, accepted into a group. Itís instantaneous, available 24 hours a day, and itís a place you can go to be with other people. Itís as close to being with other people as you probably get on a regular basis in your life, with the exception of your immediate family.
In my virtual neighborhood presentation, Iíll ask people if they have stations pre-set in their car. The typical answer is six. How many do you use? The typical answer is three, maybe two. People go back to these same ďneighborhoodsĒ over and over and over. As a result, you have virtual neighborhoods. So as a radio host, air talent, program director, you realize that these people come back every single day, that you are a part of their lives, that they want to be included. Technology has allowed people to find more and more ways to be included.
From an advertiser standpoint, we ask: If you were going to build a new store, what would your requirements be of the neighborhood around it? Have them tell you exactly what they would tell their real estate people. Then we say: OK, hereís what my audience ó my virtual neighborhood ó looks like. If it were a brick-and-mortar neighborhood, would you build a store here? Here are the other virtual stores that are in the neighborhood; you can see that they represent the kind of audience or the kind of customers you are talking about. Here are the ones that have been here for two years or more; obviously theyíre doing good business, or they wouldnít still have the stores here. And if it were a brick-and-mortar store, and after three weeks you werenít getting the results you wanted, you wouldnít close the store down. Youíd bring in experts to help you figure out a better way to market. Youíd join the rotary, youíd sponsor a Little League team, youíd get involved in the community, youíd join the PTA. Well, you have to do the same thing on a radio station. The more ways you can get involved, the more you become a part of a neighborhood. Good neighbors do good business with good neighbors.
RI: Do advertisers embrace this idea?
MBG: Actually, I donít think Iíve ever had anyone turn around and say thatís not true. Most of them have said OK, weíll try that. Even national advertisers; Iíve taken the story to probably the top 20 agencies or buying services, wherever the planning groups are, and they relate to it. Most advertisers want to talk mindset, engagement. They want to invite the consumer in, engage the consumer, and become a part of their lives ó which is how you build a brand.
RI: When you meet with college-age groups, what is the image of radio?
MBG: Iíve been in the marketing, advertising, and music departments at USC. The music department hates radio; they think itís terrible, and yet they could name every single person on K-ROCK and every single person on STAR. A small handful of people say they donít really listen to radio or donít like it, but the vast majority of them still listen and like it. The two most frequent complaints are that the playlist is too repetitive and the commercials are repeated too often ó not that there are too many commercials. Either there are too many bad commercials, or the same ads ó or same promos ó are being played way too often.
The USC kids tend not to be employed; theyíre full-time students with fairly privileged backgrounds, so they own all of the equipment you possibly could. One teacher did a whole symposium on radio, and what they basically said was we still like radio but it needs to change, it needs to not be boring. The complaint they had about the iPods was that even for a kid with 5,000 songs on his iPod who reprogrammed it every single night, there is no surprise. I know whatís going to be on my iPod. I donít know whatís going to be on the radio. I want new, I want different, I want surprises, but I also want comfortable, stuff that I recognize. What he didnít say, but what he really meant was, I also want an environment, a neighborhood I can go back to so that when I walk into it, I feel as if Iím at home.
RI: Are you educating any of these people about HD Radio? What are you seeing in terms of awareness among consumers?
MBG: HD is up on my website and it is a part of every presentation I do. Awareness is pretty low; itís starting to get into the talking layer of the community because of all the HD commercials, although most people still have no idea what it is. They know the term HD Radio, and they ask what it is. The agency folks ask how itís going to change things; the consumers want to know when it will be available.
RI: Is there an impression that HD will address the concerns that radio is boring?
MBG: I donít think theyíre passing judgment yet. I think they see the potential for it to expand what each station is doing and to bring more formats onto the air. I explain to them that there are only about 62 radio stations licensed to Los Angeles. There is no more room, so you have to please the population with the stations that are there. Most people eventually get that. There is no call for reggae as a full-time format, and yet you may want to hear more reggae than you own on your CD collection, and maybe hear people talk about reggae. That becomes possible with HD. You can do that on HD, because youíve got more places on that same dial.
RI: What are your member stations doing with HD?
MBG: Most of the marketplace has embraced it; over 25 stations here are broadcasting digitally, and about 15 of them have sub-channels, including the Spanish stations.
RI: Have you heard any kind of feedback from consumers on HD?
MBG: Itís too soon; I donít think thereís anywhere near enough HD radios out there for that kind of awareness. It hasnít started any complaints, and you know that it really hasnít reached mass until you start getting complaints.
RI: What should radio do to increase advertising and bring in new money?
MBG: The first thing is to change how people perceive radio. Even if everyone doesnít buy into my concept of virtual neighborhood, we should be out there talking ó and not the way we do in trade magazines with ads ó and planting the kind of editorial, comments, celebrity involvement that generate talk and opinion and perception. We should have people or companies on our payroll to do that, so weíre as big as XM radio. Iíd love to have the PR machine thatís behind XM or Sirius.
RI: Why doesnít the industry do it? Is it a job for the NAB or the RAB?
MBG: I believe itís a job for the NAB and the RAB, because each station and station group has a certain amount of self interest that canít necessarily be a part of this message. XM talks about XM; it doesnít talk about its individual channels. It talks about satellite radio. We should be talking about local radio brands. We really arenít terrestrial or even broadcast radio anymore, because you can pick us up on iPod cell phones and the Internet. We are brands. Thereís a reason that online listening to radio stations has increased from 35 to 67 percent. Weíre very strong brands, and we market branded content. In the end, no oneís going to know whether youíre an AM station, an FM station, a terrestrial radio station, or an Internet station. Theyíre only going to know the brand, the content, and the experience. If they enjoy going there, they will come back. Radio has the advantage of being able to create a brand that not only exists on the Internet, on your cell phone, and on your iPod, but also exists on radios and in cars, and can be used any time of day, any place, pretty ubiquitously, pretty easily. You can get to that brand and it can become a part of your life. At-work listening is going up because now people can go online and access the radio station inside a building. And it brings you right back to that neighborhood that makes you feel as if youíre part of something.
RI: Do the needs of stations that are owned by large groups differ greatly from independent broadcasters?
MBG: Only in the small details. They all use the same information from us, even the large stations. Most of the new AEs are focused on local sales; not local agency sales, not national manufacturer sales, but local businesses. So that is pretty lateral.
RI: Are there any things you feel stations are under-utilizing that your association and others like it could be helping them with?
MBG: They use us a lot. We know they use us a lot because we know how many hits we get on our website and how many go to our marketing pages. I would like them to use us more to help strategize how to get clients on to radio, and use the material we put out there. Weíre constantly going into the stations, updating them on material and encouraging them to bring us to their clients. I would like to see more of that. I donít think all of the AEs are aware of who we are and what we can do.
RI: Has consolidation has affected the role of broadcast associations?
MBG: The major way is less need for networking. Prior to consolidation, each radio station was a world unto its own, unless you had a combo. Very few companies here had more than two stations, and most had only one. So, for the AEs to meet one another, even the managers to meet and talk to one another, you had to have opportunities for socializing. That isnít needed as much today, because so many of the managers and AEs are under the same roof.
RI: Should stations in major markets like Los Angeles and San Francisco be leading the way for the rest of the industry in terms of HD and PPM? What can they do to pollinate their leadership across the industry?
MBG: If they create the sales and business models, they will pollinate back through their own major companies. I think the stations here should be doing HD, and taking advantage of all of the technological outlets that are now afforded a radio station. They should not sell air time, but brand access. K-ROCK is one of the most powerful brands in the world. What you sell is access to that brand, and there are myriad ways to get access to it. You can sponsor their weenie roast, you can sponsor their call-in line. You can create things on their website to engage the listeners, because the listeners want to be engaged.
Weíve had consumer-generated content since the day they put a phone in an announcerís booth, but listeners really like to get involved in creating, shaping, and maintaining these neighborhoods. Advertisers that help them do that stand to gain monetarily, as do the stations. The AEs who come through my classes are being taught and challenged to sell 360-degree access ó brand access; they donít just sell air time. As these people move to other markets, it will change the other markets. K-ROCK did almost $7 million last year. When you put together what Clear Channel and CBS made here, there are entire markets that donít make anywhere near that. And, that doesnít come from just selling air time; it comes from monetizing the brand.
RI: Do Southern California markets mirror the rest of the U.S.?
MBG: We specialize in looking at local because a lot of the ad agencies deal with more than one market. In order to get money into Southern California, I often have to examine 30 other markets. What Iíve seen across the country is similarities with the amount of time spent with radio in a car, the amount of time spent with radio in a day across the country. What they want out of radio stations is very different, but I do see similar lifestyle patterns across the country. Markets like Bakersfield and Fresno and Las Vegas complain thereís way too much traffic, and you see it in the average commute time. Not average commute time as published by the Feds, but the amount of time Arbitron reports that people spend listening to radio in a car ó which averages about an hour and a half a day, no matter which market. The lowest Iíve seen is little markets like Tulsa, where itís still about an hour.
RI: How will electronic measurement affect radioís value to advertisers?
MBG: I think it will make it much more valuable. Weíll be able to prove a lot of things that agencies now take as conjecture, such as the amount of time spent with a radio station, the fluctuation in the ratings, the fact that a station can go up 15 or down 20 percent from one book to the next in major demos. It doesnít make sense, and it shouldnít, unless thereís some major change in format or some event has happened with the station.
Iíve sold the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Giants, some nationally, some locally, and it is a pain trying to prove that anybody listens. Electronic measurement will definitely change that.
It will also eventually enable a complete electronic transaction between the agencies and the stations, and eliminate a lot of the human work at the agency that makes radio too expensive to use. It isnít that our spots cost a lot, although they do; itís that you canít mark our stuff up and make any money on it. It takes far more bodies to put together a radio buy than with any other medium, and that ruins your overhead. The more electronic we get, the fewer bodies they need. But on top of that, the credibility of the ratings when they talk to their clients is much better, and the things we can prove will be much, much easier.
RI: What are your member stations doing to prepare for next yearís launch of PPM in Southern California?
MBG: Almost every group down here has had an outside consultant team as well as Arbitron come in to explain what theyíve found and how itís actually going to impact them. We gathered all of the general sales managers and local sales managers to have Arbitron show them what Arbitron is taking out to the buying and planning community, so that they understand what theyíre being told.
RI: As a perennial member of our MIW list, do women in the radio business come to you for advice and counsel?
MBG: Young women come in all the time, either because they want to get into the business or they want to advance but donít know how. Once in a while I hear from women who just want to change where they are, move someplace else, or figure out how to deal with where they are. I have guys come in as well.
More women than men ask me how to deal with the management team, to better position themselves to advance, to explain why something happened and what to do about it. A lot of guys want to go to other stations, or to get into the business, or ask advice on what aggressive line to take to get where, or how to do better business where they are. Women donít understand or are uncomfortable with something that happened, or theyíre at a plateau and donít know what to do next.
RI: Are women still hitting the glass ceiling at certain levels?
MBG: I donít think it is intentional, but I think there is an undercurrent. The few companies that have actually opened upper floors to women have profited. In Los Angeles, the top-rated English-speaking station for adults 25 to 50 is KFI, a Talk station programmed by a woman. KOST, one of the top-rated stations in the market, is programmed by a woman. KLOS isnít top rated but itís so concentrated in its demo that it does really well, and itís also programmed by a woman.
RI: What advice do you have for a young woman just getting into radio?
MBG: She should look at the body language of the men sheís dealing with, and be on guard for little signs of tension or discomfort, and address them. She should not be afraid to say: I can see that what I said made you uncomfortable. What can we do about it? How can we deal with this?
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