The Best Radio Group

Years ago when I was publishing Inside Radio, I received a phone call from one of my advertisers who said they were going to go out of business.

The economy was good.

The advertiser was very solid -- certainly as far as how they paid my invoices.

But, they still had the majority of a $60,00o signed contract to fulfill.

To my delight and surprise, the advertiser said "we'll keep paying your bills until we have paid for the contract in full". They just didn't want me to run any ads since they decided to close down their syndication division.

That client -- the one that could have just said, "too bad, you're out of luck" was Bonneville.

Corporate had decided to close the beautiful music division and leave the field as more youthful formats were taking hold.

I mention this because the company that over 700 of you have voted as "The Best Radio Group" is Bonneville -- getting 21% of over 150 votes. You can see all the up-to-the-second results of both the "Best" and "Worst" radio groups by clicking here.

Cox, CBS Radio, Saga and Greater Media also received 8% or more of the vote. By contrast Clear Channel, Cumulus and Citadel polled 4% or under.

Why Bonneville?

Well, they are not a big group of stations and you could argue they got out the vote. If so, then why did the much larger Clear Channel only manage 3%?

No ... it's not about stuffing the ballot box.

And you could argue that Bonneville has the best radio stations across the country.

No ... many of the other poor performing groups in this poll also have excellent stations and that was not enough to win the day for them.

As it turned out the continuous, real time voting for "Best" and "Worst" radio group was a referendum on competence of management and effective skills in handling employees.

Many readers believe that the "Best" radio group is the one that treats people well and the "Worst" is Cumulus -- and you know the stories of how they treat their people.

A better way to look at it in the waning days of radio consolidation is -- what group would you like to work for if you had the chance?

That's what this seems to be all about.

I've been asked, which groups would I like to work for and I usually include most of the ones that polled well with my readers.

Bonneville is a 29 station well-run privately-owned company that believes in radio. (Does that mean less is more, John Slogan Hogan? Hogan can't seem to run the largest group of radio stations with every benefit that comes with size).

It's a traditional company with an outstanding CEO in Bruce Reese.

This man is no Lew Tricky Dickey. Not an empty suit like a few of the other group CEOs. He's smart and stable.

Look, Bonneville is not perfect and I'm not saying it is.

They do some of the things the "Worst" groups do like using voice tracking.

But they don't lay people off in bad times.

How many radio groups can say that these days?

In fact, recently when the recession forced economic cutbacks at Bonneville the higher paid employees saw their salaries cut. For everyone else, fewer holidays, less vacation and reduced benefits like gym memberships.

That's it.

I know a lot of Clear Channel casualties that would have taken that deal any day of the week.

Bonneville CEO Bruce Reese was quoted at the time in the trade press as saying, “Our corporate management team and market managers have looked at this very carefully and thoughtfully. We believe these adjustments are reasonable and necessary to maintain the health of our company and its valued employees."

Yet some wonder shouldn't the people at the better performing Bonneville stations such as WTOP in Washington be rewarded instead of punished for hitting their goals?

That execs at V100 in LA -- one of the most recent $137 million Bonneville acquisitions -- should be making less while top performers make more. V100 is reportedly poor in billing after 16 months in their music format.

But Bonneville management has decided that the richer stations in effect should subsidize the poorer performers at least for now and my readers apparently agree. Bonneville gets only 4 negative votes in the "Worst" category out of approximately 1,100 votes cast so far.

In the days when companies were restricted by law to owning seven AM, seven FM and seven TV stations, there were still lousy operators.

Weirdos! I worked for some and you may have as well.

Still when you did something stupid or they did (like let you go), there were always a lot of other stations in the same market (or nearby markets) so that your career could continue and your family did not have to be uprooted just to stay in the business.

Even Clear Channel when it was just a gleam in the eye of Lowry Mays was small and harmless. It used to be called "Cheap Channel" but never "The Evil Empire" back then. In fact, Lowry Mays was the last guy I thought could ride in and steal an industry. But he did.

So in the 13 years since mega consolidation, a 29 station group is considered the best. In fact, all of the top finishers are rather small and Saga is a small market group that really isn't that large, either.

Perhaps it is no accident.

Small means better.

Since the voting started I have received lots of email from Connoisseur employees (and management) asking why they were omitted from the voting. No particular reason other than to cut off my large BIA generated voting list somewhere. Yet Connoisseur employees expressed a lot of pride in working for their company -- at least that's what they told me.

Could we then project the qualities of the ideal radio group?

We could certainly try.

1. Small (50 stations or less, let's say).

2. Compassionate management that values people and tries not to fire people.

3. Stability of management (i.e., is this a company that radio people would like to work for?).

Being the best seems to have little to do with the grandiose plans of companies and families that went on to dominate the radio business (The Dickeys, The Mays).

Little to do with "our eyes are bigger than our ability to pay the debt that it took to build our group" companies like Citadel.

In reality, the government had it wrong when it enabled consolidation.

Deregulation created this fire -- to borrow some imagery from Billy Joel's song.

Near monopoly not only was not an advantage, it turned into the industry's downfall.

For every big group assembled around the Dickey Dos, Fagreed Sulemans and Slogan Hogans, the industry and listeners wound up getting short-changed while their companies, principals and investment banks profited.

I think of the clown image that consolidators have when companies like Citadel hold a "Survivor" type audition online for salespeople at their Providence cluster after they fired tons of their own good sellers. That's no way to recruit salespeople.

That's what consolidation has become -- a circus.

Or you can see what stability in management and sales gets you.

What treating people right (or at least trying) means to your business -- and you have Bonneville.

The screw ups running most of today's radio groups never give us a shortage of things to talk about here. Today, it's nice to see that so many of you have recognized an elite handful of radio groups as worthy of the honor "Best" operators in radio.

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