Radio Thrilla in Philla: Lew and Me

I ran into Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey when I first arrived at the recent NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia -- dare I say this during a recession -- at the Four Seasons Hotel.

It turned into a knock-down, drag out fight -- The Thrilla in Philla.

Lew threw a left punch.

I counter punched.

He bloodied my face.

I broke his nose.

We wrestled each other to the marble floor.

Okay ... it may not actually be the Thriller in Manilla that Ali and Frazier fought -- it's just my programmer's imagination trying to live up to your expectations of the Thrilla in Philla on the eve of the NAB Radio Show.

What really happened when Dickey and I talked was interesting and revealing and although I am having a little fun with the topic here his comments were revealing and dead serious. Everything was on the record.

Lew -- the man I playfully call "Tricky Dickey" and "Dickey Do" has his own take and a few nicknames of his own for me, I am sure. We followed up with a lengthy phone conversation after we left Philly.

Round One:

Lew said, "Jerry you're killing me" with a smile on his face hiding a bit of anger, in my opinion. I said, "Lew, you're killing yourself, I'm just reporting it".

No harm done.

Round Two:

Dickey made it clear to me -- saying three times by my count -- that he intended to run Cumulus his way -- that it was his company. When I reminded him that I know that, I added that his employees don't like his company. (See The Inside Music Media poll of Best & Worst radio groups in the right-hand column -- see it here).

I got the feeling Dickey was like Ali saying, "I'll be floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee".

Hell, I'm allergic to bees.

Lew Dickey and I have known each other a long time. Many people don't know that we have enjoyed a cordial relationship for most of that time especially during his troubles with Cumulus founder Richard Weening. He reminded me of that. I continued with "it's not personal but you're not the same guy I knew then".

Round Three:

Dickey is no dope as far as education is concerned. You may not like him but you can't say he's stupid. Dickey told me that he has a different vision for his radio group. That a handful of advertising categories are the key to financial success and that employees may not like that.

I said that they may not like the way you are treating them.

He went to his corner and came out fighting.

Round Four:

Dickey said the old sales system has to change and it may take new people to make those changes.

I counter punched -- are you telling me that you're going to have to replace your present people to accomplish what you want?

Dickey backed off saying some employees may not want to do what he wants done. That may not be the whole truth -- read on.

Round Five:

I pressed him further and pushed him up against the ropes while he again reminded me that he'll do it his way. Frankly I indicated that that could be the problem. I told him of all the emails I get from his dissatisfied current and former employees who hate working for his company.

Round Six -- a potential low blow:

Yes, I hit him on the chin with Gary Pizzati, considered by some to be the Dickey-designated Hit Man, and Lew let the punch deflect off of him.

Round Seven:

I persisted by saying that if he had such a great vision for his company that perhaps he could do a better job of communicating it to his restless employees -- using some Dale Carnegie skills, perhaps. Dickey admitted that this might be so as he walked toward the door.

This reminded me of another great Ali quote: "A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he'll never crow. I have seen the light and I'm crowing".

Round Eight:

Lew promised no more personnel will be fired. The firing is done. That revelation almost knocked me out but I came to me senses and wondered what he would do if business continued to post 25-30% declines. Just as I was getting off the floor (so to speak) I heard him say that if revenue is off that much in the future the consolidators' bank deals will all have to be restructured.

I hobbled to my corner.

Round Nine:

Now Lew is going for the kill -- he hits me "we're hiring back 90 new account execs". I'm almost down for the count until I get to my feet and ask, "does that mean you'll be hiring back the people you laid off?"

He bobbed and weaved and said Cumulus may rehire some of them but they are more likely to hire new people who could help grow the health care, education and professional services (tax, legal) categories that he believes radio ignores. Just before the round ends, Lew reminds me "radio is getting none of this business because no one is calling on them".

Round Ten:

Cumulus is going to start training its sales people again -- Atlanta, January -- key account people, managers and sales managers. Then he pounds me with the fact that radio has under invested in its people. When I come back with, "isn't that your fault?" He bobs and weaves and brings up a Bain Consulting study that the management company claims to be surprised at the lack of sophistication in the radio industry compared with other Fortune 500 companies.

Now I'm mad.

Coming back with "they must have been pretty professional in 2003 when you were raking in all that free cash flow". All of a sudden they are not professional enough?

Round Eleven:

I'm almost down for the count when Lew says that even the great Susquehanna stations that he bought didn't have the professional sales staffs he was looking for -- judging by his Fortune 500 standard.


I'm stunned!

The ref would have had to call a TKO.

I came away from this sparring between Lew and you-know-who with a post round summary of where I think Cumulus is -- maybe I'm punch drunk but here it is:

1. Dickey is probably right about the major cutbacks being over, but I still think there will be nip and tucks going on to streamline the operation.

2. Voice tracking and cost efficiencies in programming will continue -- he's walking a very fine line on expenses. No big hiring plans in programming.

3. Dickey thinks Cumulus will avoid the bankruptcy that Citadel is sure to face within months. I think if Citadel goes, Clear Channel and Cumulus are the two best bets to follow.

4. Dickey told me he isn't sure whether "this business will grow again" and I told him you can bet on it -- especially if operators like Cumulus continue to ignore the digital future.

5. Lew said radio has been commoditized because of consolidation and I said "whose fault is that -- yours and the other consolidators?"

6. That his compensation has been misrepresented and that the board in their seven-year contract extension was just trying to make him whole again. When I mentioned that making him whole when his people are going broke doesn't fly right, he didn't seem to get it.

In the end, I warned Captain Lew that even if he is right about everything, he will fail if he cannot get his employees to believe in his vision.

That he could have done a better job on communicating his ideas -- he does admit to this.

When I mentioned Gary Pizzati, one of his minions, who seems to rankle men and offend women I heard nothing that is going to make this change any time soon.

So, I predict business as usual at Cumulus.

A tightening of the screws using a top-down management approach.

Everybody is either on board or Cumulus will find new people.

When I mentioned that one account exec who told me he had enough trouble maintaining his list let alone the mandatory dialing for dollars prospecting, Lew said the person I was speaking of probably was a long-time employee.

New account execs replacing old -- because this company is hell bent on getting health care, education and professional services ad dollars.

The Thrilla in Philla between between Lew and JD is not half as bloody as, say ...

Jack Dempsey vs. Harry Willis

Rocky Graziano vs. Jake LaMotta

Rocky Marciano vs. Nino Valdez

Rocky Marciano vs. Sonny Liston

Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Archie Moore

Joe Frazier vs. Sonny Liston

Joe Frazier vs. Mac Foster

Bob Foster vs. Floyd Patterson

George Foreman vs. Jerry Quarry

Mike Tyson vs. George Foreman

Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas Rematch

Carlos Monzon vs. Marvin Hagler

Except at Cumulus, I am coming away from all of this with a feeling that the big fight is yet to come and it will be between ...

Lew Dickey and his remaining employees

Career ending for the loser.

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