Lew Dickey Runs Cumulus Like BP

While CBS Radio President Dan Mason is celebrating the ascent of WCBS-FM in New York to number one status in the latest PPM ratings, Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey is telling a Kagan Conference that he has $1 billion in capital to spend on acquiring “pretty attractive stuff”.

Mason is a real radio guy and a friend of mine so if you think that clouds my judgment, read no further.

Of course, I’ve known Dickey for years and he has always been nice to me. We have had a cordial relationship.

But I no longer respect him.

Dickey is mean to his employees – many of whom detest him and his management team and he talks out of both sides of his mouth – like in his recent comments at Kagan.

This guy is playing with us.

He is quoted in Radio-Info as saying, “His challenge – to ‘de-commoditize our business’ and start lifting rates.”


Dickey is the guy who made a commodity out of radio – importing cheap syndicated and shared programming to save money, cutting local sales forces to the bone and authorizing a phone-bank in Atlanta to sell local radio in Cumulus markets.

That is what he has factually done.

And yet Dickey is getting a pass in the trades as if he actually knows what he is doing.

Then look at Dan Mason.

Same industry.

Same economy.

Plus add corporate pressure of being an arm of Viacom.

Yet Mason builds radio stations that for the most part are very likable and listenable. More importantly, they are local. He may use voice tracking more than I like and I never cared for CBS firing a lot of its morning talent to save money – I suspect he didn’t like to do it, either.

Still, to revive WCBS-FM was his brainchild.

A beloved station that New York listeners missed so much they wouldn’t give the “Jack FM” format as much as a slim chance on the 101 frequency. One of the first things Mason did when he was hired by Les Moonves was revive the oldies station and morph it into a somewhat younger sound. Mason didn’t run from oldies (or classic hits, if you must) because baby boomers were getting older.

He saw how the People Meter could actually help the genre.

So what is the difference between Dickey and Mason?

Mason is a programmer – a product guy, who worked for decades at radio stations.

Dickey is a pretender, sorry to say it – who brags about buying other companies the way adolescent boys brag about you know what in the locker room.

Now, Dickey spits in the face of the industry and the very people whose careers he has ruined or is in the process of ruining and he gets a free pass.

In an Inside Radio story titled “What Will Lew Dickey Buy? You Might be Surprised” his pseudo $1 billion Crestview acquisition account is never questioned. You may remember, Dickey announced the partnership with great public fanfare but neither Crestview nor Dickey pledged any money to the account.

Show me the money?

Who invested in it?

Some people – I’m one of them – say, “I call you” in his poker match. Is the acquisition account fully funded?

I doubt it.

Is it partially funded?

I doubt it.

Is there any money in it at all?

How about a full public accounting.

Then Dickey goes on and brags about the “pretty attractive stuff” he is supposedly looking at.


Well, looking isn’t buying.

Are you buying CBS?

Previously, Dickey has bragged about buying Citadel and Regent.

You know what happened there.

Now Dickey is saying it could be another three or four months before a deal gets done – maybe even longer.

As my mother used to say, “don’t leave me hanging”.

Dickey has the chutzpah to say, “If we have to wait until 2012, it’s not that big of deal. We have plenty to keep us busy”.

Like learning how to run a radio station as they lose valuable managers, programmers, on-air talent, sales execs and engineers.

So you can see the contrast.

Maybe a few years ago the Dickey dog and pony show might attract a crowd but today you get the feeling he’s selling snake oil to a gathering of snake oil salesmen.

Mason is trying to do local radio under the constraints of a tough economy.

Dickey is firing everyone and consolidating their jobs in Atlanta.

CBS is delving deeper into the digital future – for without it, radio can never be a growth business again as witnessed by the PwC prediction that radio will fully recover from its recession by 2014 but only if it adds all forms of audio including Internet and satellite.

Dickey’s foray into digital media is a Blackberry.

Look, radio is on the cusp of either making it or breaking it as terrestrial listening is replaced by digital entertainment.

Dan Mason is one of a handful of sincere radio executives who understands this and is doing something about it. Good programming on-air and new content for the mobile Internet.

Dickey reminds me of a BP exec telling us the personnel spill was not that bad …

That Cumulus is not polluting the airwaves with cheap, unremarkable syndicated programming and voice tracking ...

That cleaning up the shores of declining sales is as simple as raising ad rates 30% to pre-recession prices while offering less in-demand local programming.

Dickey is as insensitive and clueless as BP oil executives and both come off seemingly as slippery as the very oil BP was drilling for in the Gulf.

So my suggestion to Dickey is to mimic BP one more time and set up a fund with, say, $100 million as compensation for payment to radio people whose careers Cumulus has ruined and then call Dan Mason and ask him how to run a radio group.

There is a window of opportunity here for great local radio and great local mobile Internet content by radio companies.

Every time someone like Lew Dickey tries to revert back to “Wall Street 2”, call him out for the sake of all radio people who want to be part of the future, not bad business as usual.

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