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New Cumulus CEO tells WSJ: culture shift will lead to financial improvement

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 29: Fairchild Publications President and CEO Mary Berner photographed at the Fairchild Publications headquarters on September 29, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 29: Fairchild Publications President and CEO Mary Berner photographed at the Fairchild Publications headquarters on September 29, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Thursday, May 12, 2016

Last week, new Cumulus Media CEO Mary Berner told the Wall Street Journal that she can turn around the troubled company in part by changing its culture.

Scarily, the Atlanta-based radio company lost a whopping 50 percent of its employees in the 18 months prior to her arrival last fall. In other words, the Dickey-led management had created an incredibly toxic environment to work. Berner is trying to change that.

According to the story:

She required that staff return each other’s emails within 48 hours, started making 30 calls a week to congratulate employees on their work anniversaries and relaxed the dress code. Voluntary sales-force turnover dropped to 27% so far this year compared with 42% during the same period a year ago.

Ms. Berner sold the corporate jet, consolidated duplicate Internet-technology departments and created a department to provide stations with market data and analytics on which to base local programming decisions.

She believes a healthier corporate culture will lead to better financial results.

“The pride is returning,” the former “Reader’s Digest” CEO told stock analysts and press.

She is working on creating a more collaborative environment. The Dickeys were known for a more “command and control” management style, which tended to blunt creativity and risk taking. On top of that, she noted, there was “years of underinvestment” that has come to roost.

An insider in the Atlanta office has noticed that managers are focusing on making radio more “personality driven” with more “team play” at work.

Right now, Berner is grappling with falling revenues and $2.5 billion in debt, much of it built up when Cumulus purchased Citadel in 2011 and problems at its syndication arm Westwood One, which distributes Clark Howard, Herman Cain and Don Imus as well as NCAA and NFL games.

She acknowledged: “Contracts are getting squeezed, recruitment can be challenging, and normal-course business activities are becoming increasingly difficult or expensive.”

In Atlanta, Cumulus owns former Citadel properties Kicks 101.5 and NewsRadio 106.7 on top of Q100 and Rock 100.5. It also has translator signals OG 97.9 and 99X at 98.9. None of the big-signal stations are doing particularly well. Last month in the Nielsen Audio ratings book, its highest ranked station was Kicks, in 13th place. All four of Cox Media Group’s stations (WSB, B98.5, 97.1/The River, Kiss 104.1) ranked higher.

Those are six out of 454 total stations nationwide, making Cumulus the second-largest radio company  behind IHeartMedia. That company (which includes Power 96.1, 94.9/The Bull and 640/WGST to its stable) has its own share of financial issues stemming from a 2009 leveraged buyout that has them weighed down by interest payments on $20 billion in debt.

Last year, Cumulus lost $550 million, mostly because of issues with Westwood One. Its stock slipped below $1 last fall and is now at 35 cents a share.

Read the first quarter highlights here.

Not all companies are suffering. Entercom Communications, which owns Star 94.1, grew revenue and profits last year.

 


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