BY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ED RYAN
They met one another in 1993 at MediaAmerica and have been business partners ever since. Having worked as executives at MediaAmerica, Jones MediaAmerica, and Westwood One, Cathy Csukas and Gary Schonfeld had unique experience at witnessing what was being done well — and not so well — in the network space. They also had the drive, desire, and connections to step out on their own and challenge the bigger companies.
After spending two years trying to help turn around Westwood One, they decided it was time. So they spent a few weeks sitting around Cathy’s dining room table, talking through their idea and sketching out their plan, and AdLarge Media was launched in 2011. Today the company employs 35 people and provides programming and services to more than 5,000 radio stations in the U.S. And they have created a company that is much more than the traditional radio network operation.
RI: How did you two first meet?
Csukas: It’s so funny, because we go back and forth and tell this story from different perspectives. And they are different. I’m going to suggest Gary start the story, because it really does start with him.
Schonfeld: It goes back to MediaAmerica. We were building and growing that company, and we needed much more help in the accounting area. We hired Cathy, who was a CPA.
Csukas: I came in in 1993. Gary and his partner at the time had been building that business for a number of years. I was really looking to exit out of public accounting and took the job at this really impressive media company that seemed really intriguing. That’s where we met and our partnership started.
RI: When did you make the switch to sales?
Csukas: I spent a number of years running accounting and financial for that company before it was sold, around 1998, to Glenn Jones. That’s when everything started changing for us. In 1998, after the company was sold, the role I had changed. It became a very different, scaled-down version of what I had been doing previously for the company. Honestly, I was looking to exit.
I was invited to work in the sales management department for the national sales team. I actually thought it was a joke because it didn’t really make any sense. But after they asked me a few times, I decided to accept the challenge — and we will call it a challenge. That was the beginning of my first time really being front and center in a sales organization.
RI: What was going on at Jones at the time?
Schonfeld: Cathy went from VP of sales to chief operating officer. In 2008, the company was sold again, this time to Oaktree. They put it together with then-Dial Global, and Cathy and I exited. Very shortly thereafter, we were running Westwood One, which we did from the end of 2008 until the end of 2010.
It was in 2008 that we really started talking about starting a company. We had the name AdLarge, and we were looking at the landscape at the time. That’s what we wanted to do, or what we thought would be appropriate for this industry. But Westwood came at us fairly aggressively, and it was a horrendous economic climate. We liked the challenge of working and seeing what we could do with Westwood. So we took the opportunity, which lasted for two years.
But our mission for AdLarge didn’t change. So, at the end of 2010, we said, “You know what? It’s time to do it. It’s time to start this new company. It’s right for advertisers. It’s right for content partners.” And it made great sense, because it was something that wasn’t being done. We started the company as equal partners and have grown it since.
RI: What was it like at Westwood One at the time?
Csukas: It was definitely a challenging couple of years. It was eye-opening. For me, it gave me the confidence to start our business, because I knew that there was just a lot of distraction in the marketplace and the marketplace needed an independent, fresh company that was not distracted, and could get out there and do it differently.
Schonfeld: It was certainly a difficult two years for Westwood. It was a time that we spent restructuring just about everything that could be restructured, from the debt to a lot of the contracts, so that when we left, it was in good enough shape that it could be sold, and very shortly thereafter, it was. I think it was a successful two years for us, to get it from where it started to where it ended when we left. It was a very difficult time financially. The Gores Group had come in, and the debt had ballooned. Our job was to try to fix some of that. It was tough.
RI: In 2010, you guys left Westwood. Tell us about your plan to launch.
Csukas: We started sitting at my dining room table to sketch out our plan for AdLarge.
Schonfeld: The mission from the very beginning was to help the industry, whether it’s advertisers or content providers, find each other in a way that transcends all platforms. We were probably one of the first to say, “It really doesn’t matter where the listener is consuming the audio.” We want to reach that consumer, whether it’s traditional radio, whether it’s on a mobile device, whether it’s a podcast, whether it’s a stream, whether it’s a talk show, music show, sporting event — the listener has great value. Advertisers want and need to reach those listeners wherever they are consuming radio.
And we started the company to have a competency in each of those areas. It wasn’t easy to create that competency back then, and we did it very successfully. And very, very quickly, we were offering inventory across all platforms.
RI: When you’re thinking about launching your own company, that can be scary and risky. You’d just gone through two years of tough times at Westwood One. What were you thinking at the time?
Csukas: Honestly, it wasn’t that scary. It really wasn’t, because we knew what was lacking in the marketplace. This is a space that we had been living in for many years. We knew the players. We knew the content. And we knew the advertisers. We knew exactly how we wanted to put it together, and we just did it. We went out to the marketplace and carefully hand-selected each and every one of the people that we wanted to work with.
Schonfeld: Including employees.
Csukas: I think a huge part of why we were not nervous is because we have such an amazing group of people that we work with. These are people that we’ve known for so many years. Many of these people, we have worked with on and off for 20-plus years. We’ve seen them grow up. We’ve seen them get married. We’ve been around when they’ve had their kids. And we’ve been working with them; we know how they work. We are a really, really tight team.
That’s part of the strength that I think we had building this business: We knew as a group of people what we could do. Then, to complement that, many of our clients worked with us in the past. They’re incredibly supportive and loyal to us, and that makes a huge difference.
RI: What’s the first step in launching a business like this?
Csukas: Probably the first thing we did was make a decision on who we wanted to hire to run our sales team. We hired our CRO, Don Wachsmith. He was the first big decision that we spent a lot of time thinking about as to who in the marketplace we wanted to work with.
Schonfeld: He’s still with us to this day as chief revenue officer, and he has helped us grow and been a big part of who AdLarge is.
Csukas: Part of building this organization — we knew the functions, operations, the sales team that we needed, and the coverage we needed to provide. But on the other side, we needed to build a portfolio of inventory that we had to be able to bring to the marketplace. And so while we were building operations and the actual team to work for AdLarge, we were building a portfolio. That involved reaching out to all the people that we knew in the network radio marketplace. These were friends, prior clients, people that we always wanted to work with. We just went out there and talked to everybody.
RI: How do you start to accumulate that roster at the beginning? And who did you bring in early?
Schonfeld: We had sports early on.
Csukas: Digital. We had some streaming partners in the beginning.
Schonfeld: It was a real building process. It was one on top of the next, on top of the next, on top of the next. We really strive to superserve all of our content partners and all of our advertising partners. So we wanted to measure our growth carefully with the growth of each of our operations teams to make sure that our clients got what they needed, on both sides.
RI: Did you know right off the bat it was going to work?
Csukas: We’ve had extraordinary growth. I’m being very honest. Every day is hard. We work incredibly hard every single day, back then and today. But no, I don’t think we were ever losing sleep or worried it wouldn’t work. I think we always knew it would work. We knew what we needed to do and how to build it.
RI: Talk specifically about what you provide.Schonfeld: If you are talking strictly about radio stations, we want them to know that we provide great services, programming, and content. We are an asset to them. Everything and anything they need, for on the air or behind the scenes. If you’re talking about advertisers, we want them to know that we provide a real consultative set of solutions to help them reach a targeted audience in an effective way.
If you are talking about digital, we provide solutions, revenue, and forward-thinking opportunities as digital continues to grow. We’re trying very hard to be at the forefront of what’s happening in that area as well. That was one of our core missions from the beginning.
We have a sizable footprint in sports across the audio landscape, terrestrial and digital. We have comedy services, an imaging service, a music library service, promotional services. We have music-based programming. We have some talk programming. So, in the traditional audio space, our programming spans just about every demographic.
If you look at the digital side of the business, it’s not dissimilar, only there’s a little bit more millennial-based programming. We have sports and we have talk and there’s comedy, and we have some really wonderful millennial-focused programming in the broadcast arena, and youth programming in the streaming arena.
RI: So when you say you provide streaming programming, what do you mean?
Csukas: For example, we partner with Shaq Fu Radio.
Schonfeld: It’s with Shaquille O’Neal. He has a streaming service that is always on. He’s on it during the week at different times, providing a phenomenal music base for young people.
RI: Your role in that is what?
Csukas: We are on the monetization side of the platform.
RI: Ad insertion? Things like that?
Schonfeld: In our mission of starting the company and saying that we want to develop in each of these areas, we have a team that works solely on digital operations. And they’re very well-versed in just about everything that has to do with digital, from ad insertion to hosting to streaming, and how all of that works. We have the same for the traditional side. The overall umbrella is monetization for everything, and we have an amazing sales force.
RI: You have a couple of big companies you compete against. You are doing very well. What’s the secret?
Schonfeld: It comes down to customer service in an overall, umbrella kind of way. But that goes to everybody we work with. So all of our content partners, we superserve them. When it comes to ad sales, we are a very consultative selling organization. We work closely with the agencies, and with their permission, we work closely with a lot of clients, which requires a whole different skill set than most sellers have. We travel. There’s a lot of expense associated with that. But that whole process of customer service to content partners and advertisers really resonates and makes a big difference in the marketplace.
Csukas: It’s an inclusive environment — 360. Our entire day, we are collaborative and inclusive with all of our clients. We are very transparent. We are very direct. It’s just loyal all around.
RI: There’s a lot of talk about programmatic buying. Is that something AdLarge is into?
Csukas: We think programmatic is part of everyone’s future. It’s something that we embrace. The marketplace is calling for it. We will be there. We are working to be there, and we think it’s the right thing. That said, it is not the only way that media will be bought. We will still need a consultative team. We will always have a sales team. It’s a combination. It’s an evolution in our marketplace.
Schonfeld: Everyone in this business has to be open to new ideas and changes. We all have to be welcoming and figure out how best these new technologies can help us and serve all of us.
Csukas: If programmatic makes us move faster, provide a better buy, more clarity to a buy, more accountability, ease of buy, then we’re all for it.
RI: You two have been working together for many years now, and it seems to be a perfect match. Why is that?
Csukas: I think it’s a number of things. We have a lot of harmony in our relationship. We have complementary skill sets, and we like that. We have a common belief system, business practices, values. We both really enjoy a collaborative and inclusive environment, and we like to work together. We make each other stronger and, quite honestly, just a better team.
Schonfeld: It makes the company better and stronger by our collaborating. That includes our entire team. It is a very open architecture. We are sitting in our office right now, and it has glass walls. We want people to see what’s going on. We want people to be a part of it. People are encouraged to speak up and share ideas. Cathy and I have the ability to work through issues and opportunities quickly because of the partnership and the way it works.
RI: Is the radio industry in a good place right now?
Schonfeld: If you mean the audio industry, absolutely. Radio? Yes. I say audio because there’s much more of a blend. The traditional radio space can continue to grow, and digital audio will continue to bring new companies, new content providers, new advertisers, and new listeners to all audio. That’s a great opportunity for all of us — to the point that there has been a lot of traditional radio content migrating over to digital. We are now working on digital content that we’re going to be migrating to traditional radio. We hope to have those announcements very soon. We have very exciting opportunities.
Csukas: I can only agree with everything that Gary has said. It’s a really, really exciting time, and the number of opportunities that are presented to us, the partnerships, future things that we are bringing to market, it’s an incredibly exciting time.
Schonfeld: The more companies and the more big companies that get into this space, the better for everybody, because it brings more attention to the audio space, which is where we all live. Whether it is Apple or Google, it doesn’t matter. It’s generating a lot of energy within the audio space for listeners and advertisers.
RI: Do you think the radio industry has been quick enough to put their arms around digital?
Schonfeld: Originally, in the beginning, no. Now they are trying to move much faster. When digital first came along — and Cathy and I were involved in digital very early on; we are talking about as early as 1994, with an Internet company called OnRamp. We were doing streaming in 1996 and 1997. Truly the early days, when you still had to put a phone receiver into a coupler to get a connection.
Radio kind of pushed digital aside, and then realized this can’t be ignored, we need to embrace it. I think, by and large, they made a stronger effort to embrace digital and grow digital assets. I think everyone is working very hard toward that end, certainly now, as exemplified by iHeart and what they’ve done over the last number of years.
RI: What keeps you up at night?
Csukas: My dog? I am sorry to give you this answer, but honestly, just having more hours in the day. There is really just so much more I want to get done. There’s a lot of opportunity right now, and we are working very hard to try to move as quickly as possible.
Schonfeld: I sleep well at night. We are in early. We work hard all day long, and we deal with a lot of issues and opportunities — growth, all kinds of things that come at us. I think that we, by the end of the day, try to have a handle on what we’re doing, where we’re going, what the issues are, what the solutions are. So I feel really good about the industry, and I feel really good about the business.
RI: How big do you want the company to get?
Csukas: I think we are poised for a lot of growth, but growth that makes sense. As long we see the demand for the portfolio that we build, we will keep building.
Schonfeld: There are all kinds of opportunities in the industry, and they are changing every single day — as you can see right on your own website, all of the news that’s been coming out. Those opportunities within the industry, both traditional and digital, are great for us. We are an independent company; we can move quickly. So as these different opportunities come along, we’re poised to move on them. As long as they make sense, again, from a content or a product side, and for advertisers and for listeners, we hope to seize on them. I don’t think there’s a limit to how large this company can grow.
RI: For managers reading this article, why should they pick up the phone and call you today?
Schonfeld: I would like to expand the question a little bit and make it a little bit broader in that it’s not just market managers and station managers, but content providers, product suppliers throughout the industry, and advertisers as well, because all of them read the publication and respect the publication.
My answer for all of them would be to know that we are a solutions-based company in the audio space and that they can pick up the phone and call me, Cathy, or anybody here, and we will be here and we will be open to discussing how to help them, whether they need content, whether they need revenue, whether they need information, solutions for on-air or their digital product. That is what we do, and I’m saying we do it better than anybody. That’s what we are here to provide.
Csukas: We’re a collaborative company that works with our partners in all ways that they need it. We grow their business with them, alongside them, and we monetize their business.