EXCLUSIVE: One Year At The Helm.


It’s been one year since Mary Berner took over Cumulus, and when radio executives converge on Nashville next week, for the Radio Show, they’ll get their first full explanation of how things are going at one of radio’s largest companies. Mary Berner is on the cover of our special Radio Show issue and the new CEO did not shy away from any of our questions.

When she took over, Berner quickly set out to change a destructive company culture. She held town hall meetings across the company and promised to respond to all e-mails within 48 hours. She’s been attempting to change the operational structure by allowing more local decision making, and created an Office of Programming created. The NASH magazine was shuttered. SweetJack went away. Her battle cry was head from New York to California: focus, responsibility, collaboration, and empowerment. And she worked on creating an atmosphere where good employees want to stay with the company, and to create a culture where talented people want to come to work for Cumulus. As subscribers will see in our interview next week, she says it’s working.

Berner also let investors know this will be an extremely difficult turnaround and will take time, calling Cumulus’ challenges “significant but fixable.” In March Berner said, “Given time, Cumulus has the assets to be one of the winners in the radio industry.” And, of course, there’s the debt. Cumulus is saddled with over $2 billion in debt and is constantly looking at ways to address that to provide the company with long-term stability. The big question: Does Mary Berner have enough time to turn this big ship of over 450 radio stations around?

Today we offer up an excerpt of that interview (we’ll have another in our Monday headlines). One of the questions we asked was one everyone was asking back when Berner was hired. Is the fact she has no radio experience a positive or negative as she takes on this massive project? Here’s what she had to say.

Radio Ink: What about the question of not having any radio experience?
Berner: People were wondering about that a year ago. For me, being in radio is like being in the same church but a different pew. There is sort of a commonality of what drives success in media.

The principles are commonalities. It doesn’t really matter what the platform or format is. It is focused around content differentiation and advertiser differentiation and ability to operate and the ability to have a culture and have employees that go the distance. And that all kind of helped me. Those principles helped me.

In some respects, what I was thinking about, there is a decided advantage. Lookingmary-berner back, I have not been burdened by preconceived notions about how things have always been done, and by definition, as someone who isn’t an insider, my set of eyes has never been influenced by reputations or politics or sacred cows. It’s allowed me to see the forest for the trees, which for sure directly helped us to shape our key turnaround strategies.

It also made me listen harder to the markets. I’ve gone to over 60 markets. And I will hit all 90 markets before my year anniversary. So I’ve personally spoken to two-thirds of our employees, and I only ask one question: What do I need to know?

What I get is, the answers are repetitive. You hit on the themes that support that the strategies are correct, and those things became the basis for what we needed to change. And also, because I am not from radio, we manage the business based on what our data and insights tell us about the trends.

CEO Cumulus Mary Berner in a studio at the Cumulus NYC headquarters in New York City on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. CREDIT: Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal CUMULUS
CEO Cumulus Mary Berner in a studio at the Cumulus NYC headquarters in New York City on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. CREDIT: Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal CUMULUS

And this is a really important point: I don’t go with gut feel, because it would be absurd for me to do that. I don’t have enough gut to go with that. As I look back over the last year, I think, OK, where are we performing well? We isolate what’s driving that, and we put more fuel in that fire. When we’re trending down, we diagnose and course-correct. So that management approach is industry-agnostic, but it is also proven to be effective, because I don’t have any point of view on “What’s always been done.”

I don’t necessarily care what the sacred cows are, or what people’s reputations are, or all of the politics. I wouldn’t be aware of it. It’s been a huge advantage. And then listening harder, because I wanted to quickly deepen my understanding. All those data points, you validate, from every single perspective. So it gives me confidence thatmary-berner-cover we are firmly on the right path.

We’ll have more of our cover story interview on Monday morning.

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  1. I’m proud to say I joined Cumulus New York one year ago and VERY glad I did!

    I came from 40 years of industry experience.

    In high school I found a sincere love for the broadcast industry and was involved with commercial stations on Long Island.

    When in college I was heavily involved with benchmark small privately owned local stations pioneering new formats that captured the market. When I graduates with my BA I was contacted by NBC – TV New York and offered my dream position designing and building technical facilities to support the legendary shows David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Another World, The Cosby Show, Olympics, Political Convention coverage and more. My 10 years at 30 Rock were great !!

    I decided, quite by accident, to visit one of the local stations I worked for as a kid. I was offered a position close to home as Assistant Chief Engineer and within 1 month promoted to the position of Chief Engineer. My responsibilities included overseeing the technical operation of 7 of the largest Long Island stations I grew up listening to- what an honor! Great people great times! Another great 16 years!!

    Now with Cumulus- I have met great people, detected to their passion. My boss- is great, his boss is great- all the way up the chain- people with a passion and detection to broadcasting.

    My love for the industry rubbed off on my son.
    Matthew, my 19 year old entrepreneur / senior at the State University at
    Stonybrook New York just became the youngest person to own a radio station in the country with his purchase of a Long Island commercial FM station.

    Radio is not dead!

    There’s plenty of youngsters and oldsters, like myself and my son who get up in the morning looking forward to a new day doing a job we love working alongside great people- making great radio-

    More proof- I see them everyday at Cumulus !!


  2. At least the Wall Street Gang knew what they were doing pre-2008. They just didn’t care for the well being of anyone or anything other than themselves. Not corporately. Individually.
    Mary, meanwhile, can’t be blamed for being either cynical or sinister. But, the question still remains: When did ignorance become an attribute?
    While Ms Berner may be qualified to address some of Cumulus’ corporate flaws in terms of structure and perhaps even some “cultural” issues, she is still stuck with the “sacred cows” – even as she insists the herd is not having an influence.
    Even she is not in a position to recognize them and determine the need to have them killed and thrown on the barbecue grill.
    Until those determinations are made and actions taken, those cows will continue to wander the Cumulus landscape – soiling and overwhelming the whole environment.


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