(By Gary Fisher) It was a brisk and chilly April 15 morning on the Black Horse Pike in West Atlantic City. It should have been the start of another bustling summer season at the Jersey shore. We had just finished chatting with the mailman, who left without delivering any checks for the fifth straight day. He did leave everyone else’s mail with Equity, since no other businesses in the five story Bayport One office building were open. It was exactly one month into the depths of the pandemic.
There were no emails, no voice mails, no salespeople at work and 50% of Equity’s second quarter bookings had been cancelled in the previous 30 days. There were no clients planning their usual start-of-season promotions. Phillies baseball, usually a $250,000+ revenue contributor for Equity had been cancelled indefinitely. The Beer Fest, Music Festival, a $100,000 event marketing revenue generator was also cancelled. It was the start of a nuclear winter in April.
South Jersey businesses continue hunkered down for what promises to be a long cold Covid winter. With cases spiking in various parts of South Jersey and across the Country and the possibility of Governor Murphy ordering continued shut-downs quarantines and capacity limits, Covid is never far from local business owners’ concerns.
One South Jersey company however is bucking the trend and trying hard to re-engineer how they do business during the pandemic. It’s a local radio group that actually credits the pandemic for helping reset their business and strengthen its signal.
The weight of the pandemic and the plunge it created in revenues last Spring and Summer was like nothing we had ever seen. We spent 24 years building this company; and then almost half of it disappeared overnight.
I formed Equity Communications in 1996 with my partner Steve Gormley. We have nine South Jersey radio stations and a digital advertising and streaming company. The stations are 95.1 WAYV, 100.7 WZXL, 99.3 WZBZ, 96.1 WTTH, 93.1 WMiD AM / FM.
We’d been here through 9-11, the 2006 financial crisis, Hurricane Sandy and the collapse of the local casino business. These things were rounding errors compared to what happened during the first few months of Covid. We had been doing everything pretty much the same old-school way for two decades and had been quite successful. Then suddenly in March everything stopped. No cars on the road to listen to radio. No car dealers or casinos open to buy ads. No one at work to write checks for ads we had already run. Things came to a complete standstill.
Equity was of course not alone in seeing its business operation come to a screeching halt. All media both analog and digital saw a 2nd quarter disruption bordering on devastation. The pandemic has upended the media business, accelerating the rise of the digital economy while decimating local retail, the so-called K-shaped recovery. We had to take stock of everything we were doing for the last 23 years and put everything and everyone through a Covid lens. There was in effect a new world order to local media, local radio and Equity specifically. Initially it stopped us, and everyone else in South Jersey, in our tracks.
For many South Jersey businesses acclimating to new realities – after they’ve pretty much been doing everything the same way for decades – has not been an easy transition. For the first time in our 24 year history we were forced to cut expenses, downsize staff, reduce salaries, sell off assets and totally re-engineer sales, programming and administrative departments.
Veteran account executives and DJs left, new digital salespeople emerged, and hard personnel decisions had to be made. Legacy operations strategies and practices were scrapped and new one instituted. For Equity it was a complete and total re-set.
Once we got through the shock of what was happening and what was not going to be happening – we picked ourselves up and just started listening to our clients and audiences, to see what they needed. Listening to sponsors and listeners had always kept us successful in the past. In retrospect I like to think this was our own personal tear down. We simply let our clients and listeners tell us what we needed to do. The goals were to stay relevant and helpful for them, and to remain a going concern for us and our staff.
While no one expected a pandemic Equity was in a weird way prepared for its new economic reality. In recent years the Company had been growing it’s streaming radio audiences via websites and mobile apps & had increased its revenues five-fold by staffing up its highly successful in-house digital sales division.
As in other industries the pandemic has accelerated forces that were already in play in advertising. Specifically in media the pandemic had the effect of delivering several years of change in just a few short months. From a sales point of view everyone was immediately thrust out of their comfort zone whether they wanted to or not. From an expense control view point we stopped doing stupid silly and fun stuff. From a programming point of view streaming music and digital programming – once thought of as an existential thread to over-the-air radio media – became our savior.
We took the approach that we had to totally reinvent the company – or else we might not have a company left. It was an opportunity to fast-forward the modernization of the company. We took the approach that the pandemic didn’t happen to us, it may have happened for us. The worst crisis we had ever seen presented us with innumerable opportunities. Thanks to the pandemic we became the epitome of a modern media company.
We were at a bit of a disadvantage compared to our competitors like Comcast, Townsquare and the Atlantic City Press since we did not have the backing or liquidity of a larger corporation behind us. On the other hand we were fortunate that we had no debt and no debt service to worry about.
We were also fortunate that Equity had an amazing core of around 12 or 13 employees who showed every day since March 10th to keep us going. Staggered hours, skeleton staffing, physical distancing, separation, sanitation, ventilation, mitigation, lots of cleaning and masking kept us going. These staff members – many of whom have been with us for over 15 years – are the real architects of our re-set. These were truly our essential workers.
Along the way Equity learned some valuable lessons about dealing with adversity in general and Covid particularly:
1. The past is history the future is a mystery – so stay in the moment.
2. The future is here and the past will never be back.
3. Less is more.
4. Find your pleasures and successes where you can.
5. Move quickly but slow down and don’t hurry.
6. The clean freaks and germophobes we used to make fun of – were right.
7. When you’re going through hell just keep going.
8. Stay focused on the long term because the short term is – well, short term.
9. Assume nothing – expect nothing – blame no one – do something.
10. Success is never final and failure never fatal – it’s the courage to continue that counts.
We keep telling our clients: we’re still here, we’re still big and popular; and now we’re more affordable than ever. Staying big, digital friendly and cheap is our way through this. We’re definitely getting to the other side of it and are now seeing sequential improvement month after month.
I’m encouraged that most banks, law firms, car dealers, restaurants & casinos are now calling their staffs back to work. That should be a precursor to advertising and spending coming back. I’m sure most of the clients we’re zooming with are still in their sweat pants and underwear – but I’m happy to report it seems like a lot of staffs are drifting back to work on most days.
We still don’t know what the future holds but we’re doing OK and our doors are open. We’re still here and we’ll be here. I’m worried about those projections that say one out of five small businesses will close this winter. The real recovery will begin next year when everyone feels safe that the risks of the pandemic are behind us; and people can eat in restaurants and shop in stores without a concern.
When the vaccines, therapeutics and herd immunity eventually take hold later next year I think our local radio and digital will really take off again. Until then we just keep reminding everyone we’re here, we’re big, we’re still local, popular and more affordable than ever!
I feel we’re kind of like that Timex watch from those TV commercials 50 years ago. We took a licking but we’re still ticking.
Gary Fisher is the President/Owner of Equity Communications, you can reach him at: [email protected]