Can Cumulus Media Be Fixed?

The shakeup in management at Cumulus Media this week is the first step toward the work required to revive this company, but the real question is can Cumulus be saved?  After years of mishandling and misreading the marketing place, is Cumulus capable of getting back some of its mojo?

There's certainly a lot of work to do and a good place to start to determine a to-do list for new CEO Mary Berner for her radio stations is the very useful marketing book by Ries & Trout "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing".

Let's take a look at a few of their applicable laws:

The Law of Leadership - It's better to be first than it is to be better.

With the purchase of Citadel's major market stations a few years ago, Cumulus had a built-in advantage for this law. It inherited many major stations that were first in their category. Over the years many of these stations have atrophied and have given away their positions. So, what to do?

This leads to the next Law.

The Law of Category - If you can't be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in.

This is a difficult one, especially with regards to the major Talk stations like WABC, KGO and KABC in the Cumulus family. This Law may be easier to approach with the company's struggling music stations that have fallen to second or third in their categories.

Yet this is important because of the Law of the Mind:

The Law of the Mind - It is better to be first in the mind than it is to be first in the marketplace.

Remington Rand may have been first to the marketplace with its UNIVAC computer years ago, but through massive marketing IBM got into the mind first and at the time, won the category.

Bridge Ratings has been working with some new technology and research methods this year to focus in on a different radio/brand metric. Internally, we call it the HABIT METRIC and it goes hand-in-hand with brand longevity but it goes deeper to include core listener needs, how well listeners are being served and satisfied relevant to the brand and what, if anything, would be required to shake brand confidence.

These brand factors are central to what many of Cumulus' stations are dealing with.

Click image to enlarge.

In a fielded study in one of the top three markets, Bridge Ratings found that the 'embedded format leader' was hitting 9 out of 10 of the brand confidence factors with its primary listeners most of the time. To shake this station's 'brand confidence' would take not only a strong competitor with a significant marketing arsenal, but a list of mistakes and programming miscues over a long period of time which would eventually wear away at the long-established brand confidence nurtured and created.

 The second entry in the market, a Cumulus station, has spent two years reworking the on-air product and station image.  Once the top station in its format category it had lost its way but was once again doing a lot of programming components properly and delivering a very good product. However, the station has been unable to recover the brand confidence it once had with its listeners that are being shared with the market leader in that format.

Why? No listeners were sampling the station, so they didn't know the station was making a concerted effort at satisfying their needs.

While marketing is a battle of perceptions (another Ries & Trout Law), the uphill battle for Cumulus is restoring a positive perception for their stations that have lost their position in the minds of listeners.

The Law of the Ladder - There is a hierarchy in the minds of consumers that they use to make decisions. There is a different "ladder" for each product/service.  On each rung is a brand name.

The uphill battle for Cumulus is restoring a positive perception for their stations that have lost their position in the minds of listeners.
— Dave Van Dyke

In radio people who listen to radio stations have a ladder in their minds that has been built over time of usage and marketing. This has only been complicated in recent years by all of the audio options available but an argument could be made that there is a separate ladder in the mind for broadcast radio and another for other forms of audio listening.

Favorite stations are at the top of this Radio ladder. Less used stations are further down the ladder and, in the case of many Cumulus stations, once-favorited stations that have broken the brand promise have dropped off the ladder and no longer occupy a rung.

Once this happens, listeners forget you're even there.  How does a broadcaster earn a place on the ladder?

This is at the heart of the question of whether Cumulus can revive itself. Marketing - and tons of it - along with improved on-air programming is the only way to restore brand confidence inmarkets where, frankly, there is just too much competition.

In the market study described above, the Cumulus station has improved its on-air programming to the point where the few heavily loyal station listeners give it a grade of 80% or better at satisfying their needs based on the format. This is a good number but that isn't enough.

In order to return the station to a position that would garner better ratings and revenue, it would take significant marketing dollars over an extended period of time to place the station on one of the few "rungs" on the radio ladder.

The Bridge Ratings metric we use to describe this facet of brand recovery is called "Brand Support". The Brand Support metric is calculated using current market costs for common marketing strategies (TV, Billboards, etc) and comparing those costs with those of ratings-effective campaigns in the market in the past. Analysis of the effectiveness of these campaigns for various formats yields some helpful insight.

The metric is percentage. For example, a "Brand Support" number of 80% would suggest that it would take 80% of the most successful marketing campaign in the market's history for a similarly formatted radio station to achieve minimally 30% listener growth.

In the case of the Cumulus market discussed here, the "Brand Support" percentage required was over 400%. And in today's climate, that is likely not possible especially when one considers Cumulus resources and how many of their stations and how many markets are in need of repair.

It's possible that Ms. Berner and her team may find they can resurrect a handful of important major market stations with this strategy, but even that won't be enough.

The programming issues faced with many Cumulus stations can be fixed or have already been addressed by the hiring of some of our industry's most talented programmers.

The challenge is to change perception in the mind of the consumer and based on some initial findings, the hill is too steep and rich to climb.

Dave Van Dyke, President

Bridge Ratings Founder and President Dave Van Dyke’s extensive and varied experience in media has captured every facet of radio and Internet audience engagement.  In radio, he has worked in a diverse array of positions including programming, management, sales, on-air, marketing and research for CBS, Infinity, ABC, Nokia and Westinghouse.  Through his work with Bridge Ratings Dave is widely recognized for his ability to forecast and gauge media consumption across multiple platforms and to utilize field data to advise his clients. He is also known for his management of radio station rebuilding successes, taking underperforming radio properties and turning them into high cash-flowing corporate contributors.

Dave's work in music consumption behavior through on-demand streaming data has exposed a number of fallacies radio programmers have long-held to be truisms related to how radio listeners consume music both on-line and on-air. Through his consulting relationships with many Bridge Ratings clients, Dave has helped stations properly retune their approach to music exposure to better reflect true consumption.