An In-Depth Conversation With Cumulus’ King of Content

Interview by Todd Hensley

John Dickey is the Executive Vice President of radio power Cumulus, working back to back, as he puts it, with his brother Lew, the President of the chain. John, who built the mammoth company from the ground up with his brother, is the man in charge of all content and programming, which includes Westwood One, the company’s 460 stations in 90 markets, all station-involved partnerships and the Cumulus platform. That platform encompasses curated content, marketing partnerships with content and initiatives that leverage the platform, most notably NASH, which includes the NASH Icon label, a joint venture with Big Machine Label Group.

Atlanta-based Cumulus claims north of 150 million listeners via radio, digital media, targeted email and on-site promotions. John Dickey oversees the whole enchilada, and does it masterfully. He’s a bona fide titan of modern-day radio in all its complexity. Which makes it downright shocking that he’d take a chunk of his valuable time to field questions from HITS’ resident redneck Todd Hensley

How did you first break into radio?

I started in the business partnering with my brother, who started a research company. I joined him a couple of years after he started that business, which was traffic research, and spent probably 13 years there. I was a strategy and programming consultant to radio and television stations and focused more on radio toward the end of that run. That gave me a great opportunity to see competitive situations across the country, from the biggest of markets, New York and L.A., all the way down to the tiniest. I was involved in multiple formats in different competitive situations, so I could see how different strategies were helpful or not so helpful across all of the formats. That was interesting to me and great training for what I ended up doing later in my career. That was the beginning. As that business flourished and grew, my brother and I bought radio stations and got into that side of the business and were successful. We bought stations in Nashville and stations here in Atlanta, and then Cumulus was started early in 1996. That business really came out of a relationship that our consulting company had, and Lew was point on that relationship.

Cumulus was hatched and launched, and here we are today. So that’s the short of the John Dickey story, professionally speaking. I’m married, I’ve got three great kids and one on the way, and I’m very excited about that part of my life. Just waking up excited to be trying to make a difference and working with some really talented people, and having the opportunity is what makes me tick. I’m fortunate in this regard of having the opportunity to be able to do some forward thinking and not just take care of business every day, but think about tomorrow and beyond and what that means for the formats we’re in, and what it means for audio period. We’re doing a lot of cool things here.

Congratulations on the baby on the way.

Yeah, thanks. I appreciate it. Talk to me in about four months and I’ll let you know how I feel. Probably tired.

I’ll bet. How have things changed for you and the company in the last year? It seems like you’ve taken on a lot more responsibilities.

What’s happened in the last year is our company has streamlined a little bit. I was handling everything I’m doing now, but I also was over-seeing the real estate and the engineering side of our business. Then, Jon Pinch, who was point on sales, retired, and at that point Lew stepped in and began focusing his energy, among other things, on driving sales in the company, and I’m running content, which includes marketing and promotions, obviously. So we have our backs to one another and have a lot of talented people that work and partner with us to help move pieces of the business forward. That’s really the only significant change. It frees me up for the things that really matter most to me and where I can really do the most good for the business.

Since you come from a research background, is the Cumulus programming
philosophy primarily research-driven?

Yes. We’re in a business where we are exposing product and hoping it attracts an audience. We’re in the consumer-product business, so we think of it as entertainment, which it is, whether it’s primarily music-based or talk-based. At the end of the day, we’re only as good as our ability to attract an audience. My opinions, although they’re pretty informed, are just that—opinions formed through a lot of experience and trial and error. Research has to play a role in any company that is trying to attract an audience or sell a product to the consumer. I think that my background in that area is a distinct advantage. There’s art and science; the trick is bridging both and figuring out how to do it. You can’t rely solely on research or you end up with Ishtar, to use a famous Hollywood example. You research a movie, and you figure out Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman are no-brainers—until they flop at the box office. So there’s got to be gut, instinct and art factoring in as well.

How do you interact with record companies and managers? If I’m a label and I want to partner with you, how do I approach you?

I’ve got some good folks around me, like John Kilgo, the Vice President of Label Relations, and I’ve got some really good senior programming folks here that have trusting relationships with all the labels. I’ve worked really hard to simplify that process and make it more transparent—how we think, and how to interact with us in the most productive way.

 That’s Job One: Everybody’s got to understand what the ground rules are. The labels need us, we need the labels and we need to understand how to work productively together. We’re doing a lot of the same things—trying to do a lot of the same things, I should say—and there are points in the relationships where the labels and our team have decidedly different agendas. We try to get the labels to understand and to think a little differently than they have in the past. What I mean by that is helping them to appreciate not only the importance of radio, which they get intuitively and obviously, but to understand how we can be a better partner for them if we’re involved earlier in the process with projects and with artists. I think that’s starting to work very successfully, and we’ve had some great results partnering with labels as a result of that.

It’s getting to be a more competitive field. You’ve owned Country marketshare for as long as I can remember. How are you dealing with the increased competition for your space?

That’s the one interesting part of being in the radio business—and really the audio business—that hasn’t changed and won’t change, which is that it’s uber-competitive. We wake up every morning knowing that we don’t have an inalienable right to the marketshare. Other media hasn’t necessarily had that, until recently. Newspapers were virtual monopolies, until the Internet severely disrupted their business. Cable systems are oligopolies at the very least, and network television has been in a very insulated environment with typically three or four network affiliates on full-powered signals in a market with typically 15-to-20 radio stations. We’ve always had to compete and be resourceful, and to approach things with a take-nothing-for-granted mentality. In terms of Country—to answer your question even more directly—competition causes our company to innovate and look for new ways to grow and get out ahead of all of that. NASH is an example of that. NASH Icon and what we have done in our company to fragment Country successfully and create a Hot AC format for Country is another example. We’re focused on getting better, and I think we’re having some success in that regard.

Was the NASH Icon partnership with Big Machine a natural progression of it?

Yes. You’ll see us getting into more of this, whether with partners or by ourselves. But getting into the music business and artist development is absolutely something we’re doing and we’ll continue to do. It makes sense for obvious reasons. Scott Borchetta at Big Machine is a great partner. Scott’s a smart guy; he’s aggressive and not afraid to take risks, and those things fit well with my personality and what we were trying to do. I’ve known Scott for a long time, which made it even easier. But beyond that, Scott had a relationship with Reba, Reba was on one of his imprints and this project and made perfect sense because she was the perfect first person as the face of this effort. She’s turned out to be an amazing partner as well, and she’s having a lot of success and proving what I was hoping, which is there’s still a giant pit of demand for these artists. With NASH Icon, they can be contemporary and still preserve the essence of who they are, to cross over and compete on the mainstream Country charts. So it’s working out really well, and we’re looking forward to more new music coming from artists that we sign to that label. Next up are Martina McBride, Hank Williams Jr. and Ronnie Dunn. It’s going to be cool to see how this progresses.

Besides this new creation of a Hot AC Country format, how have you seen the format change? Is it expanding?

Oh, it is. It’s expanding in two ways. First, it’s competing even more against Pop. 
Second—and this is fairly new to the format, over the last three-to-five years, give or take—it’s co-opted a lost audience that had a home on Rock radio. Now that Rock radio is suffering—although Classic Rock is doing well and Classic Hits are doing well—with Mainstream Rock and Active Rock, artist development is really suffering, and Country radio’s co-opted that audience. You look at artists in country music today and you can pick numerous examples, whether it’s with A Thousand Horses—that’s a rock band—Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean is a rocker, Keith Urban is as good on the guitar as anybody. So you’ve got real rock talent and strong rock underpinnings in this format today, which is bringing that coalition to country music and helping to inflate the audience for Country radio. That didn’t exist in the past, when Rock radio was stronger. Now, Country can do that and be more adventuresome and be more accepting of those creative liberties that are being taken, with Sam Hunt being a perfect example.

You’re seeing Country radio grow for real reasons. It’s got a solid foundation, it’s got a great core and it’s branching out beyond that core in a very credible way. I don’t think it’s a trend or a short-term cycle. I think it’s real.

I think it’s actually the place where rock is fun again.

Yeah, I think that’s a good way of putting it. It absolutely is.

Cumulus did a partnership with Rdio, and Lew has said, “This is our digital play.” Tell me about that.

Lew did a partnership with Rdio, and it’s a promotional partnership that turned us into the second-largest shareholder of that company. We now own a pretty good-sized piece of that business, and we are helping Rdio take their streaming service to market and raise awareness for the app and grow users. Beyond that, we’re working with them to provide guidance, counsel and content around the other build-out of that value proposition of custom playlists, professionally curated product, podcasting, those things that we’re doing under the banner of Rdio Live. That’s going to be a reality here very soon. As it relates to our digital play, it gives us a really solid footprint and platform in the digital space as it relates to audio and impressions sold around audio digitally.

What Rdio does with their very large footprint and user base is a golden business in 70-plus countries and growing. It really gave us the size and scale to compete digitally and provide digital solutions to advertisers and clients where we were lacking. It’s been a nice addition to our sales story and our ability to take care of the digital needs and wants of our customers. It’s also given us a great platform to be able to migrate our audio content and create audio content to live exclusively on that platform and serve our listeners anywhere, anyplace, anytime, which is the business you have to be in today. At some point, we become agnostic as to where they consume our content and our branded content, so we can serve them the way they want to be served. Rdio gives us a platform to do it with.

What are your thoughts about Apple Music and in particular Beats 1?

Given the massive user base of iTunes, Apple has a chance to bring streaming to the masses. Not sure we know enough about their service yet to say they will or won’t capitalize on this opportunity. As you know, labels are counting on it. With respect to Beats 1 and Apple redefining radio, I’m not worried about that. Radio, like politics, is local at the end of the day. By definition, Beats 1 is global. The real question is, what does Apple want to be to music and, by extension, to artists? That to me is the bigger opportunity for them, and to date it remains undefined.

How are you dealing with the amount of time pressure that’s being put on the artists in order for them to be a part of your events, and of everyone’s events?

Here’s what I would say to all of that: Not all events are created equal, and not all events are of the same benefit to the artist or label. When you look at our partnership with Dick Clark Productions, they produce the best events live events in television. They’re the leader in that space, and we’re thrilled and privileged to be in business with them. Our awards show is new, so I’m excluding it from what I’m about to say, but we’ll get it there over time. But whether it’s the Billboard Music Awards, the American Music Awards or the ACMs, these are meaningful events that are pulling the right ratings that deliver for the talent. They’re pulling 15-20 million-plus eyeballs, and that has an impact on an artist from a sales standpoint and from a relevancy standpoint, especially if they’re an up-and-coming artist. That’s something that these artists want to be involved with, and they’re excited to be part of it, given the quality that Dick Clark brings as far as promotion, marketing and just raising the bar on these events for the brand—it’s just a good look for them. So put those to the side, and you can count the shows that raise the bar on one, one and a half hands—and the Grammys would be included in that, of course.

To the side of that, the festivals, the CMT Awards, the iHeart Music Awards, etc., are a part of a different strategy for those companies. I think they’re all well-produced, but they draw relatively small audiences, usually less than 4-5 million people. In these cases, the artists are being asked to do things where they don’t see the upside or the return in what they’re doing.

 I think that you’ll see a sorting out of all of that—asking artists and labels to invest in a lot of these shows when the return just doesn’t make sense. So my guess is that that will all work itself through, and there will be a balance and equilibrium established and things will get figured out. The hard-ticket business is changing too, and that puts a different amount of pressure on artists from the live-events business as it relates to network television. The festival business is exploding, and the artists are getting bought for these festivals at crazy prices right now. I’m sure there are a lot of managers around thinking, “Boy, I woke up today and I look a lot smarter than I did yesterday,” when these offers roll in, because they’re just paying crazy money for these artists today. That also creates another challenge with respect to time and availability of artists and what they’re willing to do and what they need to do.

So it’s an interesting point of inflection in the live-events business, the hard-ticket business, the touring business, the festival business and live events premised for television. There’s an increased amount of flurry and attention around all of that, with a limited supply of artists, quite frankly, that can move the needle and need to be involved. I don’t know how it will sort, but it’s going to be interesting to watch it sort out. From our perspective, we don’t stand to lose if that gets sorted out. We’re in a pretty good position with our partners in that space because, as I mentioned, they have the events that are absolutely critical and essential to the artists and the labels. They’ll participate in those events because they benefit greatly from them.

Where are you on the females at Country radio controversy?

We have always supported female artists in Country. I’m thrilled to see Kelsea Ballerini having her first #1 at the format. We were the first company to get on that early and support her when nobody knew who she was. We’re always trying to help great, talented women succeed in the format, and I think there’s a larger role for them, which is probably why the format is growing and expanding into Pop. We can’t get to that next level of success in this format without having more female artists succeed, so to me that is going to be part and parcel to the continued growth of Country.•

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