ATLANTA — On the opening day of the National Association of Broadcasters’ Radio Show Wednesday, all everyone was talking about was the misery at Cumulus Media.
If the Atlanta-based broadcaster wanted to inflict maximum damage on itself — and subject its founder and chief executive to the worst humiliation — it couldn’t have picked a better time and place.
For Lew Dickey to lose control of the company he created in 1997 (and built into the nation’s second largest radio operator) was painful enough. But for the news to break on the eve of the NAB gathering at the Marriott Marquis in his own hometown — just six miles up the road from Cumulus Media headquarters — must have been unbearable. His brother, John Dickey, who had headed programming and operations for the company’s 460 stations, also was forced out.
“The Radio Show where Lew got fired” was the banner headline on Tom Taylor’s daily newsletter that greeted the movers and shakers of the industry assembled here for their annual convention. “This 2015 NAB/RAB Radio Show will go down as ‘the one where the Dickeys were out at Cumulus,’ ” Taylor wrote, adding: “In better times, this would’ve been Lew’s own personal Radio Show – it’s happening in his town of Atlanta, and yet he’s not appearing on any panels.”
Cumulus Media’s crushing debt load, stagnant profitability and plummeting stock price were reasons cited for the boardroom coup engineered by the company’s chairman, Jeffrey Marcus. When it was over, Mary Berner, a Cumulus Media board member and former head of Reader’s Digest and Fairchild Publications, was named to replace Lew Dickey as CEO. It’s worth noting that Berner has no experience in radio whatsoever, but led Reader’s Digest through bankruptcy and reoganization — tasks she soon may face at Cumulus Media, according to Taylor.
Not one of the many radio executives I spoke to here lamented the demise of the Dickeys. Most said their overthrow was long overdue. Based on the misguided management, programming and personnel moves they made in practically every major market they ran, it’s easy to understand the air of schadenfreude. In short, these guys weren’t just bad for their company. They were bad for radio.
In Chicago, Cumulus Media owns news/talk WLS AM 890 and classic hits WLS FM 94.7. It also operates alternative rock WKQX FM 101.1 and classic rock WLUP FM 97.9 under a local marketing agreement with an option to buy. By any measure, the Dickeys were miserable bosses who diminished if not destroyed some of the most iconic radio brands in the market. Many talented people were forced out.
Peter Bowen, who was named vice president and Chicago market manager of Cumulus Media last March, declined to comment on the change at the top. Like most of his company’s managers, he was not in Atlanta for the convention this week.
But sources say Bowen is buoyed by the prospects of increased profitability for his station group since landing the rights to White Sox baseball and Bulls basketball on WLS AM, starting in 2016. New program directors are at the helm of WLS FM and WKQX.
While it’s still early, Bowen also can point to ratings that are up year-over-year in the stations’ target demographics and to double-digit revenue growth that’s outperforming the market and the industry overall. “Momentum” seems to be his favorite word these days, according to insiders.
Luck may be on Bowen’s side, too. While Lew Dickey personally brought him into Cumulus Media after two decades with CBS Radio, it turns out there’s a personal connection between Bowen and new CEO Berner, who grew up in Winnetka. “The families are very close friends,” a source said.