606: Are Radio Networks Embracing Digital Quickly Enough? | Erica Farber Part 1

Podcast Cover Image: Are Radio Networks Embracing Digital Quickly Enough? Featuring Erica Farber
Podcast Cover Image: Are Radio Networks Embracing Digital Quickly Enough? Featuring Erica Farber

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Erica Farber, the president and CEO of the Radio Advertising Bureau joins us for a 2-part webinar series. Erica leads Radio’s advocacy by driving business, growing advertising revenue, and communicating Radio’s digital transition.

She joined the organization in January 2012 as the Executive Vice President responsible for membership and driving professional development, and then she was promoted to President & CEO.

Erica held nearly every position in Radio Sales & Management by rising through the ranks at the INTEREP Companies and serving as Executive Vice President of Radio Development.

In 2000, Ms. Farber received an American Broadcast Pioneer Award from the Broadcasters’ Foundation and has consistently been voted one of “The Most Influential Women in Radio” by the readers of Radio Ink Magazine. In 2009 she was awarded the inaugural Trailblazer award by the Mentoring & Inspiring Women in Radio Group, a group she was a founding member of in its inception of 1999.

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Are Radio Networks Embracing Digital Quickly Enough?


George: This is the Conquer Local podcast. A show about billion-dollar sales leaders, marketers leading local economic growth, and entrepreneurs that have created their dream organizations. They wanna share their secrets, giving you the distilled version of their extraordinary feats. Our hope is with the tangible takeaways from each episode, you can rewire, rework, and reimagine your business. I’m George Leith and we’re very pleased to present a two-part Conquer Local podcast featuring Erica Farber. Erica is the president and CEO of the Radio Advertising Bureau, and she leads radio’s advocacy efforts by helping to drive business, grow advertising revenue, and communicate radio’s digital transition. She joined the organization in January 2012 as the Executive Vice President responsible for membership and driving professional development. And then she was promoted to President and CEO. She’s held nearly every position in radio sales and management, including rising through the ranks at INTEREP Companies and serving as Executive Vice President of radio development. In 2000, Ms. Farber received an American Broadcast Pioneer Award from the Broadcaster’s Foundation and has consistently been voted one of the most influential women in radio by the readers of Radio Inc. Magazine. In 2009, she was awarded the inaugural Trailblazer Award by the Mentoring and Inspiring Women in Radio Group, a group she was the founding member of in its inception back in 1999. Coming up next, Erica Farber from the Radio Advertising Bureau on this part one of a two-part series of the Conquer Local podcast. 

George: Well, welcome as you join our webinar today, we’re just waiting for folks to get dialed in and we wanna encourage questions. I will tell you that this is the most pre-questions that we’ve ever received for an event, so we’re excited to get rolling here. My colleague, Vish, is going to join here in a few moments and he’ll be going through the questions. But we wanna welcome our guest for the webinar this week. Erica Farber, thanks for joining us, and you and I have been talking quite a bit over the last couple of weeks getting ready for the webinar and we’re gonna put you on the hot seat and ask some questions. But thanks for joining us and taking the time to be on the webinar.

Erica: It’s my pleasure, George. Thank you for asking.

George: Are radio broadcasters embracing digital quick enough? That was the question that we posed to you, Erica, to get you to join the webinar you wanted to jump right on it and, and get in. So we’re gonna start discussing this and we welcome our audience. And I was looking at the guest list ahead of time. We’ve got folks from all over the world actually that are joining us for this webinar today. And we’re going to take this webinar and it’s going to become an episode on our award-winning Conquer Local podcast, as well. So no pressure Erica, but you’re now going to be a Conquer Local alumni. We’ve now celebrated over 250 episodes of the podcast that’s heard in 50 different countries. So it’ll live on wherever you listen to podcasts. So thanks for that as well. So let’s get rolling. You know, just a little bit of background for folks that are on the show that maybe don’t know my background. I’m the Chief Customer Officer here, at Vendasta, salesman number one. I was the first sales hired of this tech company about 10 years ago, and now we have close to 200 and some odd people that serve customers. But my background is I’m a radio guy and I started at the local radio station out of high school. I was not Ryan Seacrest, so there’s no money in on air in a small market like that. So they said, “Hey, why don’t you sell some ads on the play-by-play hockey broadcast,” that I was doing at the time. So I started selling and then moved into management and that career lasted for quite some time. So when I arrived here at Vendasta as the Chief Customer Officer and originally as the Director of Sales, we were working with media companies, where some of our very first channel partners. Now we have over 70,000 channel partners around the world and over 7 million businesses on our platform. But I still consider myself to be a media salesperson because I’ve worked with a lot of media sales reps over the last 10 years and I love radio. And I still think there’s a place for local radio in our markets. And we’re seeing as we come out of COVID that some of the data is showing us that actually local radio advertising revenue is growing again, which is really good to see. So Erica, as we were prepping for this episode, and I wanted to give that backstory cause people be like, “Wow, this guy’s talking like he’s known radio for 30-some-odd years.” And yes, it’s actually more than 30 years, but, you know, let’s do a status check, Erica, on where do you think radio is in their adoption of digital and new digital lines of revenue?

Erica: That’s a tough question because radio is in the front of the line and in some cases, radio’s in the back of the line. So it really depends on the market, it depends on the company, and it depends on the commitment. I would say that everybody is certainly engaged in looking at it. I feel pretty confident in saying that everyone recognizes that digital is becoming a more important part of what we do as radio broadcasters, but we’re all over the place. As I said, some have been leading that charge, there are others that are just jumping in on it now. So probably not the answer you wanted to hear, but we’re all over the place.

George: No, and it’s, you know, it’s accurate because we hear that when we talk to folks, you know, I have some friends that I met 10 years ago when I got here and I started talking to radio companies. They jumped in early maybe because I sold them on it, but you know, they knew they needed to do it and then there have been these, is it fair to say these fits and starts in some instances where it’s not easy? If you’re gonna build out your own teams to deliver these products and services and then you’ve gotta find tech providers to be able to make it scalable. That seems to be what we’re hearing from organizations is, you know, we’ve been looking at it or we’ve been doing it, it isn’t really getting us what we’re looking for. Or there may be the odd outlier that’s like, no, it’s working great, we’ve got it figured out. Is that a fair assessment?

Erica: Oh, absolutely. You know, we do a study every year in partnership with Borrell. And we take the temperature, if you will, of broadcasters in the United States. And looking at where are they in their digital efforts. And it was interesting because a few years ago, one of the questions we ask is, how do you think you’re doing? And so you can say exceptionally well, not so good. And we had a lot of people a few years ago, you know, maybe 20% said we’re doing exceptionally well. And then you look at it year to year, people are feeling more confident. I don’t think they’re saying they’re doing exceptionally well, but we’re seeing a lot more people putting their arms around it and feeling more comfortable with it. And I think that’s the big issue because it’s really changed how we position ourselves as sellers and marketers if you will, that work for local radio stations.

George: You know, one of the things, Erica, that I wanted to test with you and I’ve had this thought for quite some time, probably the last four or five years working with media companies, you know, we have done a really good job in trying to get an audience for the format of our stations. But I think where we’ve really struggled is the ability to market the things that we do to help local businesses. Because if you got the audience, then the salespeople will just go out and sell the value of that audience. But when it comes to we’re the trusted local experts, we’ve been here in the marketplace, and really doing that bragging to set the parameters that you could be the organization that can solve this digital problem, I find that to be one of the biggest challenges for organizations because there isn’t a really robust marketing engine for the head of sales to utilize to get that message out there about the products and services. Is that a fair statement?

Erica: It is, but you know, there’s two issues here. One is, for those who’ve been doing this longer than an hour and a half, we’ve been used to positioning our radio stations and our companies a very specific way. When we would call on an advertiser, we would use our call letters as the way to get in that door saying, I represent X radio station and I would like to talk to you about how our station can help grow your business. If you look at the marketplace today, it’s changed dramatically because not only do we have local media outlets, but we now have digital companies who are media companies. And I’m talking about the Googles and the Facebooks, and you know, Twitter and all these companies and social media that are now also calling on local businesses and agencies. So the competition to promote an individual’s company has changed dramatically. It’s not about, I’ve gotta make sure that I’m listed in the Yellow Pages. And, you know, for those of you that are joining us today or listening to this, some of you didn’t grow up with the Yellow Pages where it was literally a big book that was delivered for free to everyone at home. And it listed every business with a phone number and an address. That business has pretty much disappeared because now we have the internet. So the competition for marketing has changed dramatically so that the messaging for sellers, no matter who you work for, has changed. And so again, for those of us who grew up in just representing one or two radio stations, now we have multiple radio stations, plus you talk about the trust, George, that’s something that’s so important because our audience trusts us and as sellers and marketers, we have to make sure that our advertisers and agency relationships trust us as well. So, you know, I can remember a time, believe it or not, that, you know, as local radio stations, we were order takers in a sense. We always tried to do new business, but it wasn’t unusual to pick up a telephone and have someone say, “Hey, I wanna advertise on your radio station.” That doesn’t happen today or it’s very rare when that happens today. So we have to go out and create these relationships and that’s a big shift.

George: You know, it’s interesting that you say that because I was just replaying sales training that I received in the early ’90s in my early days of selling radio. And they talked about, at that time, the trainers, and the great Jim Blundell was probably one of the best trainers that I ever had. He said you need to be a consultant. And actually changing that mindset was when I started to exceed my budgets. And then I started to get promoted because I was coming in consulting. And I remember I would go in and I’d come up with a great creative idea. I would get them, you know, sell ’em on the value of our audience and then actually tell ’em how their print should look with that creative idea and maybe they should update the billboard, the marquee out front of their business with that message. But I wasn’t getting paid to deliver those other solutions. And now in the world of digital, you’ve got so much that you could offer, so many problems that you could solve. So with all of that opportunity, though, it’s still not easy is what we’re finding.

Erica: No, but you know, you bring up such a good point because when you were positioning yourself as a consultant to that advertiser and you said you weren’t necessarily being paid for that, but you developed a relationship with that person. They trusted you. And because of that trust, you were able to garner information from them about their business that other competitors or consultants if you will, they didn’t have access to that data. And now what’s happened is we used to go in and we were compensated solely on selling spots. But now our toolkit has changed dramatically. And I think that’s where you’re seeing the big change. That we’re trying to develop relationships with other companies that can help us be that preferred supplier. Literally last week there was a seminar that our friends at Borrell did and it was about what they heard from local ad buyers. And it was both local companies and ad agencies. And it’s interesting, I’m just looking at my notes from that. And they were talking about from the local ad buyers use, 53% bought digital products from a local media company, and then from the ad agency side, 74% bought digital advertising from a local media company. So with that, you talk about a change and that really shows you sort of that sweet spot, and what a fantastic opportunity for local radio companies and local radio stations because who better to promote that local message than that local radio station who is tied into the community?

George: And I can’t punctuate that enough because I will tell you over the last 10 years, I don’t know if there’s too many people, we were just talking about the amount of travel that we did pre-COVID, but I don’t know if there’s too many people that trained as many salespeople as I had the privilege of training over those years and I found that that level of trust that that local media company had walking in, they weren’t actually understanding how valuable it was. And the way that I’d always articulate that to them is the competitor, which the competitor of everybody who’s on this call is I got a guy or I got a gal that looks after that and we have a tendency to pre-qualify that, and say, “Oh, they’ve got a digital agency they’re working with.” No, they actually have somebody that posts on Instagram or they have somebody that updates their website. They don’t have marketing strategists that’s coming in with a consultant view that is dealing with world-class products and services. They know what works and what doesn’t. So, you know, we come back to the power of the brand will get you through the door, but also being able to capture all of the opportunity that’s there because you’ve got these peer plays that are calling in and you know, hammering the phones, dialing for dollars, and they just don’t have that brand equity or that trust.

Erica: Well, but you know, it’s also information and information is power. And again, it used to be when we went into a client, when we would do that CNA or that customer needs analysis, we had to ask a lot of questions before we can even properly put together a radio plan. But now we have access to so much information prior to even making that connection that we can look at that customer’s website, we can start to understand a lot about that business to see what some of the weaknesses could be. And so when we are able to physically either connect in person, on the phone, via text, email, we’re able to ask very specific questions to understand what is the pain point of that particular potential customer? What is it they need? What is the weakness they’re finding? So that then we can put together a proper plan. And many times it will include radio, but the initial connection may not be a radio campaign. But, you know, I think the other thing that’s so positive about this and you know this, George, when you were selling local radio, how many times did an advertiser say, “Well we’re gonna try radio. We’re gonna buy two weeks of radio ads.” And sadly we took those orders and we were happy to take those orders. But you know what? Then we heard, well it didn’t work. Well, very rarely is a two-week advertising campaign for someone that’s never used the medium gonna work anyway, because what we’re looking for is developing that relationship, putting together that plan over a year, let’s say, or a quarterly basis to determine what’s working, what isn’t working? What’s the messaging? How is it tied into all of the plans of that particular advertiser? So that helps us ensure that whatever we’re proposing to that particular client, that we are proposing campaigns that actually can prove an ROI. And that’s really important because we need it to work. And when these campaigns work for customers, they’re gonna continue to come back and come back. And we learned a lot through COVID, by the way, about relationships. 

George: Absolutely.

Erica: Because there are people who said they had relationships and I can remember early on at the RAB, we would get some calls from some great members and from local sellers saying, “I sent out 50 emails and I didn’t hear back from anybody.” And you know, we’re like, well did you pick up the telephone to call them to see how they’re doing? Are their doors still open? What are their needs? But the sellers that had the relationships that got on the phone and connected with those people, they helped keep a lot of retail doors open. And I’m really proud of what radio did because radio really shined as far as how we helped local businesses. And again, as I said, we found out who had relationships and who didn’t.

George: When I know with the media companies that we’re working with the radio CEO was voicing commercials talking about the value of local businesses. They were even going as far as mentioning local businesses that were open and the way that they were serving customers in a new way. So really embracing that local position. So, you know, we probably have said it, Vish is probably counting how many times we’ve said local. But the theme to this whole thing is the organization is the local conduit to that local business. Now fast forward to a couple of weeks ago we were doing a seminar with one of our broadcast partners and we had a bunch of local businesses in a room ’cause now we can do that. And I had a couple of them when we were inviting them to come because it happened to be in our hometown and I knew some of the business people and they were like, “Oh yeah, I really like sales rep X,” cause I don’t wanna name any names, “but I just don’t know who to trust.” And that seems to be a theme that we’re hearing from local businesses. So what I wanna get to is relying 100% on the relationship without bringing in the learnings and the information that the businesses are, it’s not gonna work out for us, is it? We can’t just rely on the fact that I’ve been calling on that client for 20 years.

Erica: No, absolutely not, and you know, I’m gonna also say something. Years ago when you would ask agencies or advertisers about their relationships with local reps, and I’m not just saying radio, television, newspaper, magazines, you name it, sadly radio, in general, was always at the bottom of the list. We weren’t perceived as the most professional if you will. And if you ask that same question today, it is thrilling for me to see that radio sellers now, if not number one, they’re definitely at the top of the list. And I think there’s several reasons for that. First of all, I think we are much better trained than ever. You know, it used to be we would hire a seller and just say, here you go, here’s a list, go out and sell. A great seller, that’s not easy. But I also think what happened is, in addition to being better trained, we have more tools and information and we’re not afraid to not only ask for the order but to say, “How are we going to judge the success of the campaign?” You know, what are the KPIs of this campaign? And I think that says a lot about that relationship as well because you know, it used to be you had a new advertiser on the air and you were afraid to call ’em because you didn’t wanna hear that it didn’t work. Now you really wanna have that relationship to talk to them. How is it working? Do we need to fine-tune that message? Maybe the commercial isn’t right, maybe this isn’t right. It’s not syncing with their other programs. But again, we have these toolkits now that are so full of not only facts and information but that we provide these services that we couldn’t provide before. And it’s a fantastic time to be a local marketer that’s tied to a local strong media company. This is the greatest time ever for local sellers.

George: I 100% believe that. I’ve been saying it for 10 years maybe telling the truth in advance.

Erica: Well, frequency works.

George: Exactly.


George: It was a pleasure speaking with Erica, the president, and CEO of the Radio Advertising Bureau. There’s many learnings in this special two-part podcast series. Stay tuned, Conquerors. We’ll bring back part two of this special conversation next week. And please subscribe and leave us a review wherever you listen to the podcast. And thanks for joining us this week on the Conqueror Local podcast. My name is George Leith, I’ll see you when I see you.

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