230: Mission: Radio to Digital, with Jamie Cohen

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The hardest working man in digital gives us his take on aligning a business’s mission to a client’s mission.

The Conquer Local podcast is traveling to Malibu this week—we pick the brain of Jamie Cohen. Jamie serves as the VP of Local Digital for Salem Media Group and is the catalyst to the launch of their digital agency and go-to market model, Salem Surround. He explains how they reintroduce what they’ve been doing for clients by positioning it in a different way. Jamie tackles the commission shift from radio to digital and the go-to market philosophy by focusing on prospecting and selling.

Salem Media Group is a publicly traded media company with direct ownership of more than 115 radio stations, 100’s of websites and 1000’s of apps.



George: We are going to introduce you to a gentleman that I’ve known for quite some time. His name is Jamie Cohen. Jamie is the head of digital for Salem Broadcast. Salem has 120 radio stations all over the beautiful United States of America and I had the privilege of sitting down with Jamie in Malibu at the Salem Broadcast presidents and executives conference, and I appreciate them bringing me in to do some speaking there. Here’s the thing I like about Jamie. Jamie is an excellent example of a referral. You know, we worked with Jamie when he was in the newspaper space and the company that he was working for that he installed digital solutions was acquired. There’s a lot of consolidation going on in the various broadcast and media spaces. And obviously something went right and I’ll tell you what went right. A young guy named Landon McTavish that works for us here at the Vendasta Technologies company did a phenomenal job taking care of Jamie. There’s a bunch of other people that are involved too that built the software and our customer success teams and people inside our Marketing Services group like Michele Kerr. They all did a great job of looking after Jamie.

So when Jamie left the organization that got acquired and eventually was anointed as the head of digital at Salem Broadcast, he phoned Vendasta and we were very proud to get that referral. But the lesson in all this is when you were out working with your customers, you are trying to do a great job for those people and you may just get the best lead of them all, which is a referral. You know, Jamie’s a product guy and he is doing a phenomenal job. I talked to a number of the people inside that organization and the guy just works tirelessly. He is all, you know, he’s got a can do attitude, all those great things. But I, you know, I love getting product people on the podcast because we can find out what’s working and what’s not and what they like about salespeople and how salespeople are delivering inside his organization, with the one and only Jamie Cohen, head of digital for Salem Broadcast. So welcome to the podcast, Jamie.

Jamie: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here and very glad to have you as part of this week for us. As far as building this organization from scratch, you know, it’s really about building upon a legacy that’s built upon relationships, you know, and then bringing additional services that add value to our clients. I’m able to, you know, we’re able to tie what we do to a mission. You know, we wanna help our clients do what they wanna do. And if they wanna do what they need to do, they have to understand how to reach today’s consumer. And it’s not the same. So we align our mission to our client’s mission and we serve their needs, you know, and we can align commonly and get that done with digital marketing services, radio, audio, podcasting, programmatic, all the different ways that we need to get it done today.

George: So, you know, when you got the phone call that you’re in the running for this position, this is a unique challenge and now we’re a year after the fact. Did you really know what you were getting yourself into? And let’s talk a little bit about some of those challenges that you faced.

Jamie: The honest answer is no, but I also didn’t know my future in the career that I was in. So I took the chance of betting upon myself, you know, and leaving myself in control versus being in somebody else’s process. There’s been a lot to learn. There’s a lot that you don’t know about things that you don’t know. It’s a great opportunity and we’re learning things every day. But what I see is a group of people, again, that wants to work for their clients and wants to work well. And you know, again, when you can align goals, you can solve problems for clients. You know, you can make a difference.

George: So let’s set the table around Salem Media. Nothing that anyone listening couldn’t do with a browser. Again, it’s a publicly traded company, $250 million in revenue and now you have been brought on to build a digital business. You know, there are digital entities inside the company. There’s digital publishing, there’s a book publishing group, there’s this radio station group with a number of different brands, but we’re talking about local digital. We’re talking about digital advertising, we’re talking about presence and reputation and it really is, you’re starting this thing from ground zero. Let’s look at what that was like for you when you came into the organization.


Laying the Foundation

Jamie: Well, starting from ground zero, you start with laying foundation and that’s where to me, presence comes in, you know. If you don’t have a strong foundation, you don’t have anything to build upon. So it was really determining what that foundation was that we had. We have a lot of digital assets. We do a lot of digital things, but it’s really introducing more ways that we can use our assets and more of the tools that we have. Over time, we’ll figure out how to use all the different tools we have to continue to serve our clients. But it was a unique opportunity to help an audience help their clients. We really have a group of people that are wanting to learn and trying to get things done to do the right thing every day.

George: I’m here for the manager’s meeting and come in and speak about why digital is important to organizations like Salem. I’m sure that it hasn’t been just this easy road. There’s always challenges. Can we talk about some of the challenges that you’ve, maybe some things that you didn’t consider when you came to this role because, you know, let’s face it, this isn’t your first kick at the can. You’ve been involved in this industry for a while and in the newspaper space, maybe your first time in radio. But were there things that you didn’t really see coming?

Jamie: Yes. You know, there are things that you don’t see coming every day and that’s part of learning. In some cases, there were a lot of things that we were doing that were decentralized, you know, because that was the historical way we had done business. And in looking at digital from a different way, I took the approach of we were all stronger together, you know. So let’s commonly bring together all the different things we’re doing for thousands of clients across the country, but just not doing it collectively. But it’s the pain of everybody understands where we wanna get, but each different market, each different team, each different group was doing things their own different way. So it was really trying to get people to come together to understand for the greater good of everybody. It was to start working together, learning together, sharing together and growing together. So lots to learn, but also lots to be optimistic about.

George: You know, the interesting thing to me, when I look at Salem’s footprint, you are in the major markets. You are in large markets and you’re in medium-sized markets. I always like to dig into this. There’s probably some big egos involved there. There’s some people that are running big businesses. They know what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. I don’t think you run radio broadcasting in New York or in Los Angeles and not know what you’re doing. And then you walk in and say, “Okay, here’s the way we’re gonna do digital now.” How’s that went for you?

Jamie: I’m trying to help understand, here are ways to help do what you do every day, but here are ways to do it and ways you may not have thought of doing it before. You know, my belief is when a client comes to us and says, “Here’s our problem,” they’re not asking us to limit our solutions based on the tools we have available. They’re not interested in the size of our band or our frequency or you know. They’re interested in about how we can help them solve our problem. In an organization like this, I’m really bringing additional ways and showing them additional ways to help them do what they were already doing. But also bringing things to the table where they may not have been thinking were normal opportunities or helping them understand that a local business may be spending $1,500 on radio but might also be spending $4,000 on digital. And sometimes you just have to ask, you know, I always say you get 50% of what you ask for.

George: So an interesting comment today when we were working with the teams, that was that they were able to attract brand new clients to the solutions. They weren’t just pigeonholed into looking for radio customers. Have you seen that as one of the big wins?

Jamie: There have been some markets that are quicker to jump on that and for them they are having bigger wins because they’re realizing that there is more opportunity and the things… you know, we are in big markets. You know, we’re in giant and some very large markets. And in some cases, from a terrestrial radio standpoint, our frequencies have limited our ability serve our clients. With Salem Surround and a full service suite of radio and digital assets, we can do more than we could before, leveling the playing field for a market that’s in a top-5 market, or a top-10 market. It’s no longer about, well, we can only reach and do this today, we can really deliver prescriptive solutions for our clients based on their needs, not our owned and operated assets.

George: So I’ve run across this a number of times over the last seven years in this space where, especially in the broadcast space, because you know, we’re all kind of bowing down to Nielson and the ratings that happen. Are you finding that the sellers in the markets, if they don’t have good ratings, are seeing an opportunity with digital to keep that revenue coming in?

Jamie: We’re a company that’s traditionally been built on local direct relationships. So we’re capitalizing on that. We have, you know, several markets that are Nielsen-impacted and are Nielsen-sensitive, but at the same time they’re still adopting it and still moving forward. So it’s not really been something that’s had the same impact on us because our relationships have been at that ground level where we’re not bought by traditional big agencies or we’re not subject to, you know, or benefiting from the large buys. We’re going out and really winning and trying to Conquer Local.

George: So I saw a session that you had today when we were with the market managers, it was all around success stories and it was interesting, the advertisers, a lot of times were very local advertisers, plumbing businesses and furniture businesses. But I did see something on a couple of the slides where there was the potential to lose the entire business and you were able to use digital to keep the business. How have those played out?

Jamie: I think they’ve played out because they’ve given us new ways to show value and things we can do for a client. It’s allowed us new ways to show that we can deliver value and audience to help them solve their goals. It’s allowed our clients to perceive us differently based on the conversations that we’re having with them. So we see that as an opportunity to reintroduce what we’ve been doing for clients all the time, just positioning it in a different way. And that’s really, again, what Salem Surround gives us that opportunity to do is reintroduce what we can do for clients, which is deliver prescriptive marketing solutions.


What’s Next?

George: And keep the budget because the budget was committed. Maybe thinking of not spending as much money on radio and you were able to keep the budget and digital solutions. So that’s always a big win. What do you think the future’s gonna hold? If you were to wave a magic wand over the next three years, where do you think this Salem Surround initiative that you are heading up is going to go?

Jamie: Well, I think Salem Surround will continue to grow into a go-to-market philosophy. The less I say, you know, I say we should focus less about selling digital and we should focus less about prospecting for digital, and say we should focus on prospecting and selling. If 90% of businesses are using the services, I trust that the people you’re gonna prospect should be the people that use the services. So just looking for one or the other type of prospect doesn’t make sense when it’s about delivering audience along the journey. And if that’s what you’re doing, that’s the way you go to market.

George: I wanna talk a little bit about commission. We’ve saw some struggles with traditional broadcast organizations because they pay on the top line on the broadcast side. How have you handled the commission model for digital as you rolled out Salem Surround into that legacy sales force?

Jamie: I think we’ve looked to make, you know, changes in…to reward the behaviors and the change in philosophy that we’re asking for. At the end of the day, the end goal is hitting overall revenue. Then if it’s done in a specific way that matches what we’re asking for, we think that should be rewarded. You should be rewarded for doing that. But at the end of the day, it’s still about growing and hitting overall revenue. But at the same time we realize that without having specific stand out, standalone digital goals which was something new for our entire company, you know, to say, “Yes, you have an overall goal but you also have a digital goal.” You know, it’s introducing and taking those small steps, you know, to begin to make big changes.

George: So I’m a sales rep with Salem Surround, I’m out talking to my customers, I’m hitting my budgets. Do I get penalized if I don’t hit my digital goal on my traditional revenue? Or how have you handled that? Is it coupled together? What does the model look like?

Jamie: You are not penalized for not selling digital, but you are not rewarded for doing it as well. So if you want to earn your maximum capacity, your maximum income, you’ll do that by selling overall and digital.

George: There’s an override on the entire comp plan if I hit both of my budgets, the traditional budget and my digital budget. Is that how you put it together?

Jamie: Yeah, there’s an incentive to hit overall. And if you hit overall and hit digital, you should make more on your digital income.

George: Well, I wanted to bring it up because I think it’s something that we’ve been discovering is that especially, you know, there’s higher margin on the O&O product of the traditional media. And if you’re only paying on the profitability of the other pieces, it has a tendency to not make the rep want to do the transaction and not even just do the transaction, but to learn because there’s enormous amount of learning. And it was interesting today that was called out by a number of people when we got to our panel about the culture of learning that you’ve put in place. Tell us some of the ways that you are gaming the system to make sure that these reps understand what digital is all about.

Jamie: To change an organization, it’s not about just training your sales team up or it’s not about just changing your management. It’s about a combination of changing your culture, you know, and changing what you set and accept as minimum standards. You know, today we talked about numbers that told the team, I would love to talk next year about this being the lowest number that we’re talking about instead of celebrating some of the things that we celebrated today. That’s what we should be thinking about because that’s the opportunity that’s in front of all of us. Selfishly, I would say about Salem today.

George: So, Alan Power, one of your senior leaders of the Atlanta branch, he oversees a number of different markets, he was leading the panel and it was interesting. I think he was the one that brought up that he’d like to see more celebrations around digital wins inside the individual markets. Do you, you know, if we were to put a scale of one to a hundred, what do you think your percentage of penetration is inside the organization on people being body into selling digital?

Jamie: That’s a tough question. I think everybody is somewhere in that journey. I think everybody understands top down the importance of what we’re doing. I think we are seeing increases because we’re seeing more people every day step forward, and as I would say, jump in the water. I think there’s always room for improvement, which is one of the encouraging things. I don’t know how I would label it at a flat percentage today, but I think there is definite room for improvement.

George: The interesting thing that I found today and the reason why I asked the percentage question is, and I think you hit the nail right on the head, it’s not that you could put a percentage across the entire organization because you have some people that are early adopters, you have other people that are making a decision to adopt and you’ve got some other people that maybe just are thinking this thing might go away. And it’s not just gonna be, the entire organization is gonna jump in. We’re talking about over 1600 staff across to how many states, 40 states, 30 states that you have a footprint in. So you know, it’s a massive organization and I have to applaud you on what you’ve been able to do in a very short period of time. You know, we’re talking about basically 12 and a half months from inception of you joining the company to having this thing released. Listeners to the podcast, may I remember the day that they saw in the trades where you announced Salem Surround and I think you’re just really starting to hit your stride. So let’s talk a little bit about this event. This is just one of a couple of events you have throughout the year. This is the annual managers meeting, but I understand that there is a sales-focused meeting that’s coming up as well. How important are these off-sites to get that alignment in the organization?

Jamie: I think they are, especially when you start to look at centralizing and, you know, regionalizing how you go to market. I think being able to communicate in a direct style and having people understand and capture the emotion of what’s being said and delivered is how you change and win hearts and minds. And you don’t change an organization by just coming in and whipping a stick. You come in by helping people unlock things inside of them to do new things that they may not have thought they can do. And when you do that, you change people, you change organizations, you still have to carry the stick

I’ve never had a problem managing people through their performance because at the end of the day, as I’ve told anybody, I didn’t create these numbers. You know, your boss didn’t create the number of proposals you created. Your boss didn’t impact your closing percentage, your boss didn’t do all these things. It’s about you, you know? And if you keep the conversation as a leader about the performance and not about the performer, it’s how people wanna be treated. So again, we’re taking big steps forward, but there’s still lots of room to grow.

George: Well, I wanna give you the unofficial title of the hardest working man in digital because that’s all I heard all day today from your colleagues. You’re putting in some long hours and building this business from the ground up. Are you gonna get some additional headcount? Because it can’t just be one person. Where do you think the business goes in the next six months?

Jamie: I think the business will continue to grow. I think I will be looking to, you know, help add resources to help us continue to grow. I think, you know, we will continue to build out and form a, you know, a unit or more of a, you know, more of a division and start to build out and support, you know, all the different digital things that we can help impact at Salem. At the end of the day, you know, you started by talking about what we represent together and you know, we’ve spent time talking about the broadcast and there’s a whole lot of other things we have and I think as a business, when we figure out how to unlock all the data that we own and use together, there’s a lot that we can do.



George: Well, we really appreciate the invite to come speak to your leadership and looking forward to working with you in the months to come. And thanks for being a guest. You know, a pretty impressive business that you are building and I think we’re gonna hear some really good things from Salem Surround and Jamie Cohen as we move forward. So thanks for being a guest on the podcast.

Yeah, Jamie and I definitely have a bit of a bromance going on. I really like working with them. We are going to get back together in Chicago and work with their various sales leaders and VPs. I like this organization. They have 120 stations, a number of different brands and they are represented in major markets and media markets around the United States. Here’s what I like about Salem Broadcast: their customers look to them to be the trusted experts. And now what we’re doing with those trusted experts that sell radio campaigns or they sell event promotions is we are empowering them with a set of digital solutions that can help their customers be even more successful. And they’ve started marrying those digital solutions into their traditional ad buys. And you know, I’m not saying that all the markets are knocking it out of the park, but there are some markets that have been doing a very good job and here’s what I like about what Jamie and team have done.

When I attended their convention in Malibu, they held up case study after case study after case study after case study. And it was with local bit…So they got a picture of the plumbing company, three locations. Here’s how we helped them. Here’s the comment from the business owner. That right there is the best way to showcase to sales organizations how they can go in and solve problems is to hold up somebody and say, “Here’s how we help this business person.” So congratulations to Jamie and company for the great job that they’re doing as they start to transition Salem into delivering digital marketing solutions to their customers. We’re looking for your feedback. That’s where our ideas for upcoming episodes are coming from and producer, Colleen, is thinking into the last half of 2019. She’s very proactive, so she’s like, “George, we need to come up with some great ideas for July, August, September, October.”

So if you reach out to us now, you can help us shape the roadmap of what the Conquer Local podcast is gonna look like between now and the end of the year. Go to LinkedIn/georgeleith, that’s where we get the feedback. Go into the messages thing, type us up a quick little message. Don’t worry about spelling mistakes. I make lots of them. Don’t worry about punctuation. We’re all friends here. Don’t worry about putting capital letters in. If you wanna put a swear word in, go ahead. I don’t even care. Just send us your feedback. Say, “We liked this episode, this one, not so much.” Give us the feedback because that’s how we’re gonna craft the roadmap of what Conquer Local, the podcast, will look like in the coming months. Thanks for your support. My name is George Leith. I’ll see you when I see you.

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