Q&A: J.D. Crowley, chief digital officer, Entercom
As chief digital officer, J.D. Crowley is responsible for Entercom’s digital strategy, including streaming service Radio.com; a network of radio station websites, apps and social media platforms; event discovery business Eventful; and digital ad services agency SmartReach Digital. He joined the company from CBS Radio, as part of the November 2017 merger, where he was executive VP of digital since October 2016. Crowley began his career in television, starting as a producer at KCAL/KCBS in Los Angeles, before working for Paramount’s “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider.” Before crossing over to radio, he was senior VP/GM of digital media for CBS Television Distribution. Inside Radio caught up with Crowley to talk about what’s next for Radio.com, how Cadence13 fits into Entercom’s digital strategy and how smart speakers and other tech are contributing to an insatiable demand for audio content. An edited transcript follows.
What’s the company’s vision for evolving Radio.com from a broadcast extension that caters to P1 radio listeners to a strong digital business on its own?
Entercom was very fortunate in acquiring Radio.com as part of the merger and it was a green field as far as the product goes. Around the close of the merger, our digital team sat down and asked: What is in our DNA in terms of our radio stations? What does our current audience want from us from a digital and mobile perspective? Are there audiences we’re not touching today and what do they want that we may not be giving them? Where and how do they want to consume us in a way that we may not be presenting? Those were the questions we thought about as we got started and as we relaunched the product in late March.
In terms of where we want to head, radio as a whole has down a really good job of building brand awareness around call letters and station brands. The concern has always been that you put the personalities – the content on the radio that the consumers love – inside a box and put the brand name on top of that box. And if a consumer wants to engage with the content, they kind of have to get inside that box. And in 2018 and moving forward, this is not necessarily the way all consumers want to consume. We do have deep, engaged, passionate fan bases and those folks want to get into a [Boston sports talker] WEEI experience or a [L.A. modern rocker] KROQ experience and engage with it. Our opportunity is to take that content and package it, not just around the call letters, but around the topics that are being discussed – the players, the teams, the personalities like [“The Fan” WFAN-AM/FM New York morning co-host] Boomer Esiason that are giving perspective and breaking news that could not be broken anywhere else. There are a lot of Patriots and Red Sox fans who don’t live in Boston and may not know about WEEI. We can package that content, live or on-demand, and then surface it through smart discovery to users on our app, on the web or a smart speaker. It’s the same great content but it’s presented in a number of different ways to those users, where they have a need and where they want to build that habit with our personalities, our content and our brands.
What’s on the drawing board for expanding Radio.com content offerings, improving the user experience, and enabling more interaction and content discovery?
A great discovery engine has to be at the core of how we grow our audience, by exposing our content in different ways horizontally and vertically. There are a number of things we’ve already done to make accessing our content simple and easy. What you’ll see over the next couple of months are other ways to layer secondary and tertiary discovery around these other pathways, like collating content around a team or bringing traffic and weather to a user at the beginning of their experience. In terms of content, we’re fortunate in the depth and breadth we already have at Entercom, in sports and news where we stand apart – even some of our music stations are in a unique and fortunate position. Our partners at [podcast creator] Cadence13 have a wonderful lineup of podcast content, including some of the top shows on the chart, and there are other great podcasts that our listeners like. There may be some other content partners that can fill in some lanes where we’re either not as deep or we see demand from our users. We have to make sure that the user experience around discovery is not cluttered and confusing. Our goal is going to be to put that exact right piece of content in front of the exact right user at the exact right moment in the exact right location. We’re adding engineering resources pretty quickly as that’s an area where we’re focused right now.
Entercom recently brought Pamela Russo and Chris Rosen on board in new executive roles for Radio.com. How will their digital publishing backgrounds help you grow audience, engagement and social interaction?
As [CEO] David [Field] and I started talking about we can grow fast from a digital perspective and also provide value to the company as a whole, there were two names that stuck in the front of my mind. Pam Russo, who is our new GM of Radio.com, has had a great career on the digital side of more traditional media companies, both TV and print. She understands how to build great digital businesses, how to leverage content in a myriad of ways to drive value – both from a revenue and audience development perspective. She has a vision that we all share for how we want consumers to think about Radio.com – not just as an audio platform but also for great editorial content. She also understands how to partner with our sales teams. Chris Rosen has come in as editorial director for Radio.com and is focused on building out an editorial team to drive great content around music artists, culture and entertainment. The things our morning shows have been so good at talking about for the last several decades – we want to bring that to life on a publishing platform. Audio doesn’t inherently travel around the internet as well as it should. We do a lot of thinking around how we transform our audio content into written word or video so that it will be available for search engines and social media optimization. Chris is a real expert at that. He also knows how to work with other publishers and partners to give the great content we’re already creating the awareness and relevance it should have on the internet.
How does Cadence13 fit into your plans for Radio.com?
They helped us in three ways. First, they have a great library of content and partnerships to leverage for the service. We’re also thinking about original content that we want to develop together that may live exclusively on Radio.com for a period of time, or other ways to promote each other in a mutually beneficial way. Secondly, we work together from a sales perspective on ad products within Radio.com. The third way has to do with features that podcasters might need from a product perspective – what are the frustrations that the podcast teams have with the other podcast aggregator apps or the core iOS and Android experiences? They've been very helpful from the brainstorm perspective on the product side. We continue to partner very deeply and bounce ideas off each other and they’ll help influence our roadmap in a really meaningful way.
How are you exploiting the opportunities of new audio tech like smart speakers, smart devices and gaming systems?
It’s a pleasure to be in an audio industry that’s growing so rapidly, where any new device that comes to market shows how insatiable consumer demand is for audio. Audio is the best mobile content and advertising experience because of its engagement, portability and premium nature – there’s no fraud in digital audio. It’s one of the cleanest, most brand-safe, most valuable ad environments. Penetration and distribution are a key focus for us at Radio.com. We’ve had great partnerships with a number of technology and service providers and you’ll see some news on distribution partners in the near future. Our strategy is to be everywhere that our consumers want to access us and the others in the space have done a good job with that. More generally, as you think about a smart speaker, it’s been so great to have the opportunity to add more points of access for audio in the home and to make audio more pervasive in the office. From a digital perspective we can target and remove things like waste and remove friction from a consumer experience. As an industry I think we’ve done a very good job of building value for the manufacturers of these speakers. We should continue to work together and be smart about where we drive value, where the technology companies drive value and to think about those relationships. It’s a great opportunity.
The other bucket you look after is SmartReach Digital. How did the approach to digital product sales differ between Entercom and CBS Radio and how are you bringing them together?
Both companies had really good suites of consultative digital products and reach extension. There was very little overlap between the two portfolios. It was actually pretty easy to integrate the offerings and there has been a lot of quick growth in that line of business because of that. Where there was overlap it was pretty easy to determine which offering was better. Both companies had some exclusive relationships with different partners and exclusive offering for different products that were pretty easy to step right into. We’ve built a really nice business on the value of our consultative sales team with more than 1,000 sellers in 48 markets, including most of the top 20. A number of products we have exclusively in the markets in which we operate and the value and ROI of what we create I would put up against not just any other radio company but any other digital company. We’re growing business from all corners of the marketplace. More than 90% of our digital customers buy more than one product from us. And well more than half of our clients who come in the door for digital come back very quickly and add broadcast radio and now increasingly digital audio to those buys. It’s a great way for us to develop markets, to drive value to existing clients that have been with us for decades and achieve the reach and ROI objectives of our customers. With Entercom Analytics, we’re putting attribution value on broadcast radio and now we’re able to wrap the digital products round that.
How has launching new dedicated websites for big all-news brands like WINS and WCBS-AM in New York allowed your spoken word brands to expand content offerings and deepen listener engagement?
Beyond audio, Radio.com is also a giant web publishing platform that encompasses original web content in text and video but also all of the content from all of our radio station websites which are now part of the platform. The depth of connection that our consumers have with some of these news and sports and flagship music brands is powerful. Looking forward, for those brands not to have their own websites is a huge miss. Is 1010 WINS tomorrow going to compete with NewYorkPost.com? No but we are thinking about where we might partner with other folks in the local news marketplace. That said, the rapid growth of these platforms as we’ve launched them has shown us there is audience that is looking for other types of content beyond what they’re already getting from local news publishers on the internet. And those are some of the voids that we’re trying to fill. Being part of the bigger Radio.com platform is a key part of our strategy to give these stations bigger reach. And now you have all of the New York audience consuming news or sports or entertainment content on our platform that our New York and national sales teams can sell, as opposed to only selling the audience that’s sitting inside the bucket of your radio station and their website that’s in the DMA. This strategy of deep vertical brands at the local level, plus a horizontal platform approach to drive sales across the platform, is something we think can’t be beat.