The Conclave

As technology keeps changing how Americans consume media, a prominent radio chief sees a “big pot of gold” for the industry in all the digital disruption. Enormous ad budgets once reserved for newspapers and TV are now in play for radio sellers as well. That’s how Bill Hendrich, executive VP, Radio at Cox Media Group, put it at The Conclave.

When Hendrich first cut his teeth in radio sales, there were “hundreds of millions of dollars” allocated solely to newspapers and TV—budgets radio couldn’t touch. Then along came digital disruption, which “decimated newspapers and is doing the same thing to television,” Hendrich told the crowd at The Conclave in Minneapolis during its “Ask Me Almost Anything” keynote session Thursday morning. “Local radio sellers now have more [money] available to them to go after than they’ve ever had in their entire career,” he said. So massive is the growth opportunity that Hendrich predicted some radio sellers “will look back at these as the good old days of their career because they’re making so much money selling integrated campaigns.”

The veteran broadcaster also sounded a positive note about new voice-activated smart speakers, which he said are “giving us our turf back in houses,” urging the crowd to understand and embrace the technology.

Riffing on the upbeat theme, Kevin LeGrett, president of iHeartMedia’s Southwest division, observed how “people are consuming more audio now than they ever have” and pointing to the fact that headphones have become the top selling consumer electronics product. While radio doesn’t account for all audio listening, “we’re part of the ecosystem and we need to be proud of that and be consistently out there telling that,” LeGrett said. “I believe our best times are in front of us.”

Greg Strassell, senior VP of Programming for Hubbard Radio, identified podcasting as a major growth opportunity for radio. Hubbard’s radio division has learned a lot from Hubbard Broadcasting’s minority stake investment in Podcast One and has “hyper focused” on the space, Strassell said. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “Audio on-demand is always going to be there, it’s going to get bigger and bigger.” After two years of experimentation, Strassell said his company has identified “so many” different business models for podcasting.

From there, the panel discussed the ways radio can monetize its websites, mobile apps and social media channels. Peter Bowen, VP and market manager at Cumulus Media-Chicago, said step one for his cluster has been getting to the point where roughly 15% of local account execs are proficient in selling digital assets. Beyond that, the cluster has found success in forming partnerships that enable sellers to offer audience extension, which involves placing clients’ banner ads on third-party websites. “When we can say we can reach 98% of all people on any ad-based website in the country, that’s a difference-maker,” Bowen said. “They sit up: ‘So you’re not just a local radio station anymore.’ These partnerships have proven to be very valuable.”

But it wasn’t all blue sky mining at the Conclave, which is marking its 42nd anniversary as a learning conference for both established and emerging broadcasters. LeGrett said one thing that keeps him up at night is a “lack of depth on the bench” and figuring out where “the next wave” of air talent, sellers, digital experts and managers will come from. “When I’m recruiting people I feel like those young up-and-comers, those passionate 20- and 30-year-old individuals are looking at other opportunities,” LeGrett said. “We need to identify that next generation of broadcasters.”