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Benson: Success “Won’t Come Easily, But It Is Doable”

National Radio Award honoree (and Nashville native) dishes on debt, consolidation and Scott Shannon

Don Benson, the former president and CEO of Lincoln Financial Media Co., will receive the National Radio Award at the Radio Show. Radio World spoke with him to learn more about his thoughts on the radio industry, his career and Scott Shannon — the man who once dubbed Benson “Wonder Frog.”

Emily Reigart: What sparked your interest in radio?
Don Benson: It definitely was there at an early age. And has been there ever since. I grew up in Nashville, and my father was in the printing business. When I was young, during the summer, I’d often go with him to his office. And while he was at work, I’d go up the street and hang out at several of the local radio stations that were located near his business. My parents also bought me a small reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I’d make up fake commercials and imitate disc jockeys that I’d heard on the radio. I’m not sure my parents ever understood where all of this came from, but they were always unconditionally supportive of my interest in the business.

Reigart: Your biography indicates that you started your radio career at Nashville’s WMAK and you attended Vanderbilt University for your undergrad degree, so it seems appropriate that you would receive this honor in the same city. Tell me about that first job.
Benson: Okay. In the late ’60s, while I was hanging around WMAK, the station hired a high-energy night personality from Memphis named Scott Shannon.

Reigart: Oh!
Benson: Yes, that Scott Shannon.

Reigart: That’s also appropriate then. [Shannon will host the Marconi Awards at the convention.]
Benson: Yes. He called himself “Super Shan,” and I ended up being his in-studio phone turkey, answering request lines and rounding up all the high school football scores. He gave me the name “Wonder Frog.” He even let me on the air at times.

He was a huge talent there, and the city loved him. Scott eventually became program director of the station, and several years later he asked me to work at WMAK as a weekend/fill-in air talent. I was still in school at Vanderbilt at the time, working at the campus station as well. After I graduated, he asked me to join him at WQXI in Atlanta, where he had accepted the job as new program director. So, I moved to Atlanta as his programming assistant. He gave me the break of a lifetime in bringing me there. And within less than three years, I became program director of WQXI(FM).

Reigart: It sounds like Scott Shannon was an important mentor for you.
Benson: Absolutely. No question. And a great friend to this day.

Reigart: Will you get together with him when you’re both in Nashville?
Benson: Absolutely. I actually saw him in New York last week.

Reigart: You were the president and CEO of Lincoln Financial Media Co. for seven years. Prior to that, you were president of LFM’s radio division from 2005–2008, a role you were suited for because, for a decade, you had been senior VP of programming and operations at Jefferson Pilot Communications Co. That was acquired by Lincoln National Corp., and so Jefferson Pilot’s TV and radio stations formed the new media group. During that period, how much change did you witness in the radio industry? How much did you help spearhead at LFM?
Benson: I think there’s been a lot of change. Obviously, there’s much more choice both for the listener’s attention and for the client’s ad dollar. That’s made things obviously much more competitive overall for everyone.

My early years as LFM radio president were in the midst of that ugly 2007–2009 economic downturn. Advertisers had less to spend, business had softened dramatically, and we had to learn how to do more with less. Product and people investments were trimmed, and we faced greater expectations from clients for results from their marketing investments, which wasn’t unfair. It was a challenging stretch.

But it also taught us some valuable lessons, forced rethinking of some old concepts and led to the discovery of new, creative ways to operate. We all were forced to get smarter and think differently. And while it was a bumpy ride in some ways, it also was a healthy process. I think our people were quite resilient.

Reigart: Looking back on the sale to Entercom, any regrets or things you wish you’d done differently?
Benson: Specifically concerning the sale, Emily, no regrets.

Reigart: None?
Benson: No regrets concerning the sale. I do wish that we’d ultimately had more scale as a media group at LFM. But given that we were such a non-core asset for an insurance company, I don’t think anyone was surprised when our Lincoln parent decided to depart the media business; that really wasn’t the essence of what it does. Understandably, it wanted to prioritize investing in its primary businesses, such as life insurance, group benefits and retirement plans. And we were the company’s last non-core asset to be sold.

For many years, they gave us terrific support in so many ways. And both Lincoln and predecessor Jefferson Pilot were terrific places to work. Again, no regrets.

Reigart: Radio industry critics say that post-1996 consolidation marked the end of true localism in a lot of radio markets, turning much of today’s radio into homogenous, predictable formats. Is that fair? If not, why not?
Benson: Sure, consolidation led to more buying, which led to more debt, which led to the pursuit of more operational efficiencies. Some of that worked. And some did not. So, yes, I think there is some truth to that.

But while one factor, I don’t think consolidation has been the only factor. Again, the financial downturn in 2007–2009 hit everybody hard, leading to falloffs in revenue and trimming of resources in areas like marketing/promotion, research and people. Plus, a weak market growth pattern has followed that.

So it’s been a slower recovery. And I think that too has compromised operator investments and impacted the level of local engagement. But I don’t think any of this has meant the end of localism. I think that the good broadcasters understand the importance of compelling content with local appeal and are striving to make sure that they provide it. It’s imperative for us as an industry to do so.

Reigart: What role should debt play in large radio broadcast companies today?
Benson: Of course, it’s a tool to help companies grow and evolve. But as financial conditions have changed, those debt obligations have become more problematic. Two of the top five radio companies have a combined debt totaling over $23 billion; admittedly, one group holds the lion’s share of it.

Between the slow market growth and lower market valuations in comparison to when the debt was created, figuring out how to resolve or chip away at that debt has to be an enormous and time-consuming challenge. Ironically, in some cases, those debt obligations actually have masked some otherwise encouraging financial performances.

At Lincoln, we were fortunate to avoid these particular issues, as we didn’t carry any significant debt.

Reigart: When the Federal Reserve does, eventually, decide to raise interest rates, how do you think broadcast companies are going to react?
Benson: For those with debt, it likely would be more challenging to get out from under or restructure those obligations. That’s an additional headwind. In terms of investing in human capital and product resources, it probably would be tougher for those stations with heavy debt to find those funds, with interest rate increases requiring more money for debt service. And in a sector as competitive as ours, that’s unfortunate.

I know we’re in a challenged economic environment, but I think we’d benefit from having more long-term vision for our businesses and thinking more about next year than next quarter. In fairness, that’s very easy to say and tough to do. Finding that balance between, let’s say, an intriguing growth opportunity and making sizeable operational investments can be a challenging process, especially if you have a chunk of debt in a tough economic environment. It just is.

Reigart: What is your proudest business initiative or success story?
Benson: I’m not sure that there is one that sticks out above all others. There have been a lot of very satisfying highs — big ratings wins, some exceptional revenue performances and gratifying successes for our people, including some great turnaround stories. A lot of very fulfilling moments. And there have been some frustrating, yet very educational moments as well. It all balances out.

Reigart: What do you think most shaped your management style?
Benson: I think, honestly, my upbringing, probably, and influences by people with whom I worked really shaped my management style to be one of collaboration and trying to build consensus. Obviously, being competitive, but also being a listener. … People would tell you I’m not a screamer or anything like that. It’s just not my nature. But I do not like to lose.

Reigart: Do you still have the same enthusiasm after all these years in the business?
Benson: I still love it, absolutely. I think that while the business has certainly evolved across time, there’s a lot of opportunity going forward, and I’m excited about it both for me and for our industry as well.

Reigart: The U.S. commercial radio revenue growth curve has really plateaued since the tough period of 2008–2009 — even when newer digital platforms are taken into account. How can this industry change its overall business outlook? And maybe change the storyline about radio on Madison Avenue?
Benson: We need to embrace and socialize to our clients all the tools that we have at our disposal, including digital, social, event marketing and the terrific reach and speed-to-market capability that our stations can offer to their clients. And that means providing richer, more detailed, audience delivery data — which clients are getting from other media — as well as more ideas and effective solutions to their marketing needs. Selling inexpensive spots with no strategy is not the answer — for us or our clients.

Reigart: You definitely have given back to the industry in terms of your time and talent by serving on various boards and committees. Where do you find the time? Can you talk about why you think it’s important to do that?
Benson: What motivated me to be so involved over the years? A continuing belief in this business, plus the opportunity to meet and engage with a lot of great — and smart — people across all market sizes about both the opportunities and the challenges that we’re facing in our industry.

All of us are charged with doing the best for our individual companies, of course. But as our businesses have evolved, I would suggest that taking the time to discuss and work together on important industry-wide issues such as performance rights, our future in the connected car and position in the dashboard, and the FM chip in smartphones has become even more important for us.

Also, on a personal note, working with these groups has allowed me the chance to develop some special friendships that mean a lot to me.

Reigart: In 2005 you helped to roast your former boss, Clarke Brown of Jefferson-Pilot Communications, at the Bayliss Radio Roast. If your colleagues were to roast you, what do you think they would highlight?
Benson: Oh, my on-air work would be a big target. Definitely not my strongest attribute.

Reigart: You had fun doing it?
Benson: Yes, but I was pretty bad. They’d also call me out for looking a lot like Ernie on “My Three Sons.” And those are just the starters.

Reigart: Where should the radio industry focus its efforts in the quest to remain relevant and profitable?
Benson: Develop and utilize all of the marketing tools that we have at our disposal; create killer content and have it available wherever and whenever people want it; provide ideas and impactful solutions for advertisers; and invest in exceptional people. I know that feels like a tall order. And it is. It won’t come easily. But it is doable.

Reigart: How do you plan to spend your retirement? Do you plan to retire?
Benson: Working! I still have strong belief in the future of this industry. It’s definitely changed, of course. But with encouraging potential ahead. I’m not finished yet.