New Cumulus CEO Criticizes "Rumor-Mongering," Promises Straight Talk

"I will not BS you, I will not attempt to spin you"
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The new CEO of Cumulus came out swinging against critics in a company-wide online address to its 5,000-plus employees last week.

Mary Berner is now leading the second-largest U.S. radio company, with its portfolio that includes 460 AM and FM radio stations in 90 markets. Berner succeeded former Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey in a high-profile corporate shakeup during which the company noted her experience as well as her ability to “turn around a company’s performance.”

Berner, 56, opened her webcast by decrying “rumors emanating from the uninformed, the uninvited and perhaps even the ill-intentioned about why I took this job and what I plan to do now that I’m here.” She said she is a big supporter of Nash, the Cumulus country music format and brand, contrary to rumors that the company might dump Nash. She unequivocally denied the need for the company, whose debt load is pegged at $2.5 billion, to file for bankruptcy. She listed Cumulus bright spots including specific stations and strong markets, the Nash brand, and broad corporate reach.

“Yet the company overall is not performing. … Given our many assets, we should not as a company be underperforming our competitors; yet we are,” Berner said. “Make no mistake,” she said later, “this is a turnaround.”

Her tone and message largely were upbeat. “I’m here because I am excited by and believe in the future of Cumulus. I don’t pretend to know radio. In fact, my knowledge of radio is specifically limited to what I have learned in my relatively short tenure on the Cumulus Board and as a fan,” Berner said. “What I do know is how to run advertiser- and content-driven businesses as an operator.”

Berner has experience in print and broadcast television and was head of the Association of Magazine Media. According to regulatory filings she signed a three year deal with Cumulus that pays her a $1 million sign on bonus and an annual salary of $1.45 million.

She said the company’s primary focus in recent years has been in acquisitions — two big ones and as many as 40 smaller ones — that have come with costs. The new CEO spent a good deal of time summarizing some 2,000 comments she received from employees in the last week or two, and addressed a need for stability in a company that has seen a 48 percent turnover of employees in the past 18 months.

She said employees told her that they are passionate about radio and about being “live and local,” but she said a typical comment came from an employee who told her, “I love my job but I don’t love my company.” Making air quotes with her fingers, Berner said too many Cumulus staff “think ‘the company’ doesn’t care about you, and for a wide range of reasons.” She said employees want better and more transparent corporate communication, fewer silos, more collaboration, better prioritization, and more focus -- what she called “operational blocking and tackling.”

But before realizing its potential, Berner said, “First we need to stabilize the company.” Broadly, she said that means a focus on programming to get ratings up, and eliminating sales roadblocks. She said more details must await the next few weeks and months, but she promised more access and accountability: “I will not BS you, I will not attempt to spin you.”

“Winners create and deliver content the people want ... across all platforms. I’m here because I believe Cumulus has what it takes to be a winner in media. Period,” Berner said.

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