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Building a National Radio Network
An examination of Cumulus Media strategic planning
Expanding market share in the highly competitive radio market requires a carefully considered formula and the flexibility to alter this recipe on a case-by-case basis. Cumulus Broadcasting, a division of Cumulus Media, owns FM and AM radio stations that serve mid-sized markets throughout the United States and the Caribbean. Cumulus is currently in the midst of an expansion. What factors go into the blueprint it brings to each new market it seeks to penetrate, and what are the nuances that allow each geographical area to establish its own identity?
For starters, when Cumulus enters an area it looks to acquire a diverse group of stations that cater to a cross section of the advertising market. Establishing high quality programming is paramount, but how is this goal achieved? Strategically choosing those areas that are most likely to reap the benefits of capital investment, the Cumulus business plan calls for an aggressive improvement in signal quality and plant equipment.
While efforts are made to standardize facilities across the company, individual station needs are still important to the facility’s design.
Now more than ever, radio stations need to realize that the bar has been set high with regard to audio quality. CDs and greatly improved home-theater systems have made the average listener accustom to a digital sound quality that is far superior to the product delivered less than a decade ago. As a result, whether retooling an existing facility or designing one from the ground up, Cumulus insists on an all-digital pathway.
The place to start
Atlanta-based Cumulus relies on architects working in the area to bring a cohesive look to the entire fleet of stations, but input from the people who will be most responsible for the sound and feel of a local station, including on-air talent, local engineers and market, production and program managers, is carefully considered. Everything from a detailed equipment list to the color of carpet is discussed at this initial stage. System integrators from each local area are hired to execute the design work. Cumulus also has a group of six regional engineers on staff. Depending on the location, a staff engineer may also be involved in the day-to-day execution of this design work. One example is Dave Supplee, of Harrisburg, PA, who was a logical choice to oversee the Pennsylvania project.
Economy of scale purchasing is also a critical part of Cumulus' strategic planning. When the company completed the facility installation in Harrisburg, it centered the operation around a number of Wheatstone digital consoles and Mosley digital STLs. Knowing that they were about to begin work on several stations in Mobile, AL, Cumulus purchased consoles for this project at the same time, and were able to negotiate a preferred rate from the manufacturer as a result.
The work behind the scenes is just as important as the studio operations, when it comes to fully networking its various facilities.
They may not buy paper clips in bulk to get a discount, but Cumulus does aggressively pursue any area where consolidation can save money, including furniture purchase. The company analyzed the amount of furniture it had purchased over the last several years, projected its anticipated buys for the next 24-36 month period, and cut a deal with European Cabinetry, their preferred vendor, that gave the Atlanta-based manufacturer the opportunity, based on anticipated revenue, to purchase new equipment. As a result of this alliance, European Cabinetry then passed the savings of several percentage points back to Cumulus. Based on the volume of purchases that Cumulus makes for its three hundred radio stations, buying in bulk applies to its relations with Shure and other microphone manufacturers, as well as vendors who make everything from mini-disc players to distribution amplifiers.
Something old, something new
When Cumulus acquires a new station, existing equipment comes with the purchase. If the equipment is in suitable condition, it will be reused. If not, the company will install a new system. Cumulus is currently completing a facility in Eugene, OR, and has centered the installation around a Broadcast Software International (BSI) Simian automation package. Cumulus Media also owns BSI, which is based in Eugene. The Cumulus strategy is to make this set of radio stations a showcase for the Simian system.
As part of its all-digital planning, Cumulus sizes all of its facilities for IBOC, which it believes will soon become the industry standard. Although compressed digital audio is still often used in many radio stations, Cumulus is building its digital pathway around a non-compressed path that will take audio from digital consoles, through digital transfer links and ultimately to the listener's car or home at the industry standard of 44.1kHz/16bits.
The entire fleet of Cumulus stations is networked, making it easy for an announcer to listen to his or her most recent program along with e-mailed comments from an executive in Atlanta or a listener. Production rooms can also share files for use in promos or for study purposes, because all studios are tied together through an FTP site operated out of Atlanta.
Eventually all the markets will be linked, but at this time 20 company markets are networked together using Eskimmer, a hard disk audio logging system. Each market has its own system. Accessed through the Internet, Eskimmer records every word that is broadcasted from the Harrisburg facility. With a properly secured password, any Cumulus employee can log onto Eskimmer, click on a market and locate an individual station. At this point a calendar pops up. Files, kept active for at least a year, are selectable by choosing a station and the date and hour a program was originally aired or by executing a search based on the name of a announcer.
For each hour of programming, about 8-10 lines of commentary are listed as initial search points. The searcher can then click on any of them and, using Media Player or Real Audio, listen to the remainder of the hour's audio clips. These files, available as MP3 files for quick playback, can also be extracted as uncompressed .wav files for future production usage.
Cumulus also uses Golden Eagle to monitor the audio and signal parameters of its own stations in real time. Manufactured by the French company Audemat, Golden Eagle also allows Cumulus to monitor other signals in the market. Operating like a remote controlled FM radio, Golden Eagle allows an authorized Cumulus employee to listen to any programming in a given area in real time using Real Audio.
Golden Eagle also lets the Cumulus engineering staff remotely monitor the signal parameters for each of its stations, checking to see that audio modulation levels, for example, are all within spec. A simple selection lets the user choose between listening to a chosen frequency or monitor TCIP. This is convenient for program directors, who have no use for the technical capability of the system, and for engineers, who rely heavily on them. If a company station located in Beaumont, TX, has four seconds of dead air, an e-mail will be sent to company headquarters in Atlanta and a local engineer to help analyze the problem. Ultimately, the company goal is to devise a master monitoring system that will let the engineering staff in Atlanta monitor and track the technical performance of all of Cumulus' radio stations.
Thanks to Gary Kline, corporate director of engineering, Cumulus Broadcasting for providing information used in this article.
Eskow is a composer and journalist who lives in central New Jersey. He is currently a contributing editor for Radio magazine's sister publication Mix magazine. He may be reached via his website at www.garyeskow.com.
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