Building a National Radio Network

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Building a National Radio Network

Feb 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow

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An examination of Cumulus Media strategic planning

Expanding market share in the highly competitive radio marketrequires a carefully considered formula and the flexibility to alterthis recipe on a case-by-case basis. Cumulus Broadcasting, a divisionof Cumulus Media, owns FM and AM radio stations that serve mid-sizedmarkets throughout the United States and the Caribbean. Cumulus iscurrently in the midst of an expansion. What factors go into theblueprint it brings to each new market it seeks to penetrate, and whatare the nuances that allow each geographical area to establish its ownidentity?

For starters, when Cumulus enters an area it looks to acquire adiverse group of stations that cater to a cross section of theadvertising market. Establishing high quality programming is paramount,but how is this goal achieved? Strategically choosing those areas thatare most likely to reap the benefits of capital investment, the Cumulusbusiness plan calls for an aggressive improvement in signal quality andplant equipment.

While efforts are made to standardizefacilities across the company, individual station needs are stillimportant to the facility�s design.

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Now more than ever, radio stations need to realize that the bar hasbeen set high with regard to audio quality. CDs and greatly improvedhome-theater systems have made the average listener accustom to adigital sound quality that is far superior to the product deliveredless than a decade ago. As a result, whether retooling an existingfacility or designing one from the ground up, Cumulus insists on anall-digital pathway.

The place to start

Atlanta-based Cumulus relies on architects working in the area tobring a cohesive look to the entire fleet of stations, but input fromthe people who will be most responsible for the sound and feel of alocal station, including on-air talent, local engineers and market,production and program managers, is carefully considered. Everythingfrom a detailed equipment list to the color of carpet is discussed atthis initial stage. System integrators from each local area are hiredto execute the design work. Cumulus also has a group of six regionalengineers on staff. Depending on the location, a staff engineer mayalso be involved in the day-to-day execution of this design work. Oneexample is Dave Supplee, of Harrisburg, PA, who was a logical choice tooversee the Pennsylvania project.

Economy of scale purchasing is also a critical part of Cumulus'strategic planning. When the company completed the facilityinstallation in Harrisburg, it centered the operation around a numberof Wheatstone digital consoles and Mosley digital STLs. Knowing thatthey were about to begin work on several stations in Mobile, AL,Cumulus purchased consoles for this project at the same time, and wereable to negotiate a preferred rate from the manufacturer as aresult.

The work behind the scenes is just asimportant as the studio operations, when it comes to fully networkingits various facilities.

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They may not buy paper clips in bulk to get a discount, but Cumulusdoes aggressively pursue any area where consolidation can save money,including furniture purchase. The company analyzed the amount offurniture it had purchased over the last several years, projected itsanticipated buys for the next 24-36 month period, and cut a deal withEuropean Cabinetry, their preferred vendor, that gave the Atlanta-basedmanufacturer the opportunity, based on anticipated revenue, to purchasenew equipment. As a result of this alliance, European Cabinetry thenpassed the savings of several percentage points back to Cumulus. Basedon the volume of purchases that Cumulus makes for its three hundredradio stations, buying in bulk applies to its relations with Shure andother microphone manufacturers, as well as vendors who make everythingfrom mini-disc players to distribution amplifiers.

Something old, something new

When Cumulus acquires a new station, existing equipment comes withthe purchase. If the equipment is in suitable condition, it will bereused. If not, the company will install a new system. Cumulus iscurrently completing a facility in Eugene, OR, and has centered theinstallation around a Broadcast Software International (BSI) Simianautomation package. Cumulus Media also owns BSI, which is based inEugene. The Cumulus strategy is to make this set of radio stations ashowcase for the Simian system.

As part of its all-digital planning, Cumulus sizes all of itsfacilities for IBOC, which it believes will soon become the industrystandard. Although compressed digital audio is still often used in manyradio stations, Cumulus is building its digital pathway around anon-compressed path that will take audio from digital consoles, throughdigital transfer links and ultimately to the listener's car or home atthe industry standard of 44.1kHz/16bits.

The entire fleet of Cumulus stations is networked, making it easyfor an announcer to listen to his or her most recent program along withe-mailed comments from an executive in Atlanta or a listener.Production rooms can also share files for use in promos or for studypurposes, because all studios are tied together through an FTP siteoperated out of Atlanta.

Eventually all the markets will be linked, but at this time 20company markets are networked together using Eskimmer, a hard diskaudio logging system. Each market has its own system. Accessed throughthe Internet, Eskimmer records every word that is broadcasted from theHarrisburg facility. With a properly secured password, any Cumulusemployee can log onto Eskimmer, click on a market and locate anindividual station. At this point a calendar pops up. Files, keptactive for at least a year, are selectable by choosing a station andthe date and hour a program was originally aired or by executing asearch based on the name of a announcer.

For each hour of programming, about 8-10 lines of commentary arelisted as initial search points. The searcher can then click on any ofthem and, using Media Player or Real Audio, listen to the remainder ofthe hour's audio clips. These files, available as MP3 files for quickplayback, can also be extracted as uncompressed .wav files for futureproduction usage.

Proving performance

Cumulus also uses Golden Eagle to monitor the audio and signalparameters of its own stations in real time. Manufactured by the Frenchcompany Audemat, Golden Eagle also allows Cumulus to monitor othersignals in the market. Operating like a remote controlled FM radio,Golden Eagle allows an authorized Cumulus employee to listen to anyprogramming in a given area in real time using Real Audio.

Golden Eagle also lets the Cumulus engineering staff remotelymonitor the signal parameters for each of its stations, checking to seethat audio modulation levels, for example, are all within spec. Asimple selection lets the user choose between listening to a chosenfrequency or monitor TCIP. This is convenient for program directors,who have no use for the technical capability of the system, and forengineers, who rely heavily on them. If a company station located inBeaumont, TX, has four seconds of dead air, an e-mail will be sent tocompany headquarters in Atlanta and a local engineer to help analyzethe problem. Ultimately, the company goal is to devise a mastermonitoring system that will let the engineering staff in Atlantamonitor and track the technical performance of all of Cumulus' radiostations.

Thanks to Gary Kline, corporate director of engineering, CumulusBroadcasting for providing information used in this article.

Eskow is a composer and journalist who lives in central NewJersey. He is currently a contributing editor for Radiomagazine's sister publication Mix magazine. He may be reachedvia his website