CES 2020: Does Being A ‘Legacy’ Media Company Help Or Hurt Innovation?


That was just one of the questions Westwood One President and Cumulus Media EVP/Marketing Suzanne Grimes answered last week at a special Consumer Electronics Show “Innovation Series Summit” hosted by Shelly Palmer.

Grimes participated in the event at the Wynn Resort and was a keynoter.

Grimes was interviewed by Alexis Palmer Zinberg, EVP of Client Services & Events at The Palmer Group.

ALEXIS PALMER ZINBERGOur theme of the day is continuous innovation. There is a ton of electronics and tech and innovation just here in this room but none have been challenged as much as radio to innovate, and you were here first. How do you see the evolution of innovation in the audio space as it relates to traditional media and driving value?

SUZANNE GRIMES: Good question. I think that everybody in the room can agree whether you’re with a large, established company or something that’s a bit newer that in media continuous innovation is critical — not just in audio. But, maybe radio is hardest hit and I can say that at Westwood One, at least since I joined in 2016, we’ve been completely embracing the notion of continuous innovation possibly by necessity. Actually, the business was pretty strong, so there could have been a complacency option as well but that just wouldn’t stand.

I think I arrived at a very fortunate time. With smart speakers bringing radio back into the home and podcast content creators building an entirely new set of compelling and intimate audio experiences, this really is a moment in time. I feel really fortunate to be here at this moment in time and it’s reflected in the agenda here at CES. Alexa launched in 2014 and it wasn’t until 2017 that at least informally someone called them the breakthrough tech moment. Fast forward to today and there’s an entire track devoted to voice happening concurrent with this and through the afternoon. I think that says a lot about the moment in time for audio, and we’re excited to be a part of it.

ALEXIS: Westwood One has been around for decades. It was founded in 1976 and it was acquired by Cumulus Media in 2013. Does your legacy position help or hurt when it comes to innovation?

SUZANNE: That’s a little bit of both, as I think anyone at a legacy organization can understand. On the one hand, we entered into this commitment to continuous innovation with a lot going for us, right? We have a lot to work with, and we were best known for our content partnerships, exclusive relationships … you know from that starting point the question was, ‘OK, where do we focus? Where can we innovate? Where do we think as a legacy organization often characterized by not the greatest agility, and decent amount of risk aversion? Where do we think we could win?’

We identified three places to focus. The first was data and radio. I think most would agree it was really slow to come to the table with something meaningful that sophisticated marketers would expect.

The second was in the area of Voice A.I. and, in our case, smart speakers and what we could do there. The third was the area of podcasting, and in so doing there was a lot of cultural work we had to do as well. An easy example would be that a traditional broadcast programmer didn’t necessarily look at podcasting as a good thing. They looked at it as a big threat potentially stealing their audience. They abhorred the notion of us doing podcast promotion on air and possibly encouraging them to sample something else. There was a significant amount of communication required and a real commitment having the courage of our conviction to try to persuade them that, in fact, it was an enhancement to what they were doing and could make us bigger and stronger, as opposed to something that would hurt their business.

ALEXIS: I grew up listening to radio. I am a mom of two and Voice A.I. and smart speakers are bringing AM and FM back into our collective homes. How does that influence what Westwood One has been doing to innovate in this space?

SUZANNE: I think right now the latest number that I have is that 1 in 3 Americans owns at least one smart speaker. And I do know that in 2019 AM/FM content was the biggest category of listening that took place on those smart speakers, so that’s pretty important.

Recognizing that, we did a couple of things. In 2017 we launched the largest network of Alexa skills across more than 300 of our brands, and we heavily promoted that on our broadcast air. In a matter literally of months, I think it was four months, we saw the percent of our listening that occurred on smart speakers as opposed to terrestrial radio grow from essentially zero to 19%.

That’s a pretty big deal. The following year we added additional Alexa skills.

The holiday numbers in terms of listenership showed that we had achieved our highest level ever, at 23%. it’s not terribly surprising if you think that smart speakers are for listening in the home and that’s where we celebrate our holidays.

Even though we are an audio-first company, to create the innovations for those 300-plus brands was a nightmare, and we haven’t been consistent. We had to be incredibly disciplined in getting that right so that the consumer could actually find us. Many marketers today are trying to find their audio identity, their sonic logo.

Sound is super critical. I encourage you to spend some time on that and hope it will bear fruit for you.

ALEXIS: As we look ahead what are you most excited about?

SUZANNE: From a self-serving standpoint, we’re talking about continuous innovation, we’re talking about working together, and I’m very excited about the fact that I think we can go beyond innovation that delivers new revenue streams.

It’s bringing younger talent and younger listeners to the radio platform and the radio platform is driving downloads for the podcast.

It’s a complete 360 cycle, and if we can continue to perpetuate that I think it bodes very well for the audio industry broadly and the ad opportunities it can bring to partners who are looking for ways to connect with listeners in that fashion. I’d say that’s my No. 1, but the continued platform wars, the push to help with discovery, the introduction of a lot more in terms of measurement for podcasting are three others that I put on the list. It’ll be a great year I hope for everyone in the room to see.