Mason rids static from CBS Radio

Exec puts focus on digital plans, growing political ad revenue

A year ago, Dan Mason returned to CBS Radio to tackle sluggish station ratings and return the CBS Corp. unit to a growth trajectory amid flat sector trends. As president and CEO, he has successfully reformatted key stations and pushed new technologies including streaming and high-definition radio. Mason recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter business editor and New York bureau chief Georg Szalai about his company's digital initiatives and business outlook, a possible recession and the proposed satellite radio merger.

The Hollywood Reporter: Last week, CBS Radio announced a partnership with AOL that will combine the companies' radio streaming efforts. How does this elevate your game in digital radio?

Dan Mason: For a company that didn't stream until 2005 to become one of the leading or the leading radio streaming platform in the world is pretty cool. From a programming standpoint, it makes available the great brands we have — such as KROQ in Los Angeles, WFAN in New York — on AOL's platform. From a sales and revenue-generating standpoint, it gives us an opportunity that if a KROQ salesperson is selling an advertiser anything digital, it gives them an opportunity to now also offer AOL's Los Angeles audience.

THR: Who are your closest competitors in online streaming?

Mason: Well, I suppose if Clear Channel did a similar deal with Yahoo, that would create a large platform because Yahoo is pretty far up the rank.

THR: You have said that radio must be more aggressive about taking its message to Madison Avenue so that advertisers don't overlook radio in the digital age.

Mason: Yes, we are very vocal, and I am very vocal because I do believe in the power of radio. It reaches 95% of the population every day. By comparison, satellite radio reaches 5% of the population every day. I am also excited about the future of radio with electronic measurement, or Personal People Meters, as Arbitron calls it. In the test numbers in New York, WFAN for the Super Bowl had an audience of 1 million people.

THR: What's the outlook for traditional radio advertising this year?

Mason: It probably rides along with other media. I don't see a big difference right now between radio, television, even newspapers. Outdoor seems to be growing faster right now. It's not a situation where radio as one medium is down. I am not saying we're having an ad recession. But advertising is down and probably is trailing the GDP, which is a fact and has been a fact. And we, along with other media, suffer from that. However, the online pot of advertising is very deep and is becoming more significant. That puts us in a position to overcome any type of recession that might be down the road because we're absolutely fishing in a new pond.

THR: You also have talked about political advertising as a growth area.

Mason: From what we have seen so far, we probably are further ahead in the political arena than we have ever been. We haven't run into the heavy spending yet because we have a long way to go until (the elections in) November. There have been estimates of $3 billion-$5 billion in political advertising spending this year. We certainly want to get more than our fair share of that.

THR: What's more than the fair share?

Mason: Let's say more than we have ever gotten before in any political year by a significant margin.

THR: You mentioned a possible recession. Some have said that your presence in bigger markets might insulate you from economic pressures a bit. Do you agree?

Mason: I could make an equal case pro and con for that. It's true that if a recession came, advertisers would tend to go with the larger markets. That happened in the past. I have seen that happen in the '70s and '80s. But I could also make a case for the smaller markets because they are less dependent on national advertising as the larger ones.

THR: How do you manage a possible economic slowdown? Do your technological initiatives help?

Mason: Absolutely. That's the play. It protects the company from things that could happen down the road. It diversifies its revenue streams.

THR: What is the biggest competition to radio these days? Satellite radio, iPods?

Mason: I think an iPod is an appliance. And as far as satellite radio — when you only reach 5% of the population, that's just not even to a level that's mass yet.

THR: So, you don't really care if the Sirius-XM merger happens?

Mason: If the merger occurred, I'd like to see HD chips in satellite radios. That would certainly level the playing field. Then every car radio in the U.S. could come equipped to run several channels — HD2 and HD3 in addition to satellite radio.

THR: Do you expect more consolidation in terrestrial radio?

Mason: I don't know if I want to call this consolidation. But there will be an aggregation. We will be aggregating our ratings and efforts to compete in the marketplace as a cluster of radio stations versus singular stations. AOL is a perfect situation where you will add all our streaming audience in New York and add it to AOL New York. We can sell advertisers this aggregated audience.