When it’s late at night and an ad rep at an L.A. radio station wants to plan a strategy for convincing a supermarket chain to book broadcast slots, what does he do? He calls Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association. She’ll get him any research material he needs for the next day’s sales pitch. As president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association, Garber serves as a consultant for 62 stations in Los Angeles, the biggest radio market in the world in dollar terms. Since joining the SCBA in 1998, Garber has trained more than 600 radio salespeople through her night courses. She has teamed up with Arbitron Inc. to produce three important studies on local and national radio audiences. Last year, she was named broadcaster of the year by Radio Ink Magazine. Her background includes stints at ad agencies, local radio stations and national sales firms. She currently serves on the boards of thinkLA, the Los Angeles Media Research Council, Equal Access and the St. Francis Hospital Foundation. She met with the Business Journal at SCBA offices in West Los Angeles to discuss the challenges of radio in today’s world of new media, and what it was like to be a radio sales exec and the mother of a hungry 4-year-old.
Question: Is there a certain personality that’s attracted to radio?
Answer: Outgoing people do well, but if there’s no brain behind the smile it becomes apparent pretty fast.
Q: You moved around a lot as a child. How did that affect your career choice?
A: I lived in foreign countries – three years in Japan, three in Germany – before the days of CNN, when the only TV available was in that country’s language. Radio was my only way to hear people speak English.
Q: How did you get into this business?
A: I was one of the first employees at the advertising agency Chiat\Day. After about six months, the media director left. So Jay Chiat dragged me in and said, “Kid, what do you know about computers?” I said, “Not a lot, but I can learn.” He said, “Fine, you’re the new media director.”
Q: How old were you?
A: When I started at Chiat\Day, 21. I became media director at 22.
Q: What was it like?
A: If you didn’t put in one all-nighter a week at Chiat\Day, you weren’t working.
Q: What do you remember about the boss?
A: Jay pushed people very hard. With Jay, you always walked in the door with three ideas: The one he would love, the one he would hate and another one he could trash. You always saved the good idea for last.
Q: How did you get out of there?
A: I went to a couple of other ad agencies. When I was at Foote Cone & Belding, I got married and pregnant. After we spent our third wedding anniversary with me doing the Mazda media plan and my husband at a gathering with a bank client, I decided this was no way to bring up a family.
Q: So you became a mom?
A: Yes. Then I needed a job where I could prosper but also go to soccer games. The people who seemed to have the most fun were broadcast reps, and I heard they made pretty good money. I managed to work for CBS selling radio locally.
Q: Did it meet your needs?
A: When you sell radio, you are essentially your own business. As long as you make or break your quotas, they leave you alone. I’m fortunate to say that I never missed a soccer game or a school speech.
Q: Why did you leave CBS?
A: I had the chance to go to KRLA. They had a new programming director named Art Leboe. He mixed new songs with old songs – he’d play an Elvis song, a Beatles song, an Eagles song – something that had never been done. In three months the station went to No. 3 from No. 33 in the market. Great gig.
Q: What was your most memorable experience as a mom/salesperson?
A: My son was 4 years old and the caretaker called to say she was sick. My husband had already left for work. I’m looking at this four-year-old and I said, “Pack up, we’re going.”
A: I had a meeting with a buyer. I came in with the 4-year-old in tow and started my presentation. He sat quietly, but finally said: “I’m hungry. Please buy from my mommy so we can go to McDonald’s.”
Q: You got the sale?
A: Yes. When we got to McDonald’s I bought him extra fries. A true Happy Meal.
Q: How did the Southern California Broadcasters Association come into your life?
A: The job opened up because the guy who had it was set to retire. It was a place where people went to retire. I could have become general manager of a station or leader of a station group. A woman had never held this job.
Q: So why did you take the job?
A: Because a lot of people selling radio didn’t understand it. I felt I could explain it and help a medium that I love dearly.
Q: What do you do on a typical day?
A: I get up in Malibu and go to my computer. Then I’ll head to an ad agency or a station for a presentation on how to sell radio. From there, I might attend meetings at the Media Research Council; thinkLA, the ad trade group; American Women in Radio & Television; or one of the charities I help get airtime on local stations.
Q: What are the surprises in your day?
A: Usually I’ll get a call for help from an ad executive on how to sell to a grocery store or car dealer. My research director and I come up with answers.
Q: So the employees from all these radio stations can call you at any time?
A: And they do. They BlackBerry me at 11:30 at night.
Q: Do you attend radio parties with celebrities in the evening?
A: I’ve been to three parties this year. Either new people come and go or a new format for a station comes and goes. That’s the only reason for a party. A really long day starts at about 6 in the morning and doesn’t end till 11:30 at night, but those are rare. This is not Chiat\Day.
Q: The perception now is that radio is challenged by new technology.
A: People think it’s an old medium. It’s 100 years old, but so are Hershey bars. I don’t see those going away soon. People still need radio content.
A: Radio has a unique relationship with you. Its attitude is: “Hi, how are you? Call me if you want, e-mail if you want. Let me know what you think. And be a part of this conversation, this group.”
Q: What is SCBA’s most visible success during your tenure?
A: We did Radio Day at Disneyland with 40-plus radio stations. Different personalities were stationed at attractions around the park. About 4 in the afternoon, a guy from Disney told me there were 64,000 people in the park. They had a record day.
Q: Who are your favorite radio personalities?
A: We had an event at the Equestrian Center in Burbank where advertisers would come and every station had a booth. The personalities came to hang around. I was amazed at how down-to-earth people like Rick Dees, Ellen K, Big Boy, Ryan Seacrest, Shotgun Tom Kelly and Gary Bryan were.
Q: What do you like about them?
A: You want to talk to them and they make it so easy. You can understand how they have this connection with people.
Q: Who are your heroes, either from history or literature?
A: I have admired Eleanor Roosevelt since I was very young. Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen to four kings – a tough, gutsy woman who lived well into her 80s in the Middle Ages. She introduced most of Europe to the arts. I consider Edward R. Murrow and CBS heroes for calling out Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And my husband, Steve, who has been battling a bone marrow disease for nearly two decades, but who never hesitates to reach out to help others with similar illnesses. Now there is my real hero.
Mary Beth Garber
ORGANIZATION: Southern California Broadcasters Association
BORN: 1946; Fort Mead, Md.
EDUCATION: Attended 15 schools by the 12th grade because of her father’s
international military career; Pitzer College, bachelor’s in English literature
CAREER TURNING POINT: Appointed media director at Chiat/Day at 22
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Art Leboe, former program director at L.A. rock station KRLA; Ralph Guild, former chairman of radio sales firm Interrep; Jay Chiat, founder of ad agency Chiat\Day
PERSONAL: Lives in Malibu with husband; only son is now an ad sales manager at KFI-AM (640).
HOBBIES: Reading thrillers, walking on the beach
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