Pitzer Spotlights

2004-2005 Spotlight Archives

Mary Beth Garber '68 Influential in Radio

Mary Beth Garber, a Pitzer College alumna and Board of Trustee member, has once again been named one of the "Top 50 Most Influential Women in Radio" by Radio Ink. The following interview profiling Ms. Garber's lifetime of achievements recently appeared on insideradio.com.

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Billion Dollar Baby

Mary Beth Garber '68One of the most prominent and distinguished people in Los Angeles radio doesn’t oversee/manage a cluster or standalone station; isn’t ensconced in a City Of Angels’ OM or PD chair; and - while possessing a smooth/sultry voice – isn’t heard on the air.

The mere mention of this person’s name, however, elicits mountains of praise and unadulterated admiration.

The respect and affection are well warranted for someone whose impressive Los Angeles-laden resume boasts stops at radio station, ad agency and rep firm levels.

But for the past seven years, Baltimore native Mary Beth Garber has been President of the non-profit Southern California Broadcasters Association, which operates primarily in the areas of marketing and public affairs and services California’s 10 southernmost Counties.

Taking Notice Of Virtual Neighborhoods
Through her enlightening “Virtual Neighborhood” presentations, Garber has effectively and noticeably altered radio-related advertiser perceptions and seen a difference in the way advertisers and agencies treat radio. “Very few dealers in Los Angeles scream prices at listeners,” she remarks. “They treat you like a good neighbor and invite you to come in and do business with them. Once someone looks around and wonders what the competition is doing that makes them No. 1, they see the difference isn’t just radio, but how they `do’ radio.”

There’s been a tremendous improvement for example, in the way Southland grocery store chains use radio copy and what they say in their commercials. “You hear how they’re adapting to a listener’s lifestyle and how they’re going to make life easier for you,” Garber comments. “Advertisers who use radio as if it were this series of virtual neighborhoods and treat people as if they really were their own neighbors succeed way beyond what they should. Other advertisers are starting to notice that.”

Peer Groups
Many Midwest broadcasters are familiar with the excellent job Bill Burton does with the Detroit Radio Advertising Group (DRAG).

A similar organization exists in New York City, but as Garber explains, “It really only has one person, who is more or less the caretaker rather than a marketer. But I believe they may be starting into action again.”

Two people run a similar group in the Seattle/Puget Sound area and there are also SCBA-like organizations in San Francisco, San Diego and Portland. “I did brainstorming sessions two months ago [May 2005] with an official from the San Francisco office,” notes Garber. “San Diego also has a very active and effective city organization with Sharon Massey.”

Captive Audience
No less than Alex Rodriguez has to admit $1 billion a year isn’t exactly chump change. For a bit of perspective, it would take the New York Yankee third baseman 10 years at his present bloated salary to earn one-quarter of that total.

At over more than the eye-popping annual stat of $1 billion, though, Los Angeles is the world’s No. 1 radio market – even billing more than the entire country of Canada. “There are good reasons for [that status],” comments Garber, who drives 45 minutes each way to get to and from her Wilshire Boulevard office in the heart of Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile. “When you take a look at how people use radio here, you’ll find the average person spends about 90 minutes a day just between 5am-8pm listening in the car. That’s about 85% of all the working people in Los Angeles every day; 21-34s in [this market] actually spend more time listening to the radio now than they did in 1997.”

Even Garber was surprised when Los Angeles cracked the billion-dollar barrier, especially since it happened post 9/11. “We dropped a little in revenue [after 9/11/2001] from [2000],” she explains. “But we then actually went back and exceeded what we did in 2001.”

Fluent In Many Languages
When pitching the job seven years ago, Garber did so based on her unique background of working as a Senior Media person at ad agencies and on the client side as a Senior Marketing executive. “I’ve also worked at radio stations and rep firms in new business development, sales management and regular on-street selling,” she explains. “I’ve seen virtually every aspect there is of radio and have learned to speak all of those languages.”

Long in advance of accepting her SCBA responsibilities, Garber taught Media Planning at UCLA for 11 years. “I’d segued out of the agency side and into local sales,” she recounts. “The woman teaching media planning at UCLA, Mary Lynn Wheeling, was a very big-deal buyer/planner/in this market and had me come in to talk about radio. When she decided to move to Seattle, she recommended me as her replacement.”

Young Globetrotter
From the time Garber was eight, she’d listen to the radio she’d sneak into bed at night. The location for that ritual changed frequently, since the military brat grew up all over the world and was in Germany when she was eight-11 years old. “We also lived in Japan and all over Europe,” she explains. “All I got was Armed Forces Radio, which was actually great. Most Baby Boomers growing up in the 1960s/1970s practically had radios implanted in their brains; I always loved radio.”

After being stationed in Germany, Garber’s father was transferred to Fort Ord/Northern California.

Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges, was Garber’s school of choice and she’s remained in Southern California ever since graduating from the Claremont, CA school.

Creative Freedom
It became evident to Garber when she began doing media plans in the early days of Chiat/Day that she had the most freedom to create things with radio.

Even those on the creative side would respond to what could be done in this medium. “The same thing happened when I went to Foote Cone & Belding,” she states. “We’d do a lot of creative things with magazines and moderately creative things with television, but you could do anything when it came to radio.”

Odyssey Lands At KNX-FM
Another discovery she made, however, was that the ad agency workday schedule never ends. After becoming pregnant, Garber decided she needed to do something that would be more conducive to raising a family. “I’d always loved radio and wanted to see if I could get a job selling radio time,” she recounts.

It took her about six months to land a job in the mid-1970s at eclectic KNX-FM/Los Angeles (now KCBS-FM). The experience at the station with a true cult-like following formed the foundation of her “Virtual Neighborhoods” concept. “When you told a [KNX-FM] listener you worked at that station, they’d practically hug you,” Garber explains. “Finding one another was just a treat. You could immediately go into discussions about `The Odyssey File’ and what [mid- and late-1980s’ KNX-FM personalities] Christopher Ames and Steve Marshall were really like. When we’d have people do on-site things, they’d get mobbed.”

Art Of Observation
One of Garber’s fondest KNX-FM memories involved the airing of a “hideous” and “insulting” commercial that only aired twice. “We had 40 [complaints] from people saying things like, `Get that off my air’ and `That doesn’t belong on my station,’” she laughs. “They were right, so we took it off.”

A move to cross-town KRLA-AM (1110) enabled Garber to work with Los Angeles on-air/programming icon Art Laboe. “Art turned KRLA from nothing into one of the top three stations in the market,” she proudly proclaims. “He had this ability to talk to people on the radio and just absolutely connect with them. It didn’t matter what age they were - they’d call in and make their requests.”

That was pure magic to Garber, who was also impressed with Laboe’s incredible ability of blending music. “He sat us down one day and said he was going to put old stuff and [currents] side-by-side,” she notes. “We all gasped, but he said, `Watch me.’ He had that kind of ear and fearlessly went in to do it. Art; [Chiat/Day’s] Jay Chiat; and [Interep’s] Ralph Guild are my heroes. They really helped shape how I approached business; what I wanted to do; and what I do now. They made me think, analyze and showed me what would happen if you were a good observer.”

Twists & Turns
An opportunity to try her hand in the rep business presented itself when McGavren Guild needed a replacement for Ira Wexler, who was launching Hillier, Wexler, Newmark.

A four-month courtship ensued before Garber acquiesced. Even then, she intended to stay for only several years. Ten years later, however, she points out, “I managed to move from sales to management to their strategic team. I was running the unwired new business development team for the West coast.”

An interesting turn of events transpired as her biggest client, The Walt Disney Company, hired her away as VP/Broadcast Media. “I moved them into radio to open their films,” she explains. “They were the only film company using it at that point, at least on a regular basis. I worked for them for [several] years.”

A Natural Fit
It was at Disney where Garber realized she really missed radio and jumped at the opportunity to return to the medium via Talk KABC-AM/Los Angeles. “[Film] studios could be fun, but could also be really weird,” she notes. “I did some selling and moved into management [at KABC]. But when Disney bought KABC, I went to Saul Levine’s Classical station and just had a ball.”

Prior to the time SCBA Executive Director/Gordon Mason announced his retirement in 1998, Garber had been sending the organization various information pieces. “I realized that, if we didn’t sell radio first, it was much more difficult to get our part of that pie,” she remarks. “Gordon thought I was a natural [for the job] and recommended me [as his successor]. My background would let the SCBA go places it hadn’t been able to go before.”

Three finalists each made a presentation to the Board, and Garber was selected.

Competitive Environment
The way the industry now functions has changed our medium accordingly as a business. “I’ve watched it go from a collection of people who wanted the chance to network with one another so they could trade jobs and find out what the other guys were doing, to a community where they don’t necessarily need to do that kind of networking,” Garber opines. “They can network among themselves. There was a community that had in-house research people and pretty extensive resources, to ones who now report to Wall Street and don’t have anywhere near the resources they used to.”

The irony, of course, is they have more need for that input than ever before. “It’s a much more competitive environment for any kind of advertising dollar,” notes Garber, who also concedes there are few businesses that are the same as they once were. “My friends at ad agencies tell me it isn’t fun [there] anymore and isn’t the business they signed on for. Creative people and media people are also saying that, although media people feel they’re now getting some respect.”

Computers were barely in view at the SCBA offices in 1998, but the association’s stellar newsletter now goes out electronically and Garber’s e-mail account has a delivery about once every three minutes throughout the day and night. “Thirty different sources e-mail me their newsletters, so I’m able to keep up with the national retail federation, automotive world, drug companies – you name it,” she declares. “It comes across my desk every day and I know what’s going on. That wasn’t possible before. Even in 2000, most major companies didn’t have e-mail systems.”

FM’s Evolution
By and large, stations in the 1960s and 1970s played short songs and could do long/multiple music blocks or schedule many short commercial clusters. “Stations played a broad range [of music], but there was this immutable law that you never heard more than three commercials [per cluster],” Garber remembers.

An interesting development occurred as we transitioned to the 1980s and Garber contends that, “FM somehow went from being the place of mavericks and where you’d go to find music you just couldn’t find other places, to being the main music source. People began using it almost solely as a music delivery system. Outside of morning drive – and sometimes even [in that day-part as well] – listeners only heard [music] and liners. There were scarcely human beings around [on the air] in the 1980s, at least on the [music-intensive] stations.”

Instead of a mix of :60s, :30s and :10s, the 60-second spot became most prevalent. A research study done at the time indicated listeners perceived an interruption as being an interruption regardless of length. “So [stations] began [placing limits on units] rather than number of minutes of commercials,” Garber recalls. “But it was really unusual to find an FM station playing more than 10 minutes [of commercials an hour].”

Fair-Game Stations
Initiatives like Clear Channel’s “Less Is More” have placed inventory/inventory management on radio’s front burner and the highly personable Garber has as much expertise as anyone on the matter. “You can only raise rates to a certain extent and then you start losing business,” she maintains. “You either have to add units or find other sources of revenue. The radio industry was a little slow to understand that a station is actually a brand and there are a lot of ways to bring money into a brand.”

Rep firms and at least one high-profile rep firm executive have been subtly and not so subtly targeted recently, but Garber observes that’s been going on since radio rep firms first surfaced. “When there were 33 rep firms – 15 majors – we looked for business by watching [the early equivalent] of Miller-Kaplan’s competitive X-Rays,” she notes. “If a station had a relatively bad share of business compared to their share of listeners, we knew they were probably up for grabs and we’d go courting them and their group.”

Chains were small then, of course, and it wasn’t unusual for groups to have three or four different rep firms. “We knew the minute a station’s revenue started to fall, the first thing they’d do was look at [who was at fault],” Garber recounts. “The rep company is usually the easiest one to get rid of.”

Lifetime Mentor
Some are upbeat about the current state of the economy, but Garber maintains, “We’re hanging on by the fingernails. Some fairly unrealistic people looking at it through rosy glasses are running it at the moment. I watch the sales every month and see we’re actually doing pretty well locally, but keep getting hurt nationally. That’s because so many of those dollars come from the East coast and the East coast is seriously hurting. That affects what they think the economy is around the rest of the country and the way they plan to do their advertising. It’s too bad it all comes out of New York.”

Several AWRT boards are fortunate to have Garber’s services and she’s also active with numerous charities that would otherwise have a difficult time finding money. One organization she’s become involved with, for example, teaches surfing to kids with autism. “You find these charities and help them exist,” she modestly downplays and then declares, “We’re mentors for life. It’s something that has made a tremendous amount of difference.”

A roomful of first-time AEs several years ago participated in the SCBA’s first sales training classes. “Two GMs and three GSMs came out of that class,” the 2002 American Women in Radio & Television Leadership Conference keynote speaker says with great pride. “To look around and see what the people I’ve taught and managed in the business have done is really astounding and gratifying.”

Possible National Distribution
At least 500 people took part in the UCLA media planning class she taught, but the founding member of Advertising Industry Emergency Fund points out, “I had to stop teaching when I went to work at Disney. They wouldn’t let me continue.”

The seven years since she’s been President of the organization formed in 1937 have raced by. “I came in the door with the idea of what the SCBA should be totally focused on,” Garber remarks. “Marketing Southern California radio often means you have to multi-market radio in order to get Los Angeles to be one of the markets. I think I’ve accomplished that.”

One day-to-day aspect Garber misses is solving marketing problems through formulating a strategic plan. “I love doing that with radio stations,” she remarks. “It’s great when someone tells me they’re going after a client, but don’t know what to do next. I come up with a strategy for them, but don’t get to do it that often anymore. Over the next few years, I want to take some ideas I’ve developed to stations and ad agencies all over the country. Those ideas could possibly be developed into a business.”

WHO: Mary Beth Garber
WHAT: President
WHERE: Southern California Broadcasters Association
HOW LONG: Since 1998