Shari Rosen Ascher Goes Public!
By Wendy McHale
I met Shari Rosen Ascher when the men in our lives, Neil Ascher and Tim McHale worked together at Rosenfeld. We hit it off immediately. Since then every time we see each other we have a blast! Besides being a good friend, she's someone I really admire.
Before anyone on Madison Avenue took job-sharing seriously, she was doing it already for over 5 years. Then upon seeing baby boom moms and dads deal with the issues between family and career, Shari decided to become an entrepreneur and created ShareGoals, the nation's first job-share consultancy. And she didn't need a "Crackberry" to do it. She simply made the case that Mom's are by far the best multi-taskers in the world!
Today we live in a flex-time job-share world. With the rise of the Internet the work place has been turned upside down. Smarter companies have realized that they need to focus on the sensitivities and sensibilities of their organization.
Shari is now once again taking the issue of balance into the world of radio. With well over 10 years experience in selling commercial local, national and syndicated radio stations, she's blazing a new path toward quality radio for various companies instead of mind-numbing trashy, electronic noise!
Almost 5 years ago, Shari joined WFUV, 90.7 FM, Fordham University's public radio station in New York, as their Corporate Underwriting Sales Director.
Leading the efforts of corporate underwriting, there's no more a dramatic difference between commercial versus public radio. Shari has applied her insights to increase the quantity of corporate underwriting without detracting from the quality of the medium.
Wendy: How are you?
Shari: I'm doing very well, thank you!
Wendy: Before we get into discussing the industry, tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in the radio business.
Shari: Well, I attended Brandeis University where I majored in English and Sociology. I graduated with dual degrees. I was convinced I was going to be a feminist activist when I graduated! That didn't work. Most of the organizations I went to couldn't afford to hire me, and since I didn't have a trust fund, I knew I had to get a job!
Wendy: I know the feeling!
Shari: My first job out of college was a non-profit group in Boston called Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. It was a great first job but I missed New York. I felt I needed to get a job where there was a defined career path, where I would learn a skill and then be able to rise, depending on how well I did. I kind of fell into advertising. I got a job at an agency and began as a media buyer. I had many sales people call on me. It was a lot of fun! Over the course of my first two years, I realized that my talent was really in sales.
Wendy: What agency did you work for?
Shari: My first agency was Ally & Gargano. Then I got the opportunity to move over to Rosenfeld, Sirowitz, Humphrey and Strauss where I was really able to understand the business in a much deeper way. Rosenfeld was very important to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost it is where I met Neil, my husband (Neil Ascher is now Executive Vice President, Managing Director at Zenith GPE.)
Wendy: That's where you and I met!
Shari: That's right! Neil was very supportive of my interest on breaking into sales. The problem was it was 1989 and there were more people who wanted to get into sales than there were jobs. My first go-around in the interview process was with a company that put me through a series of 14 interviews. I was like "Forget it, if you don't know you want me by now then I don't want to work at your company!"
Shari: I spent another year after that at Rosenfeld as a media buyer. It turned out to be the best thing for me since by then I was focusing on planning my wedding. In retrospect there would have been no way to learn how to sell radio and manage everything going on in my personal life at the same time. After Neil and I got married, I eventually took another shot at breaking into sales, which by then it was a lot easier than before. I ended up getting an offer right away. I felt particularly good about getting that first sales job since companies could still be very selective. They tended to favor men over women. Another factor was that many companies had a bias against hiring a media buyer.
Shari: My first job in sales was at Banner radio. I worked 13-hour days and went through a very serious and exhausting training program. Though in the long run, it proved to be a valuable experience.
Wendy: It's very interesting that you mention training because I was in print ad sales for many years with two major publishing companies. I never had formal training which I felt was a real drawback.
Shari: I think there is definitely a type of person you can look at and think, "Hmm, they would be good in sales." One of the reasons that training was so important selling radio was because it is so research-based. I had my background as a media buyer but the kind of intense research you had to know to present yourself as an expert was very extensive. Part of the training was learning the terminology and numbers back and forth. The other part of it was a lot of role playing. This was really helpful. It prepared you for situations which you could run up against when you are in meetings.
Wendy: That sounds really intense.
Shari: These days I see mistakes that young sales people make and I can tell that no one took the time to show them how to avoid them. The training I received helped me in many aspects of the professional life. When I started my own business I went back to my sales training to harvest some of that basic knowledge and put it into practice in a very different field. Even though there were differences in what I was doing there were many universal basics.
Wendy: Like what?
Shari: Like knowing how to interact with people!
Wendy: Give me some examples.
Shari: Well, like learning how to listen more than you speak, or countering objections. One very important one was how to get to the decision maker. I was really fortunate that I had incredible mentors. I find it almost offensive that people don't treat sales as a profession. Just because a person may have a natural aptitude, they still need to learn specific skills. I'm a much better salesperson now than I was 10 years ago because I learned the basics at the beginning. I built on them over the years. A good analogy of this is learning to play an instrument. You may know how to play by ear but if you can't read music you'll never get past a certain point.
Wendy: Good point. As compared to back then, it seems short sighted today that as companies tighten their belts, there is even less room for training in the budget.
Shari: You're right. When I was learning the business back in the 1980's there was an expectation that you had to first pay your dues. It was assumed that you had to go through an internship period. I didn't expect to come out of school and make a fortune. In the early part of my career, my goal was to make as much money as my age! I don't think young people today have that expectation. They want to begin their sales career making 3 to 4 times their age!
Wendy: I agree. Why do you think it's like that?
Shari: In last decade it's been all over the news about all these newly minted millionaires who made fortunes in the internet boom very quickly. The effect has been that it's set the bar and the expectation very high. It seems like it's a surprise to many entry-level people that they're going to have to put in the time at the bottom rung of the ladder before moving up. That wasn't my expectation. I realized quickly that the first thing to focus on was to build a good reputation in the industry. Once I had accomplished that, then I expected I would be compensated accordingly.
Wendy: When did you begin to take an interest in job-sharing?
Shari: I was at Banner Radio for a couple of years before Neil and I decided to start a family. After I gave birth to our first son, I went back into radio, but not to Banner since they did not have job sharing. I knew that the competition, Interep Radio Sales was more "family friendly", so we went there. It was ideal for me at the time because it allowed me to job-share.
Wendy: Why is that?
Shari: I always felt that radio was very friendly to women in sales because it's a medium that requires you to multi-task. There's nobody in the world that knows better how to multi-task than a working mom! It's always been an industry where you will find a lot of working moms.
Wendy: Sounds great!
Shari: It's also not without its challenges. As a job-share Mom, some said once you reached a certain management level, the women that were promoted during that era tended to be those who did not have families. It's not like they were intentionally mommy tracking you per se, but there were those who felt they didn't make it very appealing to want to get to that next step.
Wendy: How long were you in that position?
Shari: My job-share partner Maggie Sisco, and I were there for 7 years. From all indications, it seemed management was pleased with our performance since we were top billers and great performers!! We were flattered that they had us mentor every new sales person that came in and had us help teach them how to sell. We eventually became Vice-Presidents though there were those who thought that the reason we did not get to the next level was because we were a job-share. I don't know. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't. Regardless, eventually my job-share partner and I got to the point where we felt like we were doing fine and decided the management thing wasn't all that important to us any longer.
Wendy: Why is that?
Shari: Like everyone else in their twenties, I wanted every title and the big office. But by the time I got to my thirties and was the mother of two children, my priorities had shifted. I realized that as long as I was producing well and was doing my job, I had a lot of autonomy. That became very important to me.
Wendy: Was Interep a big supporter of ShareGoals?
Shari: Absolutely! They helped us go into business. Ralph Guild was a mentor to both Maggie and I. He was a primary supporter of ShareGoals. The whole reason I went back into radio was to work at Interep. It was really a defining moment in my life. Interep had a few job-share teams and those women were extremely supportive and made the transition back to work a lot easier.
Wendy: I've always heard great things about Ralph Guild. Tim raves about his entire family.
Shari: (smiling) Ralph Guild was such a unique corporate leader. He always stressed the importance of a well-rounded life. Twenty years before Internet companies had ping-pong tables and basketball courts in their offices, Ralph installed a dance studio and exercise classes in the office.
Wendy: That leads me to my next question. Let's talk about the flexible job schedule a little more. When you and your partner pitched the idea of a job-share, it was still a relatively new concept. It seems to me that in the age of the Internet, it is possible for people to work in a "virtual" office. I expect it's making more companies warm-up to the idea of letting employees telecommute or work from home, at least a certain number of hours per week.
Shari: Today there are definitely more tools in place to make it easier for people to do their job out side the office. I think it's working because there are now ways for companies to monitor their progress without having to watch them in an office setting.
Wendy: You eventually became a specialist in this area, long before flex-scheduling became in vogue.
Shari: That's true. After being in a job-share for over 5 years, we became passionate about how they could help so many people and the organizations who were not seeing what we saw as a better way to balance a career and a family.
Wendy: I remember a lot of my friends were thinking that they couldn't spend more time with their kids without putting their families in financial jeopardy.
Shari: One day after seeing so many people be unable to juggle both, we decided to go into business for ourselves, as job-share consultants.
Wendy: Very cool! What were some of the things that you focused on?
Shari: The biggest obstacles in the way of job-sharing were with companies who had a fear of what they saw as a lack of accountability.
Wendy: What else?
Shari: We heard objections which had to do with fears relating to how a company would manage if one of the partners left. There were other issues as well, such as if there was no harmony between the two job-sharers. Would it be like two people in the office getting divorced?
Wendy: I understand.
Shari: Maggie and I had solutions and case studies to show them how to deal with these issues. We had to face them in one way or the other ourselves. We also needed to point out that people come and go all the time. Companies have to deal with employee friction all the time who were not in job-shares. We were with one company for just 3 years when in that period of time we were the only people who were still there throughout all that time. In that short space of time everything changed, the sales and management staff turned over several times, the name of the division, the radio stations we represented and the ownership changed! The one constant was my partner and me.
Wendy: That's amazing!
Shari: Thank goodness that this "old school" way of thinking is being replaced. Think about it. When you send an email to someone, do they really care if you're in the office in a suit or if you're sitting at home in your bathrobe having your third cup of coffee? What they care about is that you get the job done.
Wendy: I agree.
Shari: Companies still measure job performance based on one's ability to put in "face time." There are friends I have who feel the need to go to work on Friday even though most of the work that day could be done by computer and the phone. The rationale is that there may be an impromptu meeting that they might miss. You'll find that thinking more on the agency side..
Wendy: What about sales?
Shari: Technology has changed the whole world of sales. It's almost less common for a sales person to go into an office 5 days a week.
Wendy: Speaking of technology, what do you think about this whole phenomenon of instant communication? When we entered the advertising business the fax was new. Then it was voice mail. Then email. Then instant messaging. Now we have cellphones and Blackberrys where one can literally be accessible 24/7.
Shari: Like most people I think it's a blessing and a curse. As a working mother, I appreciate that I have the opportunity not to be in the office and not be out of touch. So that's very beneficial. But there are some times when we'll be out to dinner and someone at the table gets buzzed and the person begins emailing someone at the table in London. On the other side, if a "Crackberry" allows a family to be together and with friends versus be at work, then it's a good thing. You've got to find the right balance.
Wendy: Let's talk about WFUV. For years you were a national radio sales rep and now you work in public radio. Are there big differences?
Shari: Yes, for me there's a big difference from being a national radio rep with hundreds of stations in our division to sell to just selling one radio station.
Wendy: How so?
Shari: When you work as a national rep you're sort of a middle-man. You have to serve the needs of the radio buyer, the needs of the station and the needs of the company you work for. You essentially serve three masters. There is a very specific skill involved in managing all of that.
Wendy: I bet.
Shari: Now on the other hand, WFUV, 90.7 FM in New York is one station. It happens to be my favorite radio station so I have a more personal attachment to it. To tell you the truth, as compared to working for a radio rep firm, the experience is like night and day. This is the best job in radio I've ever had!
Wendy: That's great!
Wendy: Why does that make it different?
Shari: It makes a difference on so many levels. For example, with commercial radio, there's an incredible amount of inventory to manage. You have up to 16 units an hour to sell. Most commercial radio stations will take just about any type of message. It would be very rare if a spot got turned back. In public radio, we run 3 an hour. And they aren't pre-produced. They are "straight reads" at our station. We can't take any pre-produced spots. As far as content, we are governed by the Federal Communications Commission, so there are very specific things we can and cannot say. These factors influence everything.
Wendy: What else?
Shari: Retail is key category in commercial radio. At WFUV we don't go after retail business as a rule because we can't tell listeners on the spot if there's a sale, or give prices! That's considered promotional language. We can't use superlatives like, "It's the best, the fastest or the cleanest etc..." That automatically cuts out certain categories. We go about it differently. We target businesses which would be of interest to our listeners.
Wendy: Is that how public radio's always been sold?
Shari: Not really. When I got to the station 4 years ago there wasn't a real focus on selling the corporate underwriting. If someone called up and asked about corporate underwriting, the sales team would provide them in the information they requested and tell them to call back if they were interested in moving forward.
Wendy: Not very sophisticated.
Shari: You're right. The problem was that our sales efforts weren't focusing on who our audience is. Once I came on board I made a point of looking at our demographics and focus in on who and how they were listening. These were some basic elements that came out of selling commercial radio.
Wendy: So you're not really focusing on your content. You're focusing on illuminating the audience.
Shari: Exactly. For most of our advertisers it's not that important as to what type of music we play. Our music format varies. There are of course exceptions. We have a number of underwriters who happen to be record companies and concert promoters, which happen some of our strongest supporters. However, for the most part, what matters most is who's listening. When we began talking to underwriters about our audience, we began seeing different kinds of businesses that were ordinarily overlooking us.
Wendy: What determines if an underwriter is good for your listeners? Give me some examples.
Shari: Sure, let's begin with publishing companies. A great example is Rough Guides. They publish travel books. They use the station as their primary marketing vehicle. It's been very successful because they don't need to reach everyone in New York. They need to reach a very specific, qualified demographic of people.
Wendy: What else?
Shari: Performing Arts centers are also great underwriters. Our audience tends to be very cultural and they're very aware of what's going on in New York. We have almost every concert promoter in town. Many local venues and art organizations as well. They have a great interest in reaching the public radio audience. For example, we pull really well for theatermania.com.
Shari: We also get support from companies like Oxford Healthcare to Jockey International. In the world of New York radio we're very affordable and it allows us to go to companies with smaller budgets who wouldn't necessarily make an impact if they were buying a massive commercial station. The size of our audience is small compared to other stations in this market and this is what makes us attractive. We're a laser-focused buy. Our listeners also spend a very long time spent listening to the station. This really helps our advertising story since companies don't have to buy that many spots in order to get their message across.
Wendy: Wow, that's great!
Shari: Selling public radio is very different because too many spots would upset our listeners and there would be a backlash. That isn't a factor with commercial radio. The pressure was always to hit the sales goals. Put as many commercials on-air as possible. With WFUV, it's actually a self-imposed pressure. As a director I set the numbers. I manage who we target. The emphasis is always on quality, not quantity.
Wendy: I bet your commercial radio experience has helped you in terms of what not to do!!
Shari: You're right! But it's also because we're a member-supported station. Most of the station's income still comes from the listeners. Our corporate underwriting revenue has grown significantly though in the last 4 years. It's become a much bigger part of the operating budget and we've done it without people feeling we've taken away from the quality of the station. It's allowed us to expand our services to our members in different ways. It's not like working for a station where everything is dependent on advertising sales.
Wendy: How are sales doing?
Shari: Well in the 4 years I've been here, corporate underwriting revenue has grown from the mid $6-figure revenue level annually. Last year we crossed over the $7-figure million threshold! Needless to say, things are going very well. Both the station and its listener-supporters believe the content has improved.
Wendy: Wow, that's almost a 300% increase!
Shari: Things are going well. This year, we've added another full-time sales person which is a big deal for us.
Wendy: Tell me how you came to work here
Shari: Well, I'd been a member of the station for 10 years. I listened to WFUV all day long. I began thinking about how great it would be to sell a radio station I really liked. I found out that a woman I used to work with their promotion director. So I called her and asked her how they were selling in their corporate underwriting. She said "Oh, you have to come here. We need you." At the time I wasn't ready to do that. Then one day, on the very day I decided to check in with her I remember turning on the radio and up came an ad saying, "Do you have experience in media sales? Do you love WFUV?" I thought "Are you kidding me?" I emailed my resume that day. I met with the station the next day and a week they offered me the job!
Wendy: In your opinion what makes a good salesperson.
Shari: Look at your self as a consultant to the client. I think that's what separates great salespeople from the rest of the pack. If you ask a client what makes a great salesperson, they'll tell you the salesperson that helps them, not one that tried to convince them to buy something. That's how you gain trust and develop relationships. As a result of that I have customers do testimonials now for the radio station and I put them on the air and on our website and that's how we get more business.
Wendy: That's great.
Shari: I think what makes the difference between a good sales person and a great sales person is whether the person is doing what they have to do versus doing what they really want to do. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to sell WFUV (90.7 FM in New York) and I made it happen. I think that goes for anyone and anything. If you really want to get a job at MTV or Conde-Nast or Yahoo, you have to really focus your energy on that and find a way to do it. When I first joined the station, my income was very little. My husband Neil laughed that unemployment paid higher than what I was making! It's no longer like that today.
Wendy: Ok, let's talk about some of the challenges that you face in your current positions, I know you love what you do but what keeps you up at night, so to speak?
Shari: WFUV has a format that is difficult to define. It would take me 5 minutes to tell you everything that we play. That factor makes it very complicated because I don't have an elevator pitch. On the other hand, most of the people I'm dealing with now are a little different and they don't necessarily need to be pitched in 5 seconds. I do a lot more business directly than I did before. I don't sell that much to advertisers who have agencies. That's a big difference.
Wendy: That frees you up to be more productive with your time.
Shari: It works both ways. I've also had to learn how to cold call. I never had to do that before and it was a huge challenge for me. When I first started I had to sit there for hours and try to get someone to agree to a meeting or even let me email them something. That was something I'd never experienced before. Even with all my sales experience, it was hard.
Wendy: That's a great skill to cultivate.
Shari: You're right! I can now use it to my advantage. It's another skill I've learned. Every sales call I've ever made has allowed me to be more confident for the next call. You never stop learning. You have to look at every experience you have as one that's going to help you improve, especially from your mistakes.
Wendy: What else?
Shari: I think a big challenge is I can't go after typically radio money. When I was a national radio rep the job was very reactive. Buyers sent you RFP's. In essence they told you they have money to spend. Your job was to try to convince them to spend it on your station. I don't get that now. I have to create the opportunities myself. I also have to convince somebody that wants to run a commercial :60 second spot - - which might literally mention their phone number 6 times during the spot with some wacky voice and a jingle on it - - that if they do a :20 second straight-read spot on my station they'll get as good if not better results. That's a challenge!
Wendy: I'll say!
Shari: We're also in New York, a market that has WNYC-FM the biggest public radio station in the country. That's my main competition. A lot of people feel if they are running on one public radio station they've got to market covered and don't need to buy WFUV. On one hand my job is to convince someone that their message will work even with major copy changes from their commercial spot; and on the other hand for those advertisers already running on public radio in general that they don't necessarily need an NPR station. They can have a music station!
Wendy: You have to deal with it on both sides.
Shari: In the world we live in today, you have to be aware of your own competition. That goes for knowing the radio market but with other media as well. My clients look at all media, not just radio. It's not like you're just working with a radio buyer. Gone are the days when if you were selling radio you didn't have to have knowledge of, say, magazines. That's not possible anymore. Most agencies and their clients expect a fully integrated cohesive media plan. The Internet has become a much bigger factor in the media mix. A good media sales rep needs to understand how all of those elements tie-in together.
Wendy: Last question. What advice would you give to a college grad who wants to get into radio sales today?
Shari: Well after working at Fordham University for almost 5 years I am continually impressed with the hands-on experience our students get at WFUV. If young people have the chance to work at a college radio station they should, especially on-air folks. In terms of sales, there is always an intangible quality that successful salespeople have. This goes beyond being able to make polite small talk and getting along with lots of different types of people. It is a desire to succeed, a belief that you will, an ability to listen to people and an ability to be a problem solver. As one of my mentors told me luck and success is when hard work meets opportunity. Sometimes it requires that you just listen.
Wendy: Thanks Shari. This was great!
Shari: You're welcome Wendy! It was my pleasure!