Charese Fruge Talks To Lori Lewis

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Women To Watch” series, written by Charese Fruge on October 13, 2020

Like most people in the business, Lori Lewis got into broadcasting because of her love for radio. She grew up listening to WIXX/Green Bay. Her radio career spans 25 years, starting out as an on-air talent on the syndicated “Bubba the Love Sponge” show, and then to a decorated Program Director in Baltimore. In a move to help the Radio industry grow digitally and socially, Lori left day-to-day programming in 2008 and created a new position in “radio digital” – VP of Social Strategies & Digital Audience Growth – for Duke Wright’s Midwest Communications.

In 2011, research and consultancy firm, Jacobs Media, tapped Lori to help their radio clients’ digital and social needs. In 2015, Lori, again, forged a new position for the radio industry as Vice President, Social Media, for Cumulus Media and Westwood One. In 2018, Lori left Cumulus for another newly created position, Vice President, Social Media for Modern Luxury. And in late 2019, Lori Lewis launched “Lori Lewis Media,” a social media management, marketing and monetization firm – helping radio, its talent, podcasters, and other companies leverage social media to build on brand strength.

As Lori made the transition from regular programming to “radio digital,” she says it was a challenging situation. “It was uncomfortable as hell!” she says. “Purposely pushing yourself out of your comfort zone for a space you know very little about is tough. But I knew (intuitive hunch, really) digital and social were going to play a critical role in capturing radio audience attention. What I didn’t know is this – think about it – by the time I finally took the leap from running radio stations into the digital and social space it was 2008. Very few in radio wanted to talk about digital and social in 2008. I would get, ‘Don’t talk to me about that Facebook shit. I have radio stations to run.’ Haha, #truestory. Nearly 13 years later, it all worked out.”

Taking a leap in to the digital world so early in its inception took an enormous amount of courage. “That came from a few different forms,” says Lewis. “One includes a conversation with Fred Jacobs. During a random conversation (I reached out to Fred during a time of uncertainty), Fred said, ‘I’d buy stock in Lori Lewis if I could.’ And Fred may not even remember those words. He was just trying to lift me up. But it’s the words and stories of mentors and other entrepreneurs that give the courage” she says. “It’s also the encouragement from clients. People like Lamont from The Lamont & Tonelli show on KSAN/San Francisco. He cracks me up daily. Great partnerships give courage to keep going, too. That’s really the key!”

So, having great Mentors and vice versa is clearly a big part of Lori’s winning philosophy. “When we can find people who believe in our potential, embrace it! Success is not a solo process,” she says. “I watch people like Mike McVay and Chachi from Benztown give their time freely. Look for those who want to help you grow. The value of having mentors, and to mentor is substantial. While they can remind us of our value when we’re not feeling it – they can also help clean us up – become more diplomatic – learn how to better manage challenges. Martina Navratilova said it best, ‘No matter how good you are you can’t coach yourself.’” I have been on the phone with Lori a few times and have written that quote down every time she’s said it to me.

To Lori, challenges in life are Opportunity. “When we are facing conflict, and someone isn’t hearing us – work on finding ways to say it in the manner they need to hear it. Yet also – know when to move on. One of my native skills – those natural skills not even learned – is intuitive strength – always knowing when something has run its course, when someone isn’t right, etc… I haven’t always been quick to move – but eventually I muster the courage to do so.”

The growth of digital and social has more than tripled in the business since the pandemic. I asked Lori if traditional radio would survive, and for a few tips on how the two co-exist. “What we’re going through is not natural. We are built for human interaction. That’s why connectivity has exploded on social platforms,” she says. “And while people want to hear from brands they know and trust in the social space – it doesn’t mean they will instinctively turn to us. We may be the last thing they are thinking about. So, radio has a responsibility really to leverage social and bolster brand strength by deploying a few tactics:

  • Set times to virtually check in on the community, create & enhance shared experiences.
  • Content consumption that informs, entertains, creates conversation, (makes fun of 2020), and promotes wellness is off the charts. Do more of that.
  • Make it *way* less about you – develop content as Scott Mahalick calls it, with ‘outward focus.’ It goes a long way.
  • Encourage people. We are not all in this together.

That may sound like common sense but it’s not near the common practice it should be.”

Lori continues to stay busy while wrestling with the inconsistent downtime caused by COVID-19. “Georgia is filled with incredible hiking and biking trails – fishing, etc.…. Paul and I spend a lot of time outside. We recently took Meg Stevens, SVPP/iHeart, hiking here in Atlanta. So now instead of going for drinks – we hike. Odd that COVID-19 has enhanced an even healthier lifestyle for us.”

As far as for what keeps her up at night, “Whatever is heavy on my mind, I pray. And I pray until I feel peace; remembering my late father’s words, “Let Go & Let God,” says Lewis. “I was fortunate to also be raised by a mother and stepfather who have brought a lot of laughter to life; they really are wonderful teachers in learning to take it one day at a time. I find balance in faith, discipline, laughter and naps.

She also finds balance in her daughter, who according to Lori is one of her greatest accomplishments. “I don’t know if we’re allowed to say our children are accomplishments – but my daughter Carly, who is 20 – is studying at Michigan State. Carly is thoughtful and resilient. Due to different radio gigs – I moved her a few times while raising her – always worried I was “mothering” wrong. She is so interesting to talk with and she’s the joy of my life.”

Lori Lewis Media is celebrating its first year this month and we have much to look forward to. “With the addition of Alyssa Page serving as VP, Social + Innovation for Lori Lewis Media, we will continue to build a meaningful company for brands to hire, collaborate with, and strengthen audience development,” says Lewis. “The end in mind is to build an actionable audience we can pinball off social onto the FM stick, maybe back to social, then to a podcast, and then back to more listening. But we can’t do that unless we are fully invested in the fans. We get back what we put out. And sadly – when we are not investing (even with our time), we’re actually giving the audience permission to build loyalties elsewhere – a place where they will feel part of that brand’s ‘inner circle.’”

“Howard Schultz has a great quote in his book, ‘Onward, How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul.’ ‘A well-built brand is the culmination of intangibles that do not directly flow to the revenue or profitability of a company but contribute to its texture. Forsaking them can take a subtle, collective toll.’ While Schultz wasn’t talking about social media in that quote – it’s the best way to explain social media to anyone who understands intangibles are critical in brand building. Don’t forsake them!”

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