If you buy into the notion that traditional radio is essentially dead, Esther-Mireya Tejeda will gladly set you straight. As VP and head of corporate communications and PR at the radio company Entercom, Tejeda is not only one of the medium’s biggest boosters, particularly when she’s talking about marketing potential, but she can back up her fervor with facts to boot. In the US, AM/FM radio might account for disproportionately low marketing spend, but reaches 270 million listeners a week — more than any other medium, she claims.  Entercom, which became the second largest radio company in the US (behind iHeartRadio) through its 2017 merger with CBS radio, reaches 112 million listeners a month through its 235 locally focused stations.

Rebuilding terrestrial radio’s reputation, which has suffered from the rise of digital and consolidation across stations over the last decade, among marketers has been one of Tejeda’s key goals since she left Univision in 2016 to create and grow Entercom’s first in-house communications team in advance of the CBS acquisition. She now oversees a team responsible for everything from executive thought leadership and public relations to damage control when radio personalities run amok. And Tejeda has also taken on the role of industry advocate, spearheading a campaign that targeted marketers “to promote all things radio” on behalf of the larger business. Tejeda recently spoke with Holmes Report about why marketers dismiss radio, acquiring a heritage brand and what it takes to clean up mouthy radio hosts’ messes. An edited transcript:

Entercom has made it through 50 years without a marketing or communications department, and now has even more visibility with the addition of CBS’s heritage brands. Why establish one now?

The industry is beginning to realize that there is a profound need to market and advocate for itself. There is a perception that radio is dying when the reality is completely different. We are virtually undisrupted — we’re the number one reach medium in the country, we touch 93% of Americans, which is 270 million each week. I can tell you that the radio listenership is also growing; from  2016 to 2017 adult audiences, including millennials, grew. There’s a misperception that streaming and podcasting is eating up terrestrial radio. It’s not. It provides an extension opportunity  for radio personalities and DJs to extend their brands There is this huge opportunity in radio for audiences and advertisers that no one is talking about. We need to galvanize and promote radio as an alternative to TV and digital.

How do you get that message through to your target audience, marketing professionals, who not only are media savvy but also do what you’re trying to do for a living?

My comms challenge is to get radio top of mind, among advertisers, media buyers and decision makers who are completely unaware of the incredible proposition value of radio and how they can maximize their ROI if they ad radio to their media mix. My job is to make people know that.

Back in December, we launched the radio industry’s first-ever advocacy campaign to promote all things radio. In however many decades that radio has been around, nobody has done that. So we take the initiative to have these disruptive conversations and compete aggressively to for share of ad dollars. In December we went out and we tapped all of the tier-one publications that we know are read by advertisers, decision makers and media buyers, who we also know are not considering radio.

The second iteration we did in May during the TV upfronts using, 'Lets’ be Upfront. Your television campaign is not working. Add radio.' We are encouraging them to come back, increase your spend on radio by just two to three percent. And you will see an immediate impact on your ROI because that’s what’s missing from the model. The biggest challenge is having the initial conversations…because for decades that never happened. Once we get in the door and people look at the reality, the story tells itself. From that point of view my job is very easy.

So if radio is as good as you say it is, what’s the problem?

I think people are generally attracted to the shiny new toy. So much fanfare about digital and social…advertisers flocked to that. But it turns out it was not a panacea (to reaching fragmented audiences).  Radio is the quiet underdog. It’s the medium that everyone thinks is passé, old and stale. It’s your grandpa’s version of technology, that’s the perception. It’s the wrong perception. Millennials actually engage with radio, and more than TV.

Also, a large percentage of decision makers, media buyers, people in agencies live in New York. And while New York is the number one media market, it is not a driving town. Once you leave New York, even to the boroughs or across the river into the rest of America, the reality is people are in their cars. It’s a different culture, so it’s very hard to conceptualize how many people get in their cars many times a day and turn on the radio. And what’s interesting about the car specifically, people buying brand new cars are choosing radio over streaming services 13 to one. This is what’s happening in our country. This is what our culture looks like. We need to come to terms with that…to figure out how to harness that to make it work for our brands.

Have you achieved any traction?

The advocacy campaign was music to everyone’s ears on the industry side. Externally, P&G, McDonalds, Home Depot, Comcast, are renewing their interest in radio because they are realizing there is ROI on the table.  Right now, radio takes up about 7% of the total ad spend. If the industry could grow to 10% of the ad spend it would be good for everybody.

In buying CBS’ 117 radio stations, Entercom brought some heritage stations into its portfolio  — WBBM in Chicago, for instance, was owned by the network for 90-plus years. What are Entercom’s plans for them?

The listener experience stays the same. Entercom as a company is committed to having best-in-class … top talent, locally curated talent, customization per market. We don’t syndicate content and push it out. We invest heavily in the local aspects. So if you are listening to alternative stations in difference cities, the experience is going to be different because that’s where Entercom invests … the market-by-market listener experience. That doesn’t change with the merger.

And we all know die-hard radio station fans don’t always take to change well. Why is that?

We offer a really deep local connection to the talent and personalities because it’s all homegrown. Our listeners are incredibly engaged. They feel they have the personal relationship with the on-air personalities. It’s not a one-way dialogue. It’s analogous with what’s going on with influencers and bloggers. Everyone thinks this is so brand new and innovative, and the reality is that this is what radio has been doing from time immemorial.

But what those people do and say on-air, whether they are shock jocks or talking politics, has changed immensely from radio’s early days. What’s it like keeping tabs on who is saying what, and mopping up after them when it leads to fallout?

Doing PR for radio is like doing PR for 235 reality TV stars all at once. Radio is live, it’s off the cuff and there is no editing or going back to delete and sometimes that gets messy. We are talking about talent having a wide variety of opinions around a wide variety of topics. We are talking about a culture where listeners and consumers are expected to be part of the conversation, so they engage  One of the biggest challenges from the local PR part of my practice and the wonderful people I have on my team who manage that part, it's staying on top of 235 brands and whatever number of talent they have and all the various conversations — and be able to react efficiently and effectively.

It’s definitely crisis communications. But it’s also keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s important or relevant in a particular community —what’s not cool in New York that is cool in St. Louis. We have to tailor our responses to (controversial broadcasts) to listeners, to the market, to the talent and to the brands. There is quite a matrix we are navigating day in and day out.  We are in turbulent times and radio represents, in a lot of ways, the voice of the community, and the voice of the community is different depending what community you’re in. There is never a dull moment in radio PR, and you have to be ready to react. Radio is in real time and you are getting real reactions,  raw emotions. You are getting anything (associated with) the human experience and that’s what makes it magical.