On April 14, Cumulus CEO Mary Berner swept into Nashville and dropped a bomb on one of the company’s highest-profile properties. Country Weekly, a magazine that had been in print for 22 years, was shut down in favor of a rebranded digital-only outlet, NashCountryDaily.com. In the process, more than half the publication’s staff was let go.
Oddly enough, the moment was reassuring to one of Cumulus’ newest executives, Nash Network director of programming John Shomby, only in his seventh week on the job. Berner could have easily delegated the unpleasant task of telling people they have no job to someone else. Instead, she delivered the news herself, confirming for Shomby what he thought of Cumulus when he took his new position.
“That speaks volumes about what this company is all about now,” says Shomby. “I mean, not a lot of companies do that, but she did it, and I thought that was extremely impressive.
“It’s a brand-new Cumulus,” he continues. “It really focuses on the people, and that’s a real important draw for me.”
Important indeed. Employed by Cumulus in Michigan and Georgia during the 1990s and early 2000s, Shomby spent the last 13 years with Max Media/Norfolk-Virginia Beach (Va.), where he was director of programming for a five-station cluster, including country WGH-FM. His family had established roots in the community, and he felt safe in the job.
Shomby had turned down opportunities to rejoin Cumulus before. But when discussions with Cumulus senior vp content and programming Mike McVay started up this time, things were different. Berner had said publicly she intended to decentralize the company, providing its employees more opportunity to utilize their skills. Plus, the job was a new one that put Shomby in charge of several syndicated radio products: America’s Morning Show, Nash Nights Live (NNL), Kickin’ It With Kix, numerous country specials and the daily Nash prep service, which provides content for morning shows.
Cumulus had established a state-of-the-art studio for those operations with an eye toward synergizing them all. But no one was overseeing them as a unit on-site.
“There were a lot of spinning plates that spun and broke,” says Shomby. “When Mike laid out the position for me, he said, ‘We need someone in that building to lead, to kind of point people in a direction, because no one’s really been there every day with them.’ ”
It’s quite the leap, from cluster to network, though it still uses a skill set that Shomby has put to work for years. That’s particularly true in talent coaching, a key part of every PD’s job. In this case, it reunites Shomby with one of his former employees — America’s Morning Show host Blair Garner was an on-air talent when Shomby programmed top 40 KAFM Dallas-Fort Worth (now classic-rock KZPS) in the 1980s. But it also means he’s overseeing some well-established names. Garner has hosted national daily shows for more than a decade; NNL host Shawn Parr spent years at country stations KZLA and KKGO Los Angeles, and still voices the Academy of Country Music Awards, the American Music Awards and the Golden Globes; and Kix Brooks is celebrating his 10-year anniversary as host of American Country Countdown.
Each of them has a distinct approach, evident in the way they conduct artist interviews. It’s Shomby’s job to tinker without tampering.
“Blair, Chuck Wicks and Kelly Ford want to have a little fun with them, so we’ll stick them in the Truth Booth, we’ll have them do a Fake-a-Song Friday or something along that line,” says Shomby. “With Nash Nights Live, because it’s a very [top 40-oriented] type of presentation, we try to keep answers to the questions short and to the point so that we can carry it through a couple segments. And Kix is obviously a storyteller. He knows the background on a lot of these people, so he knows how to ask a question from an artist standpoint. So we have the three different moods of interview with these guys.”
The new job is extraordinarily collaborative. Cumulus vp country Charlie Cook oversees a huge percentage of the stations that run the Nash properties, so there’s plenty of interaction between the two Nashville offices. Westwood One senior director radio syndication affiliate sales Donny Walker works in the Nash building, and Shomby hears directly from numerous affiliates about how the Nash brands fit into their local game plans.
Managing the music for all those affiliates has been the biggest programming hurdle thus far. Adding a single to the playlist too soon means putting a song on the radio that might not be played elsewhere on a station with a conservative music policy.
“In particular with America’s Morning Show, I’ve got to make sure we’re not throwing a lot of unfamiliar music out there in morning drive,” notes Shomby. “That’s the whole point. Since we are providing this to a number of radio stations, we want to make sure that it doesn’t stray too far from the center.”
Shomby’s family has remained in Virginia so his daughter doesn’t have to change high schools for her senior year, thus he’s work-intensive in the early part of his new life. But adjusting to the opportunities in Nashville, country’s epicenter, has already presented a challenge.
“If I wanted to, I could be out every night, seven days a week until midnight and later than that seeing music,” he says. “You really have to catch hold of yourself. The first two weeks I was running everywhere, and I realized I have to slow down just because there is this thing I have called a job during the day that I have to do, and I want to make sure that I’m a little alert for that.”
Meanwhile, NashCountryDaily.com went live May 6. Shomby is not in charge of that property — it’s still guided by editor-in-chief Lisa Konicki — but the digital format allows more collaboration from Shomby’s team via podcasts, stories and audio/video elements.
“When this all happened, two of the personalities stepped up and said, ‘What can we do?’ ” recalls Shomby, underscoring the team mentality that he has been asked to enhance. “We’re definitely working together.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.