Radio Flyer

by Rosalyn Graham

Karen Marshall has more than proved the moniker of "Up-and-Comer" given her by this magazine 17 years ago

In 1989, not long after Karen Marshall's first promotion at WEZF radio in Colchester, the station she now runs as vice president/market manager for Clear Channel Communications Inc., she admitted she was not "a radio kid; never knew who was singing what." Her tune has changed.

Ask Karen Marshall to sum up her character and she says, "What I thrive on are creativity, chaos and change. It's my definition of being in the media." It could also be her definition of her life: in the community; in the corporate world; with family and friends.

Marshall has been immersed in the world of broadcasting since she was hired as an account executive in July of 1984 at WEZF radio in Colchester. As media consultant Tom Pierce, who was general manager of WEZF at the time, remembers, "Karen came right out of the University of Vermont and was hired as a salesperson. A lot of people fail in that part of the broadcasting business," he says, "but the biggest clue to her future success was that she had been a competitive swimmer at UVM. She was competitive, and her career was launched the day she made her first big sale." Pierce admits, however," I had no idea she would be an extraordinary manager and leader."

"Extraordinary" could define Marshall's career from several points of view. For one thing, in a business where upward progress usually involves moving to a new company, Marshall has been, as she says, "walking through that same door for all these years."

In January 1989, Marshall had recently been promoted to general sales manager when Business People-Vermont (then Business Digest) chose her as the subject of an article featuring Up-and-Comers. Even then, her star was rising, as one of only two women in radio management in the area. "It was silly ... nutty," she said of her career track in 1989. "I wasn't a radio kid; never knew who was singing what."

In the years since then, Marshall's star has continued to rise. She was named station manager in 1990, general manager in 1995 and vice president-market manager in January 1998. When she was hired, WEZF was owned by Knight Quality Stations. In the four years after she became vice president, she helped lead the company through a period of rapid acquisitions, mergers and growth, first with Capstar Radio, then AM FM Inc., and finally with the international giant Clear Channel Communications Inc., whose holdings include 1,200 radio stations, outdoor advertising businesses, some television stations, international radio and entertainment. "It was a wild ride," she says.

The acquisitions brought the corporation's total Vermont properties to 15 stations, five of them in the Burlington area, the others in clusters around White River, Rutland and Randolph. It was a period of technological change, with new digital operations that facilitated the consolidations. Marshall's role, she says, was strategic direction with an operational overview, from engineering and operations to marketing and profitability. "I'm a strategic person by nature," she says. "I see the possibilities. Strategic people quickly see solutions and are able to get there, and get other people to go there, too."

The magic of technology makes it possible to share programs that listeners like among several stations in the group, while still customizing news and commercial breaks for one station. Franny Bastian is production director.

The first challenge during the period of acquisition was to make sure that all the stations were technically sound, from towers to boards. Then there was the challenge of building the team, communicating the possibilities. "There is a misperception that the acquisitions involved a consolidation of content," Marshall says. "Actually it was just the opposite. "Better-run business operations made it possible for us to hire more talent."

The magic of technology makes it possible to share programs that listeners like among several stations in the group, while still customizing news and commercial breaks for one station.

If a career in broadcasting meant sitting behind a desk, even a nice desk in a corner office in a handsome, old brick house in Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester, shuffling paper and juggling numbers, Marshall probably wouldn't have stayed in the business for 21 years.

The perfect fit that her broadcasting career has offered is that the outlook of the broadcasting industry matches her own. Broadcasters, she says, measure themselves against their success in four areas: how well they are serving the listener, how good a service they are providing to their advertisers, whether they are serving their community and how well they are serving the stockholders.

"Unless we're doing our job providing the service to the community we'll never serve the stockholders," Marshall says. "In broadcasting we hope to find people who have that mission in life."

Involvement in her community is something Marshall dates back to about age 12. She began to hone her leadership skills and community involvement as a teenage representative to the Parent Teacher Organization in her hometown of Lake View, N.Y., outside of Buffalo. She laughs. "I wasn't the homecoming queen, but I was the homecoming chairman."

Pierce, Marshall's former boss, remembers the first community service project Marshall tackled, one that tapped her lifelong interest in sports, her leadership skills and her energy. She was chairwoman of the Vermont State Olympic Committee, organizing the U.S. Olympic Committee Ski Challenge at Stowe for three years in the late 1980s. Her committee's efforts raised over $1 million to support the U.S. Olympic teams and was recognized as the most successful state Olympic fund-raising effort in the United States.

"What we in Vermont have found out about Marshall is that she is incredibly focused, whether managing a multi-station radio station or a community organization," says Pierce.

Marshall's community service has been on the boards of professional associations such as the Vermont Association of Broadcasters and the National Association of Broadcasters, and such community and state nonprofits as the Greater Burlington YMCA and the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Vermont chapter.

For eight years, she was on the board of the United Way of Chittenden County, serving in virtually every volunteer role, from solicitor to chairing key accounts, communications, an allocations team and, in 2003-2004, the annual campaign.

She is currently chairwoman of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, where she has also been a member of the board and the executive committee.

Local favorites Tim "Mel" Allen (left), Helen McCabe and Steve Cormier host Corm and the Coach with Coach Tom Brennan every morning on Champ 101.3.

Participating in so many community-support organizations has given her a perspective on Vermont and Vermonters that also sheds light on her own commitment. "Whether it's United Way or the Chamber or the first board I served on, the Champlain Valley Hospice board," she says, "I can now name something I've seen that is what Vermont is known for. That is social capital.

"There seems to be a higher degree of people willing to give in so many different says. I see it in church and I see it and feel it in the community. People use the 'quality of life' term. I define quality of life as that thing we are proud of; it's us and how we act and how we treat one another and the kind of life we want and help to create.

"Vermonters are givers. People give time; money; care. And you don't see that in the same way in other places."

She has observed the same community spirit and sense of sharing in both her professional field and the sports activities that have been a lifelong passion. In the broadcast business, she says, there is an amazing amount of cooperation and integration, both in the technical end — developing ways to share broadcast towers with Vermont Public Radio and WCAX Television — and in the public service area, raising many thousands of dollars for worthy causes in the community.

Marshall's interest in sports, which she believes goes hand-in-hand with her willingness and ability to lead, dates from her childhood on the shores of Lake Erie. From the age of 7 she was a swimmer, competing through high school, during two years at Notre Dame, and two years at UVM, where she was on the swim team while earning her bachelor of arts in psychology. Since college, she has been a keen sailor, enjoying the collegial, competitive and strategic fun of Wednesday night races on Shelburne Bay. Asked to name "her sport" these days, though, she'll say, "I'm a long distance runner."

Marshall has run four full marathons, three of them in Burlington and one in Boston. She says, "Burlington City Marathon is probably one of my most favorite days. Every time, I get to the starting line and see this total outpouring of community around me. You run the course with people you know and people you don't know. It's different than the Boston run. In Burlington you feel all the energy coming from the people. Every year I'm amazed at our community and the outpouring of support."

Marshall laughs at the way she applies her talent for strategic thinking to her whole life. "I strategically clean my house, pack my groceries," she says. As a single parent for 10 years to Haleigh, 13, and Teddy, 10, she has loved the challenges and joys of translating what she describes as her "long-term sense of adventure" into her home life.

She speaks proudly of Teddy's prowess on the ice, playing defense for the Vermont Youth League on a Williston hockey team, and Haleigh's talent and bravery as an equestrienne. "I was never horsey," she says, "and two weeks ago I said to Haleigh, 'I think I should get up on your horse.' An amazing experience looking down from a 16-and-a-half-hand horse."

Originally published in January 2006 Business People-Vermont