Earlier this month, the world lost an amazing human being who also happened to be a radio legend. Many loved, admired and respected Mary O’Neill, including legions of people who worked beside her in broadcast media over the past two decades. I was among those people.
Mary and I both began working in radio around the same time. It was shortly before the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Mary had previously worked in television and was a media pro when she transitioned to a career in radio. I was a young adult with limited work experience, and for me those early days were a time like no other. The job perks were unbelievable, but the work was far from easy, and it was not nearly as glamorous as outsiders believed.
Radio stations were extremely competitive and highly territorial when it came to their listeners. After all, advertisers spent their dollars based on ratings, and stations had to deliver results if they wanted to keep the lights on. Mary and I held the same role in marketing and promotions for opposing radio stations. Though our station formats were different, the audiences overlapped.
A large part of the job was seizing every opportunity to make an unforgettable impression on anyone who could rate the station positively in Arbitron (the research company that collected data on radio listeners). That included ensuring audiences had memorable experiences at promotions and events. Mary was a master at this and a mentor to many with whom she liberally shared her infinite wisdom. Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned from Mary:
Be open to new opportunities.
The first time I connected with Mary was to propose a collaboration that was uncommon in those days—I hoped both our radio stations could have a presence at an art fair her station had sponsored for several years. She agreed to entertain the idea, and when we met to discuss it there was an instant connection. We were aligned in our thinking and immediately began bouncing ideas off each other. That art fair ended up being the first of many great events we would work on together. Mary approached everything with an open mind, and was always selfless and diplomatic.
Go for the gold and then dial it up a notch.
The events Mary created were exceptional. She had an eye for detail and a special way of dialing everything up a notch … or 10. She could turn the mundane into the magnificent. Case in point: While most radio marketing teams were driving around town in white standard vans adorned with simple station logos, Mary’s team owned the streets in an RV emblazoned with a larger-than-life image of the Beatles in their famous “Jump” pose. Mary’s work as a marketer was the gold standard that everyone in the local industry strived to emulate.
Stay at the top of your game.
Before we connected and realized working together would be mutually beneficial (and a lot of fun), Mary and I frequently sought to have a presence at the same Twin Cities’ expos, fairs and festivals. And quite often Mary was one step ahead of me. By the time I made a connection with the producers or promoters of the event, she and her radio station had already formed an exclusive partnership that precluded any other media presence. Having Mary in the industry made everyone better—she kept us all on our toes.
Don’t sweat the petty stuff.
Mary’s reputation for being a class act preceded her. While marketers from rival radio stations engaged teams of interns in ridiculous turf wars that included parking logoed vehicles in strategic locations, infiltrating crowds with free merchandise, covering competitors’ signage, and even projecting logos on buildings with “bat lights,” Mary refused to get caught up in anything petty. I admired her ability to take the high road no matter what the situation. She operated with integrity at all times.
Be generous with ideas, connections and resources.
Mary had a unique perspective not often seen in the industry and I was not alone in my admiration for her free-flowing creativity. Her ideas were as limitless as her network. At a time when people often held their relationships close for fear of losing a competitive advantage, Mary was generous with her contacts. She’d happily make an introduction and always knew the right person—city officials, planners, vendors, promoters—you name it, Mary had a connection.
Roll with the changes.
When the Telecommunications Act passed, radio was deregulated and broadcast companies went from owning one to multiple stations in a single market. I was thrilled when Mary and I ended up working for the same company and had more opportunities to partner on big projects together. But those were tenuous times. Consolidation meant that resources were being shifted and shared; opportunities were being sacrificed for the good of the greater group. And yet no matter what was thrown her way, Mary made it work. She approached everything with optimism, a sense of team spirit and her million-dollar smile.
Make the world a better place. Mary’s Facebook profile prominently features a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” Mary believed in many causes and dedicated her life’s work to making the world a better place. I did not get the opportunity to tell Mary what an influential force she had been in my career and in my life before she left us, but I know I am among many whose lives are better because she was in it.
About the author: A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris Olsen has devoted her career to connecting individuals and organizations using the power of words, images and experiences.