“All of Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks.” – Bob Seger, “Rock And Roll Never Forgets”
On Saturday afternoon, another rock n’ roll icon left us. At the ripe old age of 90, Chuck Berry passed away, continuing the streak that started a year ago with David Bowie’s death. When it comes to artists like Bowie, Glenn Frey, and Prince, radio often swings into tribute mode, turning stations over to focus exclusively on that artist’s catalogue, often taking phone calls from grieving fans.
But in Chuck Berry’s case, there weren’t a whole lot of U.S. broadcast radio stations acknowledging his illustrious and legendary career. Part of this is due to the fact that Berry passed away over a weekend – the most inconvenient time for radio because of its addiction to Saturday and Sunday voicetracking and paid programs.
But even had Chuck been courteous enough to leave this earth on a Wednesday in the midday hours, there would have been barely a ripple across the airwaves. That’s because despite his influence on rockers like the Beatles, Jeff Lynne, Keith Richards, Brian Setzer, Johnny Winter, and the aforementioned Bob Seger, American radio turned its back on Chuck Berry a long time ago.
Blame it on the “demographic cliff,” and radio’s obsession with the 25-to-54 year-old demographic ad agency sweet spot. Oldies on the radio is simply no longer viable, and hasn’t been for some time. The format was already doing a fast fade in the ’90s, but the moment that may have sealed its fate occurred when WCBS-FM pulled the plug on Oldies and switched to the ill-fated Jack-FM in 2005. Perhaps more than anything else, that decision was a signal to radio operators all over the country that the Oldies format was over, finished, done, kaput.
Berry’s impact on rock n’ roll music was immense, and his story is a compelling one. In a moment of clarity, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him when it opened in 1986, recognizing his contribution to the genre of rock.
In many ways, Berry’s contributions prove the sustainability of rock n’ roll. His famous riffs have been repeated again and again, not just in cover versions of his hits, but in scores of songs like Seger’s “Get Out Of Denver” and the Stones’ “Star Star” (don’t play that one as a tribute). And whenever a band is stuck for that second encore, there’s always “Johnny B. Goode.”
Long before Michael Jackson made the moonwalk famous, Chuck Berry’s signature duckwalk was part of his onstage showmanship.
Unique in many ways, Berry toured for decades – but did not have a band. He hired local pickup bands wherever he went, and always demanded to be paid in cash.
He can still be heard in car radios, but only on the “’50s on 5” channel on satellite radio, the occasional HD2 Oldies station, and a handful of AM music stations where few are listening anymore.
The radio industry has walked away from formats that don’t age well, like Oldies and Soft AC because of their demographic drift past age age 54. And artists like Berry, the Beach Boys, the Motown gang, and many others are victims – along with the millions of fans who still love this music, still regularly listening to the radio, and still spend billions of dollars.
Ironically, many radio stations and companies are now facing challenges monetizing those coveted 25-54 demos, now fighting it out for every dollar and every avail. They’re finding that the omission of digital content and distribution outlets in pitches and campaign plans often translates to a failure to get on buys or garner respectable rates.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the contrarian approach can often be effective; that when the entire market is converging on those three decades of so-called demographic nirvana, there may be other ways to skin the cat.
One avenue might be the 35-64 cell – yes, the same Baby Boomers that everyone’s been cherishing for years are just a few years older now. And they’re buying new cars, second homes, big screen TVs, and everything else. It’s a wide open space, but it requires sales marketing, creativity, patience, and innovation.
Speaking of which, last week Radio Woodstock (WDST) – an independent station in New York’s Hudson Valley – introduced a hybrid monetization model, blending listener support with limited inventory for its unique progressive format. (More on Radio Woodstock in an upcoming post.)
Perhaps that’s a sign that as a result of these more challenging times, radio programmers, managers, owners, and strategists may one day consider formats that drift outside the demographic lines. Given that successful radio requires event marketing, digital distribution, live reads, and other sweeteners, it may eventually come down to results rather than rank. More and more broadcasters are eyeing their ratings – and the bills that accompany them – and wondering about their ROI in this environment where accountability matters more than quarter-hours.
So, I’ll leave you with this – one of the funniest and best tributes to Chuck Berry from the classic film, “Back To The Future.” Michael J. Fox’s rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” at the school dance, along with the warped version of how Chuck Berry “discovered” his sound made for a memorable scene and a reminder of how influential he truly was in the pantheon of rock ‘n roll.
So there I was Saturday afternoon in the mood to reminisce a bit, and listen to some Chuck Berry. And this turned out to be my best option:
R.I.P. Johnny B. Goode.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.