When I walked into WRIF as program director well more than three decades ago, it was both an exhilarating and a terrifying experience at the same time. Having grown up in Detroit, RIFF was my favorite radio station. So having the chance to program it at the ripe old age of 30 was both a privilege and a harrowing experience.
At the time, the station was 10 years old, and was rapidly becoming something of a market institution. FM radio had become the dominant band, and in most rating books, WRIF was the perennial leader. And to amp up the pressure, I was sitting in the captain’s chair, following legendary PDs like Lee Abrams, Larry Berger, Tom Bender and others. While we didn’t think in terms of stations as brands back then, I knew very well what was at stake. WRIF was an important radio station, and I was bound and determined not to screw it up – and in fact, leave it in better shape than when I showed up to program it.
And that concept of station brands hit me the other day when I read a story in The Guardian about rock brands and rock bands. Written by Michael Hann, the premise is that in the world of rock, brands outlive bands in the minds of fans. As band members come and go – and in an increasing number of cases, dying – the institution lives on. Rock fans are less concerned about the specifics of who’s playing bass guitar or who’s on vocals. As long as the rock brand is intact, concert-goers will pay to see the newest incarnation of Journey, AC/DC, the Eagles, the Who, and many others.
In all cases, these bands have lost key members, and yet, their fandom is unmoved, continuing to shell out big bucks on concerts, merch, and of course, music.
As Hann postulates, if the music remains solid, the logo is familiar, and the connection with fans is intact, just about any rock band can endure even with different personnel. But a key point is that these legacy band/brands have also maintained a sense of community – a gathering among a tribe of people whose common thread is their love for the music.
As he concludes, “the brand is bigger than the band.”
And so, it makes you wonder if the same isn’t true in radio – especially rock radio. You look at some of the stations that have lasted for 30 years, 40 years – and more – and most have survived DJ turbulence of one kind of another. Shows and personalities have come and gone, but somehow it’s the station brand that knits it all together.
That’s been the case for WRIF. It has been blessed with spectacularly great morning shows through the years – J.J. & The Morning Crew, Drew & Mike, and now Dave & Chuck the Freak. They have little in common with each other, aside from their daypart and their great talent. And yet, they are part of the narrative of a radio station that’s been rocking the Motor City for going on a half century. The shows have all been true to the brand – and like the logos of AC/DC, the Who, and the Stones – the WRIF logo is an enduring symbol of a radio tradition in The D that has spanned generations, passed down from parents (and grandparents) to their kids. I love doing focus groups for stations like WRIF and have a thirtysomething say to me, “I’ve been listening to the station my entire life.”
And there’s a group of wildly successful rock stations that can make the same claim, even though DJs have come and gone. KISW, WMMR, KUPD, KSHE, WDVE, KSHE, and a handful of others have proved the power of their iconic local brands transcend the coming and goings of DJ transitions. That’s not to say there haven’t been tough years during their long histories. Including WRIF, these stations have had their peaks and their valleys. But their powerful brands transcend ownership changes, morning show defections, PD misfires, and other setbacks that might have deep-sixed lesser brands. In short, they’ve earned their mettle.
That’s not to say DJs, programmers, and others don’t matter in this equation. They’re the ones who built those amazing reputations and are stewards for the stations they’ve served. The power of the brand transcends and outlives us all.
Like Axl Rose replacing Brian Johnson, Vince Gill filling in for Glenn Frey, and Zak Starkey sitting behind the drum kit for Keith Moon, the talent better be there. And like a great radio station that stands for more than just a playlist and slogan, the connection with fans goes to the core of band/station success and survival.
Mick Jagger must have figured this out in the summer of ’69 when Brian Jones drowned in that swimming pool – and somehow the Stones endured…and endured…and endured.
Now whether the Allman Brothers Band can marshal on without a living Allman brother is a good question. But I wouldn’t count them out.
When the summer tours go into full force in the coming weeks, you’ll be seeing a lot of rock brands that don’t look exactly like their original lineups. And their core fans won’t care.
For radio stations – especially those legendary rock stations – that would appear to be the case, too.
It’s always about the brand.
Thanks to KSLX’s David Moore for the tip on this story.
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.