Induction ceremonies at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are almost always memorable. Introduction speeches are emotional, families and friends are on hand, and the artists themselves are almost always moved by the gravity of the moment.
But at last Saturday's ceremony, there was a definite “radio subtext” as media consultant and publicist, Stacey Sherman, explained to me.
That's because when 20 year-old John Bongiovi was out of ideas about how to get anyone in the music business to pay attention to his songs, it was a radio station that saved the day.
He strolled into a new station in New York City – Doubleday's WAPP – and got the attention of DJ Chip Hobart and promotion director John Lassman.
From his induction speech (thanks to Variety's Michele Amabile Angermiller), Jon Bon Jovi – as you know him today – took the time to thank Hobart, Lassman, and radio for launching his radio career:
“After sending that cassette to every label and manager I could think of, I thought, ‘Who is the loneliest person in the music business?…the DJ.”
Lassman and Hobart ended up putting “Runaway” on WAPP's album showcasing local talent, “Hometown.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
As Stacey told me, “John and Chip were sitting right behind me in the press room, so it was very cool to listen to them all night. Their reaction was off the hook. I mentioned it to Jon at his party later, and his reaction was equally touching.”
Bon Jovi's nod to radio wasn't the only one of the night. The Moody Blues' Justin Hayward and John Lodge paid tribute to Howard Stern, as well as WNEW-FM' legends Scott Muni and Alison Steele.
But it was Bon Jovi who articulated that amazing relationship between rock radio jocks and the music they play:
“(The DJ) was the one that loved music more than anyone because he had to determine what people cared to listen to, and a DJ could educate the public as to what to listen to. It was a different era, and it goes back to this kid's story.”
Lassman and I worked together at KQRS/Minneapolis (where he has returned to produce Tom Barnard's morning show), and he agrees with Jon. While perhaps a bit jaded by his decades spent in radio, “Johnny Rock” told me the '80s were a very different time for radio and breaking new music:
“The days of a DJ and a 19 year-old promotion director greenlighting such things are long gone. At Cumulus, we have a very successful nationwide talent search called ‘neXt2rock.' Maybe the next Hall of Famer will come from there.”
A big factor in Bon Jovi's eventual success was the persistence of young John Bongiovi himself. Lassman recalled, “He had laser focus – nothing was going to keep him from making it, or at least that's how he felt. Before he got the record deal, I remember Jon asking me for Gary Stevens‘ (president of Doubleday Broadcasting) address to send him flowers as a thank-you for including him on the ‘Hometown' album. Jon knew how to work it.”
But it was radio airplay – and support from a struggling new station named after The Big Apple – that propelled Bon Jovi that year. While WAPP was gone in just one year, Bon Jovi's music endures, now achieving Hall of Fame notoriety. Not many radio stations have that much impact in their first year.
At a time when many media observers question radio's ability to be a taste maker, a music discovery vehicle, and an influencer, the story of a tenacious young rocker, a DJ, and a radio promotions guy is a reminder to all of us of radio's power.
Even today with tools like Shazam, Spotify, and YouTube, Lassman gives us this reminder:
“Radio is still the most important element in the development of a new rock artist.”
I don't think you'd get much of an argument about that claim from Jon Bon Jovi.
Thanks to Lori Lewis for planting the seed.
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Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.