It was a weekend of improbables.
I was skimming multiple news sources – the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Detroit Free Press, along with the industry trades and other web publications. And as is usually the case, I was sitting in my neighborhood Starbucks thinking about blog topics for this week.
Of course, I was looking for interesting media stories, but it was hard to ignore the sensational results of the Kentucky Derby where the longest of longshots – Rich Strike – beat 80-to-1 odds and other stumbling blocks – to blow away the field at Churchill Downs on Saturday. I've got video of the last segment of the race, an amazing overhead shot from NBC Sports that is positively jaw-dropping.
And while perusing all this news, I almost missed an important story, at least to me. I first saw it in Inside Radio, and didn't pay much attention to it. It was another of those format count studies, usually a pretty good barometer of radio industry trends.
Fortunately, the headline grabbed me:
The latter format is one Jacobs Media has become more involved with these past few years. For nearly a decade, we have partnered with Michelle Younkman and her Christian Music Broadcasters organization to produce a special edition of Techsurvey for this expanding format.
And of course, there's Classic Rock, the format we developed back in the early 80's. So, the last thing I should be doing is skipping over headlines about the longevity and resilience of a format most observers claimed “wouldn't last.”
As Inside Radio observed, “Classic Rock has the best story to tell. It's added 35 stations for a 5.9% increase that pushes the format from 10th to ninth-ranked. Since November 2021, total stations have literally been on the up-and-up, gaining each month, including two more converts in April.”
Here's the chart showing format county from last month, compared to one year ago.
It's also noteworthy that Classic Hits – Classic Rock's first cousin – has added 24 stations YOY. So, taking a liberty and adding these two gold-based formats together, we're looking at 1,812 stations good for a solid fourth place, and among music formats, only behind Country.
Not bad for a format many predicted would burn out after just a year or so, unable to sustain itself without a study diet of “currents.” But like the slogan promises, the music “stood the test of time.” And thanks to a lot of great programmers and committed owners, Classic Rock has more than endured. As the chart reminds us, it has thrived.
Ironically, I ran into my first Classic Rock client while sipping my grandé dark roast on Sunday. Bob Ottaway and his PD, Jeff Crowe, were the first to try the longshot format of 1985, Classic Rock. They were trying to compete in AC up against some big players in Lansing, Michigan. Licensed to nearby Charlotte (pronounced shar-LOT), WMMQ was a lowly Class A station that was always near the bottom of the ratings. Yes, your 80-to-1 shot.
Exactly 37 years this month, I spoke at the Great Lakes Radio Conference at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, and then hopped in my Mazda RX-7 and drove over to WMMQ to sign on the new format. At the time, the station's home was a shabby single trailer (what is it about ME and trailers?), and honestly, when I pulled up to the station and actually saw it for the first time, my heart sank.
We originally cut our deal in a hip East Lansing restaurant, Beggar's Banquet. And all the prep work was done outside the station (mostly in Jeff's apartment), keeping the shroud of secrecy. We even drove down to Ohio to buy all the records outside the market, lest anyone in Lansing get wind of WMMQ's secret plan. In retrospect, I think Bob wanted to make sure I didn't actually see that trailer until “the day of” – too late to back out of the deal.
In retrospect, Bob might not have had a lot of options, but nonetheless, he took a chance on this longshot. And as he said in a story on our website, it was a life-changing moment for both of us.
But in a matter of days, the buzz spread, and MMQ was off to the races. All these years later, it's still in format and WMMQ is very much a dominant player in the Lansing market. The frequency was moved to 94.9 a number of years ago, and the station is now owned by Townsquare, great stewards of America's first FM Classic Rock station.
Why has Classic Rock endured for going on four decades? Of course, it's about the content – the music. How else can you explain the format's ability to not just sustain itself, but to thrive against all odds? The music truly is the best that was ever made, and its marketing in TV, movies, and even commercial soundtracks has helped expose it to young audiences over these last many years.
And its presence in other media – games like “Guitar Hero,” another amazing sensation – has helped keep the music that first came out during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations stay “current.” How many kids discovered Classic Rock artists as a result of multimedia phenomena, YouTube videos, and now even NFTs?
Speaking of which, just last week, I saw a story about how two seemingly unlikely partners just cut a joint deal. LEGO has teamed with the Rolling Stones, commemorating the band's 60th anniversary.
It's a new LEGO® Art set that lets you build the band's famous tongue logo in that classic brick form. The famous lips trademark was designed by John Pasche back in 1970.
In an interview with LEGO, Pasche remarked, “Who would have believed, 50 odd years ago…that design would be made into a LEGO piece? Wow!”
The Stones LEGO® Art set is available June 1 on LEGO.com. Something tells me it might make a pretty cool giveaway item for certain radio stations we're all familiar with.
Over coffee, Bob Ottaway and I reminisced last weekend about how WMMQ's success and how longshots can actually come home. It also hasn't escaped my attention that a new documentary about the amazing rise of Z1oo is making the rounds, being shown this week at RadioDays Europe. Well named, “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100, New York,” charts mastermind Scott Shannon's domination of New York City radio. Z100's ascent to the top of the nation's largest market was another of those unlikely underdog stories that could only happen in horse racing and radio.
I know a number of you have experienced your own impossible comebacks or amazing rises from the ashes. They may not be common in other industries, but in horse racing and radio, they are legendary.
And that should be a reminder to all of us it can happen again. And frankly, it would be a welcome change from the usual. A look at the Inside Radio chart tells us American radio hasn't had a hit format since Jack-FM, known by its formal name, “Variety Hits.” The first of these stations signed on in the U.S. in 2004, but was originally in Canada before making the journey south.
While other formats have come and gone, none has stuck as a mass appeal player alongside Country, Top 40, Adult Contemporary, Classic Rock, and the other “usual suspects.”
Some might argue broadcast radio in America has lost some of its punch, making it even unlikelier that a new phenomenon could actually break through.
But perhaps the same thing could be said of an even older industry – automobiles. And somehow, a dark horse named Elon Musk and his Tesla has redefined cars – how they're made, sold, marketed, and updated.
Is there a new format out there we somehow haven't thought of? Or maybe the format exists but is being championed by an unknown who can't get the industry's attention. Like me in the early 80's.
It is out there. And we have to challenge ourselves to get it on the air, even if it defies the odds and is impossibly back in the pack.
Radio is an industry in dire need of a Rich Strike, a dark horse that can go from worst to first.
I'd put money on it.
Whether you're a horse racing fan or not, this amazing finish by 80-to-1 Rich Strike will take your breath away. Epicenter was a favorite to win the Derby.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) May 8, 2022
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