I remember the first song I ever heard by John Mellencamp, known back then as “Johnny Cougar” before he took control of his own branding.
“The Great Midwest” was that song and it was never a big hit. It didn't hit the Billboard Hot 100, nor did it very likely get a whole lot of airplay on either coast. But for AOR stations in the “flyover states,” it became something of an anthem, and it made a statement about Mellencamp early in his great career. Yes, there was Seger and Springsteen – both hometown heroes. But Mellencamp always wore his emotions on his sleeve, and many of his big hits spoke to what it was like to grow up in the Midwest, like “Small Town” and “Jack & Diane.”
Last week in Nielsen's rock webinar, and in a story this week in Inside Radio, many of us got confirmation what we've known all along: the Midwest is a Rock Radio Mecca.
My response? And I liberally quote Michigan's favorite son, Bob Seger:
“Shit, I've known that for 50 years.”
And so have the thousands of station owners, managers, programmers, jocks, sales reps, and even interns who have been lucky to enough to be a part of rock radio in places like Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, and the other regional hotbeds like St. Louis, where the music not only thrived – it became the anthems of our lives and our communities.
While rock always had big radio stations on the East and West Coasts – and eventually in the South – it was the “Great Midwest” where the format thrived, the sheds were packed (and their spacious lawns), and you wore your allegiance to radio on your head, your chest, and your car bumpers.
That was confirmed again in the Fall 2018 Nielsen surveys where the stations in the heart of the country dominated the list of best performers.
At the top of the Classic Rock list is Beasley's WCSX here in Detroit, followed by several Midwest-licensed stations. On the Active/Mainstream side, an East Coast station dominates – again, Beasley-owned WMMR. But several Midwest markets are represented on that list, too.
Someone explained to me once how these big rust belt cities were always home to heavy industry. And when you think of those factories, and the metallic banging that permeates them, it's reminiscent of the hard, driving rock music these stations became famous for.
Then there's Alternative. a format that always seemed to flourish on the West Coast, thanks perhaps to the birth of KROQ's “Rock of the 80s” success that became decades ago. So, it was not a surprise to see that one of the original Alternative stations – Entercom's KNDD in Seattle – made it to the top of that Nielsen heap of best performers.
It also strikes me that all three stations have been around in the same format for a LONG time. There's a lot to be said for consistency and longevity, so perhaps it's no coincidence these three have been at it for decades.
WMMR just celebrated its golden anniversary, WCSX was one of the original Classic Rock stations that signed on in the mid-80s, while the End was born during an early round of Alternative stations that launched in 1991, in-sync with the birth of Grunge in Seattle.
Each of these station has had its trials and errors over the years. In fact, each has known hardship and frustration along the way. They each had to overcome heartbreaking losses and other setbacks in order to re-emerge in the dominant positions each finds itself in today.
And in many ways, that embodies those Midwest values that have meant so much to people who grew up in these places: commitment, tradition, perseverance, and grit.
Jacobs Media is proud to call CSX, MMR, and the End our clients – but in fact, they've been our partners. And make no mistake about it – while we've had our fingerprints on these stations over many, many years, they ended up on these lists because of the hard work of their programmers, managers, and great staffs – along with the undying support of their owners. And of course, their listeners.
Congrats to all 30 of these stations designated by Nielsen for their performance. I expect next year's list will have strong Midwest representation as well. And hats off to the big three – WCSX, WMMR, and KNDD. Their blue collar work ethics have paid off.
And the next time you're flying cross-country, take a look out the window at “flyover country,” and give a devil's horns salute to rock n' roll radio and the stations that are still bringing it today.
Because rock n' roll never forgets.