This week for Radio’s Most Innovative, Paul Jacobs takes us back to one of radio’s first major events, KZEW’s Zoo World in Dallas.
In 1982, I decided to leave one legendary rock station – WRIF – to move to Dallas to work for another – KZEW. Having grown up listening to WRIF, I understood its culture and relationship with Detroit. But moving to the Metroplex and becoming part of the legendary Zoo team required quickly learning about a station that was located literally in a foreign country. What I found was an amazing group of eclectic, passionate, talented rockers who were willing to take risks. And nowhere was that embodied more than Zoo World, which may have been radio’s first mega-event. Before there was the concept of Non-Traditional Revenue, there was Zoo World.
Billed as an “lifestyle event,” Zoo World combined a series of concerts, rows of advertiser booths, lifestyle exhibits, and gallons of beer. Each year, hundreds of thousands of rockers from across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and elsewhere converged on the Dallas Convention Center. Today’s station festivals pale in comparison.
The event was a total station effort. Everyone helped sell and set up the booths, put on a 3-day concert, broadcast live from the venue, and of course, sell thousands of commemorative T-shirts. We sold so many that I remember sitting in a room at the convention center with close to $80,000. And T-shirts were a lot cheaper back then.
Zoo World was a tribute to what can be accomplished with great leadership, vision, guts, and, most importantly, a terrific staff that was passionate about their station. It wasn’t a sales or a programming promotion – it was a bigger than life rock n' roll lifestyle event.
To find out more about how Zoo World started and the impact it had, we asked Ivan Braiker, the Station Manager, and Margie Poole, Director of Advertising and Promotions, to share their recollections for this week’s edition of Radio’s Most Innovative.
JM: Talk about what KZEW was like when you were there? What made it unique?
IB: The Zoo was indeed a special station. I think one might say the real amazing element was that we were owned by a very conservative non-radio company. (Program Director Ira Lipson) was the spark plug that gave the station its life and special feeling. He had, and still has, a brilliant promotional mind and understood the uniqueness of the listeners.
JM: The station was owned by Belo, who wasn’t a big player in the radio business at that time. What was their reaction when you described what you wanted to do?
IB: We positioned it as a revenue creator, which it was big time. They were intrigued but didn’t really understand the entire project. What they focused on was that we would make money and provide a service to our listeners and the community.
JM: Did Belo put up any barriers?
IB: Not really. I kept corporate up to date on the billing and that seemed to take focus away from any other concerns.
JM: What was the state of big radio promotions at that time?
IB: As memory serves me, there really weren’t a lot of big promotions going on in Dallas at the time. Ron Chapman was just beginning to set a new standard for AC radio; although let’s not forget, we were living in the home of Gordon McClendon, probably radio's greatest promotion mind.
JM: How would you describe Zoo World?
IB: It was a lifestyle event that featured every element of what our audience was interested in. There were a number of live performances from bands including well known ones the labels provided (the good old days). We had booths for automobiles, clothing stores, insurance, electronics, healthcare, and many non-profits. We charged for the vendor booths with ad dollar commitments and provided space for the non-profits for free.
MP: We told the public it was a lifestyle event. It was really created to boost revenue and tie up client promotion money so they couldn’t spend it with other competitors. Basically, it was a mini trade show with entertainment.
JM: At the time, no other event like this existed. What inspired you to create a “lifestyle fair?”
IB: We were always looking for new ways to connect with our audience, and Ira was really a genius at dialing in on their interests. When we discussed various possibilities, the idea of providing a great community service with a revenue element seemed like a home run.
JM: What was the original vision of Zoo World, and how did it compare with how the event wound up being?
IB: Amazingly it was what we had hoped, but even bigger!
JM: How big was your staff that you were able to manage an event of this size?
MP: Myself plus three others. Of course, station employees had to work the booth during the event and we leaned on a lot of their friends and spouses.
JM: At what point did you realize that this thing was massive?
MP: Coors told us the only other event in Texas where people consumed more beer was the State Fair and that was 17 days long. Also, we were the only local event that the Dallas Convention Center allowed to actually book space that was definitely reserved, meaning we couldn’t be bounced for an out of town event that filled hotel rooms. That was because they made enough money off parking and their share of the beer revenue that it was worth it to them.
JM: Once Zoo World got up and rolling, it was a massive event. I remember hundreds of thousands of people buying thousands and thousands of Zoo World T-shirts. Describe what the event became.
MP: The T-shirts were a huge revenue source for the station. For me, it was the biggest part of my job and it was multifaceted. For programming, it was an image-enhancer. For sales, a revenue bump but also a way to tie up client monies and ad schedules.
JM: What was the most outrageous thing that happened at Zoo World?
IB: We had several rather memorable events, mostly ones that had me up late and keeping out of the press. We had a couple near riots when the police shut us down early during the very first one. It had been a very unusual day in Dallas; we had snow which we figured would have a negative impact on attendance. It didn’t. Nothing was stopping the crowds and the police went a little ballistic with us. It all worked out OK, but the bottle throwing crowd definitely created a problem.
MP: There were so many, but one that sticks out was a listener climbing the inflatable Coors Mountains yelling, “I’m climbing it because it’s here.” Unfortunately, he ended his climb by jabbing a knife into the mountains, which began deflating.
JM: Why did Zoo World end?
MP: An attendee, who was drunk, died after climbing up on a concrete wall over the freeway and falling off. Even though it was over a 100 yards from the venue, his family tried to blame us. Also, a car full of inebriated listeners had died in a car crash on their way home several years earlier and their families tried to sue.
In addition, clients were complaining about overtime costs to staff their booths and falling sales.
Plus, someone stole the station’s T-shirt revenue the final year.
JM: What did Zoo World wind up meaning to the KZEW brand?
IB: I believe it was the single element that launched the station into the mainstream from being known as the ”hippie rock station.” It made a very positive impression on the community and we never looked back.
MP: I think the two were synonymous to most listeners.
JM: Why don’t more radio stations do events like this today?
IB: I think we all know most creative thinking has left radio, too much corporate control and no insight into what could be possible. Interestingly, we did expand the concept to our AM talk station and built the event around our lifestyle talk shows called “Spring Thing.” It was a lifestyle show around gardening, cooking and home projects that worked out quite well. The station changed formats shortly after my departure, so I’m not sure what happened to the event.
MP: I think the world has become so obsessed with liability that it would be difficult to get station management to sign off on it, let alone clients and a venue.
JM: Could a radio station pull something like this off today?
IB: I think they could. Radio gave up the dominant position it had in the local community, and now the lifestyle events have been taken over by private companies.
MP: I don’t know if you could do a Zoo World – a drunken three day concert event – today. That type of event would need to have a different type of music and much more tech.
JM: What advice would you give to people working in radio that might want to create their own version of Zoo World?
IB: Think creatively and do it! There is always something you can do to appeal and service the local community!
Thanks to Mike Stern and Paul Jacobs for putting together this week's RMI.
INNOVATION QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“I never called my work ‘art.' It's part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”
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