One of the biggest challenges in radio is signing on a new station or format – and have anyone notice.
It's not that people don't care about radio. Many still do. But in the world in which we now live, it is difficult for anything to crack through. That's why you have to admire the “Jeopardy” team.
Last month, I blogged about their brilliant strategy to get the most out of their terminally ill host, the iconic Alex Trebek, before he passed away. By pre-taping many shows and juggling the schedule, “Jeopardy's” producers were able to stretch Trebek's presence into the new year, despite the fact he left this earth back in November.
And now, they're doing it again.
The speculation now sharply revolves around who will replace Trebek. But the more apt question is “Who will be the next host of ‘Jeopardy?'” That's because the venerable frontman – never the star – of the show was special, a one-of-kind presence on an institution that's been around in kitchens, living rooms, and dens for decades. The new front person on “Jeopardy” will have big shoes to fill.
So, rather than simply putting out a press release naming Trebek's successor, the producers of the show are going about this gargantuan task by amping up maximum intrigue about their big decision. There's nothing wrong with a little drama. OK, in this case, a lot of drama.
In January, the show announced a series of “guest hosts” of the show post-Trebek, including Katie Couric, Aaron Rodgers, Mayim Bialik, Bill Whitaker, and the show's all-time winner, contestant-turned-celebrity, Ken Jennings (who's in the running for the full-time job). Here's a brief tribute Jennings made to Trebek on his first guest episode.
Earlier this week, a new roster of stand-ins was announced, indicating the “Who will replace Alex?” stunt is being extended. They include Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dr. Oz, and Savannah Guthrie. These celebrities standing in front of the familiar board of answers are donating their “salaries” to charity.
And the accompanying drama and conjecture will stoke even more debate, speculation, and buzz about who's next on Jeopardy. And likely drive the ratings higher. There's much anticipation about “who's next?”
And that's what this is all about.
In the midst of a global pandemic, the vaccine rollout, another impeachment trial, and the upcoming Super Bowl, how can a long-running TV game show – even a highly popular one – grab attention and “water cooler talk” in an environment where most of us are frazzled, stressed, and working from home (where there isn't a water cooler)?
There was a time when big radio morning shows went on vacation and the station used local celebrity subs from the world of television, politics, culture, and music to create a week-long event. Similar to how the producers of Jeopardy are handling the end of the Trebek Era, radio shows still have the ability to gin up interest, even during what is conceded as a “dead” vacation week.
But what about those new radio format stunts that used to pack drama, doubt, fear, and lots of guessing in markets big and small? It wasn't that many years ago when stations pulled out all the stops to launch a new format, firing up the audience, advertisers, and yes, the competition.
Today, most format startups – at best – have a countdown clock, a piece of introductory production, construction sound effects (“We're building a new station just for Scranton….”) and 10,000 songs commercial-free – generating virtually no interest or intrigue. All in all, they're perfunctory, and they rarely create any drama.
And that got me thinking about one of the best “guess the new format stunts” of all time in one of the nation's largest markets – Chicago.
Twenty years ago this month, Bonneville-owned WNIB, the classical station, began a bizarre, attention-getting stunt that would last six weeks until the new format was finally revealed in mid-March.
Of course, we all know the station now as WDRV – the Drive. It has had a remarkable run these past two decades. And while great programming and strong stewardship from its owners – Bonneville, and later, Hubbard – there's no question the station benefitted from its great start.
Veteran programmer, Greg Solk, was at the helm back then. Working hand in glove with manager, Drew Horowitz, the station tantalized Chicago with a different themed format every day for more than a month.
The stunt ran the gamut – all AC/DC one day, wall-to-wall Barbra Streisand the next. Garth Brooks had his special day, as did Madonna. There was a day for the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and even Pink Floyd. And to stir things up, there were entire days dedicated to Broadway show tunes and TV theme songs.
Solk, now running the show at crosstown WXRT, created the new format and programmed it for its first 15 years on the air. He remembers how the radio scene in the Windy City was ripe for a little drama:
“You have to remember this was 20 years ago, it was a much less crowded audio space with many fewer options for people. Radio still held the keys to most listeners' audio entertainment.
“Another key factor to the initial excitement was the benefit of doing this flip in Chicago – a market that certainly at that time had the most engaged and ‘tuned-in' listening audience in the country.”
I was across the street, working with Dave Richards and Jimmy de Castro at Rock 103.5, and I can tell you we did daily calls, discussing, predicting, and guessing what Bonneville was doing with the station. We weren't the only ones. The audience, advertisers, and media columnists, like Robert Feder, were in on it, too.
As Solk recalls, “Most stations that flip, stunt for very short periods of time and typically in a highly produced fashion. Usually amusing the staff or corporate honchos, rather than actually entertaining or enchanting the listening public.
“The Drive sign-on was much more organic and lengthy. With a different artist featured each day by simply tracking entire CDs, it was in a sort of a way a precursor to the focus of the coming station, being all about the music.
“By continuing this tease for several weeks, it became water cooler talk and must-sample radio as people tuned in day after day to see what was happening, and if they were any closer to finding out what the eventual format would be.
Most importantly to the station’s success, the launch of the Drive and its unique programming principals matched the high quality stunting that captivated the city for those six fun weeks.”
Two decades later, and WDRV will celebrate two decades of success in one of the most highly competitive radio markets next month. Programmer Rob Cressman promises “lots of warm and nostalgic trips through time throughout 2021, along with highly creative opportunities for Drive fans to reminisce and remember the past 20 years, while eagerly anticipating the journey that lies ahead.”
Hmm…a little cryptic there, Rob.
One hint we do have is that WDRV's planned anniversary celebration will be a sweet one for the station, its fans, and its staff. That's evidenced by the sneak peak of custom-designed 20th anniversary Drive Oreo cookies along with other commemorative swag. From one classic to another.
Meantime, back to Jeopardy.
And the drama continues, night after night, well into 2021. Who knows? If the ratings hold up, this stunt could go on a long time.
It makes you wonder if Barbra Streisand is booked as a Jeopardy guest host.”
Meanwhile, help me answer that “Final Jeopardy” question:
Who is __________________________________________________?