In one of those odd coincidences, it turns out Valentines Day 1971 must have been a crazy time for rock radio here in Amerca. How else do you explain how two radio stations signed on with a rock n' roll radio format 50 years ago to the day.
WRIF and KISW
Not only are both still on the air in the same format all these decades later, they are market leaders in both ratings and revenue, enduring the trials, tribulations, and transactions that have become part of the fabric of radio survival and consolidation.
Seattle and Detroit – more than 2,000 miles apart – both spawning iconic rock stations exactly five decades ago. Last weekend, KISW and WRIF kicked it into a different gear, amping up their golden anniversary festivities – but there were no canes, walkers, or Prevagen to be seen.
Seth Resler shows you how to use webinars to generate leads for your radio station's sales team.
That's because each station's “showrunner” – Dave Richards and Scott Jameson respectively – set out months ago to make sure these station celebrations didn't end up feeling like musty, high school reunions, dripping in nostalgia.
It turns out both stations are now classified as Active Rock – they play current rock along with the older stuff they helped make popular decades ago. Back when both stations signed on 50 Februaries ago, there could be as many as two or even three of rock stations in many markets – known as AOR – or Album Oriented Rock.
Today, you're lucky if your city has one of these stations. Metros like New York, L.A., Houston, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, Portland (OR) and many others are sadly devoid of a station in this once-ubiquitous format.
And yet, many have survived and managed to be truly successful, especially the two birthday boys – WRIF and KISW. Each has a team of great personalities throughout the day, including strong morning shows as their foundations.
I've been blessed to have been involved with both stations – intimately. I joined WRIF in 1978, first as research director, and then PD. And my company continues to provide consulting to the station today. As my mentor and former boss, Tom Bender (who served as overnight DJ, PD, and eventually market manager) once reminded me, “WRIF is our life's work.”
WRIF has stayed true to its rock n' roll roots – and its iconic “racetrack” logo – popularized by ABC's seven FM stations a half century ago. And the station's main mission: being a top-rated mainstream rock station with the best personalities in the market – has endured over the decades. In morning drive, the tradition of J.J. & the Morning Crew ('70s and '80s), Drew & Mike ('90s and '00s), and today's market dominant show, Dave & Chuck the Freak continue the tradition of Detroiters starting their mornings with laughs, seguing into rock music the rest of the day.
On the other side of the country, I've always been honored that David Field brought me to Seattle with him the day Entercom closed on KISW to meet the staff and help the new company figure out how not to screw up an already amazing radio station. It was an exciting couple of decades, working with KISW as it moved from Bob Rivers to Howard Stern, and eventually B.J. Shea and Steve Migliore holding down mornings.
It was fascinating to watch how both these stations have evolved, celebrating their rich and roller coaster histories, while using the shiniest new tools in the tool box.
I was here in Detroit a few days ago for WRIF's “Legends Weekend,” which gave me a chance to witness for myself the mashup of veteran staffers with the new guard on the air today. Today, the station is owned by Beasley Media Group, but it has not missed a beat since being sold by long-time steward, Greater Media in 2016.
All weekend long, the mutual respect was overwhelming. Jade Springart, Meltdown, and Screamin' Scott Randall were the anchor/hosts, welcoming alums Jim Johnson and George Baier (J.J. & the Morning Crew), Ken Calvert, Karen Savelly, Steve Kostan, Carl Coffey, Peter Werbe, and other former staffers back on the WRIF airwaves.
Among others, Detroit icons Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, and Kid Rock all dialed in to schmooze, reminisce, and pay their respects to Detroit's Home of Rock N' Roll. Newer rock heroes, including Shinedown's Brent Smith, Taylor Momsen from The Pretty Reckless, and Seether's Shaun Morgan worked as guest DJs over the weekend, thanks to virtual meeting and voicetracking technology.
As noted in a blog post about UGC – User-Generated Content – a few weeks back, WRIF has been collecting artifacts and memories from its audience, in the form of photos, ticket stubs, and other paraphernalia collected over the decades.
Videos, audio interviews, and TV spots were also digitized and posted on the WRIF website, suitable for viewing and sharing.
Back in the day, you sent a self-addressed stamped envelope to the radio station to obtain the latest bumpersticker or the Morning Crew's D.RE.A.D. card (Detroit Rockers Engaged in the Abolition of Disco). Legions of interns did the envelope stuffing duties during those rockin' '70s and '80s.
Today, social media carries much of that weight – a chance for station staffers, on-air veterans, and fans of all ages and decades to share memories, admittedly a bit warped by time.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the station website provided the platforms where long-time listeners could commune with their favorite Motor City personalities of all eras.
Thank you, Detroit, for helping us celebrate our 50th anniversary! Still more to come this weekend, but today was a day…
Pulling off a “Legends Weekend” during the pandemic was the challenge of WRIF PD and Beasley Detroit Ops Manager, Scott Jameson. To make it a tad more challenging, Scott has only been wearing his station T-shirt since the summer when he took over the brand while in the middle of its 50th planning.
Scott's no stranger to these types of operations, programming KY102, Q95, and KQRS among others. But being dropped into a new market during a global pandemic is one thing. Figuring out how to pull off a 50th celebration on this scale was another.
In yet another nod to the digital times in which we live, the station has produced an excellent podcast, headed up by market vet Steve Black, and hosted by former WRIF jock, Mike Staff. It's now 16 episodes long, tracking the history of WRIF over the decades from its (in)famous trailers to the juggernaut it's become today, focusing on the people behind the mic and behind the scenes to tell their stories.
By going the podcast route, it's another indicator WRIF is not tethered to its past, but is a vital player on the radio and in the digital media realm.
Of course, none of the 50th anniversary of WRIF hoopla works without a video, for memorializing and marketing. It wasn't that long ago that after big events, radio stations would simply slap a “thank-you” promo on the air, and call it good.
But to make sure milestones like these have legs, a video that can be socially shared, posted on YouTube, on the station website, and in email blasts is proving to be the optimal way to stretch a celebration.
WRIF's effort – produced almost simultaneous to its weekend partying is below:
Across the country, KISW was planning its own kind of party. And once again, a station with a storied history found itself using the new tools to engage Pacific Northwest audiences of all stripes.
The KISW “Rock logo generator” was a nifty modern touch, giving fans the ability to combine the station's iconic logo with their own name or brand. And like WRIF, Richards and his team were able to corral famous station alums to celebrate the event.
Entercom bought KISW back in the mid-'90s from Nationwide Insurance, and the station has continued on the path set by Beau Phillips, Bob Rivers, Steve Slaton, Larry Sharp, Cathy Faulkner, and so many others who invested much sweat equity into making it a legendary station. And current overlord Dave Richards and team totally “get” the ethos of the Seattle market, and specifically, the nuances of KISW, creating new traditions at an old set of call letters.
Over the years, outstanding personalities have graced its airwaves, and today's core roster – B.J. & Migs, Ryan Castle, the Mens Room, and Taryn Daly has the collective chops to keep the station dominant in one of the nation's most competitive markets.
One of the more notable “graduates” of “The Rock of Seattle” is Andy Schuon who started at the station when he was just 15 years-old. Andy went on to program some great rock stations, KROQ among them, before becoming an executive at MTV, Sony, CBS, Warner Brothers, Universal, and Live Nation, in addition to launching his own startup, Loop Media Studios.
In another acknowledgment that reunions can be modernized, he and a group of KISW alums took part in a lively Zoom meeting last week, telling stories, and fact-checking each other along the way.
Last night several of us from KISW past and present got together for a Zoom as our own 50th Anniversary celebration. It…
Congrats to the thousands of dedicated rockers on the air and behind the scenes who have dedicated large chunks of their careers to these venerable brands.
As both WRIF and KISW proved once again last weekend, they are even bigger forces to be reckoned with today than they were back when Richard Nixon was in the White House, and a single named “Stairway to Heaven” was released.
As David Lee Roth recorded a number of years ago in a station ID for WRIF during another of its milestone celebrations:
Always had it, always will.
Congrats to the staffs, management teams, and on-air legends from then and now on both WRIF and KISW.
Thanks for showing us how it's done – yesterday and today.
Latest posts by Fred Jacobs (see all)
- Why Does New Music Suck? - March 5, 2021
- Why Your Radio Station Needs A CMO* - March 4, 2021
- Radio's Challenge:The Balance Between Today And Tomorrow - March 3, 2021