GONZO MARKETING, EARLY FM CRAZINESS... AND THE XM EXECUTIVES ON MUSIC
GONZO MARKETING, EARLY FM CRAZINESS… AND THE XM EXECUTIVES ON MUSIC
In 1980 or so, got a call from General Electric. They were looking to do something with their "beautiful music" (muzak) FM in San Francisco, KFOG. This station had everything. A great signal, cool call letters for the Bay Area, not to mention studios overlooking the Bay at Ghirardelli Square. Kinda knew that another AOR wouldn't cut through there, so designed a concept that was, well, more sophisticated. Aimed at the "upper end" of the Rock demographics. Aimed at people who gravitated more toward The Dead, Joni Mitchell and Peter Gabriel than Styx and Foreigner. First generation FM Rock listeners who have long been abandoned by the stations like KSAN which was no longer a factor. Had to be careful that the station wasn't TOO hip, but based on what the competitors were doing, that wasn't going to be a big problem.
Flew to Connecticut and the presentation for this new concept went great, and Randy Bongarten, then head of G.E.'s radio group loved the idea and we signed it up. In fact, Randy was right in the demographic target so he completely "got it". Green light to put the idea on the air at KFOG.
Hired Dave Logan (yet another Logan in my life-) we worked together at places like The LOOP in Chicago and WLAV in Grand Rapids (A truly GREAT station in its day) and as an associate at our consulting giant Burkhart/Abrams. Beyond the basic architecture and concept of KFOG, we kind of made it up as we went along since this kind of station had never been done before. A nice freedom to have, and not unlike the creative spirit at XM. Dave incidentally was part of the early XM team.
Blessed with incredible cooperation from GE who was more interested in jet engines and toasters than a station in San Francisco, we were able to market and program this thing the way we thought it should be marketed and programmed. Didn't have much money but spent it well. First thing was to hire Rodney Dangerfield who did a brilliant TV ad using the "no respect" angle for FM listeners with "taste" who got no respect. The whole station was like. Eschewing the "agency" look for a logo went to R. Crumb the master of "Head Comix". Somehow that didn't work, but we did use David Helton, a protoge of R. Crumb who did the early WMMS Buzzard stuff whch always blew me away. I believe they're still using that logo today. I never understood why radio stations, especially music ones fail to approach the art masters who design things like great album covers instead of the often lame local agencies who usually snap together some disposable graphic identity that has the distinction of looking like VERY other station in town. Even XM can be guilty of this, though I think are logo is modern and "right" and the recent updates to it are on it...But-- If you go to a Best Buy or Circuit City, there seems to be this "Satellite Radio look" where both XM and Sirius basically have the same look and feel. Anyways, back to KFOG early 80's: The one spontaneous idea that really nails "gonzo marketing" is this:
GE sold the station. The new owners came to town. THe All Star game was coming up in two weeks and at an early meeting with the new ownership it was decided that we should do something with the game. Something quick and cheap. After going round and round, it was decided that we'd fly a banner overhead. Easy. Not expensive. Fine. However, WHAT is this banner going to say? After an hour of the lamest and most obvious slogans like "KFOG: Home of Great Music", Logan and I took a break, walked around Ghiradelli for a few minutes and rejoined the meeting and presented,”Hit this plane and win $5,000 from KFOG". The new owners were aghast. "That says nothing about Arbitron retention" said one VP. "That is simply crazy--let's test the idea first" chirped another, and "What if someone hits the plane!!..Then what?" said yet another. Holding firm we pleaded that there are two options--another stupid radio station banner or something that might actually be SO absurd, it cuts through. We wore them down and the head of the Company said "OK, we’ll do this but if someone hits the plane, it’s your ass". Fine. A risk worth taking. In fact back then we commanded big rates, so that was a month of consulting fees. Of course today, the Apache helicopters would thwart this one.
So the game happens at the old Candlestick Park. Sure enough, every station in town has banners: KRQR Rocks the Bay…KYUU with Music for You…all the typical “radio slogans”. Then the KFOG “Hit This Plane and Win 5 Grand” flies over. Talk about getting NOTICED! By the seventh inning it was a blow out game and half the crowd was drunk and every time that plane flew over the crowd went nuts---throwing beer cups at it. It was more interesting than the game. We later found out that some guy followed it to the airfield and hit it when it was on the ground. Disqualified! Must be in the air! But the REAL kicker was the next day. Front page. Something like: GOODEN FANS 6 AS NL ROMPS….AND NOBODY HIT THE PLANE! Now you can’t BUY that kind of PR. And we were SO close to doing “KFOG ROCKS THE BAY”—Gonzo won over lame. Few of the experts from the Company got the idea when presented…thank God we persevered. Some things you just gotta go with. "Testing/researching" an idea like this is absurd. I wonder if DAvid Letterman runs the idea of dropping melons off a 40 story building to film them exploding through a focus group...I doubt it.
KFOG was a cool station. It was very experimental and the kind of programming we try to inspire on people here at XM. It was also had its share of strangeness. One afternoon our DJ got a box of “cookies” from a fan (that was when FM stations had Fans). He left the cookies in the jock lounge. The GM grabbed a few. Three hours later he was at a sales dinner and the cookies “kicked in”---The poor guy thought he was dying. He called Dave Logan the PD and asked what was in those cookies? Dave calmly reminded him to never eat cookies from listeners and suggested he goes home puts on some Hendrix and waits for it to pass. The DJ was fired and the GM never ate another listener cookie.
There was a whole different spirit in radio back then. It really wasn’t that long ago, pre-consolidation era. Consolidation led to a whole new financial driven mindset. Different rules. I actually tried consulting stations again after I left ABC. It lasted about a week. Definitely not the place to be. I left pure consulting in 1988 and by 1998 it was a completely different world and clearly not a better one unless you were a shareholder of major proportion. A lot of guys made a ton of money and that’s great, but when you compare the spirit of radio over the air—it was a completely different business. That’s a key reason I am so adamant that XM doesn’t even remotely mimic today’s FM model. It has NOTHING to do with listener satisfaction and while there are those who think it does---and it may to some of the true believers still on FM, it absolutely doesn’t to the guys in control of that medium. You’ll see the comments about how these guys are serving their communities, but it’s all BS…or denial. Hey, I’m not blaming anyone—they have their plan and we have ours, it’’s just that WE need to stay ON OUR plan without referencing the current/recent state of FM….because they have vastly different goals than XM.
As inventive and fun as pre consolidation radio was, it was not without its quirks. Local ownership had some let’s say “interesting” characters. A few that shall remain nameless but come to mind:
STATION IN MIDWEST circa 1978: General Manager is way out of his mind. Comes to office dressed as Doctor, Secretary as a Nurse. Invites me and my associate (the late Lee Michaels) to a Baloney Toss. Pulls out an archery target, lays it on the floor and pulls out a stack of Oscar Meyer Boloney. Draws a line on the floor. We stand behind the line and toss baloney onto the target. Low score buys lunch.
STATION IN THE NORTHEAST circa 1976: New Owner, an alleged Mob hotshot beats up the GM because the phone company screwed up. Later asks for Albums for his kid. I supply a huge stack—calls me at 3am with a threat that the albums stink and I better watch out
BIG MIDWEST STATION circa 1981: The plants keep dying. Huge mystery. Experts come in and can only figured they’ve been tampered with. Video cameras set up. Night DJ was doin’ a lot of beers and pissing in the plants. That explains all those long versions he’d play.
…there’s A LOT more, but you get the idea.
As always, the best stations had that balance of this sorta insanity..Well maybe not exactly like THESE examples with smart business people paying the light bill. In the mid 80’s I was hired by Disney to consult on an adult theme park in Burbank that never got off the ground. I remember those meetings—one side of the table was Brooks Brothers attired business guys—the other side was “Imagineers” clad in funky Levis. That Balance created some interesting fireworks. The impressive thing was that the imaginers were the ones with the power…the business guys reacted to their input with plans to make the weirdness reality. At a lot of places these days those imaginer types wouldn’t even be invited. There was this "You crazies come up with the ideas, us MBA's will find ways to make it work". Sweet deal.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is the “language” used inside media companies. Here are a few examples of New Words and a translation.
BAKE IN: Add to
BETA TEST Try out
1Q: Early next year
COB: Later today
CONFERENCE IN: Call somebody
When I got to XM I had NO idea what half these words meant. Now I couldn’t get through an hour without having this second language skill, though I still hear CPGA (Cost per gross add) and think of a Canadian Golf organization. I’m very glad that XM gives me the opportunity to be what I am…and actually let me in MOST of the meetings, despite the fact that I'm still learning the lingo.
The musicality of the XM Executive branch is interesting. Take John Dealy. A business genius with a BS radar that rivals NORAD’S best. Used to run Fairchild Aircraft, teach business at GWU and is truly a captain of industry. He’s a Folk freak! Can quote lyrics from obscure Celtic bands. When I wanted Odetta to do an Artist Confidential, he put me in touch with a contact. When he’s not talking high level strategy that would challenge a Harvard MBA, he pops down with his highly opinionated thoughts on music trends and waxes on about The Weavers. Go figure!
Then there’s Hugh Panero. I booked Damian Rice (one of his latest favorites) to play at the XM Performance Theater. It’s probably a good thing for job security. In 1999, Hugh took me to Blues Alley in DC to see Diana Krall. He turned ME onto her. A CEO turning the music guy on. Cool.
Gary Parsons is a person I don’t see that often as he’s usually tied up in high level Wall Street things, but like clockwork, 4 times a year, I hear “Say Lee, I hear James Taylor is coming to town….”
And Nate Davis our new COO. He’s definitely a closet muso. 48 hours after he joined as COO, I got an email—“Al Jarreau is coming to play Wolf Trap—got any connections?”—Fortunately Al did an Artist Confidential and his Management is fantastic so we got Nate covered real fast.
Back around 2000 when we launched Artist Confidential and other “Exclusive Music” shows, Hugh assigned Joe Verbrugge to help me manage the business side of the project. Now Joe was in charge of Satellite Insurance issues at the time—hardly Rock n Roll. Be he was quickly converted. Within a month we had him drinking vats of wine with Don Henley and weather or not he will admit it—he LOVED it. He’s back on the pure business side, but I know that the short flirt with Rock n Roll has changed his life.
One of the great things about XM is that even the Executive Branch respect and admire music. As always, if we can consistently balance good sensible business with the soul and passion of art---Everyone wins. XM, the listeners, the investors, the artists. It’s the RIGHT way to win.
…check the video if you haven’t—just click LOW or HIGH on the right side of the main page.