The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

30 August 2005

The state of radio

Little Steven Van Zandt gave the keynote address at the 2005 Radio & Records Convention in Cleveland in July. This is long and profound and occasionally profane; the latter explains the use of the jump.

I Love Radio!

(applause erupts)

And I feel nothing but love in this room because as I look around, I see only two kinds of people: our beloved affiliates . . . and future affiliates.


So now matter what happens in this next half hour, remember what I just said. It's just family talking.

And without any further disclaimers let me ask the only important question that is on my mind, and I'm sure you've been thinking about it also, especially lately.



(applause and laughter)


Don't you look forward to the day when your grandson is on your knee and he looks up and says, "Grampa weren't you in radio once?"

"Yes, Grandson," you'll reply.

"Could I ask you something," he'll say.

"Of course, my love, anything," you'll say.


(more laughter)

Where were we? What happened?

Things are out of line and we're not leaving here today until we straighten it out.

(applause and laughter)

Now I was going to wait for this but we might as well get right to it since it is all everybody's talking about.

I have come to praise JACK not to bury him.

(laughter — uncertain applause)

The guys at Infinity are friends of ours, as is everybody else, we got nothing but friends, you all know that.

And I've gotta say I'm proud of these guys for having the balls to shake things up. Things needed shaking up. And history will remember them in a very positive way when looking back at this world-changing moment.

Having said that . . .

Replacing 33 year old New York oldies institution CBS-FM with JACK is like replacing the Statue of Liberty with a blow-up doll.

(eruptions of laughter and applause)

But again, change is good. And necessary.

With a little bit of luck JACK will last 10 or 12 months because it is obvious people want something different, they are hungry for something, anything.

So it could be 6 months before anybody actually listens to JACK. Once they do it is doomed for 3 obvious reasons.

At the moment it is replacing oldies formats but it is not an oldies format in the true sense of the word. It's mostly 80's, some 70's, some 90's.

Now it must be said that the oldies format is vulnerable because over the last 5-10 years it has, in a word, sucked.

It has sucked for a very simple reason, somebody had the brilliant idea to eliminate the 50's and replace it with the 70's.

This was done by somebody uniquely stupid and deaf and ignorant and a bad businessman on top of it all.

So naturally, everybody copied it and the 50's disappeared virtually overnight.

Now let's digress and examine this oldies thing for a minute.

Assuming you accept the fact that those overseeing the oldies format these last 5 years — 10 years — are, in fact, stupid, deaf, ignorant, and bad businessmen, let's deal with it.

As far as stupid, deaf, and ignorant, when it comes to decades that matter, that matter historically, in terms of influence, importance, and never-to-be-heard-again-quality — that is the 50's and 60's. Everything we do, everything we are comes from those two decades.

You're gonna throw one away?

You're gonna replace Elvis, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Burnette, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Lloyd Price, and Fats Domino with, all due respect, Donna Summer and the Bee Gees?

You're gonna replace primal, vital, timeless, forever cool rock and roll pioneers with disco?

Disco? You wanna know what disco is good for?

Disco is for when you're drunk at a wedding with your old lady and you want to act like an idiot and be John Travolta for an hour or two.

That's where it belongs. Not on radio.

And to the issue of oldies being bad business — all you hear — I'm assuming from sales people — is we must lower our demo's.

The oldies demographic are getting too old — that's the rationale for replacing the 50's with the 70's.

Now if all there was to sell in the world were Froot Loops, PlayStations, and sneakers — they might have a point.

But I got a little secret to share.

You know that age group — 35 to 65 — that nobody in sales seems to care about?


(laughter, applause)

I mean ALL the fucking money. 35 to 65.

Memo to sales team — SELL THEM SOMETHING!

And, by the way, if you want younger people listening, you can get that done. And I mean kids, if you want them.

Who is cooler? Early Elvis or Elton John?

What appeals more to kids, Gene Vincent's black leather attitude, Eddie Cochran's teenage frustration, Little Richard's cry of liberation, and Dion's total Sopranos coolness — or the Eagles?

You want wild? Put together the Sex Pistols, Audioslave, and the Wu-Tang Clan — they aren't as wild as Jerry Lee Lewis in his prime.

But you have to explain that. Show it, illustrate, educate, sell it.

All right — digression over — so JACK isn't oldies so it must be some kind of classic rock/pop hybrid. But JACK doesn't address the two biggest problems of classic rock.

15 years ago I said we're chasing all the personality out of rock radio and into talk and sports. And the ratings went with it.

We need more personality, not less, and JACK has none. No DJ's means no personal relationship with the audience. Eventual apathy is inevitable.

The other big issue classic rock must consider is it must start playing new music again.

I've suggested it to my own affiliates and I'll keep saying it every chance I get.

We've got a big problem.

Look around.

Pearl Jam does some business. Dave Mathews — if he's rock at all — does well. Maybe Oasis breaks this year in the U.S. Maybe Coldplay — if they're considered rock.

But in a real sense, the last big band through the door was U2. That's 25 years ago. Has anybody stopped to consider that. Basically when our generation stops touring, it's over.

That's one reason why we started the Underground Garage format: new Hard Rock, Hip Hop, and Pop can be heard in various places, new Rock and Roll had nowhere to go.

We have played more new bands in 3 years than anybody since the 60's. We average 30 new bands a year. That's how many are out there.

And we are very picky out of respect to our classic rock affiliates, we know we need to keep the quality level high and we do.

But we can't sell records with 2 hours a week.

Someday somebody will have the balls to put the Underground Garage format on 24-7 on broadcast radio but until then, we only have 2 hours a week.

We need your help.

Rock and Roll is not just that museum down the street. It's a living, breathing animal that needs to be fed. With new blood.

And I'm not saying you need to do as much as we do, we're about 40% new and the rest from the entire 50 years of history.

And by the way everybody told us you can't combine old with new but of course you can.

As long as you're making your decisions based on musical experience, good taste, and an effective, coherent emotional communication.

As opposed to your iPod on shuffle.

(laughter, applause)

When you properly combine old and new the old records give the new ones a sense of depth, of belonging to an eternal continuum, carrying the flag forward.

The new records give the old ones relevance, keeps them vital, connected to the next generation.

And all testing and computer analysis and surveys don't tell you that. It's all bullshit. When are we going to learn that?


All that shit tells you is what people think they want right now.

Well, that's not the way great radio happens, or great anything.

You don't do a survey before you write a song, or make a record.

We are drowning in an ocean of mediocrity because sometimes you gotta have enough historical perspective, and vision, and balls to say we have to combine short-term want with long-term need.

And yeah, you gotta sell it.

If you're playing cool stuff make sure the audience hears it right — in the right context. That is everything.

If to a punky consciousness the Ramones are sugar and the Ronettes are broccoli you play the Ramones into the Ronettes and, because Joey learned to sing from Ronnie and you can hear it, the Ramones become hollandaise and it works.

(laughter, applause)

There is an art to this shit.

You know that.

It's the corporate bosses that forget that fact.

But it's not just music — we have this problem plaguing every aspect of our culture.

Yes, content needs work, yes, marketing needs work, but it is the sales teams that need to be re-educated and motivated and inspired and creative. And it's not happening because they are being led by business oversight guys.

Content guys should be running companies, marketing guys should be running companies, who put business oversight guys in charge?


Wall Street, that's who.

Wall Street continues to love and reward and worship short term success for some reason. As the culture and the economy and all our fathers' and grandfathers' and hundreds of years of hard work get trashed in a generation or two.

The tail is wagging the dog.

Wall Street should not be calling the shots.

When did Wall Street ever write a song? Paint a picture? Make a movie? Play a song on the radio that changed somebody's life?


Where are the music people?

I see lawyers, accountants, test marketers running the world.

Where is the emotional connection? Where is the passion?

This ain't about JACK or BOB or Moe or Larry or Curly.

It's about you.

Everybody in this room.

You are here because you are connected emotionally.

This ain't Harvard Business School.

It's fucking Rock and Roll!


These Wall Street cats couldn't have gotten us here. They react — they don't create.

They didn't build this industry.

We did it.

And you're not here because it was a smart business decision. I know what you make.


(pauses; slows down)

You're here because you loved it once.

And we've got to find a way to love it again.

And communicate that love to our audience.

I am determined — together we will find a way.

The Revolution is on.

Thank you.

(standing ovation; thunderous applause)

And thank you, sir.

(Little Steven's Underground Garage is available online, or, if you're luckier than I am, on a radio station near you.)

Posted at 6:16 AM to Overmodulation

Full marks. I hope it takes somewhere, but I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin at 9:01 AM on 30 August 2005

I installed Sirius satellite radio in my car earlier this year, and I do listen to the Underground Garage channel more than any other. (#2 is Pure Jazz, #3 is Left of Center. As in the radio dial, not politics.) It does have some great programming, and the DJs include Kid Leo (Cleveland -- represent!), Joan Jett and Andrew Loog Oldham. What more can one ask for?

Posted by: Phil at 9:36 AM on 3 September 2005

Hmmm. Maybe I can justify swapping out the stereo after all.

Posted by: CGHill at 10:12 AM on 3 September 2005