Or “lernch” if you’re Celine Dion. And on a completely random note, I never really had a honeymoon. We got married. We loaded our swag and bounty in a Ryder truck and hauled az back to Charlotte because I had to work a Whitney Houston concert.
In the Spring of 1998 I used a pager for people to find me. Yes. A pager. Google it. I didn’t have any clients in the Twin Cities at that time so I would regularly drive into the metro and allow people at various stations to buy me meals under the premise of ‘work’. I was really just freeloading.
One particular day in mid-May, I was dining courtesy of KQRS at some nameless bistro in an office building out on 394 when my pager went off. My dining partners were no doubt very impressed. I excused myself to a payphone in the lobby (this was 1998, okay?) and called back the number. It was Mark Gullett, who I’d known as the amazing Promotion Director for Q-102 in Philly and who was immensely responsible for the devastation that that station had rained down upon The Eagle. He and his wife had moved down to sunny Tampa where he was now working at Entercom and would regularly call to remind me that they had a lemon tree in the yard.
“Where’s Clifton?” he whispered, as if someone was tapping the line. “We’re going to launch on ‘FLZ. Where’s Clifton?”
Wow. My limited knowledge of the Tampa market was that WFLZ was one of the biggest CHR’s on the planet and only an idiot would take them on. And that sounded like Clifton.
In my next day’s fax to all of the stations I said that I was going to Wild in San Francisco and Michael Martin agreed to cover for me out there. But I didn’t tell him where I was going either. I flew to Tampa that afternoon, Mark picked me up at the airport and we went down to Ybor city to surveil an ‘FLZ club gig.
For a station of that size and reputation, it was pretty startling. No vehicle out front. No banners in the club though we did find one in a back hallway that led to the bathrooms. One promo person sitting at the bar. No air staff that we could. “All of their stuff is like this. They have no idea what’s coming their way…” he said as we headed out to his house where I would crash and hide as we prepared to launch.
Secrecy with this kind of thing is essential. What kind of Mensa candidate sends out a press release that “Next Tuesday at 12 noon, we’ll be changing WACB to WBCA and giving our listeners the finest Smooth Jazz in the tri-state region!”?
Clifton flew in and registered under a false name at a hotel and Michael Martin Fed Ex’d my wife, who then Fed Ex’d me, a cell phone with a 415 area code in case people I called had caller ID.
We met with the market manager Drew Rashbaum off-site and he laid out the scheme. Entercom was bringing 98.7, which was a Lite Rock station in Sarasota, into the Tampa market and he wanted to go after WFLZ, who he described as having gone into a “period of stasis”. Good term.
We had about ten days to put it together and step one was to decide on a story-line. Great promotions are like movies. There’s a plot. There’s a story-line. And with the new station, which we’d decided to name WiLD, we needed something to keep the momentum going while we built the station.
As soon as we locked down the name, which took about five minutes, Mark ran to a phone and called his ad agency guy and gave him his secret assignment. We needed a logo in 24 hours. He then went and through a second party, bought a panel van and three jeeps.
The next step was the plot. The narrative. That took about 10 minutes. Two young men, Josh and Brian, while sailing around on their rich dad’s boat “The Wild Thing II” were messing around with the marine band radio and discovered that by crossing a couple of wires, they could hack the 98.7 frequency out of Sarasota. They only had one CD so “friends” would bring them more out on the boat: the birth of the playlist.
Josh and Brian would be tracked from Clifton’s station in Hawaii by the morning show Budman and Booger. I immediately wrote up about 200 things about the market that they could reference to give it the semblance of being legit and live, and faxed it to them to start cutting breaks.
The next eight days were a lot of minutae. Jerry and I moved into a hotel under a fake name and a friend who could be trusted came in and started doing all of the production work.
We agreed on the first logo and this was then sent to a vendor of Clifton’s station in Washington DC to start making shirts, banners and swag. The three jeeps were taken to a shop in Miami to get logo’ed.
Colleen Cassidy flew in and she and Jerry went to music stores and with Drew Rashbaum’s credit card bought a music library, CD by CD, over a few days.
The afternoon of Friday, the start of Memorial Day weekend, Mark and I went to a car dealership in Brandon and picked up the white panel van. We drove across the street, parked behind an abandoned bank building and with spray paint we’d picked up at a hardware store, tagged it with “Wild 98.7…The Station That Doesn’t Suck” and other lines. My graffiti skills sucked. Mark looked like he’d been doing it for decades on LA overpasses. A true artist. “We’re the station that doesn’t suck” was the position that we intended to beat ‘FLZ over the head with.
At 5 pm that afternoon, “Just The Way You Are” by Billy Joel faded out…there was a moment of silence and “Wild Thing” by Tone Loc started and would run for close to 90 hours with only the first, very brief breaks from J&B who were trying to figure out how to work the mike on their radio.
Now…think about 5 pm on the Friday before any three day weekend and who is left in your building. Exactly. Our cloak of secrecy was so intact that the people across the street had all left early and were in military terms, out of position for three days. Unable to respond.
Mark had all four vehicles parked at strategic intersections and a street team that’s he’d lined up on spec (no idea what they were going to do or for whom) waving at motorists. Standing at a ramp leading to the Gandy Bridge, I saw probably 4 out of 5 commuters lean over to change their radio dial and see what was going on. You don’t get that with a press release and social media spam. That night we were out crashing night clubs, parking out front, shaking hands and handing out swag all over Ybor City.
Not expecting a station to launch on them, WFLZ had 18 sales appearances over the three day weekend, so, on the way to the beach at Clearwater where we could market to hundreds of thousands of people, we took a spin through the Country Side Mall parking lot. At 9 am on Saturday morning, they were set up at a Meineke Muffler spot. Their whole squad. All their vehicles. We circled them in a caravan as they screamed profanities at us and then continued on to the beaches, parks, pools and other locations where the market was enjoying their holiday.
You know you had a good and successful launch when, 19 hours into it, you pull into a McDonalds in St. Pete and are swarmed by highschoolers yelling that they loved us and “You’re the station that doesn’t suck.”
All that weekend Josh & Brian were partying on their boat, take calls from “listeners” on their cell phones, sending out shouts to people in every corner of the market and being visited by dozens and dozens of other boats bringing them CD’s, food and beer. This simple but amazing theater created the impression that in the first few hours on the air, everyone had bailed on WFLZ and there really was no other station now in Tampa other than WiLD 98.7.
The beauty of Josh and Brian (named after two of the spec street squad) was that it gave the station three weeks to get an airstaff and slowly build itself. Realistic? Tampa gets a thunderstorm every afternoon at about 4:17 and a week into WiLD, I was in the studio when it hit and the station was knocked off the air for a minute. The studio lines, which were presented on-air as their cellphones, blew up with people thinking they’d sunk and drowned.
After three weeks the station was staffed, built and about ten months away from beating WFLZ for the first time in the ratings, which was quite an accomplishment because it was freaking WFLZ. One of the biggest stations on the planet. Their work done, J&B sailed off to Columbia because they’d heard that radio sucked there.
Launching a station is an Art. Cat Thomas, who I consider one of the greatest Programmers around, was discussing a Hurricane Matthew relief drive and told one of the Cumulus OM’s “You need to commit to it 100%. Go all in or don’t bother doing it at all.” That’s how I feel about press release launches.
You can go to Tampa 18 years later, ask people of a certain age about WiLD 98.7 and the boat on the Gulf, and more people than not will say “Josh and Brian!” That’s a sign of a good promotion.