Radio Life is about stories. It’s about friends and coworkers and rehashing the highs and lows of our careers. And just about everyone has had their own disaster tale, and when someone tells me that “Nope, never had a contest calamity”, I’ll suggest that maybe they’re not trying hard enough.
Great homerun hitters go up to the plate and they swing. And they usually have the most strikeouts on their team but, when they connect, the stands erupt and they’re mobbed at home plate.
This is not one of those moments. This is the kind of experience that, years later, you still kind of get involuntary full-body shivers.
This is….The KDWB Blimp.
“Hold on…I am vomiting in my mouth…give me a minute” – Buck McWilliams, July 2020
It had it all. Mystery. Intrigue. A cast of characters. Prizes. Prizes, I tell you! An attempted hit on one of the principals in the promotion. It just didn’t have a blimp.
“That blimp idea cratered the radio station…there was no blimp! WTF?” – Greg Thunder, July 2020
In the Summer of 1987 I was Promotion Coordinator at Emmis’s CHR in the Twin Cities, WLOL. It was literally and figuratively a monster. The previous winter we’d actually cracked a 10. The station had a legendary morning team with Hines & Berglund, a booming signal, we owned the streets and because it was Emmis, we did BIG promotions.
And like any 10 share station, we had an equally large target on our back.
Across the street, KDWB was trailing us but had made some moves. They’d been purchased from Doubleday, had a very smart PD in Dave Anthony, brought in a very talented morning show from Ohio named Buck and O’Connor and at night they had a local lad who went on to great things around the country, Greg Thunder.
They were aggressive and not afraid to take shots at us.
And this was when a fast-talking, former partner in the Minnesota Vikings sold Carl Hirsch, the station owner, and the GM Kevin Smith on a promotional concept: a blimp. A blimp captained by an explorer and crewed by a Nordic goddess named Aurora and her silent partner, Captain Vague. A blimp that was circling the globe….and coming to the Twin Cities.
When Dave Anthony first was pitched on the promotion, all of his red flags went up. “Needless to say, that despite all my best logic and reasoning, I was outvoted, and the promotion became a reality. I had to scrap my planned ratings promotional campaign because I could no longer afford to do much else due to the large the creative fee the agency charged us. The guy who met with us initially and was the ongoing liaison, but it was obvious radio was not one of his strengths. The ideas of simplicity, on-air clutter reduction, listener benefits, and positively affecting Arbitron diary-keepers all left him with a glazed look. I couldn’t simplify it enough. I’m sure all he was focused on was KDWB paying the invoice for his fabulous idea.”
Across the street, we knew something was coming because the ad agency…WAS DIRECTLY above the station. The KDWB vehicles would pull up out front, a bunch of people would troop into the building, they take the elevator up and whoosh, all of the curtains at Pilot Communications facing into the atrium slid shut.
They got in our heads and never ever left. That was my greatest lesson: stay focused and don’t take your eye off the ball.
“I remember the dinner meeting where they sprung the whole thing on us. O’C and I looked at each other with the ‘this is the end of our careers’ look.” – Buck McWilliams, July 2020.
Our fears soon became a reality when KDWB began running a series of pre-recorded vignettes chronicling a blimp, an explorer named Benjamin Franklin Dover, a blond mythical character named Aurora (an employee of the agency) and “Captain Vague”, their silent colleague.
The blimp was coming and it promised prizes. Lots of prizes. The vignettes began to indicate that the journey from the Southern Hemisphere was winding up and soon…soon…the blimp would arrive in town.
“It was extremely cumbersome, and I always believed in simplicity. My first test for a promotion was could the average listener explain it easily when she heard it on her way to work? On that promotion, no way. Fresh clues were aired daily that required a paragraph of explanation. That was a problem. Recorded promos had to be short. Air talent liners literally had to explain it over the intro of a song. So those were three immediate violations of the wisdom I gained through experience.” – Dave Anthony, July 2020
The station spent close to a million dollars on the concept and the marketing of it and as the blimp headed north and the Ben, Aurora and the Captain encountered adventure and mystery, the vehicles were wrapped with “Blimp Groundcrew” and outdoor promising “It’s coming!” popped up all over the market.
“It’s adult, mature, contemporary morning radio,” said Jon Grossman, the creator of the promotion in a 1987 newspaper interview.
At WLOL? We were shitting. I spent at least two days calling blimp companies around the country: Did they have one that was coming to the Twin Cities? This was pre-internet so when one firm said “No”, I’d ask for maybe another blimp company that I could contact.
Nope. No one would ADMIT to having a blimp traveling to the Twin Cities. What kind of insidious deep state conspiracy were we in? Who had the blimp? I even called the FAA and asked about tracking blimps. I believe that phone call may have forever put my name in the system and kiboshed any possibilities of a Presidential run.
Across the street, Dave Anthony was experiencing angina because he knew the reality and when he hounded the agency about how they were going to deliver with the promise of their premise, he was told, “We’ll figure it out.”
And so came the day. The day the blimp was getting to the Twin Cities. It was a Saturday and WLOL staff around the Twin Cities had their eyes turned towards the skies. Our blimp watching was strong that day, my friend.
On KDWB there was pomp and even some circumstance as the trio, along with their KDWB groundcrew of airstaff and promo team flew into town. Listening, you heard them start to surprise the citizens of the market with prizes and gifts. At WLOL HQ we were manning the phones and watching the sky? “The blimp was in Minnetonka!!! Someone call your sister in Minnetonka and tell us where the blimp is!”
In the early afternoon we got a call on the studio line forwarded to our HQ in the PD’s office. It was a station P1 and she was phoning from her workplace which was some retail outlet on the Highway 12 frontage road near Ridgedale. A fleet of vehicles including a white convertible had swung in, people in capes and goggles had jumped out, run in, and just out of the blue handed her a certificate for a free toaster, and then ran back out and tore off.
We got another similar call 30 minutes later: a caravan of vehicles with people in costume were driving around and giving random people random stuff.
The WLOL Production Director Jon Drew was the first to acknowledge the reality. In his own erudite, thoughtful wordsmith way he declared “There’s no fucking blimp!”.
And he was right. There was no fucking blimp.
All of the theater and drama and buildup had no pay off. There was no fucking blimp.
For the next couple of weeks this continued but the bubble had popped. There was no excitement and perhaps even a small sense of betrayal.
In the paper the GM was quoted as saying that if the blimp fizzled “It will make a premature departure and hopefully take me with it.”
Buck & O’Connor continued with a great career and Chris O’Conner is one of the nicest, best Sales people in Twin Cities Radio.
Dave Anthony later beat WLOL before handing off the reins to Brian Phillips.
Greg Thunder is one of the premiere talents in Radio.
WLOL did get its clock cleaned the next year, it regrouped, fought back in one of the great CHR battles of all time….and then was sold when Emmis decided to buy the Seattle Mariners.
The media agency went bankrupt, the architect of the promotion moved to Florida and was the target of a hitman. I couldn’t make this up.
I fled town myself, went to Charlotte, became a Promotion Director which led to working in San Francisco and this gig, which I’ve held onto with a deaths grip for 28 years.
The following Spring in 1988, a woman from the station who I was dating flew to Florida with me for a cheap vacation and then we were going to drive back a car for a family friend who was a Minnesota Snowbird. We’d checked into our hotel in Boca, threw open the window to get some fresh warm Florida air into the room and were startled to hear a thrumming noise. It got slowly louder and suddenly a shadow swept across the room as the Goodyear blimp flew past. Together we both shouted “It’s the KDWB blimp!”