Friday, August 29, 2008

Slacker Holiday: A Re-post -- How I got 89X Started (OT)


A high school friend who was living out of town when we started 89x asked me to re-post here my "how it started" blog post that's been over at MySpace, written pre-here. So, voila. Enjoy.

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I have long wanted to commit to words the story of how 89X came to life, and was close last fall when my dear friend, Lem Payne, died. I believe that 89X is the last great Detroit radio story. Corporate consolidation and rampant over-paying for signals fostered the decades of no creativity in the industry since Lee Abrams created AOR and Fred Jacobs applied his take to it to create Classic Rock. Yet, the 89X story gives hope that radio (or any medium) can occasionally get it right when the audience's need matches up with the content provider's desperation to get something, anything, right, for a change. (Like ABC a few years ago with "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost.")

The chief reason for my not writing this for so long as been that there are so many threads to the story, I just didn't want to deal with putting them together. It was an awesome experience, but in the end became a bit unfulfilling for me personally. But this thread, and the nice comments that have been posted – even about me! -- have been the tipping point. So here goes.

Though necessary pieces were in place before I got involved, 89X started with me meeting two guys who would become my two partners and co-founders of 89X -- Greg St. James and Lem Payne -- and putting them together. I met Greg sometime in 1988-9 at various local music awards meetings, which I was invited to as a result of my writing for the Metro Times. Greg got invited due to his then doing 10P-2A at WRIF. A recurring theme then of the "Word of Mouth" column I was co-writing with Stewart Francke was the sad state of Detroit radio. In chatting with Greg, who was living in Grosse Pointe Woods (where I grew up), we discussed how things could get better. (By that time I was newly-married to the Lovely Dawna and had moved to Royal Oak.) I did some small legal work for him (I was then, and still am, an attorney in private practice, doing media, business, family and estate planning law), which allowed us to talk radio and brainstorm. Greg mentioned that he had some years before developed a format concept with Mike Halloran, Detroit ex-pat who by that time had achieved great success with 91X in San Diego, but that he'd tossed it into a drawer. Could I help him sell it? I loved the idea, liked Greg, and we started working together. Greg and Mike had called the format concept "8OR," for eighties oriented rock. Essentially, "eight-oh-are" became first-generation alternative (not yet Capital A, proper format name Alternative), the template for 89X, probably closer in spirit to WABX than what the format has evolved into.

Probably around late '89 or early '90, Greg got a call from Al Pervin, who was the GM of what was then "Laser Rock 88.7 FM, CJOM" (I always loved that the guy who founded the chain before CHUM bought them named all his stations "OM" because he was into yoga and TM.) The station did not register in the Detroit ratings -- an asterisk. Fetuses, in theory, were tuning out. So, Al called Greg pitching him the idea of doing a morning show for their format, which we now know as Hot AC, but on CDs! Ooooh! Wow! Greg, having what was essentially a job for life at Riff with Greater Media, was wary of making the "upgrade" to mornings at an unknown station with a sucky format. So, we discussed, he passed. But he countered to Pervin that he would do mornings if they'd flip to the 8OR format that he'd created. That's where the idea for 89X took seed.

Pervin was a Canadian citizen who wanted to make a splash in the CHUM chain and in the market, with an eye (I think) toward becoming a US citizen. Al was a sales guy, but he, too, could see the market that we saw was being under-served, if not flat-out ignored: people who went to college in the eighties. Many college-educated people who were married and buying houses (i.e.like me), and who had watched Clash and DEVO videos for years on MTV, were wondering why they couldn't hear that music on the radio. While Greg and I saw the need, we had to give Al proof which he could show his suits in Toronto. (BTW, CHUM ownership did not view their Windsor stations as "Detroit" stations; they were stations operating in a Windsor-sized market, with the according expectations and goals. As it turns out, those lower expectations probably helped us to sneak in under the radar.)

So, Greg and I had to generate proof for Al and His Suits that there was an advertising market for the station. Enter Lem Payne.

Lem Payne was a lifetime sales guy. I had met him when he sold my mom her Volvo 240 at Seymour Cadillac/Volvo downtown and he recognized my name from the MT column. Lem was a sweet, cool, awesome guy, and I miss him being around. Anyway, I remembered that he had mentioned a work history in media sales. So I called him and asked him if he had any ideas. After getting Lem and Greg together, I came up with the idea of creating non-binding "Letters of Intent" that potential advertisers could sign for us, and we could give to Al. I wrote them up, and Lem hit the bricks, and I think we got about 50 signed copies from agencies and creatives. Meanwhile, Greg and I were trying to convince Al that WXRT in Chicago was a valid market comparison; at that time, the only New Wave stations were (I think) 91X, XRT (which was/is more like ABX), WLIR in NYC, KROQ in LA and (maybe) WHFS in DC. We had to get past the pre-conceived notions that this would work only on the coasts, and that it wouldn't only be listened to by blue-mohawked skateboarders. Let's say this was late 1990/early l991.

After back and forth, we pitched to Al a compromise: a nightly specialty show. Greg had a track record with "Dangerous Xposure" on ABX, so it was salable. We cut a share of the spots, got Greg a base salary, Lem got a sales gig, and I (employed elsewhere) stupidly didn't come along for the day-to-day ride.

So, around Labor Day weekend, 1990, we launched the "The Cutting Edge" as a specialty show; I think it was 10p-2a. For credibility and name recognition, Greg did a nightly phoner with Halloran. I did pre-taped commentary and event listings ("Word of Mouth" and "What's Happening"), and cross--promoted them via my Metro Times connection. We created the purple and orange logo, and Lem, Greg and I kept the merch rights for our new company, The Rialto Group, Ltd., named for the Rialto Café where we'd meet, because its Ferndale location was centralized. I did the merch fulfillment in my basement in Royal Oak. Because of CRTC regs, Rialto, which I oversaw, had to basically act as a sales and operations sub-contractor for the US.

Needless to say, it made a splash. The music was new, fresh, multi-racial (yes, we played Prince!), not just current hits (yes, we played the Kinks!), and local (yes, we played See Dick Run!). It was entrepreneurial, with Greg taking such a chance leaving Riff. It was exotic, the first cross-border cultural phenomenon of its type since CKLW. Because of the CRTC, there were all sorts of disclaimers involved in the advertising, especially with rock radio's life blood, beer, so it was noticeable.

In short order, the show was expanded to (something like) 9p-3a, then 8p-2a, then 8p-6a, then, I think by 1991, it was 6p-6a. It was what we had planned as our Trojan Horse Plan: once we were in, it was going to be rough to kick us out, as both ratings and revenues were increasing. Also, we knew the other rock stations (WLLZ, Riff, who else then?) were so narrowly programmed that if they countered us, they'd alienate their core and lose them to the other rock stations.

Among those there at the very start: Greg Gnyp and Dave Deroches came over as interns from CJAM. Kelly Brown came over as an intern straight from Specs, (I think) via Riff. When I tired of doing the "What's Happening" feature, I passed it on to Kelly, and am proud that that was her first on-air presence.

The two-stations-in-one thing wasn't going to work, obviously, so the Trojan Horse finally opened up on the Friday before Memorial Day, 1991, when 88.7 became 89X. We re-did the logo with the tear in the middle, as "the cutting edge." We wanted the rectangle to be as recognizable as the Riff oval, and the chubbier oval that Halloran used at 91X, which they would then put band names on. The stunt was, I recall, 24 hours of "Stairway to Heaven." As it says elsewhere online, the first song was the Chili Peppers' "Stop." Also in that first set: "We Want the Airwaves," by the Ramones and "Radio Radio" by Elvis C. I have a cassette of the flip somewhere.

From there, Greg became PD and did the morning show. Lem started selling. Scott Brown came over from Riff to do amazing guerilla promotions, along with ace sales guy Jim Edelman. Darren Revell continued doing a shift he'd gotten in the special show expansion, and also continued with the inherited Michelle Denomme. Greg adopted Vince Canova from Halloran's tutelage in San Diego. Greg found John O'Leary and brought him back for afternoon drive, to get that ABX heritage vibe. Caeri Bertrand got a shift. Gnyp and D-Man would do weekends and fill-ins. Paul Sevigny was a listener and computer guy who just called up one day, and ended up coming over to build awesome programs for programming and sales. I did phoners on the morning show and continued lawyering in another, unrelated job, and overseeing Rialto. In the second wave of evening show interns was Vertical, who Greg put on as his voice guy on the morning show after the full-time flip. Geez, Vert was straight out of Specs -- he did a great job in a hard gig, and is an awesome guy who's done well.

There are so many little stories that don't fit chronologically, but which I love remembering:

> My best memory is the first Lollapalooza in summer of 1991. Being sort of like the Kurt Loder of the station, I was all prepped to do the interviews. But O'Leary did the first one, with Living Color, who he asked, "So, doooods, this show was all your idea, right?" Oy. (No, that would be Perry Farrell.) So when John got up, I took his seat and stayed there, doing the rest of the remotes, including Trent Reznor and Ice-T. Those pics are in my office. An awesome, crystallizing day; I knew we were doing something that wasn't disappearing anytime soon.

> Before launching the specialty show, we all raided our CD collections to build the library. We sat on the floor of the Cabana Road studio/chalet/dump Memorial Day weekend, and put stickers on the front to ID whose was whose, to get them back when the label service (hopefully) kicked in. "Hey, kids, let's put on a show radio station!"

> Greg and I diagrammed the first clock in my kitchen in Royal Oak, on a speaker phone with Halloran.

> The outstanding production we got from another Halloran protégé, Tattoo. "This is the Cutting Edge. Who the hell are you?" "What this town needs is an enema." The voice we used was an American living in London named Quasar, and the station still uses his "89X" in some of their positioners.

> The three of us arguing over who would go onto the New Wave band list as the background for our first full page MT ad, "Take Back the Radio." I still have some of those posters. Ebay, anybody?

> Me ghosting the "Top 10" lists copy for the MT ads, which were mostly occasionally funny.

> Me going to the law library at the University of Windsor to give Pervin free legal advice on how to deal with the CRTC, before he approached The Suits in Toronto.

> The first Detroit sales office was in my father-in-law's office -- he's an architect. So, my extended family made a few bucks, though the office activity was far more than he bargained for -- what was supposed to be just the sales office also became the prize pickup office, even when he was the only one there – Scott and Jim were out on the road. (His tolerance was awesome.) The US sales office remains in that building.

> Seeing the first Cutting Edge sticker on a car, on Main St in RO, a few blocks from our house, and honking and waving at the guy, and feeling very proud.

> My wife's favorite story is that one morning, I'm doing the phoner, our landline was out, and I was out in her car, with her big bag of primative cell phone, doing the call in my robe.

So, after the flip, the new 89X went from an asterisk to a 2.2 in 18 months. Our TSL was 13 hours. Yes, 13 hours. For various reasons, the two-year consulting/sales agreement we signed wasn't renewed by Pervin, which is always a risk when consulting stations, which we basically were doing. "Thanks for showing us how, we'll take it from here." Also, egos, personalities, turf and money kicked in. I always thought Rialto could leverage 89X into a consultancy, to catch the next wave of New Wave flips that Jacobs hadn't yet caught. But Lem was content selling 89X, and Greg got involved with a group that bought the Edge in Lansing. Me, I have continued lawyering, wrote for MT until 1995, did some stuff with Channel 56, would love to do more on-air, and have some awesome stories. And my 12-year-old daughter thinks I'm a musical loser.

After we were relieved, 89X went adrift in so many ways. I felt like wolves had stolen my baby and raised it in the wild. Michelle Denomme became PD, which was I thought was brutal -- she was young, in over her head, but someone who had always been a loyal CHUM employee. They went Alt Chick, Alt Grunge, Alt Thrash, everything other than just being good music. Remember the Mike Harrison morning show? A great guy, but Detroiters like Detroiters on the air, not out of towners, and especially not from another continent. Wayne Stafford became GM after Pervin . . . yikes. They alienated their core so much that the Edge came to town -- remember them? Why Greater Media thought it was worth trying to either blow out 89X, or split their three or four shares, I never understood. The Edge bailed, and I'm gratified and proud that 89X is now a heritage station in the market. That only came into focus, though, IMHO, in the last 5 or so years, when, despite Murray, they started listening to their jocks and sales people -- all true believers in the music.

I still consider everyone CHUM in Windsor and the Detroit friends, even if we rarely see each other. Eric Proksch was a sales guy when we first got there, and he was the first salesperson after Pervin who "got it." Eric is now GM of the Windsor group, which expanded to four stations. I only ever helped raise their ratings and make 'em gobs of money. I'd love to help them out again someday, on any of their stations, but who knows?

I don't know why this has taken this long to write. I've feared that I'll forget something. Maybe because there might be disagreements about some factoid or an opinion of mine. Geez, I get enough of that lawyering in my day job, and from my kids. I have even been called out by people for telling this story, because the "Start of 89X" story they first heard from someone else didn't include my name, and they thought I was being a self-promoting hanger-on.

I'm proud of my contributions to the 89X story, and am gratified that so many of you have fond memories of something that we all loved doing, some more than others, and some for longer than others. For me, though, it's an old radio story, and I need a new radio story. (Anybody need a talk show host? Or a lawyer, even?) This story and four bucks gets me a Venti Mocha, y'know? Razz

I, however, made some wonderful friends, many who I have to this day. I got to do things that a music-loving, lawyer by training really had no business doing in a Top Ten market, especially in such a DIY fashion. I'm proud that so many broadcasting, sales and ad careers were launched and/or boosted, and so many good memories were created, both behind the mic and in front of the radio speaker. I never got to be Fred Jacobs, Jr. or Larry King, Jr. (yet), but this was a great part of a life I would never trade with anybody. I honestly believe that none of the radio memories would have happened, nor many millions of dollars of sales generated, nor careers enhanced and salaries paid, without my contributions. Too, I love Detroit and its awesome broadcasting history, and I'm thrilled to be a footnote in it.

Please feel free to stop by at my MySpace. You should also go say hi and thanks to Jim and Scott for their amazing 89X contributions when they're playing in their outstanding band, Free Beer. They have their own great stories, too. Check out FreeBeerNet


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Finally, check out our one and only commercial from the beginning, which aired only once, on a weekday afternoon.

1 comment:

Warren said...

Hi Lex:

There's a lot more to The Birth of 89X that you don't know.....and there is no reason why you should have known. Much of The Rest of The Story was going on in Toronto and New York.

It culminated in August of 1994, eight months after I moved to Windsor, when the station grew 1.7-3.3

Cheers
WC