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Interview with Radio Consultant John Sebastian

by Alex Cosper

Conducted June 22, 2015 on Facebook

Ladies and gentlemen, with me today from Scottsdale, Arizona is one of the most successful radio executives in history at turning distressed radio stations into winners. John Sebastian has been a radio consultant and programmer for various major market stations. He's worked in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Washington DC, Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis and Phoenix. John, thanks for joining me to talk about your amazing radio career.

John: It's my pleasure, Alex!

Alex: You are very well known in the radio world because of turning stations into big winners. First of all, tell us why your programming was so different from the rest of the industry.

John: I think it was because I always looked at the particular radio music format I was doing and asked, "why not?" Why can't we do something out of the box, out of the norm?

Alex: And so you were a rebel who broke the rules, right?

John: Yes, and proud of it!

Alex: You've worked for so many stations it would be hard to cover your whole career in one interview, so we'll cover some highlights. First, let's start with how you got into radio. When did it all begin?

John: It's sort of an unusual story, a bit long so bear with me. My dad raised me to be the president, I'm not kidding. But I wanted to be a professional basketball player. We compromised. The plan was for me to go to law school at University of Oregon and play basketball for the Ducks. But in my senior year of high school I broke my back, forever dismantling my basketball career. In a fit of depression over this, I decided to chuck all the plans .. and become a Disc Jockey! 1968 was the year. When Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, that really took me over the edge.

Alex: Where did you get your first programming gig?

John: My first programming job was back where I started in radio in Portland at KPAM-FM, a Top 40 station. Our big claim to fame was beating the legendary Top 40 station KISN, the first FM to do so.

Alex: You went on to Minneapolis. What prompted you to take a radio job that far away from Portland, where you obviously made some big waves?

John: I spent time at KRUX and KRIZ in Phoenix right before KDWB in The Twin Cities. My GM at KRIZ had just taken over in Minneapolis and it was a shot at a much bigger market with a General Manager who I admired and consider one of my greatest mentors. We had tremendous success there beating a whole array of competition every rating period.

John: I neglected to mention my GM at KDWB was Gary Stevens!

Alex: KDWB is a legendary station where later on my original radio mentor Ed Lambert worked with Brian Phillips. Would you consider Minneapolis to be ahead of the times in some ways?

John: A great market with many legendary DJs, Programmers and Managers having called it home. Yes, a very competitive market with talent as good as markets much bigger in size.

Alex: Yet you went on to even bigger markets. Tell us about your arrival to Los Angeles in 1978.

John: I was awestruck, still in my twenties and working for the radio station I had dreamed about working my whole career. The Real Don Steele is my favorite DJ of all time. Robert W. Morgan, Charlie Tuna, Humble Harve, etc. And what a fun place to program a great radio station. I learned so much there, not to mention really came to understand the allure of FM rock radio, listening to KMET and KLOS!

Alex: KHJ in Los Angeles is one of the most legendary stations in history. What did you bring to the table at an already high profile successful station?

John: Before that at KDWB I had played some pretty out of the box songs for a Top 40 station but out of necessity at KHJ, with FM taking over from AM in a big way, at that juncture, we played a very unusual mix of music to attempt to compete with the legendary AOR stations there. We actually played "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin as a current song! It was the very beginning of some of my thoughts that went into creating "kick-ass rock and roll!"

Alex: The fact that you played "Kashmir," which was never even a single on the top 40, yet a big album rock track, says a lot. How were you able to convince the station to take that direction? And to what degree did KHJ mirror the national charts at that time?

John: We were using Call-out research extensively so our playlist didn't necessarily reflect the timing and exactness of the charts. And management at RKO, to their credit, let this kid do my thing .. until they didn't anymore.

Alex: For some people in radio LA is where the road ends. Yet your career got even more successful when you moved to Boston to program rock station WCOZ. Tell us how you tripled the ratings and knocked legendary WBCN "off its rocker."

John: Well, before there was WCOZ I was at KUPD in Phoenix for a very short time. But long enough to move the station from Top 40 to AOR. It's the first place we used the term Kick Ass Rock and Roll. I was formulating the hybrid format I had conceived in my head marrying the best vestiges of AOR and CHR/Top 40. It worked immediately beating the very strong Top 40 KOPA and the legendary AOR station, KDKB first rating book. That attracted the attention of WCOZ. How did we turnaround the fortunes of that station that was traditionally second fiddle to WBCN? By playing a great list of Classics from the 60s and 70s and a select few currents. We were highly researched too. And we had legendary DJs like Steven Clean, Andy Beaubien, Tom Doyle and other greats. We had a completely unique idea that had never been done before and perhaps most importantly we had the 100% backing of management! What we did there, rising in the ratings from a 4 share to a 12.6 was the precursor to Classic Rock today. In fact, our researched top ten way back then is the exact same top ten on Classic Rock stations today!

Alex: Just a goofy question, but did anyone in the music biz ever confuse you with the singer John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful?

John: All the time .. they still do.

Alex: That's hilarious. So getting back to WCOZ, tell us how that led to you becoming a national radio consultant.

John: I think it would be safe to say the success shocked the radio industry and immediately people started suggesting I should take this concept on the road as a consultant. It was overwhelming response. I moved back to Scottsdale, formed the company and at our peak had 25 clients across the country from LA, to Chicago, DC, Boston, Houston, Seattle, Portland, etc, etc. At the time we had more Major Market Clients than any other consultant.

Alex: And that brought you back to LA. Tell us what happened with the legendary KMET, the station that Jim Ladd wrote about in his book Radio Waves.

John: It was a long road back to LA and The Wave. In the mid 80s I heard in my ear and my mind's eye a new sound. For awhile I called it EOR, Eclectic Oriented Rock. It also was sort of a hybrid of what today you'd call AAA and what for a time was the New Age/Smooth Jazz format. Eventually, WBMW in DC hired me to do this concept but shortly thereafter I was hired to come to KTWV. A year earlier the station had switched off the legendary and beloved KMET for this new kind of mostly instrumental music. And before I arrived there were no DJs and from my way of thinking no real format structure. I hired all the original announcers for The Wave, several of whom stayed for many years, a couple are still there! I gave the station some radio structure and I think most importantly I added my own vision of what this station could be, borrowing from my EOR idea to some extent. My version had an edge to it while maintaining the serenity of the vibe of the station. We actually were #1 25-54 MEN one book! We played some eclectic vocals but mostly New Age and World music along with smooth jazz. It was a very cool sound.

Alex: Would you say The Wave was one of the first smooth jazz stations in the country?

John: Certainly the most famous one.

Alex: As a rule breaker, how did you balance your gut and love for music with radio programming structure? How did you decide the music you played?

John: A lot of people think of me as a programmer enslaved to research because I was one of the early advocates. But I use research very differently than many. I use my musical gut to pick music and then use research to substantiate my instincts. Over the years the research helped to educate my gut so I have a pretty good track record of ascertaining what will test well and what won't.

Alex: After all that success in top 40, rock and eclectic radio, explain how in the 90s you entered a partnership to become a radio owner.

John: While in LA at The Wave I met a couple gentlemen who were fans of the genre. They wanted to buy a station in Santa Fe/Albuquerque. I helped them do that, then moved there to manage the station. We did a similar format to the one I created at The Wave. It was a beautiful experience.

Alex: In the 90s didn't you also wind up in Phoenix again?

John: Yes, after KLSK in New Mexico I came back to Phoenix yet again to program KSLX, a Classic Rock station that had fallen on hard times. We took the station from 14th place to 1st 25-54 in short order! It was one of my favorite radio experiences. Dave Pugh was the manager and we clicked from day one.

Alex: Everyone in radio knows what the Telecom Act of 1996 did. It allowed big biz to buy out tons of mom n' pop stations. What's your opinion on its effect on what had been until then a very localized industry?

John: It's made a few people very rich but it destroyed the radio we used to know. Before that "Act" radio owners were real radio people. They loved radio. That's why they owned a station or a few stations. Yes, they wanted to make a good profit but first priority was to create great radio stations. Since then, you have big corporations that overpaid for their stations, in their greed to gobble up as many of them as possible, resulting in their inability to afford to run them creatively. Now with huge cuts in personnel, not to mention creativity, radio is a shell of what it once was.

Alex: On top of that, the big chains are now billions in debt. Seems ridiculous that the most unsuccessful people get to control the radio industry now. Yet you've been one of the most successful people. Meanwhile, you kept on going. Tell us how you went back to LA to radically reorganize country station KZLA and make it a more creative country/rock format.

John: I was hired to turnaround the fortunes of KZLA, back in LA again for my third major station in three different decades. I believe I'm the only program director to have done that. I had never programmed country before and that's why they wanted me. LA wasn't then and still isn't a big country market. My challenge was to find a new way to do country to expand the potential of the format and that's just what we did. We were very selective about "twangy" country songs and added country rock like The Eagles, Bob Seger and others to the playlist. Songs that had the lyrics and the vibe of country music. We gained in cume from 492,000 to 735,000 becoming the #1 country station in the nation! And it began my affair with country radio.

Alex: You parlayed that knowledge into country stations in Kentucky and Nashville. But you also got back into rock programming at the legendary KISW in Seattle. Tell us what happened there.

John: Before moving to Lexington and then Nashville and later Dallas doing country I took a side trip back to my roots in rock at another legendary station KISW in Seattle. Loved it there. I'm originally from the Northwest in Portland Oregon. It was a short stint but during my time there we rose from 18th to 3rd 25-54 .. and then 9/11 hit. This horrendous event put a halt to our momentum and to my time in Seattle.

Alex: I'm curious if your creative and unconventional radio programming at any of these well known stations led to developing regional artists who went on to gain national airplay.

John: During my rock consulting days there were a number of regional acts that made their way to the national stage, Shooting Star and Zebra are two that come to mind.

Alex: You were in so many big markets, influencing millions of listeners. How about your time in Chicago?

John: I LOVE Chicago. Doing the Jack format was so much fun and did fit my "twisted" view of what's possible to play on the radio. But KPLX, The Wolf in Dallas came calling and I couldn't resist doing country again.

Alex: I know you've got a lot to be proud of, but where do you think you made your biggest mark in radio?

John: That's so hard to say, liken it to which one of your children is your favorite. I'll give you two: What we did at WCOZ in Boston definitely changed AOR and Top 40 for years after. And our success at KZLA, WLXX in Lexington, WSM-FM Nashville and The Wolf in Dallas has influenced at least in some small way the current state of country music. If you have been to a Keith Urban or Kenny Chesney concert, it's a rock concert. Today's country radio and music is much more mass appeal than ever before, very much like the rock of the 70s and early 80s.

Alex: You're now doing voiceover work, which is what a lot of radio pros do because it's decent money and it's a pretty fun way to still be involved with the media. Tell us about your voiceover work.

John: I love using my voice again after all these years. It's challenging and unbelievably competitive. It seems almost every radio pro not involved in radio day to day any longer is doing it .. AND so many of the top actors in Hollywood are taking a big piece of the pie too. It's a satisfying vocation for me but would I program another radio station, under the right conditions? YES!

Alex: As far as personality, what's your philosophy on how jocks should sound on the air?

John: I like the personalities I've worked with to sound prepared, knowledgeable about the music, friendly warm, witty and REAL! I always coached them to get away from the almost cartoon character sound of a lot of DJs. And, please no what I call "Happy Talk," that mindless BS that listeners hate.

Alex: I shared the same view when I programmed KWOD/Sacramento in the 90s. John, what's your take on the future of radio? Can it ever be great again the way it was last century or is dull cookie cutter corporate radio here to stay?

John: I'm holding out hope for radio, Alex, but it'll have to change radically, perhaps to some new technology we don't even envision yet, to have a chance to survive this new world we live in.

Alex: John, thanks for taking the time to share memories and perspectives on your incredibly successful radio career that the industry needs to never forget. What are your closing thoughts?

John: This interview has invigorated me, Alex. Thanks for testing my mental acuity and memories. It felt really good. Thanks again!

Alex: You're welcome, John. This interview now appears on this page for the world to share ..

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