And Steve Dahl Never Apologized: Disco Demolition
February 3, 2015
Everything I know about radio promotions, I learned as a fan of baseball on July 12, 1979.
While I grew up a Cubs' fan, it was the promotion at Comiskey Park, home of the other team, the Chicago White Sox, that would forever teach me that with radio promotions, there are no limits.
Every great story has an arch nemesis, and in this real story line, Steve Dahl, the morning talent at Chicago's WLUP, created that villain out of the woes of his last job opportunity: Being fired from WLS-FM, then WDAI, which left the Rock format for the "flavor of the month," Disco, becoming DISCO DAI.
"Disco Sucks," became the mantra, and it would take a simple promotion at a baseball stadium to see if it was sticky or not.
Don't Be A Duck, A Disco Duck
The idea was simple enough. Bring a disco record to the double header at Comiskey Park, and get in for 98 cents, to coincide with WLUP's dial position. In between games, all the records would be piled up in center field, then blown up to put an "end to disco, once and for all."
It was sticky all right. The White Sox did something they hadn't done in awhile; sold every last seat and SRO was packed to capacity, forcing security to have to begin turning people away, in spite of the circular piece of vinyl in their hands and the chump change in their pockets.
The White Sox were putting about 20,000 butts in the seat each game, until this night, when over 50,000 showed up to gain entry.
This is when the power of the promotion began to elevate to heights that a promotions director, who was Dave Logan at the time, couldn't plan for, but was wise enough to leave room for; the element of surprise.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Ballpark
If these were baseball fans, they'd have taken their records and went home, but instead, from the inside of the stadium, THESE people were extending arms and limbs and clothing for the people on the outside to climb up the walls of Comiskey and into the ballpark; no purchase necessary.
Game one had ended. It was time. Dahl was to blow up some records, go home, then game two. And it went down in that order, except Dahl, who showed up in a military helmet decorated in fatigue, did his thing, declared disco to be dead, and BLAMMO!
Successful promotion. The end.
Oh, but wait. Nobody told the crowd to come on the field after the explosion, but by the thousands they did, and when they were done, center field had divots and the pitcher's mound had some rips and tears, and the umpires declared that because of the damage to the field, game two would have to be cancelled.
Steve Dahl And The Cross They Tried To Nail Him On
Steve Dahl, who had only been in Chicago for 18 months at this time, was blamed for the damage, the chaos, the cancelled game, and the forfeit, which the White Sox would eventually have to do.
But, all he did was put butts in the seats, and the other thing he did was to "get his name out there," in an organic way.
He became known by those who listened or not, but when it came to Arbitron's diary system to measure ratings, one thing was for sure; Chicago had a new leading man.
How important is Steve Dahl to our Industry?
According to Wikipedia, which is chock full of truths, and nothing but...
According to Paul D. Colford, a former writer for Long Island Newsday, Howard Stern listened to tapes of Steve and Garry sent from Chicago by a friend of the chief engineer at WCCC Hartford. Colford claims Stern eventually developed his on-air style as a result of these tapes. Later, Stern was hired at WWWW Detroit (which Dahl had left when he moved to Chicago).
Regardless of the questionable outcome of Disco Demolition, with the arrests, the chaos, the interruption to the game of baseball; thirty five years later, if we could put a grade on each promotion, this one would be an A+, and those who pulled it off from inside the radio station should have been given good raises.
Payday; First A Boardgame, Then A Candy
I'm sure they were...eventually, as Steve Dahl only kept growing.
The promotion had all of the right elements. It had a home, where people already congregated. It was an event that was already established. (Go to where the people are.)
Often, promotions fail because we ask people to show up to a place they've never heard of, or it didn't have an established base.
Passion breeds passion. The White Sox, even in their worst years, have rabid fans. In 1979, music really was in a state of transition, and the divide among music tastes was vast and obvious; and this promotion appealed to a portion of people who would go down swinging for their favorite bands.
It had an incentive. Even if I don't love baseball and don't want to pay five bucks to get in the game; for 98 cents, you just made it potentially worth my while, and oh yeah, it gives me a reason to dispose of some album titles in my record collection that I didn't realize were uncool until Steve Dahl told me they were.
Who Needs Groupon When You Got Dahl?
If I loved baseball and I loved disco, then 98 cents would be cheap enough to go through my collection of vinyl and choose a record as if I had to choose which child I loved least.
Disco Demolition was timely. It was cool. Even if the White Sox never blew up the records in center field, the promotion was a success, because people got to be a part of something cool.
Boy, did they ever.
And then, finally, they left room for the mystery of what could happen if things went wrong. I remember when the Power Pig dropped a Toyota from the sky and as it was careening towards earth; I could feel the danger of what could happen if someone JUST HAPPENED to step out of the stands.
No one did, but what if...
Disco didn't die when Steve Dahl took his antics to the airwaves and then to Comiskey Park, but it did need to be put on a ventilator after that; and eventually they had to pull the plug.
He Didn't Kill It, But He Turned It Upside Down
On September 6, 1980, a year and two months after Disco Demolition, the number one song on the Billboard charts was Upside Down from Diana Ross. So, while not dead, and while down for the count, Disco was able to pull in some pretty heavy gasps of air.
And I'd be lying if I said "I didn't like that song at that time."
Don't tell my friends from high school! Good news for me, I didn't have any.