10 Questions with ... Curtiss Johnson
September 9, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
- KPRI/San Diego; 1978-1980
- KZAP/Sacramento; 1980-1982
- KUPD-KUKQ/Phoenix; 1982-1995
- KRXQ-KSEG-KWOD/Sacramento; 1995-2013
- WDRV/Chicago; currently
1) What was your first job in radio? Who were your early influences and mentors?
Fresh out of school I interned at KPRI (AOR) in San Diego for Les Tracy and Jesse Bullet. I lived at the station until they had no choice but to hire me! I worked as a promotions assistant, production director, then on-air on weekends, eventually doing weekday nights, all in pretty quick order. Along with Les and Jesse, Ernesto Gladden had a profound effect on my career. Ern was the perfect amalgam of old school, Bill Drake Top 40, early FM Underground Rock and Abrams Superstars AOR. The guy was a bit of a genius in a mad scientist sort of way. I learned a tremendous amount from him. His schooling was a perfect blend of the art and science, methodical mechanics and formatics, yet never being afraid to take risks and be adventurous. Ernesto taught me that great radio stations were living things with a heart and a soul.
2) Congratulations on your new position as the PD of WDRV (The Drive). Before we talk about the station, you were "on the beach" for about a year before this job came about. What kind of perspective did you gain from listening to radio as a consumer that will help you in programming The Drive now?
It was 10 months to the day from leaving Entercom to walking into the Hancock Center. This was my first stint being unemployed in my 30-plus year career. It taught me a lot personally and professionally. Personally, I cherished the time with my young son and my wife, Amy. Professionally, it confirmed I am a radio/media guy, period. No matter how much the business has changed over the years, good and bad, I love what I do. Secondly it gave me a much greater perspective and vision on our business and the industry at large. When you're in the trenches daily running radio stations, you can't help but develop a little myopia to your market and stations. In those "lost" months, I studied a dozen different markets -- listening, analyzing media monitors and studying social media. I consulted a few stations and composed a dozen different strategic analyses for job ops. I sat across the desks and spent hours on the phone talking with CEOs, VPs, RVPs, Market Managers, consultants, PDs and air talent. Greg Solk and Hubbard hired a much more mature and broad strategic thinker.
3) Give us your take on the health of WDRV right now. What are its strengths and challenges as you move forward in the PD chair?
The Drive is in a great place. The station is the #1 male 25-54 station in the market and top five or six adults 25-54. It is a brand in transition, like many Classic Rock stations these days. We are striving to redefine what it means to be a great Rock/Classic Rock station for this age. It's not all that different today from yesterday's format defining stations. The music has evolved. We have more competition across many platforms. Yet essentially the job hasn't changed. Great radio brands have a passionate bond and connection with their audience and the cities they are in. The really great ones over the years have been the epicenter for a lifestyle.
4) Chicago is an extremely competitive Rock market. Who are your main competitors in the market and how would you access their strengths and weaknesses?
Chicago is a legendary Rock radio market and there are some great heritage brands here. However, we don't just consider terrestrial radio stations with a Chicagoland address competition. There are too many choices for consumers to get some form of rock or classic rock music. PPM and consolidation have homogenized playlists to where there may be only subtle shades in difference between stations and similar formats. The old adage "what you do between the records" is now more important than it's ever been. The Drive has always been a unique radio station, not just in Chicago but nationally as well. It marches to its own drum beat. Its music mix is unique. Its imaging is vivid and like no other. The personalities are marvelous storytellers. If you tune into this station in very short order, you know it could originate from nowhere else but Chicago. While I do keep very close tabs on the competition, I've always believed in running my own race. Hyper-focused on our audience. Put the best product on the air at every moment and far more often than not you come out on top.
5) The Drive is a very unique radio station with some incredibly talented Chicago Rock radio veterans on the air. Being the "new guy" in the programming chair, how has this programming transition been working out so far with you and the staff?
I have to say walking into the station was a little daunting. You're right, this is an incredibly talented staff, full of people who I've listened to and admired for years. Any trepidation I had melted away pretty quickly. There was none of the ego you might expect in a station as prominent and successful as this. The only ego I've seen is the ones that allow you to do your job well and with pride. The staff has been nothing but open and accepting. It felt like home pretty quickly. It helped that the company gave me such a strong build-up internally, but essentially Greg Solk has assembled a team of people who are not only some of the best in the business, but also good people. Most of the staff has been here for many years, if not from the launch of the brand. That speaks to the chemistry in the halls.
6) You've had a long and successful career programming Active, Alternative and now Classic Rock. What's your take on all three of these genres and the Rock format as a whole?
Wow, that question is a year's worth of articles in All Access in the making! There are a million angles that could be taken here. Quickly, I think Alt is in a good place. It has to wrestle with the challenge of a large wave of good creative music and what position to take as other formats use it as a laboratory to grow their future hits. Active Rock is a niche format in 2014. If you hope for success in the format, you better have some very compelling personalities on-air who allow the music to be a side dish of the total station experience. Classic Rock is in transition, redefining what music is thought of as Classic Rock. The '60s and early '70s titles the format was built on originally are disappearing as the format chases the advertising sweet spot. Hopefully as a Classic Rock PD or owner you have a strong brand and have been excepting of the transition and implemented a growing library of '80s and '90s titles. If done methodically and intelligently, the format has every possibility of remaining a "big tent" format for another decade.
7) One of the programming challenges of the Classic Rock format has always been how do you keep the station sounding fresh and relevant while it's playing Rock music that's sometimes 30 or 40 years old. Your thoughts?
Music is the magnet, the reason to congregate with your station, but the audience wants to feel companionship and a sense of community as well. It's a primary complaint I hear in perceptual studies regarding pure plays, many satellite music channels and even terrestrial stations where the format has been phoned in. The Drive and its personalities have been marvelous music curators. For 13 years, the music and its artists have been brought vividly to life. The city you live in and serve has to get the same treatment. The cultural touchstones germane to your target audience must be related to. As you do all those things hopefully you've made your listeners feel something. There is the win.
8) How interactive is WDRV with its audience via your web site or Social Media like Facebook and Twitter?
Hubbard Radio/Chicago has an excellent digital team. The Drive's website is highly visited and one of the best in class in my opinion and always being improved. Our social media efforts haven't been a major focus of the station, but that is changing with our new Social Media Director, Chris Petlak and long-term Direct Marketing Manager, Paul Webber. They've been great to work with and new plans are being developed and implemented.
9) What is the future of the Classic Rock format in the next five to 10 years?
See my answers to questions 6 and 7!
10) Finally, I know that you're originally from the West Coast. How long will it take you to become a Chicago sports fan?
Chicago is a sports-crazy town. Far more passionate than any other cities I've lived in. I'll still love my California teams ... and one Wisconsin team, but it's hard not to get caught up in the vibe here. I already owned a Bears jersey before I even hit town, thanks to a good friend, who is a transplanted Chicagoan. Being a native San Diegan, I must admit I'm not sure what this hockey thing is. The natives here seem to worship this team called the Blackhawks!
What do you like to do to relax when you're not in "radio" mode?
My world revolves around my five-year-old son, Dylan and my wife, Amy. It will be so much fun exploring all that this world-class city has to offer together. But when I'm really able to unplug I love to play guitar, go for a good run or bike ride, but mostly enjoy the company of good friends.
You're stuck on a deserted island and you only have five CDs with you. What are they?
This list may vary weekly, but if the plane goes down next week, I would have to have Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood, Live at Madison Square Garden; Gary Clark Jr., Blak & Blu; Gary Alan's Greatest Hits; Led Zeppelin ... can I have the Live DVD, with the Knebworth, Madison Square Garden and Royal Albert Halls shows? (Come on!!!) Lastly let me have the new JJ Cale tribute disc, The Breeze, from Clapton, Mark Knopfler and friends. Loved JJ Cale; his music always took me somewhere else. I'll miss him.