Here are some impressive stats: the New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings now hold the longest current streak of consecutive winning seasons – 17. That’s longer than any team in any professional sport, but the Yankees hold the all-time record of 39 seasons, set from 1926-64.
That’s not to take anything away from what the Devils and Red Wings have accomplished. Given that the only reference I have for the Devils is Puddy’s fanaticism for the team on Seinfeld, and I live in Detroit, this blog’s focus is on the Wings – and some of their equivalents in radio.
There are commonalities with teams that have been consistent winners – not just for a decade – but for more like twenty years and running. In radio, only a few come to mind – KGO, WDVE, WRIF, 97Rock and KQRS. (I know I’m leaving many out, so please forgive the omissions.)
I have been fortunate enough to be associated with some of these stations over the years, but our company has worked with KQRS since the mid-‘80s, and can tell you something about how they’ve done it. Dave Hamilton is one of the finest PDs in the country, but he has always preferred a low profile. So with apologies to him for exposing some of his truly great qualities, let’s take a look under the hood.
Great talent – No franchise can win over the long haul without true pros, and the Red Wings have proven that. KQ has also benefited from some incredibly gifted people, on and off the air. But it goes beyond scouting and attracting good talent. As the Wings have proven, you not only have to find them and create a winning environment – you have to keep them happy and continue to re-sign them. That’s how the Wings have retained great players over the years, while enticing talented skaters from other teams like Marion Hossa to sign on for less money that they would have earned elsewhere.
In KQ’s case, Tom Barnard and his great team (on the air and behind-the-scenes) have been the morning show of record in the Twin Cities for more than two decades. Other players like Terry Traen, Mike Gelfand, and Jeff Passolt, and Bob Sansevere on the show, as well as veteran Wally Walker (who has been doing middays since the Reagan Administration) add to the stability. Dave Hamilton and the various management teams at KQRS have created an atmosphere that has kept the gang together – a key to their continued success.
Stable management – Look at any station (or team) that’s been a long-time success and the chances are great that there has been the same group of core managers in place throughout the streak. At KGO, Mickey Luckoff has been a constant; at DVE, it’s been Gene Romano; at 97Rock, it's John Hager. And of course, at KQ, it’s Hamilton.
I would also argue that it’s a plus when management is local. That’s been a key for the Red Wings, as local pizza magnate Mike Ilitch is the owner. He’s a Detroiter who truly “gets” the community. At his side, has been Jimmy Devallano and Ken Holland, a triumvirate that works. (Now Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman has been added to the mix.)
Hamilton grew up in Minneapolis, and knows it like no other. As competitors have tried their best to knock KQ off its throne, their “out-of-townness” has frequently been an impediment. Dave simply knows the market, the people, the Twin Cities vibe, and where the bodies are buried. He has traditionally nurtured a core of great assistants and managers from Wade Linder to Reed Endersbe to Bryce Crousore, as well as others too numerous to mention. Dave is a mentor, who has a system that works, and he is willing to teach it to others.
Internal loyalty – In order to overcome all the changes that occur in sports, there has to be a sense of team loyalty. That’s been a big part of the Red Wings’ success, and it’s the same at KGO, DVE, and KQ. While these stations have been bought and sold over the years – just like yours has – they have developed staffs that think “call letters first.” That’s not disloyalty to ownership. In fact, it’s that consistency and commitment that have made these stations valuable in the first place.
I’ve watched KQ go from a family-run business owned by a couple of lawyers, through Cap Cities/ABC to Disney/ABC and now to Citadel. And yet, the same systems, philosophies, and values are still very much in place. It’s the same station, with different logos on the stationery.
Great branding – The Red Wings aren’t just a hockey team in Detroit – they have become a national team that is headquartered in “Hockeytown.” That brand is something that was created within the last decade, and it has become a league standard. You mention “Hockeytown” to any fan of the game, and they instantly think the Red Wings/Detroit.
The same is true for these great stations. How many Minnesotans can simply see those cartoon letters – KQ – in their sleep? It’s not just because of consistency, but in the way the station and the companies that have owned it have supported KQ with marketing. Anyone who has ever attended a Conclave has noticed that it seems like every bus carries the KQ logo around town.
Tough times – Every great brand is tested, whether it’s because of competition, staff turnover, or those unforeseen controversies. Here in Detroit, the Red Wings have had to overcome the lockout, salary caps, injuries, and the devastating accident that destroyed the career and the life of Vladimir Konstantinov after the team won their first Stanley Cup during this streak.
KQ has had those moments, too. The Howard Stern attack was historic (and KQ and Tom Barnard are one of the few examples where Howard failed in his mission to conquer a market). Or the controversy that Barnard stirred up with the Hmong community when the local papers called for his resignation.
Like with sports, radio brands will be tested during the next year or so, as the industry struggles to regain its bearings. Staff and budget cuts, as well as other speed bumps, will impact every station – the major leaguers as well as the also-rans.
But my money’s on the Red Wings to find a way to retain their dominance, even in a market in the worst economic shape in the U.S. And I’m also betting on KQ, because no matter how tough radio gets, Minnesotans know that one of their great traditions is a Classic Rock station that’s built to last.