OFF-MIC: Bob Stroud

OFF-MIC #5: Bob Stroud



Meet Bob Stroud, radio legend, whose work remains the gold standard for on-air music hosts both in and outside of Chicago.

Stroud can be heard weekdays in his role as midday host at WDRV-FM (“The Drive”) and as creator and curator of the beloved long-running “Rock ‘n Roll Roots” show.

In simplest terms, he’s the man.

James VanOsdol:
Coming up in radio, the lesson I was always taught was never to burn bridges.  That was true back in the quote-unquote “day,” and especially true in today’s shrinking workforce. Your professional relationship with Greg Solk seems to support that theory, as he hired you to work at both the Loop and Drive.  Tell me about when he first contacted you to work at the Drive.

Bob Stroud:
Well, I’m not going to sugarcoat an answer to a question like this, because at least two of us know the truth to this answer and that’s Greg Solk and Bob Stroud. The bridge between Greg and myself wasn’t burned, but it was on fire.

I would submit that both of us during our tenure together in the heyday of The Loop had a modicum of maturing to experience, in order to arrive at a better business relationship. For some reason, that never really came to fruition while we were there.

In February 2001, Bonneville’s new radio property at 97.1 FM started stunting and I was in need of a full-time job. Doing “Rock ‘n Roll Roots” part time at ‘XRT wasn’t cutting it. I was informed that Greg would be heading up the format at Bonneville’s new property and it would be in both of our best interests to give him a call. With some trepidation, I phoned Greg and asked to take a meeting with him. In a nutshell, we squared things out at three long meetings in three different settings over the following three weeks. I think what we carried away from those many hours together was the mutual respect that we’d always had for each other but past business experiences never fully allowed us to appreciate. Call it the inexperience of youth and the sheer manic audacity that was The Loop. Because of Greg’s vision and friendship, the Drive from day one has been a jock’s dream come true.

JVO:
The Drive seemed like a risky proposition when it first launched, with WLUP and WXRT already owning much of the adult male music audience.  Do you remember your first impression of the Classic Hits format?

BS:
I remember being excited about the prospect of bringing something very new to radio listeners in Chicago. Not only with the mix of music that included standard classic rock fare, unabashed top 40 hits, deep tracks, soft rock and more, but also how this was all going to be presented. You’ve got to remember that CD 94.7 had just been “blow’d up (real good)” several months previous and there was a decent-sized audience of disenfranchised listeners who didn’t relate to The Loop or ‘XRT. This was going to be enough of an audience in which to build on for a new radio station.

JVO:
One of the station’s early strengths was the fact that it stayed out of the way of the music; something that really resonated with the target demo.  Remarkably, that approach of respecting the music and audience has been consistent to this day.  Am I romanticizing the product, or has it really remained that pure?

BS:
I would say this is the one thing that has always remained constant in anything new we might try at the Drive: (asking) “Does this respect the music?” Whether it’s a feature or a way of giving away 4200 free tickets to a Drive Birthday concert, we’ve always been cognizant of staying out of the way of the purity of the music, and the enjoyment the listener takes from it. We built the station on that premise, and it’s not about to change anytime soon.

JVO:
Once PPM hit Chicago, the Drive was shown to be an absolute juggernaut.  Has success with this new ratings methodology affected the culture of the station?

BS:
I’m not sure what angle in the culture hypothesis you’re going for, but if you’re referring to our internal ego, it’s just as modest as it’s always been.

JVO:
Yep, that’s what I was going for.

BS:
I think we always knew that we were presenting a quality product–volumes of daily e-mail alone told us that–yet there was always an underlying frustration with the Arbitron book methodology because we felt it wasn’t capturing the true numbers of our audience, (which is) every station’s frustration. PPM has rectified that.

JVO:
In preparing for this interview, I thought a lot about your on-air style.  I kept coming back to these three ways to define it:  credible, super-knowledgeable, and accessible.  By my recollection, you’ve never had to compromise your persona or how you present yourself.  Am I missing any dark periods?  Were there P.D.s who just “didn’t get it,” and asked you to do ridiculous things?

BS:
Luckily, I’ve only worked formats that have encouraged me to be myself. Pretty much what you hear on-air is what you get off-air. And I think all of the P.D.’s I’ve worked for have understood that a major part of my strength is allowing me to go on air and be me. Obviously there have been “dark periods,” but that didn’t come with being asked to alter my presentation.

JVO:
“Rock ‘n Roll Roots” was one of the first specialty shows I became aware of when I was growing up.  How do you keep a show like that fresh for the audience and yourself, almost three decades later?

BS:
Well, in my corner is the hardcore love the audience has for the music and the era. I could probably just go on and “jukebox” the entire three hours and retain a decent-sized audience. But with that love of the music comes a wildly enthusiastic interest in the music. By that, I’m referring to everything from anecdotal stories about the songs and artists to maybe how the songs perormed on the charts. That interest from both the audience and myself keeps me on the constant lookout as to how I can present the three hours with varying twists that will continue to coddle the audience into keeping Rock ‘n Roll Roots as appointment listening.

JVO:
I’ve heard lots of people who were too young to have actually bought records in the pre-CD era lovingly talk about the “warmth” and beauty of vinyl. While I generally don’t miss the format, I think there’s something to be said for the radio days before every file was digitized.  Do you prefer to play your show’s music from a computer, or are you ever nostalgic for the kinetic, sometimes adrenal, energy of cueing up records (or CDs)?

BS:
We are so lucky here at the Drive because we have the best of both worlds. Of couse, the majority of the music is stored in a hard drive, yet four times a year we present the Drive’s “Album Sides Thursday,” in which we get to spin actual vinyl for 24 hours. It’s a blast to do it old school for a day, and the audience absolutely melts like butter I tell you, absolute stick-i-fied butter. It’s hands down our most popular feature. And then, on a daily basis, I play a 45 from my collection on “One 45 @ 1:45.” For a nerd like me, it doesn’t get any better than that. I’m on board about the sound advantages of vinyl. I can hear it, no question. Even some of my 45’s sound better than the digital domain. Yet I wouldn’t go back to doing it the old school way for all the tea in China, buddy. Too much work! Modern technology allows the jock the extra added time to work through his on air rap without having to hassle with records. And quite frankly, that’s what your P.D. is looking for anyway, the best on air rap you can summon up.

JVO:
Let’s talk about Todd R
undgren.  Favorite solo album?

BS:
Todd who? (Ahem) I’m almost embarrassed of my 41-year, total obsession with this guy, but never embarrassed enough not to talk about him when someone brings up his name. So with that, favorite solo album? Tough one…as are all Todd-related questions…okay, are three-way ties allowed?

JVO:
Sure.

BS: 
In no particular order:
1. Something/Anything
2. A Wizard, A True Star
3. Liars

JVO:
As far as Utopia goes, what’s your favorite?  I’ve always leaned towards “Oblivion,” which puts me in a minority. 

BS:
Whoa, another tough one. Two-way tie this time, in no particular order.
1. “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia;” a Prog-rock masterpiece.
2. “Utopia;” a New Wave masterpiece.

And I’m right there with you on “Oblivion.” Love it! Great record. Kasim Sulton’s favorite Utopia song is on that album, “I Will Wait,” while I’m a fan of “Welcome To My Revolution.”

JVO:
While on the Utopia topic, I also think that “Trapped” from “Oops Wrong Planet” is one of the best songs ever.

BS:
“Trapped” is indeed classic Todd/Utopia. Lots to like on that album as well, including the very ethereal “Windows” sung by Roger Powell and side two’s “My Angel.” Great chord changes in that one!

JVO:
What music inspired you as a kid?

BS:
What music didn’t inspire me as a kid? Everything. I mean, just everything I was exposed to from the mid-50’s on. My grandma had Mario Lanza and Perry Como records, my mom supplied show tunes, the Ray Coniff Singers, Dinah Washington & Sinatra. Then when I became addicted to top 40 radio in September of 1962, I absolutely couldn’t ingest enough. Music was very drug-like in that respect. I needed a constant fix. Pre-Beatles, I was a Beach Boys, Four Seasons, “Girl Group” fan, although like I said, I loved it all.

JVO:
If a space alien landed here wanting to learn about rock and roll, which era, scene, or movement would you encourage the alien to start investigating?

BS:
I’d have to direct E.T. to rock’s beginnings. That’s always been the most fascinating era to me simply because of the clash of cultures that erupted into rock and roll in the first place.

JVO:
Growing up, did you have an idea that you wanted to be on the radio, or was music your initial calling?

BS:
Yes, I absolutely had vibrations calling me into that area. I remember my father taking me to the local radio station in Kalamazoo, Michigan back around 1965. My father was advertising his business on the air at WKMI, and the station sales guy invited him down to see the studios. My dad, knowing what a radio/music junkie I was, took me along. I just stared through the glass partition into the the studio where the jock was spinning the top 40 hits of the day. I stared and stared and stared until my embarrassed father exclaimed, “Bobby, quit staring at the man!” I think I knew as far back as then that someday some kid would be staring at me like that.

JVO:
Chicago radio history is littered with on air personalities who thought they could sing.  You’ve actually got the pipes and presence.  When did you figure out that you could pull off the frontman role?

BS:
I don’t think I figured it out as much, as someone else (figured) it out for me. I’d had some experience singing in front of an audience from my theatre days. Seven years on the stage in front of an audience prepared me in more ways than one for my future profession as a jock and as a singer in a rock ‘n roll band. When we started Rockestra in 1990, my band partner had heard me doing radio song parodies at the Loop and said “why don’t we just use you and your talents in front of an audience for a change, singing great rock and r&b classics?” Doesn’t everybody get into their first band at 40?

JVO:
What brought Rockestra to an end?

BS:
Ten years. Ten years will bring almost anything to an end.

JVO:
Are you still playing with Cryan’ Shames?

BS:
My last year was 2006. I did four years with the Cryan’ Shames and it was an absolute fantasy dream come true. It broke me up more than once on stage that I was singing those songs that I bought as a kid, songs that meant so much to me. Just a great experience and one of my life’s highlights.

JVO:
You’ve seen all the highs and lows of the radio business, and have always kept up with the times.  How does radio stop the bleeding and start growing itself and its audience again?

BS:
I may not have an answer here. I’m just aghast at what goes on around me, whether it be how fast everything is changing technologically or how fast life as we knew it is disappearing. There are reports that say that radio is still a viable force in today’s society…depending on the demo. Then there are numbers that suggest otherwise. If I may so brazen, I think the Drive has been a good example of how radio can re-invent itself and pull highly respectable numbers. If it’s researched properly and executed with not just numbers but with heart and gut, it can work. Again, the Drive is a prime example.

JVO:
Your reputation and resume make you a Chicago rock radio historian.  If you had to write your memoir today, what one story would you have to build an entire chapter around?

BS:
Man, a flood of memories comes rushing in with a question like that.

Anyone who’s been in one market as long as I have has a hundred and one great stories. I just think that I’m one of the lucky ones who got to do in life what he always wanted to do.  As a kid growing up in the 60’s in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I would listen to WCFL and WLS and fantasize about being a disc jockey in Chicago. I wanted to live downtown and hang with the the other DJ’s and go to clubs and meet girls and talk with rock stars. And yes, I got to do all that and much more. But the one thing I’ll always take away from this experience is the friends I’ve made. Friends who will be there lifelong, friends who I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m so grateful that I was accepted like I was within the radio and music community in Chicago. It’s just meant everthing to me.

JVO:
Any regrets?

BS:
Well…no Cubs World Series, but after that, any regret would just be whining on my part after the 30-year career I’ve been privileged to lead in Chicago.


Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: