Rob Cressman

Hubbard Radio classic rock “The Drive” WDRV Chicago (97.1) was built as the antithesis of your typical radio station nearly 20 years ago. No contests, promotions or bar nights. Let the music do the talking. The station has evolved over the years and, coupled with market changes, it is now seeing renewed success. Over the years, similarly formatted stations have fallen by the wayside, most notably “The Loop,” which signed off in March after playing to the Windy City for four decades. “The Drive,” which was already trending up after theHoliday Book, jumped from eight to fifth (6+) in the March PPMs. In the June PPMs, “The Drive” is fourth with a 4.8, its highest share in at least a year. In its target demo of Men 25-54 the numbers are even more dramatic, adding two shares since the days prior to “The Loop’s” demise and sitting comfortably in first place.

At the helm of WDRV for the past two years is Rob Cressman, a seasoned programmer who has run stations in Indianapolis, New England, Memphis and Charleston. Inside Radio spoke with Cressman on the station’s recent success, how it treated the departure of a legendary competitor and how it is working to keep its newfound audience. An edited transcript follows. 

With the demise of The Loop, how has The Drive worked to bring over and welcome new listeners?

When that opportunity presented itself, it all happened very quickly. There weren’t a lot of advance warning signs that this was going to happen. Immediately we brought as many brains together and looked for ways to maximize this opportunity on a few different fronts—one of those being the fact that The Loop demands the respect that a rock radio station that has been in this market for over 40 years does. Whatever we did, we were going to be sure that we are mindful and cognizant of that fact. We put together a send-off to our competitor in a first-class way. On the Friday that The Loop signed off we did a daylong special feature. Because of the fact that so many of The Drive’s personnel had at one time or another worked at The Loop, we had so much audio from the station. We were able to put together a really special 10 at 10 list that Bob Stroud delivered and then we took calls and did flashbacks every hour. We did our best to say farewell to The Loop with as much class as we could put forth.

The other part of our plan was so when their listeners wake up and The Loop isn’t there, they had a destination. They have a radio station that is as good or better than what they were used to. That boiled down to marketing. We decided to embark upon a television campaign. Hubbard provided us the resources to do a campaign that was robust and included not only targeted cable and digital, but good old-fashioned broadcast network TV.

We were omnipresent at the time that The Loop signed off and certainly for a long time afterward. I think it has helped us not only to shore up the disenfranchised fans of The Loop, but also to reinforce what The Drive was all about. This was certainly a two-pronged marketing effort. We took advantage of what was happening in the marketplace, but it was also very advantageous to underscore what The Drive is and what this radio station is about in 2018.

The influx of new listeners and one less competitor has showed in the ratings. Now that they’re there, how are you working to keep them locked in?

For calendar 2018, with people 25-54 The Drive has gone from a 3.5 share to a 5.2 share. We are so proud of that. We couldn’t be more excited about the momentum. We are doing what we have been doing all along: striving to be the classic rock radio station for Chicago. When I arrived the market was flooded with similarly formatted radio stations. WJMK was still here, WLS-FM, WXRT, The Loop, along with The Drive. There was a certain element of survival of the fittest. We are very thankful that our game plan appears to be working and it has some legs. For us it’s about the basics. This is a hit-driven radio station. Hubbard affords us the resources to do a lot of market research on a consistent basis. We make sure we are maximizing the data that comes from that research. It’s about being the best at the basics and being really fortunate to have a company that stands behind the basic tenants of what it takes to win as a radio station in 2018.

How has The Drive evolved over the years?

The Drive just celebrated its 17th birthday. The radio station at its inception was created as the antithesis to what most people would think a radio station was all about. The Drive signed on with a pledge that there would be no contests, there would be no promotions, there would be no bar nights. This was a station that was created as a spectacle of a radio station... A Tiffany type of entity. It was all about the music. That served The Drive very well for the better part of its life. When Nielsen introduced meters and those meters settled in and started to shift a little bit, the reality was that just being a radio station that sort of executed a one-way conversation with its audience was outdated. People were looking for something more. Because The Drive had been so successful in identifying itself as being just the opposite for so long, it wasn’t an easy task to begin to implement some of the more traditional components of the radio station. Over the last three years I think we have seen that it has been a really identifiable part of the success of the radio station. We have been trending up for the better part of 18 months if not more. I think that had everything to do with a change in philosophy. An embrace toward the evolution.

You are two years into the return of Sherman and Tingle to the market. How has the morning show played into the recent success and evolution of the station?

We were looking for something more contemporary and more interactive—a show that was capable of being on the streets and social media active. All the components that make a show attractive and compelling. When Sherman and Tingle came along we were able to reunite them and they were very interested in working with Hubbard. We were fortunate that both Brian Sherman and Steve Tingle had their sights set on this company. It’s been a wonderful fit for the radio station.

And in middays it’s the legendary Bob Stroud…

He is legendary. He’s got over four decades of radio experience with most of those here in Chicago and he was just nominated as one of five finalists for a Marconi award. We are fortunate to have signed him up to another long-term contract. He also just completed a number one spring book in middays, people 25-54 and across pretty much every other demo. He is a tremendous asset and just an amazing guy.

I also feel really good about what is happening in afternoons here. We welcomed Janda Lane to afternoons recently and now have a two-person afternoon show. She contributes service elements to the show but is also a content contributor, both on the air with our longtime host Steve Seager, and on the digital side.

The Voice of The Drive, Nick Michaels, recently passed. That’s a huge hole to fill that may not be apparent to the casual listener. How do you approach searching for a new voice?

It’s tough. Nick Michaels has been synonymous with the sound and the essence of The Drive since its inception. His ability to capture a feeling with just a voiceover is absolutely not like any other voice talent I have encountered. It was terribly shocking to be faced with such a loss. As we move forward, we are fortunate that Nick and his family were such fans of The Drive and felt so personally invested in WDRV that we have an amazing reservoir full of Nick’s creations that we are still able to use as a fabric of the radio station even as we search for an eventual day-to-day replacement. That makes the search a little bit less frantic and a little bit more strategic. There is never going to be another Nick Michaels but as the radio station looks to the next chapter we are still looking for that person who can bring words to life.

Tell us about your participation in Conclave this week and what the conference means for the industry.

The panel I am on is titled “Every Day Is More Important Than The Lightning Strike” and it has a lot to do with the day-to-day mission of radio to not only look for lightning in the bottle but to also find those seismic moments and create that kind of excitement and content on a consistent basis. I am flattered and honored to be asked to be on the panel. I am all about any opportunity to talk to students or people who have the proclivity to get into this industry. I think that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for those who have interest to get into it at an entry level position. Conventions and gatherings like these are vital to giving people who want to get into the business the support and some experiential advice to stoke that fire and to reassure them that this is a great business to be in.