A Radio Vagabond Wows the Boomers

By Doug Moe

It was while sleeping at an inn on California’s Monterey Peninsula that a legendary radio vagabond – a program director who worked ratings magic at numerous stations across America – had his most recent epiphany.

Appropriately, the inn is named the Vagabond House.

When John Sebastian woke that morning a few years ago in Carmel-by-the-Sea, he realized his dream had coalesced the waking thoughts he’d been having about a new radio opportunity.

In today’s tough media landscape, station playlists had shrunk, no matter the formatted music. So, too, had the demographic groups targeted by programmers. The result was a lack of musical variety and one vastly underserved audience: baby boomers, who – paradoxically – love radio and have the kind of money to spend that should draw advertisers.

That morning in Carmel, Sebastian envisioned a playlist that would bring together the best music from all the formats he’d succeeded with in the past – rock, country rock, top 40, smooth jazz, and country. The playlist would be expansive – the only stipulation was the songs must be great – and in targeting the boomers (roughly ages 55-74) it would concentrate on music from the 1960s and ‘70s, sprinkling in some ‘50s, some ‘80s and some newer songs that met John’s “only great songs” criteria.

The key would be variety – in a given hour one might hear the Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, Santana, the Eagles, Jefferson Airplane, John Denver, Led Zeppelin, John Mellencamp, Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. Which of their songs? The ones the audience doesn’t just like, they love.

It didn’t happen overnight, but after some fine-tuning – assisted by TroyResearch – on Sept. 30, 2019, the Wow Factor debuted for Desert Valley Media Group on KOAI-FM, 94.9 and 95.1 in Phoenix. (www.951thewowfactor.com) The Wow Factor wowed the Valley of the Sun. It was a stunning success, consistently ranking in the top five rated stations overall in Phoenix, and first in every boomer (55+) metric. Among music stations, it also places first in the coveted “time spent listening” category.

“It has been wildly successful,” Sebastian says, and he’s now looking to take the format into markets across the country.

The Wow Factor’s ascendance is the culmination of a storied, peripatetic radio career that now spans more than half a century.

John Sebastian was born in Denver – “one of the only places I haven’t worked,” he notes – and grew up in Portland, Oregon, where he landed his first radio job in 1968, age 18.

He’d hoped to play basketball at the University of Oregon. Sebastian was a guard in high school with a deft touch from outside. A serious back injury derailed that dream.

“I was semi-depressed about basketball,” he says. “Much to the chagrin of my dad, I just said, ‘The heck with it. I’m going to be a deejay.’ And that’s what I did. I became a disc jockey and I’ve never looked back.” Recalling those early months in the business, Sebastian says, “I was scared. I’m a bit of an introvert, as I’ve discovered a lot of radio people are. But I also discovered that when I was behind closed doors, in front of a microphone with no one else in the room, I became this other personality. It brought me out of my shell, and I did pretty well.”

He was also astute enough to realize that at a radio station, it’s the program director who makes the important decisions. Sebastian soon became – at age 22 – a program director in Portland.

His programming career would take him to more than two dozen markets, including Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and – especially – Phoenix. Sebastian estimates he’s left and returned to live in Phoenix 10 different times. He came back most recently in 2014, drawn as always by the sunshine and the enduring friendships he’s forged in the area over the years.

An early career lesson was that in one way radio is no different than most businesses – it is resistant to change.

“Probably since my first programming job in Portland, I’d ask veterans why we were doing this or that,” Sebastian says. “Often the answer was that they’d always done it that way. I was enough of a rebel to think we could explore other ways to do things. It was the genesis of my success. My ability to come up with new ideas, new formats. With the help of some very good people, we were able to do some amazing ratings turnarounds.”

In between programming gigs, he consulted, and had significant success in the 1980s with a format called “kick ass rock and roll.” He’d debuted it in 1979 at KUPD in Phoenix – changing the station from top 40 – and it shot to number one in the market. Next, WCOZ in Boston created historic ratings success with Sebastian’s rock format.

The format never failed to get attention. A 1981 Rochester, N.Y. newspaper headline read: “WMJQ’s slogan attracts attention… but some listeners think the slogan is vulgar.”

Later, Sebastian upended expectations at a country music station in Los Angeles.

“Driving out there,” Sebastian recalls, “I was thinking, ‘What am I doing? I don’t even like country.’”

What he did was expand the boundaries of country music. “Los Angeles is not a very country-friendly market,” he says. “But my idea of what country could be was different from the stereotypical country programmer. I included the Eagles, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, what you might call country rock. We had the best country ratings in the history of that market by far.”

Looking back, Sebastian says, “I’d like to think I helped pave the way for a little more inclusivity and open-mindedness in the country format.” He adds: “I broke a lot of rules. I’ve always looked at the possibilities within the framework of what the concept was and branched out. I don’t know if anybody in radio history has had as much diversity in their formats as I have.”

When Sebastian returned to Phoenix in 2014, he worked for a time as a voice actor. He had some success, but it’s a highly competitive field flush with established veterans. And in time, it became clear that while doing voice-overs kept him at least on the periphery of the radio business, it wasn’t the immersive radio experience Sebastian had enjoyed for decades.

“I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” he says. “Radio is what I love. It’s my passion. It’s my life.” Soon came the first stirrings of what evolved into the Wow Factor. “I realized no one had super-satisfied the baby boomers at their age now. With my experience, who better to do it than me?”

After his dream at the Vagabond House on the Monterey Peninsula, Sebastian contacted an old friend, Jonathan Little at TroyResearch, and together they researched and developed a playlist of some 1,500 songs, the best work of artists as diverse as the Mamas and Papas, Aretha Franklin, Glen Campbell, Beatles, Stones, Eric Clapton, Cher, Sting, Dave Clark Five, Led Zeppelin, Earth Wind & Fire, Turtles, Marvin Gaye and many more.

While some radio insiders may have scoffed – the average station plays perhaps 250 songs, repeatedly – the Wow Factor’s variety and insistence on great songs carried the day in Phoenix.

Sebastian says he named the format after playing an hour’s sample for trusted friends who inevitably responded with: “Wow, that’s my favorite song.” Or: “Wow, why doesn’t anyone else play that?”

If anything, the new format caught fire too quickly, once 94.9 - 95.1 FM started streaming it. Because so many boomers began listening on smart phones, smart speakers and computers – “close to two million people nationally,” Sebastian says – the streaming costs became unmanageable for the station. Today the Wow Factor streams only in Arizona.

Sebastian believes that once the Wow Factor format gains a foothold in other US markets and advertisers recognize the upside of reaching a vast, affluent audience the potential is almost unlimited. Meanwhile, he continues to fine-tune the music that makes listeners say “Wow.”

“It’s better now than it was two years ago,” Sebastian says. “I’m constantly trying to make it better and better.”