by Tracy Johnson
If there were such a thing, Steve Dahl would be on the M0unt Rushmore of Chicago radio personalities along with John “Records” Landecker and Larry Lujack. I’ll leave off the fourth spot to avoid controversy.
He is considered a pioneer in talk radio, performing a talk show on an FM music station (WLUP), along with Garry Meier for many years. Dahl’s personality is best known for taking an “every guy” approach to life in Chicago, often sharing stories about his life and family on the air.
Dahl is also well known in Chicago for song parodies and impressions. He is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. His band, Teenage Radiation, recorded and performed a number of song parodies, one of which became a popular chart hit in 1979.
But it was a stunt that made Dahl a household name. Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition on July 12, 1979 was perhaps the greatest radio stunt of all time.
Everything about it is a lesson in personality radio driving great promotion.
Chicago radio listeners and sports fans will never forget when Dahl blew up a pile of disco records listeners brought to the game. He did it on the field between games of a White Sox doubleheader.
The frenzy was so extreme the second game was cancelled and the White Sox had to forfeit.
This promotion was perfect, though station management may have been a bit stressed in the days following the stunt. Here’s why it was so brilliant.
Tapping Into A Shared Belief. WLUP was a rock station. By 1979, the disco craze had peaked and was starting to fade. And of course, rock listeners hated disco. Dahl became a self-proclaimed leader of the movement with the simple phrase Disco Sucks.
A Simple Idea. Bring a disco record to the doubleheader at the ballpark and get in for just 98 cents (WLUP’s dial position). Between games, the records would be piled up in centerfield and Dahl would put an end to disco, once and for all.
Public Location. It doesn’t get more public than a major league baseball stadium. The White Sox were terrible in 1979, desperate to attract fans to the ballpark. In fact, for the first time in ages, they sold every seat to the game. Average attendance that year was 20,000. On July 12, they attracted over 50,000.
The promotion got out of hand. Maybe selling beer for 10 cents was a bad idea to go with a rock audience riled up about destroying disco.
Since the game was sold out, many fans couldn’t get into the stadium. So those inside the ballpark were helping other climb the fence and come into the ballpark. No purchase needed.
Between games, Dahl did his thing. He blew up a giant stack of disco records. And then, the fans rushed the field. Thousands of drunk rock listeners inspired by an air personality caused enough damage so the second game was not able to be played.
Dahl, just 25 years old at the time, was blamed for the damage and the White Sox having to forfeit the game to the Indians.
Almost overnight, Steve Dahl became a household name in Chicago and around the United States. A Chicago newspaper described it as “The Horror at Comiskey”. Media outlets roasted him for the destruction, arrests and mayhem. But others, including those most important to building a fan base, loved him. Steve Dahl had escaped the Zone of Mediocrity forever.
Dahl’s campaign against disco wasn’t just one promotional event. Around the same time, he released a clever parody song called, “Do You Think I’m Disco”, a spoof of Rod Stewart’s #1 song, “Do You Think I’m Sexy”.
What made it work? Dahl’s sense of timing. he knew his audience (WLUP, a rock station) hated disco and he got into the conversation by leading the charge to kill it. The stunt was timely and allowed the audience to participate in a cause.
The event was a high point of an ongoing story.
Dahl is still active in creating audio. Access his podcast on his official website here.
By the way, stations today could do this promotion. You don’t have to destroy a genre of music, but can pick a song the audience is sick of, and stage a ceremonial “blowing it up”.
That makes a strong statement about the brand. Just be sure to pick the right song.
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