Eddie Van Halen Embodied the Spirit of Rock Radio Across the Country

Paying tribute to this legendary guitarist.

By Dave Richards, SVP Programming and Operations, Director, Rock and Classic Rock

October 14, 2020

Last week, the world of rock and roll began to mourn Eddie Van Halen, who passed away after a long battle with cancer on October 6th at age 65. His fans celebrated his life and work on social media, his peers posted tributes, and rock radio around the world played Van Halen, the legendary band that bore Eddie’s name. Few bands inspire people in practically every market in the United States. Even fewer leave a lasting mark on rock, and music generally. Van Halen was one of those iconic bands. Throughout Entercom and especially at my home station in Seattle, KISW, we’ve been thinking about how Eddie Van Halen shaped and embodied the spirit of rock radio for more than 40 years.

I recently unearthed a recording from one of Van Halen’s early visits to Seattle. It’s a great artifact of rock history that captures the spirit of the band and the age. Eddie hooted and hollered on the air, he flirted with callers, he turned the interview into the party. As the host of the program said, “These guys are crazy nuts!” A broadcast featuring Van Halen was a master class in rock programming that still holds true today: rock radio is all about fun and entertainment. They turned each program into a celebration of the genre’s sound, community, and lifestyle, whether they were on the air in Seattle or Miami.

Something else from that 1980 Van Halen interview stands out today – the callers. Four decades ago, KISW listeners could forge a real connection with on-air personalities. That’s still the case today. Indeed, that relationship is still an essential part of Entercom’s rock and roll programming – rock radio has a uniquely engaged, passionate listenership. Our Classic Rock stations’ total listening hours increased 22% (YOY) the day Eddie passed away. And the listening hours were up by 25% (YOY) the following day, as listeners spent even more time with our stations commemorating this great musician[1].  I’ve always said that every smart radio station practices customer service. That involves playing the music your community loves, but it also means changing your plans when the need arises. Sometimes that means targeted community outreach, like raising money for a listener whose house burned down. Sometimes it means adjusting your programming to meet current events. That’s what we’re doing now by honoring Eddie Van Halen with marathons of his music.

The deep, local roots of rock radio makes Eddie Van Halen’s universal appeal all the more impressive. Marshall Tucker plays in Rochester, Creed plays in Kansas City, but Van Halen plays everywhere. There were other virtuoso guitarists, but we remember Eddie Van Halen because he wrote songs that combined his tremendous musical talent with broad popular appeal. His work, like the greatest of rock songs, exists at the corner of art and commerce where the audience decides what plays. So much rock music, but the best of it—the songs by Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Eddie Van Halen—is timeless.

Eddie Van Halen was an icon – that much was evident when he came to KISW back in 1980. At Entercom we recognize and celebrate the iconic; our stations have always brought the best rock around, contemporary or classic, as a part of their commitment to the communities they serve. That’s why, for the next several weeks, we’ll be celebrating Eddie’s prodigious talents on our affiliates, from the furious fretwork of “Eruption” to the inescapable pop power of “Beat It.” And even decades from now, I’m sure the world will still be listening to the brilliant and overwhelmingly fun music of one of the greatest guitarists of all time.

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[1] Triton Digital, 10/06-07,2020 vs 10/08-09,2019.

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