Radio

Minivan Rock Parent Jon Zellner on Programming Late '90s Top 40, Hot AC Stations & What Our List Missed

Between 1996 and 2004, my family and I lived in Kansas City. Music was always a part of my upbringing -- as my dad, Jon Zellner, worked for CBS Radio, where he programmed a variety of radio stations. Those included KMXV Mix 93.3, the Top 40 station, and Star 102 (now called KC102.1), the Hot AC station.

At his Kansas City stations, my dad programmed many of the artists on Billboard’s list of the 50 Greatest Minivan Rock Songs, which we published earlier today -- from Lifehouse to Matchbox Twenty and more. Decades later, he's still programming stations, but as the President of Programming Operations for iHeartMedia.

In honor of Billboard’s Minivan Rock list, he has agreed to serve as Billboard’s de-facto Minivan Rock parent-behind-the-wheel for the project. Below, he reminisces about working these songs to Top 40 and Hot AC radio, the state of pop music in the late ‘90s, and if “Minivan Rock” is a fair term to use for this genre of music.

What are some memories you have of programming pop and AC during 1997 to 2004, and what kind of music were you looking for to program?

Pop music was just coming out of the doldrums and on the verge of a re-birth. After the Top 40 format lost almost a thousand stations earlier in the decade, the mid-to-late '90s saw an influx of some great guitar-based pop rock bands and artists. By 1999, boy bands helped bring pop music back to the center lane of the format.

Why did so many stations stop playing pop music?

In the early '90s with the birth of hip hop, rap, grunge and alternative, many adults became disenfranchised... The '80s were a very cohesive decade of music, and the extremes were not very extreme. In the early '90s, there was rap and hip hop on one side and alt and grunge on the other -- and not much in the middle. So it tore the format apart. The “extremes” of the format became much more extreme.

Pop music couldn't fight its way through, basically?

There just weren't enough pop songs. The '80s [had been] the only decade in the history of music where pop music was artist-driven. Superstars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper and Culture Club…and the format “owned” all of these artists. Even rock stations played songs that aired on Top 40 stations -- those songs were mostly by artists like Aerosmith, Van Halen and Bruce Springsteen.

In the ‘90s, the majority of those artists either disappeared or didn’t come out with songs that were accessible to a Top 40 music fan. So stations had to decide whether to take a stand against rap and become AC stations -- Hot AC didn’t exist yet -- or completely abandon the format altogether and flip to country or rock. Some Top 40 stations tried to weather the storm and played “Hit music without the rap," as they called it. Those stations chose to focus on the adults and abandon the younger segment of the audience, immediately alienating them.

Top 40 radio stations tend to win when moms and daughters can agree on the same music, which happened throughout most of the '80s and again in the late '90s. But, from about 1989 to 1996, the kids were listening to grunge and rap, and some of the Top 40 stations were playing Michael Bolton and Celine Dion.

What did Mix 93.3 (the Top 40 station in Kansas City) look like when we moved there in 1996?

[The station] was in 14th place overall and 10th place with women 18-34. The station had no competitors. Women who should’ve been listening to the station were choosing country, rock and the oldies stations instead. The station was embracing Euro, Techno and dance music. And there were very few dance clubs in Kansas City.

Like many cities in the Midwest, Kansas City has always been a rock and country town, so we removed much of the old library and replaced it with artists like Matchbox Twenty, Goo Goo Dolls, Hootie & the Blowfish and Sheryl Crow (many of the titles that are on the [Minivan Rock] list). After we did that, we were able to take the station from 14th to 1st in one year just by playing these hits.

Billboard

When this music started coming back in 1996, how did you know there was a need for it in Kansas City?

Growing up outside of New York City, I never realized how big country music was in the rest of the country. To this day, there are so few country music fans in New York and L.A., but when Shania Twain, Leann Rimes, Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill had crossover pop songs, we were able to mix those with the guitar-driven pop songs in Kansas City and we were golden.

Who were the top artists that you always prioritized?

Anytime the Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox Twenty or Alanis Morissette put out a new song, it would go right in, because we were trying to make the station as artist-driven as possible. We tried to own core artists and superstars, and there weren't many of them. But when they released new music, we made a big deal out of it.

Do you think the term "minivan rock" as a grouping for all of these songs is fair?

Many families were driving minivans in the '90s so I think it’s the perfect term for it. We always targeted moms, kids and families. My theory was always that when you target women, you reach families and when you target men, you have the potential to alienate families. Every radio station (like any brand) has a quintessential target listener. If you target broad, you end up making no one happy. You have to laser focus on one particular person, give them a name and a complete profile and ensure that everything you play, everything you say, everything you do on the air, off the air and the community is a marketing decision for that listener.

I remember listening to a lot of these songs growing up and especially in our minivan driving around. Was that how you also envisioned the target Mix 93.3 audience being when you programmed the station?

Absolutely. Everything we did was laser-focused on a mom, with kids in the backseat. And that's what great radio stations do -- match and exceed listener expectations.

What genre terminology would you have usually used to refer to these artists/songs at the time?

I would just call it pop rock, or guitar-driven pop.

What do you think of the top 10 specifically? Do you think all of those fit in the same format, or do you think there's any outliers that don't really make sense?

The top 10 looks pretty good, but there are definitely a few missing on the rest of the list, and some that don’t fit.

Like what?

I would add Sugar Ray’s “Someday” or “Every Morning,” Lenny Kravitz’s “Again,” Fuel’s “Hemorrhage” instead of “Shimmer,” Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper” instead of “Never Let You Go,” Tonic’s “If You Could Only See,” Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” Sheryl Crow’s “Every Day Is A Winding Road” instead of “Soak Up The Sun,” Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be,” “Only Wanna Be With You” by Hootie & the Blowfish, and I’d switch the New Radicals song to “You Get What You Give.”

I’d also question Clay Aiken, Josh Joplin and Hanson. We never really played those and I wouldn’t call those guitar-driven.

How do you feel about “Teenage Dirtbag” on there?

Wheatus doesn't fit. Top 40 stations never played it… more of a novelty song.

I totally forgot about Blessid Union of Souls.

Blessid Union of Souls were like the Mix 93.3 house band. They did Red, White, and Boom! twice and a few others shows for us. One of the band members actually works at iHeartMedia today. [Editor’s Note: Red, White and Boom! was Mix 93.3 annual summer concert, and Jingle Jam was the annual holiday concert]

Do you think Lifehouse’s “Hanging By a Moment” is a proper No. 1 for this list?

I would probably go with a different artist, only because Lifehouse only had a couple [big] hits. Maybe Matchbox Twenty’s “3AM” or “Unwell” or “Slide” from the Goo Goo Dolls.

Do you still play these songs on AC stations?

Yes. AC and Hot AC stations play most of these. Certain songs stand the test of time, and others just don't. Many of these titles had much more of a shelf life at radio over much of the disposable dance and rhythmic songs from the '90s.

Is this style of music something you could see coming back?

Maybe. There aren’t many songs at Top 40 today that sound like this so there’s definitely an opportunity if the right song is released. A few artists that would fit with this list would be Ed Sheeran, Harry Styles, Lewis Capaldi and even Billie Eilish.

What other songs do you think fit this Minivan Rock format that are out today?

Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” for sure. JP Saxe’s “If the World Was Ending,” SHAED’s “Trampoline,” Twenty One Pilots’ “Level of Concern,” Billie Joe Armstrong’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

Any other takeaways in terms of minivan rock? Would you ever use that term to classify this era of music?

The term makes sense. I feel like boy bands are missing though, which was a big part of music heard in minivans at the time. Sonically, it feels different but, at the time, this music mixed well with ‘NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. Those two artists have been the only boy bands to be able to sell out stadiums that I can remember.