Working his way from an on-air radio personality to program director, John Sebastian seeks out the challenge of making the worst radio stations into the best, earning many gold and platinum album awards in the process. (Amy Vogelsang Photo)
“Good is the enemy of great.” Not only is it his mantra, this simple saying has helped take John Sebastian from disc jockey to a radio program director with gold and platinum album awards.
His house office wall is covered with famous faces and names: Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Sugarland, Alan Jackson and Rascal Flatts, just to name a few. Of course, this wall only displays country artists. Piles of classic rock awards lie hidden in the closet.
Moving from one big station to the next, Sebastian has gained a reputation for being able to take a station from worst to best in record time. This statistic is seen in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Chicago, Boston and Seattle — just to name a few of the big name markets he has dabbled in.
So why Roswell? It’s a question he is asked often, and to which he replies simply, freedom.
“The big companies that own stations predominately in the major markets where I’m used to working have been overcome by Wall Street and Wall Street has squelched all the creativity out of those companies – not allowing it really – because they want these national McDonald’s type cookie cutters all over America, and I completely rebel against that,” Sebastian said, expanding on his answer. “So I tried to find the place that would allow me to do my thing with the most freedom.” This landed him in Roswell.
“(The big markets) wouldn’t want me anyhow because I think. I actually have a thought,” he said, shrugging off the idea.
And although smaller than what he is used to, Roswell is still larger than Sebastian’s humble start in The Dalles, Ore. But wait — the story of his start actually goes further back, before radio even entered the picture. His story really begins in high school in Oregon.
While his dad would have liked for him to attend law school – “My dad raised me to be president of the United States … that was his thing for me” – Sebastian’s love was sports and it was his hope to go to college on a basketball scholarship.
However, after a tragic misfortune mid-game, Sebastian broke his back, and although he recovered, the doctor told him frankly that he would never jump as high or run as fast, and his chances of playing college ball, much less professional ball, were slim to none.
“I was despondent,” Sebastian said. “I was so depressed that I wanted to rebel against the world – my dad and everyone else. I was in the hospital for a month, and I remember thinking, ‘Screw it. I’m going to do the most radical thing I can think of. I’m going to be a disc jockey.’”
And so he went out to a small position in The Dalles where he used the station after hours to construct his own tapes of how he wanted to do things, and then sent those tapes off to the Columbia School of Broadcasting in San Francisco where he was able to get an education through mail and long distance. A few months later, those tapes got him to Portland.
Being an on-air personality brought out a completely different side of Sebastian. Originally a shy teenager, he found a new freedom behind the scenes.
“When I got behind a microphone, behind closed doors, this other persona came out in me that nobody understood – I’m not even sure I did – and for some reason I did really well as a disc jockey,” he exclaimed.
But being a driven individual, Sebastian was not content to remain a jockey, and at age 22 became a program director, the guy who tells jockeys what to say and how to say it and chooses the music to be played.
“I discovered really quickly that’s the real person who runs the radio station, so that’s what I wanted to be.”
Now, 45 years later, he still loves what he is doing and has broken records doing it.
“The real germ of all this is that I have a passion for music,” he said. “I absolutely don’t know how I could live without music … I think there is great music from hip-hop to classical to country to jazz and everything in between.”
His passion for all tunes is evident in the office, where he can often be found digging up new artists and cranking songs of all genres. It’s not easy to choose just one favorite genre for Sebastian.
“I guess if you put a gun to my head I’d say classic rock because it’s kind of rebellious … it fits my demographic,” he said after a long pause. “But that’s so hard to say because, like now, I have four distinct stations in Roswell, and all day long I’m going from country to classic rock to oldies to Top 40. Bam, bam, bam. But all day long I’m cranking that music … I’ll hear a song on hip-hop and, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great song.’ Then I’ll go to KMOU country station and hear something there that makes me crank it, and the same thing with classic rock and the oldies station. It just depends on my mood.”
Often when he gets handed a new track, he will immediately go to the studio and say, “Play this one next.” That’s one of his secrets: he focuses on finding songs before they hit the charts. And although he uses research and data, a lot of his music findings are based on instincts.
“It’s kind of like I have this thing where my goose bumps are never wrong,” he explained. “If I hear a song, no matter what genre, which resonates with me in a certain way, I go with it. I justify the hypothesis of that through the research, but I go with my instinct. And that’s why I have these gold and platinum awards.”
So the awards: He lost track of how many he actually has, but his success and experiences have led him to meet many famous artists such as Elton John, Paul McCartney and Billy Joel. But one of his favorites was meeting Don Henley from The Eagles.
“We just hit it off,” Sebastian said of meeting Henley. “He sat there for two hours in my office in Dallas, and we just talked about everything under the sun: politics and religion and stuff you wouldn’t talk about in polite company. It was amazing.”
But as with all record breakers, running stations and completely turning them around has had its challenges. From building a reputation to thinking out of the box, Sebastian has fought against “corporate America” to build his stations. But one personal challenge is remembering to put listeners first.
“(One challenge is) being able to divorce my own ego and my own sense of what I like on the radio from what listeners like,” he admitted. “And giving listeners, really, what they want. Which I discovered quite quickly, much to the chagrin of my fellow disc jockeys, that it was (better) for the disc jockeys to talk less and to let the music do the talking in many cases. And to find music that really resonated with the listeners instead of, again, personal opinion.”
Ultimately, he likes the challenge of turning around a radio station. He did not set out to make a record, but he doesn’t mind having those statistics. What it comes down to is a mix of determination and passion.
“(Most people) would have been settled in one place and been satisfied to stay there and keep that success,” Sebastian said. “To me that’s boring … and it’s too easy in my mind. So I’d rather take the next big challenge … I’m absolutely passionate about it. I’m absolutely passionate about doing it right.”