“You can go if you win tickets.”
That was my mother’s response when I asked to attend the 2005 Download Festival in Mountain View, California. It’s why, at 14, I spent five hours of a beautiful summer afternoon in my Sacramento suburb sunken into a couch, rifling through radio static on a Walkman headset until I heard this:
“Howard 93.7’s got your tickets to see Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, the Killers and more at Download Festival happening this October at Shoreline Amphitheater! All you have to do is be caller 14 right now. Good luck!”
In Las Vegas, several radio stations are currently announcing similar giveaways for the iHeartRadio Music Festival. That’s because the gathering of pop-music megastars such as Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea and Coldplay—happening September 19-20 at MGM Grand Garden Arena—sold out months in advance. For music fans who don’t want—or can’t afford—to deal with scalpers, winning a contest is your only hope.
That’s why I’m reminiscing now. Throughout my teen years, I entered at least a dozen radio contests. The Download Festival—to which I did win tickets—was just the spark to my streak.
After scoring those tickets, I was determined to win again. So I rearranged my schedule to revolve around Howard 93.7. Bathroom breaks? Only when a song started. Otherwise, I could miss the DJ announcing a contest. Showers? Only right after the contest announcements, because it would be at least 30 minutes until the next one. Dinners with family? Well, I still needed to eat.
Not more than a month after my first win, I turned the radio on to find that Howard 93.7 was gone. After a series of typical commercials, a soulless, pre-recorded voice told me, “You’re listening to Jack FM on 93.7: Playing what we want!” Huh? I kept listening.
I heard Journey’s “Open Arms,” Mike & the Mechanics’ “All I Need Is a Miracle,” then Styx’s “Mr. Roboto.” Oh, no. The soundtrack of my adolescence had transformed overnight into a syndicated dispenser of old-people rock. And the live DJs disappeared, as did the giveaways. I shut off the radio after a few songs, but I couldn’t turn off my desire to win again. “I just have to move on,” I said. “Like JT when Britney cheated.”
Enter KWOD 106.5, Sacramento’s other alternative station. Not only did it offer on-air giveaways, but the station promoted at least three times as many on its website. And these didn’t just require luck, they necessitated knowledge. And my family’s desktop PC.
I was soon spending hours online, answering multiple-choice trivia questions to earn points for ticket raffles. “When did the Beatles make their American television debut?” Duh, 1964. “Who holds the record for most home runs in a career?” Um, Barry Bonds? Yes. “How much does a root canal cost at Arden Dental?” Huh? Hold up.
Questions like the latter required me to cozy up to the websites of local businesses for answers. I knew they were probably paying KWOD for the exposure. But I’d be damned if I didn’t click my way to more contest entries. So I’ll say it now like I did then: A root canal cost $750.
Despite all of the effort invested and integrity lost, I only won a single ticket raffle—one I’d entered 180 times over several months. The prize was two tickets plus a meet & greet to see the band AFI.
One day I glimpsed my pasty face in the mirror and knew I needed a new method. My curiosity turned toward KWOD’s essay contest, called $500 Thursdays. Oh, the concerts I could afford with that kind of cash! The prompt asked, “What’s the worst gift you’ve ever received?”
I answered honestly: It was a Christmas present from the woman who gave me life. I know it came from the toy aisle at Target and it resembled a snow globe, but its round top was composed of gelatinous plastic instead of glass. There were no tiny landmarks inside of it either, only glitter. What could I do with that? Nothing. It just sat on my shelf, jiggling by its own volition. Probably because I watched a lot of Real Housewives of Orange County at the time, I described it in my essay as a “silicone breast implant on a base.”
The win was bittersweet.
I didn’t want to inform my mother that I’d annihilated her thoughtful gift to win money, but I needed a ride to pick up the cash. So I had no choice.
“You won, honey? That’s wonderful! How’d you do it?”
I’ve erased our exchange from memory, but I wear the shame of that essay like a face tattoo: for a lifetime. At least the experience taught me I could write, right?
My efforts with KWOD were going swimmingly, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to expand. I decided to try my luck with 107.9, a local top-40 station. They were still running contests on-air only. I didn’t have a cellphone yet, so I was using the 10-inch Mickey Mouse house phone my parents let me keep in my room. Really, though, it was a glorified statue. In the rare moments when my radio was off, I could hear Mickey emanating a strange wheezing noise from the phone jack, as if his whole being were rejecting the idea of serving as a functional telephone.
One day I went into a dialing frenzy, pounding Mickey’s buttons so quickly that I called 911 by mistake. The dispatcher was miffed. She informed me that calling 911 “without an emergency” was “against the law.” Perhaps because I sounded 6 and not 16, she let me off the hook. Whew.
A rational person might have quit after that mishap. But I wasn’t rational. I was in love. My heart and my notebooks were filled with thoughts of Adam Lazzara, the shaggy-haired, tattooed frontman for the emo band Taking Back Sunday.
“I have to meet him!” I’d tell friends, using my new mobile flip phone. If I didn’t, our wedding—for which I’d picked a brown color scheme, to match his eyes—could never be. So when I learned that Taking Back Sunday was opening for Linkin Park on their Projekt Revolution tour, I had a mission.
“The first caller to correctly answer will win tickets to Projekt Revolution: What’s the name of the collaboration album Linkin Park did with Jay-Z?”
I had no clue.
I dialed the station on my cellphone and made a run for the computer down the hall. I pressed the phone firmly to my ear, its sleek façade wicking sweat from my brow. I was breathless before I reached the keyboard and banged out “JAY Z LINKIN PARK ALBUM.” The dial tone sounded more like the bridal march with each beep. Then the DJ picked up.
“Collision Course!” I gasped.
I’d won again. Alas, the concert came and went, and I was still not Mrs. Lazzara. Enter Plan B for my future: college and a summer job at Little Caesars Pizza. I never requested a vacation from the smell of cardboard and Crazy Bread until my concert senses tingled for the approach of the Vans Warped Tour. I begged another cashier to cover my shift, but I still needed tickets.
No longer enjoying the afternoon free time of an unemployed 16-year-old, I woke up at dawn to phone-in and win. I would’ve felt so silly if I messed up my work schedule and still couldn’t see the show. Two gray hairs and one successful phone call later, I came to what Oprah Winfrey calls an “aha” moment.
I have a job now! I could have BOUGHT tickets!
Shortly thereafter, I moved away for college. When I returned from my first year in May 2009, I learned that KWOD’s 18-years-strong alternative format had been converted to Star 106.5, “Today’s Music Variety.” On KWOD’s website was a note from the program director: “The severe downturn in the economy over the last year has affected many people and companies. While we are a radio station, we face the same circumstances as so many other organizations today … the challenge of running a business profitably.”
I was crushed. It’s a rough world out there for terrestrial radio.
These days, one way stations fight to survive is through online streaming. iHeartRadio, which is owned by Clear Channel Communications, is among the largest streaming providers in the market. And the iHeartRadio Festival contests direct traffic toward its stations and websites.
Even the ways to enter contests are different nowadays. In February, I won sound-check entry and tickets by “liking” a Facebook post by the band Parade of Lights. I was notified via text that I had to show up at Vinyl at the Hard Rock by 4:30 p.m. the next day to claim my prize. Fun before 5 p.m.? I have to work! I waited for hours with a small crowd of kids and their parents. They sat anxiously as the band set up, and I sipped Red Bull through a straw to stay awake. That’s when I knew: “I’m getting too old for this.”
Clearly, the 14-year-old me would’ve lost sleep trying to win tickets to anything—including the forthcoming iHeartRadio Music Festival—but now I’ve moved on. In fact, I didn’t even buy tickets.
In researching the festival, I learned that there are so many new ways to watch: Yahoo will stream it live. Clear Channel-owned radio stations will broadcast it. The CW will air select performances on September 29-30. Heck, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of Instagram and YouTube clips (#iHeart). Honestly, any of those options sound pretty good to 23-year-old me. I’ll leave the challenge and excitement of winning to today’s teens. Good luck!
iHeartRadio Music Festival
Pop’s biggest names – including Taylor Swift, One direction, Coldplay and 15others – will be in one place, for very short set Times. Ryan Seacrest hosts, Sept. 19-20, MGM Grand Garden Arena.
It’s sold out, but…you can win tickets form 106.5, 93.1 or 95.5 FM: or opt for the scaled-down outdoor Village on Sept. 20; or live stream it on Yahoo! Screen; or watch the CW’s abbreviated broadcasts Sept. 29-30.