Being Chicago Radio’s Surfer

I have a surfing advantage. At least I think I do.

I’ve been to (and in) two of the five oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and numerous other bodies of water. But I’ve never been surfing. I’d like to try. I think I’d eventually be pretty good at it. While I respect the sport and experience of surfing, I think I have a distinct advantage. At least a good beginner’s advantage.

I’m still smiling at the recent Wall Street Journal article about startups lining up to advertise on the New York City subway system.

I’ve been a NYC subway rider.

I’ve been a rider on Atlanta’s MARTA.

DC’s Metro.

The Las Vegas Monorail.

Even Disney World’s Monorail.

But I was born and raised in Chicago. The City of…

Which means I’ve been familiar with taking the bus and the Chicago “EL” for as long as I can remember. (EL is short for Elevated. It’s the subway. Same thing.)

The Chicago subway has its share of cinematic memories. From Harrison Ford fighting bad guys in The Fugitive, to Matt Damon picking somebody’s pocket in the Ocean’s Eleven remake, to Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines driving their police taxi on elevated tracks in Running Scared, chances are you’ve gained a glimpse of what a big city subway system and its advertising opportunities look like dating back to the early 1980s.

(And no, I didn’t forget about Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay in Risky Business, but Chicago subway cars never run solo. I know…as If that mattered…)

My most memorable Chicago subway advertisement was plastered back in 1984. But it really wasn’t a legitimate ad. Somebody posted a picture of President Ronald Reagan next to a clock set to 11:55 with the caption “We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes.” This ‘ad’ was glued to the curved, damp-dripping wall across the tracks, across the third rail, and across the subterranean rats in a downtown Chicago subway station.

I remember that ad as if it were yesterday. That one made me laugh.

Reagan was joking on an open microphone. Somebody didn’t think it was funny.

Reagan won the ’84 election in a landslide.

When I think about startups advertising in the NYC subway system, you can see why I can smile. Riding the rails is something in my big city DNA. The marketing opportunities are endless. The creative avenues are endless. And Chicago, DC, SF, Atlanta, Vegas and every regional transportation authority with a mass transit system has to be taking notice of the advertising and marketing renaissance revenue from New York.

And I love it.

You’ll note, at the top of the WSJ article the first company mentioned in the piece is a startup offering an ‘online team management platform for businesses’. Not exactly a B2C company.

B2B tech using the NYC subway system for advertising, marketing and branding.

I love it even more.

The article details some of the costs to advertise in the New York subway system.

It isn’t cheap. Of course not. Shouldn’t be.

Even better.

Competing advertisers are lining up to get in on the major market rapid transit subway action. The trend has been going on for years.

Damn the cost. Exceptional work.

But I must’ve missed that extensive, in-depth LinkedIn series of business posts on ‘Best Practices for Calculating Data-Driven ROI from NYC Subway Marketing’.

Because I could swear that everything, everywhere in marketing today had to be created, tracked, measured and refined with precise statistical analysis, using a piece of game-changing, SaaS-delivered, customer experience technology integrated with every mobile and desktop piece of equipment ever owned.

Yes, I’m sure I read that. I’m sure I heard that. Over and over and over again.

Loudspeaker: Next stop, Hypocrisy Avenue! Hypocrisy, Next Stop!

Don’t get me wrong. I still love the subway advertising.

I love the fact that it’s being reported that millions are being spent on ‘paper-based’ advertising campaigns in the NYC subway system. (That’s my spin on the situation.) That B2B tech companies are using this, too. Not just B2C companies. That they’re challenging the cookie-cutter approach to go-to-market, advertising and marketing launch activities seen from tech company to software company to tech and software consulting companies.

That they’re challenging over-priced trade shows, time consuming conferences and events, poorly attended webinars, lazy analyst and research contracts, poorly executed mobile and email campaigns, pathetic audio and video branding exercises, and ineffective sales enablement tools and technologies… all list items on the CMO’s long-in the-tooth, paint-by-numbers dusty departmental spreadsheet.

Validated by far too many CEOs and financial backers. Oblivious or otherwise.

Subway advertising and marketing challenges it all.

I used to ride the subway between Loyola University’s WLUW-FM transmitter location on the Chicago’s North Side and its former downtown studios. The subway ride was about an hour, one-way. Part of what I would do to pass the time is ride the subway, standing-up, and not hold on. I’d just ride the bumps, sways, and waves of the rail trying to maintain balance for as long as I could, for as far as I could, without wiping out. I always thought it was a great way to practice physical balance. And maybe use the skill if I ever got the chance to surf. Waterless surfing.

I think it’s a distinct advantage for a beginning surfer from Chicago.

But I’d always tell you to hold on to — something, anything — to maintain your balance while riding the subway. Do as I say not as I do. That’s my disclaimer.

The radio station surfer, riding the Chicago subway.

Once upon a time in Chicago, I spent time on an EL platform with George Clooney and Anthony Edwards. It was raining. It was 4:00 am. I was an extra in an ER episode. On TV, you can see me walking away from those guys.

Another time I was an extra on an EL platform in the Bruce Willis movie Mercury Rising. For that shoot, it was the middle of the day and blazing hot.

I think I made $100 total for those two days.

What? You thought this article was about radio, and surfing the airwaves?


NYC radio is being beaten to the punch by subway advertising.

Chicago radio — and radio in other major markets — can’t be far behind.

They’re stuck in Times Square and on Michigan Avenue staring at the big buildings and asking for directions. After all, it is tourist season.

In NYC , the train they’re looking for is Pelham 123.

And startups can’t get enough of it.

Tony Compton holds two degrees from Loyola University Chicago: a 1987 B.A. in Communication and a 1995 MBA. He has held a number of marketing and business leadership positions over the past three decades.



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Tony Compton

Tony Compton


Product Marketer & Sales Enabler | CX, CRM, Payments, FinTech | SaaS | B2B Tech | Crushing Sales Performance | Superior Public Speaker, Storyteller & Presenter