In the comments over the weekend, Kevin from Got the Fever (who’s got a great post about John Lennon up right now) wondered why radio stations “insist on playing only one song by an artist–no matter how big they are,” and then said, “Maybe that’s a post you can tackle another time.”
Well, all right then: Radio listeners choose oldies and classic rock formats because they’re the audio equivalent of a beat-to-hell old sweater. The people who program those formats know this, and they aren’t about to make that sweater itch. Familiarity breeds contentment. With so many choices elsewhere on the dial (and off of it), many stations are programmed with the idea that listeners are looking for reasons to leave, so you don’t want to give them any.
Also: These formats burst to popularity starting in the 80s, so better than 20 years of canon development has brought its own logic to them. In my ongoing October series, I’ve focused on two songs that were enormous hits in Chicago, War’s “All Day Music” and “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne” by the Looking Glass, both of which vastly outperformed their national chart figures on WLS. But are they oldies-radio staples in Chicago now? I’d guess not. Although stations do local research to tweak their playlists, in most cases, the musical foundation from which the tweaking is done is the same from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. And “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne” is not often on the list. After all, it only got up to Number 33 in Billboard. There’s a fine argument that oldies stations in Detroit should be playing Richard and the Young Lions and the other bands I wrote about a couple of weeks ago–but any station that’s doing so is by definition the most adventuresome in the market.
It’s worth remembering, too, that those of us who are into music deeply enough to blog about it (or to read blogs about it) are not normal listeners. We burned out on “Brandy” a long time ago, which is why “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne” sounds so good to us. My radio station played listener-submitted “perfect playlists” the past two weekends, and for every one that contained unusual choices, there were many more that stuck so strictly to the canon they were indistinguishable from the regular format. (Of course, many lists were chosen for air precisely because they were indistinguishable from the regular format–see paragraph 2.) Although my station has one of the broadest and deepest classic rock libraries you’d ever want to hear (30 Bob Seger tracks, for example), a large percentage of every hour is devoted to the same stuff every other classic rocker plays the hell out of: “Rocky Mountain Way,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Magic Man,” etc., because research shows, again and again, that’s what the average listener wants to hear.
I could go on, but I’d rather open it up to you–especially if you’re a radio person, as I know a few readers are, but being a thoughtful music listener is sufficient, too. What is it about oldies and classic rock radio, anyhow? With all the music that’s been popular in the last 50 years, why does so little of it endure on these formats?
Recommended Reading: From The Onion‘s AV Club (recently expanded to become one of the web’s best sources for information on music, movies, and pop culture), a list of 17 Essential Books About Popular Music. Lots of my favorite music writers are on this list: Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Peter Guralnick–and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, is on it, too. Another author on the list: David Cantwell, whose blog, Living in Stereo, is one of my favorites, and whose book with Bill Friskics-Warren, Heartaches by the Number, is highly recommended.
(This post has been edited since it first appeared.)