Hit the Road, Jack

(Edited to add Del Colliano link below.)

From this blog, June 2005, about the switch of WCBS-FM, the nation’s highest-rated oldies station, to the we-play-anything “Jack” format: “[I]t seems possible that this switch might be the canary in the coal mine signaling the coming death of oldies radio.” But that canary’s doing just fine, thanks: Effective Thursday, WCBS-FM is returning to the oldies format it ran for 33 years before the Jack switch. Like every major programming decision, this one came down to ratings and ultimately, to money: Before the switch, WCBS-FM had ranked eighth in the market; last year, the Jack format ranked 16th. Ad revenue in 2006 was down 30 percent.

The money is only proving what the jocks already knew. Veteran DJ Bob Shannon, who will throw the switch on the revived format at 1:01 Eastern time tomorrow afternoon, told the Star-Ledger newspaper that he was forever meeting people in their 20s who were fans of the station even though they were born long after the music on the station was first popular. “I began to see the perception change to the point where this is music everybody listens to regardless of age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status. It’s our music. It’s part of what’s going on.” Indeed, if this country has a common musical identity at all, it’s probably the Beatles/Beach Boys/Motown core of the typical oldies-station playlist. You’ll see it at the next wedding reception you attend, when people from eight to 80 hit the dance floor to “Twist and Shout,” “Fun Fun Fun,” or “I Can’t Help Myself.”

Since my original 2005 post was written, I’ve seen firsthand a phenomenon similar to the one Shannon describes. One night I was sitting in a bar talking to a friend about my work at The Lake, when the bartender said to me, “You work at The Lake? Dude, that’s my favorite station.” He was maybe 25. His favorite band of all time: Led Zeppelin. Each weekday at noon The Lake does a Perfect Playlist feature, where listeners submit lists of songs they want us to play. One list I played came from a 19-year-old guy who freely admitted he was a fan of classic rock because it was what his parents listened to. Another listener told me how his middle-school-age daughter had asked him about Graham Nash after hearing “Chicago” in school. He’d never listened to much of Nash’s solo work, but after that, he and his daughter started listening together.

So I was wrong about the death of oldies radio, although it sounds like the new WCBS-FM is going to be a bit more contemporary than its previous incarnation. The average “age” of the oldies library has been creeping forward for several years—it’s somewhere toward the end of 1966 now, which means that 50s music is almost entirely absent—and that trend is only going to continue. What the WCBS switch tells us is that it’s going to continue slowly.

Jerry Del Colliano of Inside Music Media has more.

Other Worthwhile Reads: I am staggeringly late on this stuff thanks to the spate of One Day in Your Life posts over the weekend, but it’s still worth a look. Pandagon is one of my favorite current-events blogs, although they usually dip into the subject of music on the weekends. The blog contributors (and its typical readers) are younger than I am, but every now and then they hit a music topic of interest to the elderly. On Sunday, they were kicking around the worst and best songs written by John, Paul, and George (“Ringo only wrote two, so he’s off the hook”). Lots of love for Revolver and not as much as you’d think for Sgt. Pepper–and a surprising number of people who claim either not to know anything about the Beatles at all, or to actively dislike them.

So much for oldies being our common musical identity, then.

Also at Pandagon (and a week old), a post titled “Radio and the Death of the 90s,” which uses Sarah Vowell’s book Radio On to jump into a discussion of the brief moment where progressive optimism in the wake of Bill Clinton’s election met the explosion of the grunge movement, and how it all went to hell with the Republican Revolution of 1995 and the media’s consolidation mania that began shortly thereafter. At that time, I wasn’t listening to Top 40 or album rock anymore, so I didn’t have nearly as much invested in music at that moment as many of the commenters to the post did. Many of them were teenagers at the time; thus their ground-level perspective on what happened around 1995 was new to me, and mighty interesting.

5 thoughts on “Hit the Road, Jack

  1. The main oldies station in the Twin Cities – KQQL, or KOOL 108, revamped its playlist in January. With the exception of a few speciality shows, it’s now rare to hear anything from before 1975, while the former playlist ran back to about 1965 or so. The forward date is somewhere between 1985 and 1989 now, at a guess, while previously it was, oh, 1978 or so. And the mix is heavier. I heard .38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely” this afternoon, a 1981 track that would never have been aired before the switch. When I listen — usually in the car — I don’t hear a lot of what I (being at the very least a geezer in training, I guess) would consider Oldies. As a result, I don’t care much for the new mix. I would guess that it’s a ratings success, though, as it’s been in place for more than six months now. But it’s not my station anymore.

  2. I can’t wait until I’m 60 in 2020 listening to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” on an oldies station. I’ll still be playing air guitar.

  3. Shark

    Oldies…Classic Rock…Classic Hits…Retro Oldies…Retro Hits…it’s a fuzzy line between oldies and non-oldies formats. You would think a music format that incorporated hits from 1965 to 1985 would be appealing to anyone between the ages of 40 and 60, supposedly the demographic with “all” the money. But it’s just not that simple. Two of the stations in our radio group are oldies formatted stations. One station plays primarily 50s, 60s, and some 70s and is called “Cool Radio.” The other station plays 70s and 80s and is called “SuperHits.” (Our General Manager hates the term “oldies” and gave them monikers avoiding that perception.)
    Personally, I think both stations are unlistenable. The only criteria for a song to be played on either station is that it had to have been a top ten hit. However, certain songs don’t stand the test of time very well and don’t fit in with other hits of that era. On “Cool Radio” you’ll hear: “Up Around the Bend” by CCR, “Love is Strange” by Paul & Paula, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” by Gene Pitney, and “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles all in a row. On SuperHits, you’ll hear: “Convoy” by C.W. McCall, “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro, “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, and “Shadow Dancing” by Andy Gibb all in a row. The problem is, listeners don’t listen to the radio in 2007 the way they did in 1965, 1975, or 1985. Years ago, there were fewer radio stations and fewer radio formats. The whole “we play all the hits, all the time, and nothing but the hits” theory looks good on paper, but sounds like crap on the radio. I really think that, for best results, select the best parts of a format and STICK WITH IT! If you want to do an “oldies” format, play oldies from the 50s, 60s, and very early 70s and leave out the disco (no KC and the Sunshine Band), hard rock (no Deep Purple), and some of the classic country-western… sorry, but “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean just doesn’t fit next to the Beatles and the Supremes, even though it was a top ten hit.

  4. jb

    Couple of points:

    I think people *will* tolerate a wide variety to a certain extent, as the success of Jack formats (other than at WCBS) would indicate—but you can bet that the presence of each record in the Jack format is validated by research, as much as those in any other format. The stations may claim to be random, but they’re not. The mix is tweaked to keep people listening and to drive as few people as possible away. The mixes you mention each contain one risky record (Paul and Paula, Bobby Goldsboro), but the rest are plausible.

    Top 10 hits only strikes me as an astoundingly bad primary criterion for a radio station’s on-air library. You’d play “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry, but not “Roll Over Beethoven”? Chart performance is relative, after all. A record is only as popular as the other records it’s up against at the same time, and not all eras are created equal. I’m not saying that it’s an entirely invalid measure—after all, who puts more stock in the record charts than I do?—only that when it comes to programming a radio station, it shouldn’t be the main criterion. After all, “Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk was a Number One; that doesn’t make it the equal of “She Loves You” or “Hotel California.” There’s got to be research to back up the choices, or at least a set of ears well-trained enough to know what fits and what doesn’t.

  5. Pingback: JasonHare.com » Blog Archive » Welcome Back, Bob Shannon and WCBS-FM

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