The Music You Grew Old With

The first baby boomers are past 70 now. The youngest of us are well into our 50s. And while we have valiantly struggled to hang on to our hipness since we started turning 35 (in the early 80s, when “soft rock” became a thing and the music of the 60s became cultural shorthand for a whole constellation of past and present self-images), it’s a harder sell as time goes by. The TV channels devoted to the shows we grew up on and cherished, including MeTV and Antenna TV, are clogged with ads for miracle drugs, medical supplies, and term insurance, all featuring people we’d like to think we are not, not yet. But they are us.

Radio stations playing music of a similar vintage haven’t gone so far down that road. Classic-rock stations are now mixing in the likes of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, and other acts of the 90s, and for the most part, the stuff fits nicely alongside Lynryd Skynryd, Pink Floyd, and the rest of the canon. These stations remain somewhat contemporary, because so many of the core artists are still working. The music itself is largely timeless—although a significant percentage of the audience for classic rock can’t remember the 60s, 70s, or even in some cases the 80s, they love it just the same. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be an overt part of the station’s appeal, although for older listeners, it’s a factor.

Oldies stations have always been a bit more willing to talk about throwing back: “the music you grew up with” has been a familiar oldies-radio slogan practically from the beginning. The term “oldies” once referred to a particular style of music, and that music created an atmosphere that was clearly something of another time.

Classic-hits stations, which are basically classic rockers without the album cuts, relying heavily on big singles by rock artists and exclusively 70s and 80s-based, are somewhere in the middle. Like classic rockers, they don’t have to traffic in nostalgia. Without the deep cuts and 90s music, they don’t come off quite as hip, but they can still pull it off, depending on their imaging.

All of this is a windy introduction to what I want to write about: a station I heard while traveling recently. It was a small-town classic hits station, the kind of place that does the high-school football games on Friday nights. It was heavily voice-tracked, and because the jocks lacked the big pipes and smooth delivery of syndication, they were probably local, although you couldn’t tell by what they said. There was nothing remotely local in any of the talk breaks I heard over a couple of days—just lots of national entertainment and feature bits ripped straight from the AP wire.

But what stood out about this station beyond that was its imaging. A remarkable number of its recorded liners played up the fact that anybody listening must be old: “You can remember the first time you heard these songs, but you can’t remember where you put your car keys,” and “You know all the words, but you can’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning.” For somebody in the target demo (which I certainly am), this sort of thing can be funny the first time, because it has a ring of truth. It gets less funny the more it’s repeated, however. And after a couple of hours, it had the effect of turning the station—despite its basic classic-hits library of rockin’ good records, Steve Miller and Heart and Huey Lewis and so on—into a bleak reminder of human mortality. The music didn’t seem hip in that context. It was kind of pathetic, and almost sad.

I am pretty sure this isn’t what they’re going for.

Part of the appeal of this music is in the way it speaks to those of us who grew up with it, not just because it soundtracked days we remember and years we cherish, but also because it tells us who we are now, as art will do. We know we’re aging. We know our time is limited. It’s neither necessary nor right to remind us too frequently of that, especially when you’re doing it with the very music that allows us to forget it for a while.

15 thoughts on “The Music You Grew Old With

  1. Guy K

    You know what’s jarring? WCBS-FM 101.1 in New York, for decades the preeminent oldies station in the nation, has phased out the non-Beatles, non-Stones ’60s and buried the pre-1975 ’70s. There is now no place left on the terrestrial dial where I live where I can hear the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes or the Dave Clark Five anymore. I never thought I’d see–or hear–the day it came to this.

  2. If you found an email address for somebody at the station and sent them a link to this, perhaps a voice from outside the four walls would empower them to push for change. I bet the people who work there, however many there are, already agree with you.

    On the other hand, you have no stake I’m aware of in ensuring that this station succeeds; it might not matter that much to you.

    The stations my grandparents listened to for ’40s-type music in the ’80s always called it “music of your life,” which in retrospect seems to me like a classy and understated way to present it. Some Don Draper type earned his paycheck the day he came up with that concept.

    1. “Music of Your Life” is the name of a popular nostalgia format that debuted in the late 70s and still exists today, aimed then and now at people over 50. In addition to playing music from back in the day, it also featured familiar personalities such as Peter Marshall (who’s still on it), Wink Martindale, and Gary Owens. I haven’t heard it lately to say what it sounds like, but if it’s evolved like oldies radio (see Guy K’s comment above), they won’t be playing much from the 40s or 50s anymore. I bet those Great American Songbook records by Rod Stewart are in the rotation, though.

      1. yeah, I thought it was an industry format rather than just one local station’s hook.
        I certainly *hope* it’s evolved — my grandparents aren’t listening any more.

      2. Mike Hagerty

        JB: I haven’t heard MOYL in some time, but their format competitors have largely moved on to AC oldies from the 1970s (Barry Manilow, Helen Reddy, etc.). I doubt they’re playing much of the Great American Songbook, even by Rod Stewart or Linda Ronstadt.

        I know some people who are stunned that the format has swung in that direction, but 40 years ago, I was playing Steely Dan, The Little River Band and Gerry Rafferty on the AC stations I programmed—targeting, and getting, 37-year-olds. They’re 77 now. And that’s just the center of the 25-49 target. The 49-year-olds who were listening are….89.

      3. Mike Hagerty

        Brian: Nope. Rod’s volume 5 was 2010—seven years ago. One of the troubles of Wikipedia is outdated information. From around that time, I can find articles about MOYL having a resurgence and hitting 60 affiliates, but it looks like most of those have dried up and MOYL is largely focusing on an online product.

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  4. From 1988-1992, I was a PD of a then-Music Of Your Life station here in Erie, PA. This was a live-assist format then, 4 10.5 reels of tape. A, B, C, D plus carted stongs such as B+, D+ etc. The A tape was the 30s and 40s, the D tape the 60’s and early 70s. The late Al Ham didn’t believe in playing any so-called rock & roll acts. So, we played Unchained Melody by Al Hibbler instead of the Beatles. Or, Beatles songs from the 101 Strings or easy listening artists.

    I did have a moment in the national spotlight in 1992 as the station was a Top 5 finalist for a Marconi Award for Big Band/Nostalgia of the year. We didn’t win, WPEN in Philly did, but it still is a time I will cherish for a lifetime.

  5. One of the last of the truly local rock stations, although it had to move to ‘classic hits’, leaves the air this afternoon. Los Angeles’ KSWD “100.3 The Sound”, has been through many changes over the years. When I first heard them, they were an AAA or “world class rock” station with a lot of deep cuts and unusual stuff. I still have some airchecks of this.

    In the spring of 2009, they changed the format to ‘classic rock’, and ended up more as ‘classic hits’. But within that limitation they made 100.3 The Sound into something special. The DJs led by program director Dave Beasing formed a family, with a very warm approach to listeners and a strong sense of respect for the artists. They never let you forget their roots in the great station KMET (which shut down in 1987) and the freeform progressive radio format of the 1960s.

    In the last few months, they had begun to phase in more 60s/early 70s selections — Beatles, Cream, Temptations, First Edition, early Neil Young, etc. — and you could always hear these on Mimi Chen’s “Peace, Love, Sunday Morning”. Unfortunately, KSWD was owned by Entercom, the megacorp that recently acquired CBS Radio and in so doing was legally required to divest some of the stations it already owned. KSWD was sold to “Educational Media Foundation”, whose automated stations play alleged “Christian” music 24/7 (the “K-Love” format). Today, 100.3 The Sound will go silent at 1 p.m. Pacific time. From there on out it’s wall to wall Robot Jesus.

    What we’ve been hearing in the last few days is like a wake. The station’s twitter feed is full of messages from listeners of all ages talking about what The Sound meant to them and thanking everyone from the DJs to general manager Peter Burton.

    Radio is such a volatile business that I’m sure something will happen, and we’ll all look for our best loved DJs in future venues, but this really hurts. We have to carry the spirits of these stations with us and bring them back to life wherever we can, even if it’s just some low power community station somewhere. KFXM in Lancaster is trying. There’s an audience for this music, and it’s not just creaky geezers.

  6. Here’s hoping the former jocks and PD will move on to other stations in the market. Days like this are not only a punch to the gut for the employees involved but the listeners too. End of an era.

  7. The people (listeners and staff ) at 100.3 The Sound are fortunate in that they get to say goodbye. Far more often the plug simply gets pulled. Surely this is a bad day, but I suspect that it will be remembered with more fondness in years to come than most format changes.

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