What a Day for a Daydream

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I wrote here last winter about the experience of listening to music on AM radio. There’s just something about that sonic atmosphere, and the oddly backward way that the lesser fidelity of the AM band makes the music sound better than it does on FM or CD. I have also written in the past about WDGY, an oldies station in the Twin Cities, which is one of my favorite stations anywhere in the country. It’s not the original “Wee Gee,” it’s a modern-day reboot with the same call letters, actually licensed to Hudson, Wisconsin, with a daytime-only AM signal on 740 and a couple of low-power FM translators.

I notice, on my yearly trips to Minnesota, that the close edge of the WDGY library keeps advancing—a couple of years ago you wouldn’t hear music made after 1978, last year it was 1979, and I expect to hear a song or two from 1980 on this trip. But unlike a lot of oldies stations, it has yet to age past the music of the 1960s, which is still a vital part of the station’s library.

Your typical good times/great oldies radio station has long since dumped music from the 60s. If you graduated from high school in 1968, you’re pushing 70 now, and few stations are interested in programming to you. The received wisdom is that if a listener is going to be with them for only nine minutes at a time, they’d better not risk playing any song that isn’t part of that listener’s direct experience. (I have no doubt that there’s audience research showing that oldies radio target demos prefer 70s and 80s music. Radio stations put a lot of faith in audience research and finding out what people like—but people can’t like what you don’t ask them about, and I wonder if stations are even asking about 60s music anymore.)

The assumption that people aren’t interested in music they did not directly experience is a faulty one anyway. When the Beatles first appeared on Spotify in 2015, they quickly became one of the most-streamed artists on the platform, and it’s unlikely that all those streams were coming from people who could remember the 60s. At some point in the 00s, I met a twentysomething bartender whose favorite band was Led Zeppelin and whose favorite radio station was 93.1 The Lake. He was born after John Bonham died and the band ceased to be. Classic-rock stations recognize that even as they incorporate 90s bands like Pearl Jam and Green Day, 60s acts are still necessary for their success.

Nobody who’s into classical music would say that Bach and Beethoven are irrelevant because their music is too old. And it occurred to me the other day that the music of the 1960s is a sort of classical music now. The greatness of Bach and Beethoven is undisputed; their music continues to be acclaimed, and anyone claiming classical musical literacy had better know something about who they are and what they wrote. The same is true of the top 1960s stars: if you like hip-hop, you’d best know about James Brown and Sly Stewart; if you like Ed Sheeran and other singer/songwriter types, you’d best know about Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell; if you like the brand of girl power espoused by Taylor Swift, Pink, and Beyoncé, you’d best know about Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield.

In 2017, after another trip up here and more time spent listening to WDGY, I wrote about the way pop music has gotten slower and sadder as time has passed, and how pop records are more likely to be in a minor key today than at any time in history. The percentage of major keys and sprightly tempos was far higher in the 60s. The world was full of trouble back then, too: kids were getting shipped off to the ‘Nam, their parents were getting divorced, war and famine were on the front pages every day—but pop music was not nearly so bereft of joy as it’s been for nearly a generation now.

Sixties AM-radio pop is one of the best mood elevators I know. Flying down the interstate on a bright afternoon, car window cracked, spring in the air (should spring ever come), who wants to gaze at one’s navel feeling morose when you could ride with the Lovin’ Spoonful? What a day for a daydream, indeed.

If I have missed something, big and obvious or small and subtle—always a possibility—I hope the radio programmers and knowledgeable bystanders in the crowd will weigh in.

3 responses

  1. I just returned from the drive out to Fort Snelling National Cemetery to visit my folks on what would have been Mom’s 100th birthday. It proved to be more athletic challenge than I’d thought; scaling a steep, iced-over curb and hopping through foot-and-a-half-plus snowdrifts, some of which had completely buried the headstones. I managed to find Mom and Dad in the darkening gray sky and wind-driven rain, sang Mom the Happy Birthday song, and asked her what she would have thought of the political party she’d supported for most of her life.

    I had WDGY on the radio on the way there, and when I got back in and started the car, they were playing Brenton Wood’s “Gimme Little Sign.” Mom always did have a good sense of humor.

    Fun never goes out of style. That’s what music of the ’60s was all about. There was a freshness and vitality within that mix of fun that permeated even the output from the Buddah bubblegum machine or the Archies, and even that appealed to receptive grownups. By the time late ’69 evolved into the ’70s, the increased emphasis on the youngest of the bunch (think: Osmonds) came at the expense of blowing off the big kids. State of Wisconsin notwithstanding, that was when young fun pop turned into cheese.

    The group I work for started an oldies channel just before I came on board, and when I had lunch a few months later with the big boss, he admitted to being quite surprised by the number of young listeners the station was reaching. That didn’t surprise me, since I’d heard the same enthusiasm from young listeners back when ’60s on 6 was still in XM’s hands. Call it an oldies field of dreams, if you will: build it, let them know it’s there and they will come.

    That’s WDGY’s problem: they don’t market the station in a way that any significant number of potential listeners would ever know it’s on the air. I don’t know how they could afford to, given their signal challenges, low spot load and notoriously frugal ownership. It is fun to listen to their wide playlist, which is why it’s my main preset. I just wish it weren’t a jukebox outside of morning drive.

    The ’60s music is still played on WDGY is because it isn’t on the market’s former oldies station, KOOL 108. Without it, there’d be nothing to differentiate WeeGee from its far more powerful FM competitor.

    BTW, on the way back from the cemetery, the song WeeGee was playing suddenly skipped midway into Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” They could at least let their listeners know the AM signal is leaving the air, instead of segueing right into CFZM/Toronto.

  2. Spot on, Jim. When we launched WGVU-AM as a ’54-’72 oldies station in 2009, we realized that one-third of the audience was under 35. In other words, they were born after 1974, so the nostalgia they came for couldn’t possibly have been from when the records were new.

    Every semester I talk with students in my history class about media in the 60s. This term a few of them built a Spotify playlist centered on 1967 to provide background for their readings. These are kids born in 1999 in most cases. (What I do find: students in the fall term go home for Thanksgiving and report being able to talk to their grandparents about popular culture for the first time in ever.)

    The notion that you can’t genuinely enjoy something older than you are has never made sense to me, and yet programmers keep making it.

  3. […] part of the iHeart empire. Our friend Yah Shure (who worked at the original WDGY back in the day) points out that “Without [60s music], there’d be nothing to differentiate WeeGee from its far more […]

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