(Pictured: Wolfman Jack in the 60s.)
On a Facebook group devoted to classic Top 40 radio, I recently read a lengthy thread started by somebody who argued—not for the first time in this particular group—that Cumulus or Audacy or iHeart should take some signal in Chicago and bring back WLS the way WLS was in the 60s and 70s, recreating the hot-rockin’ Top 40 radio so many group members were weaned on. It would just have to be a hit, because look how many people here on Facebook love that stuff. A number of readers chimed in to agree.
In another group I read, devoted to local history, a moderator posted a newspaper article and photo about an old building that was being torn down to make way for a parking lot. One commenter wrote about how sad it is that old buildings aren’t preserved. Others agreed, and talked about how regrettable it is that people don’t care about their history. But here’s a plot twist: the article and photo were from 1953, and the building torn down was only about 50 years old. To people back then, the building was a thing that had outlived its usefulness. It was replaced by something that, it was hoped, would bring a greater benefit to the community. We can scarcely blame the people of that time for not seeing the “significance” that we assign to it nearly 70 years later.
The Top 40 radio we loved so much back in the day is the same thing. There was little sense among the people involved that they were creating a unique art form that might be worth preserving someday. It was utilitarian. For the jocks, it was a job. For the owners, it was a way to make money. And when something came along that would bring a greater benefit to the community (or the stockholders), it was torn down and replaced with something new.
My exasperation with these dreamy Facebookers has grown the more I think about it. Jesus on two sticks, people, you don’t need to reboot those stations for the music; that’s already out there, on countless streamers, to whatever degree of library depth you want. And outside your Facebook echo chamber, practically nobody is interested in that kind of radio. Even if they were, its audience would be considered “too old” by most potential advertisers. Cumulus, Audacy, and iHeart aren’t going to put it on for nothing. (Even though aging boomers with disposable income should be a prime sales target for cars and vacations and luxury goods, just watch MeTV or Antenna TV for a half-hour to see the type of advertiser willing to spend money on them.)
Also, people forget that Sirius/XM already has channels attempting to recreate classic Top 40 radio—60s on 6 and 70s on 7—and they’re awful. They recreate the form, but without the spirit. And when people say they miss 60s and 70s Top 40 radio, the spirit is what they’re talking about. It’s something rooted in time and place, and the experience of listening in that time and place, and being who you were. The spirit is the critical element, and it’s impossible to duplicate. You can’t do it only with jocks and jingles.
(One day a radio colleague told me that he had produced a spot and saved it to the proper folder on the server, but when he got back to his desk he couldn’t find it. I joked, “This never happened when we carried a tape down the hall.” I am convinced that some of the Facebookers would see this incident as a legitimate argument for bringing back recording tape and cart machines.)
I am probably the most nostalgic person you know. This entire damn website is an exercise in nostalgia. I have spent most of my adult life looking back. I can be nostalgic for years that didn’t seem very special while I was living them. I cherish and take comfort in revisiting the places I have been and the experiences I have had. But I grow weary of the myopia from people of my generation who mistake normal processes of growth and change for assaults on All We Hold Dear. (It’s a major source of much of the current trouble we’re in as a nation.)
The past is gone, and it ain’t coming back. Not because people don’t care about old things, or because they didn’t care when those old things weren’t old. Like it or not, we live only in the now, and the road we travel goes only one way.