Catching Up On the New Oldies

It’s been a good couple of weeks for Scott Shannon’s True Oldies Channel, which launched on owner Citadel’s FMs in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. and added an AM in Providence, R.I., for good measure. And while those markets made True Oldies front and center with broadcasters for the first time in a while, the four-year-old network is, as Shannon notes, up to 50 stations (including FMs in Chicago, Knoxville, and New Orleans) and far more durable than many expected. The True Oldies Channel has certainly outlived the “Real Oldies on AM” movement that spawned it, although its creator always had loftier goals.
It seemed like a good time to go back and listen critically to the True Oldies, which was relatively easy because it has also popped up on WPLJ New York’s HD-3 multicast channel. (Until now, a New Yorker had to DX it in the car on WREF Danbury, Conn.) It was also time to take another look at WCBS-FM New York, which debuted to immediate success and immense publicity last year. Like most new gold-based stations, the ratings for WCBS-FM have stabilized–at a more-than-respectable number. Like most gold-based stations, it also faded from the headlines after its launch.
But both WCBS-FM and True Oldies have been part of a rebuilding boom for Oldies (or Classic Hits or your term of choice). At this point, there are only a few large markets that can be said to have nothing that can be called Oldies of any sort — San Diego and Baltimore in particular. And both WCBS-FM and True Oldies have been part of a paradigm shift in the way the format is done that goes beyond the obvious changes in era.
Some readers will be surprised to see the two formats viewed as similar in any way. True Oldies Channel started by super-serving the ’50s and ’60s. After a few years, it had phased out the doo-wop and the other pre-Beatles depth titles and added the handful of ’70s that had always been part of the Oldies format. While it has lent itself to local jocks (or, in D.C., and Atlanta, Imus) in some dayparts, it’s presentation is still relatively minimalist, with Shannon’s stagers as the dominant element.
WCBS-FM, on the other hand, returned to its classic template in a number of ways. The jocks were the ones who had been (or would have been) the newbies in its previous incarnation, but they were still veteran full-service talent. Musically, the station’s decision to play the ’80s has become so commonplace since last year that one doesn’t give it a second thought when, say, “Love Is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar shows up.
The ’80s are, in fact, such a common part of the Oldies format now that it has become possible to do Oldies on FM in Canada. Newcap’s recently launched CIQX (XL103) Calgary adheres to the government rule that effectively forces stations to play 50% music recorded in 1981 or later, but it doesn’t sound much newer in execution than CBS’s just-relaunched WOCL (Sunny 105.9) Orlando, Fla. In many cases, the only thing that separates Oldies radio now from a gold-based AC like WOLL (Kool 105.5) West Palm Beach, Fla. is that while those stations were moving into the ’80s, WOLL has started playing “Get The Party Started” by Pink and a handful of other ’90s and ’00s titles.
Despite their differences in era, however, True Oldies and WCBS-FM have both helped redefine Oldies programming for the post-Bob-and-Jack-FM-era in one significant way. Both will delve strategically into songs that are not reliable testers, something that PD Brian Thomas has described as his takeaway from having programmed WCBS-FM in its Jack years. Both WCBS and True Oldies affiliate WZZN Chicago showed more than 900 separate titles on Mediabase last week. And even if a lot of those were one-time only special feature spikes, well, there weren’t a lot of those on KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles when that station became the template for the super-tight early ’90s Oldies FM.
The bulk of the depth on both stations comes from songs that most listeners (or nervous GMs) probably wouldn’t consider obscure. Both will play “Little Bit O’ Soul” by the Music Explosion – one of those late ’60s garage/bubblegum songs that used to be format staples, still sound good on the radio, but no longer do well in research.
Beyond that, WCBS-FM uses its daily and weekend “Hall of Fame” features as an excuse to spike almost anything. Themes have included Country Crossovers, Jazz Crossovers, and a lot of pre-Beatles music (although that’s more likely to be Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis than the early-’60s doo-wop that twice defined WCBS-FM, first by its presence, then by its absence). Not every hour’s song in the feature will be a song that doesn’t test, but there’s been enough to keep the station interesting past its launch. Weekender Pat St. John gets some leeway, too. I recently heard “At the Discotheque,” a mid-’60s Chubby Checker b-side. And I was glad to have discovered it.
There are now some disclaimers necessary here:
1) The spikes are still the exception, not the rule. If your only interest in Oldies radio is the “oh wow” songs, you should be streaming suburban New York’s WGHT (North Jersey 1500) or CKWW Detroit.
2) These aren’t the only stations that have broken down the notion that super-defined and tight were always right in Oldies. WKXW (New Jersey 101.5) Trenton, N.J.’s weekend Oldies programming and WDRC-FM Hartford, Conn., are among many others that deserve a mention. But both WCBS-FM and True Oldies have spread their influence among larger groups.
3) Try this at home only with extreme caution. It’s still easier to go beyond the hits when you’ve done enough music research to know what the hits are, and when you’re stretching out. And the ’80s are still an option, not a mandate (at least outside Canada).
Here’s WCBS-FM on March 10 at 11 a.m.
Pilot, “Magic”
Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody To Love”
Lee Michaels, “Do You Know What I Mean”
Diana Ross & Supremes, “Someday We’ll Be Together”
Blondie, “Heart of Glass”
Herman’s Hermits, “There’s A Kind Of Hush”
Stevie Wonder, “I Wish”
John Stewart, “Gold” (Daily Feature Song)
Percy Sledge, “When A Man Loves A Woman”
Ventures, “Walk Don’t Run” (Hall of Fame Special Feature song)
Beach Boys, “California Girls”
Elton John, “Philadelphia Freedom”
Billy Joel, “Allentown”
Heart, “Magic Man”
Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive”
And here’s the True Oldies Channel on March 9 at 7:45 p.m. (ET):
Johnny Rivers, “Memphis”
Hollies, “Bus Stop” (Fill)
Tom Jones, “It’s Not Unusual”
Gordon Lightfoot, “Sundown”
Buckinghams, “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Who’ll Stop The Rain”
Brenton Wood, “Gimme Little Sign”
Lee Michaels, “Do You Know What I Mean”
Turtles, “You Baby”
Eddie Holman, “Hey There Lonely Girl”
Happenings, “See You In September” (Fill)
Stevie Wonder, “For Once In My Life”
Beatles, “Rock & Roll Music”
Spinners, “Working My Way Back To You”
Jerry Lee Lewis, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (Special Weekend)
Tavares, “It Only Takes A Minute” (Fill)
Arthur Conley, “Sweet Soul Music”
Jimmy Buffett, “Come Monday”

24 replies
  1. Rich Brother Robbin
    Rich Brother Robbin says:

    Call me old-fashioned but when Pat Benatar plays on a station going back to the 60’s for part of
    its music recipe it ruins the mood for me and I’m gone.
    Many programmers seem to think the ONLY way to get younger listeners is to play NEWER music, when in reality many younger poeple like older songs too; it’s just a matter of determining what they are. My 21-year-old niece’s favorte song is
    The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Tokens version of course.
    I would also add that the newer the music, the more of it is on our competitors’ stations … if a giraffe wants to get noticed, the last place he should be standing is in a herd of giraffes. It’s the differences that get us noticed, not the samenessees.
    What I’d like to see is a head-on battle between a True Oldies station vs. a Modern Oldies
    one and see what happens. If nothing else,
    it’d be fun to watch (and listen to)!
    Richbro

    Reply
  2. Pat Holiday
    Pat Holiday says:

    You know what’s interesting and holds both (maybe all) these stations together? If you look carefully, and are old enough to remember them being played and remember the target of the audiences now, all of these songs save for Allentown (and even it’s not all that off) are all big giant hits in their day.
    So you have to ask yourself. If you’re serving up really familiar hits to the audience who grew up with them why wouldn’t they sound great and numbers follow?
    My guess is the audience didn’t get the format memo that says songs like these don’t test, or are dead, or are too diverse in genre to be a format, or cross too many eras. Only radio people were fed that logic….wrong as it is.
    Hits are hits are hits, especially if they nail the target audience (age). And even more interesting in this day an age, who in their right mind would EVER spend the time to load up their ipod with all these songs? No one. Certainly not the people in this target. Their only question has to be, do I listen to this station for these songs or not if they like them? There really is no effortless hi-tech alternative to compete against these stations other than satellite, and isn’t that a plus.
    Plus seeing as how technology is sucking off everyone under 30 at a heightened rate, I’m guessing stations in this mode are in the right place at the right time to survive just fine.

    Reply
  3. Michael McDowell
    Michael McDowell says:

    Interesting to see a more broad cross section of chronology there, indicating that this station is not as decade-impaired as others of its ilk. The format still seems to be in a fragile state, though, due to the traditional reluctance to go deep/and or venture forth from limited playlists.
    As such, the recent shift of Leamington, Ontario’s CFCO-AM to a simulcast with their pretender-to-the-throne imitation country is most disheartening, given especially that CFCO was known to offhandedly spin the likes of Shirley Matthews’ “Big Town Boy” or Barry Allen’s “Love Drops” without flinching. Radio in general simply isn’t that ambitious anymore. As such, their decision to switch formats is most disconcerting.

    Reply
  4. Ken Moultrie
    Ken Moultrie says:

    I have seen far too many Oldies stations drop ‘everything’ pre-Beatles, and move so far into the 70’s in a effort to attract a “younger” audience. If this is not done carefully, you run the risk of not meeting the expectation of an Oldies listener. Era isn

    Reply
  5. Rich Appel
    Rich Appel says:

    It’s worth mentioning (although perhaps obvious from the sample hour) that CBS-FM’s “80s” cuts are more likely to be from acts who also hit in the ’60s and/or ’70s (McCartney, Cher, Billy Joel, Elton, Rod, Lionel Richie) or those the sound of which owes much to either of those two prior decades (Fine Young Cannibals, Men at Work, Human League, Soft Cell). Listeners craving ‘new wave depth’ or anything harder won’t find it here. Put another way, CBS-FM won’t blind you with science.

    Reply
  6. Dave Mason
    Dave Mason says:

    Can I say “I TOLD YOU SO”?? 3 years ago we were left to our own at XHOCL in San Diego. We knew in 6 months the station would be sold, but faced with “Jack” and an AM station dabbling in 50’s music, we straddled the fence…playing everything that made sense from “Rock Around The Clock” to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” to some pretty nifty 90’s music that fit the bill. In three short months we started seeing amazing movement in the station -but then it was gone. Til then, I’ve been getting strange reaction from people who wouldn’t THINK of Jerry Lee Lewis on the same station with-John Mellencamp “Wild Nights” to UB 40’s remake of “Red Red Wine”. It’s the ESSENCE not the era that makes a True Oldies station – a TRUE OLDIES Station. If you know the music (and some of us do) you will WIN.

    Reply
  7. Pat Cloonan
    Pat Cloonan says:

    May I suggest Pittsburgh still would be the most unique market in America for oldies? While WWSW-94.5 has moved into the 80s, some stations still dig for 50s gold. Keymarket uses an ABC oldies feed on two suburban FMs (Renda has that same feed on a DuBois area station heard in some eastern suburbs). WAMO-860 touts “old school R&B” and Porky Chedwick is still alive and doing a monthly gig on WKFB-770.

    Reply
  8. EMIL J KOVACH JR
    EMIL J KOVACH JR says:

    You Have To Present The Songs–In the Style–they Were Once Presented–That Is Sorely Lacking.
    We Don’t Need The Sreaming Jocks–Anymore–But We need The Pace.
    And OLDIES Played With Un-Connected Jock Patter, Is Not A winning Combination
    EMIL

    Reply
  9. Yukon Jack
    Yukon Jack says:

    I wish people wouldn’t call music from the 70’s and 80’s “oldies” – that’s “classic hits.” Oldies are songs from the 50’s and early 60’s, and maybe the rest of the 60’s. But never 70’s and certainly never the 80’s. And the Scott Shannon version of “true oldies” is a complete misnomer – we have it now in DC (on 105.9) and its the same boring pseudo oldies they have been playing on Big 100 the past few years. I tuned in for the first time a day after it launched and the first five songs were no older than 1975. Sorry “Super Shan” – that ain’t “oldies” in my book.

    Reply
  10. Ed Osborne
    Ed Osborne says:

    As one who once played current songs on the radio that are now called “oldies,” I second most of the comments here; especially Pat Holiday’s “didn’t get the format memo” one. When I look through the two sample hours, I see nothing surprising. As Pat notes, they were all giant hits.
    What IS surprising – always – is how non-adventurous radio continues to be. While programmers tout their daring in playing such non-testers as, say, (gasp) “Little Bit O’ Soul,” the listeners are bored silly.
    Yes, I know all the real-world reasons why radio plays it safe, however, the listener isn’t aware of them and doesn’t care. Over and over radio falls back on testing as the ultimate “decider” and, in doing so, sells the listeners short.
    I love (and listen to) all kinds of music. So does my 31-year-old son and his friends. Although we all enjoy hearing our faves, it’s those we don’t know or haven’t heard in a long time that make a station exciting.
    Sadly, that’s a rare occurence these days.

    Reply
  11. Jeff Scheckner
    Jeff Scheckner says:

    I don’t think any of us can agree on a common definition of what is an “oldie.” In much the same way, defining “rock and roll” and who belongs in the RRHOF based upon some narrow definition also precipitates an argument.
    One thing WCBS-FM realizes is that although it is essential for the demos to bring in the 80’s and diminish pre-Beatles songs, a station should not ignore its heritage. As Sean pointed out there are a number of occassions where CBS-FM plays earlier songs and those from later years not heard in regular rotation. WCBS-FM also realizes that it is not simply the year a song was released that matters, its the overall sound. They play Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” from 1957 on occassion but do not play Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” another #1 hit from more than a decade later, as it simply did not stand the test of time.
    I don’t think Philly’s WOGL has realized this as they seem to have amnesia for anything prior to 1964 including all the classic and best loved Philly artists from that era–Bobby Rydell, the Orlons, Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, James Darren, Dee Dee Sharp and others.

    Reply
  12. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    “Surprising” is, of course, in the ear of the beholder. I turned on CBS-FM last night and heard them going from Eddie Kendricks’ “Boogie Down” into Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun.” (The special weekend set-up, which I missed, was No. 2 songs and the No. 1 songs that held them out of the top slot.) Two big hits. But not two songs that you hear on the radio. And even though they’re both in my iPod, I did sit in a parked car until it finished, stunned at actually hearing “Seasons In The Sun” — one of those songs that defines “what not to play” for many PDs — on the radio again.
    Ed is right that you shouldn’t have to be grateful to hear “Little Bit O’ Soul” on the radio. But you can’t take hearing it for granted anymore. (In fact, for a year, it looked like you might not be able to take “Mony Mony” or “Unchained Melody” for granted anymore.) So while those songs don’t meet my “oh wow” or discovery needs, I’m still happy to have them.
    As mentioned above, when I want “oh wow”s I go to CKWW (the Donnie Elbert version of “Where Did Our Love Go” last time I tuned in). When I want discovery I go to WGHT. “North Jersey 1500″ can certainly play stretches of songs that you can hear anywhere, but if I spend enough time there in a given weekend, I can count on at least one obscurity that I had previously known only as a title in a Whitburn chart book (most recently “Yesterday’s Rain” by Spanky & Our Gang and “I’ll Hold Out My Hand” by the Clique).
    When I was in my early twenties, I remember suggesting to a colleague that Oldies stations should feature “new Oldies.” He pondered my idea as diplomatically as he could, and, of course, I figured out eventually that “new Oldies” would be in violation of radio programming law. So whenever a programmer finds out a way to offer me a little discovery without breaking his promise to the people who want the hits, I’m thrilled. If there’s even one obscurity on the magnitude of “At The Discotheque” by Chubby Checker on WCBS-FM every week, it’s still somebody playing “new Oldies.” And who thought that would ever happen in market No. 1?

    Reply
  13. Mike Schaefer
    Mike Schaefer says:

    If you really want “oh wows” — then Long Island’s WLNG is the only place. I’d say 2/3 of the songs they play are “oh wows”. Also, the syndicated Casey Kasem countdowns from the ’70s that are aring in some markets are a treasure trove.

    Reply
  14. Ed Osborne
    Ed Osborne says:

    Thanks, Sean, for putting “surprise” in the context of today’s radio reality. The good news is that I can now check out out-of-area stations on line (including the two you noted).
    In the old days I’d DX every night to hear those distant stations and their unique play list discs. (Of course, your garden variety AM radios had better selectivity and sensitivity then, but that’s another story…)

    Reply
  15. Ken Spaulding
    Ken Spaulding says:

    Does WCBS-FM play any fairly recent music? I have an aircheck from them in 1987 with a stager that said “101 yesterday…CBS-FM today!” going into Journey’s “I’ll Be Alright Without You” (which was slowly climbing the CHR chart at the time) and Ron Lundy backselling it “yeah, that’s a nice song”.
    And I second WLNG as well. I have always been a fan of that station, and recently rediscovered their live stream. Truly there is no station that sounds like WLNG

    Reply
  16. Eddie Harrison
    Eddie Harrison says:

    In reference to Sean Ross’s commentary: At least WCBS did play “Seasons in the Sun”, even though it was a #2 and #1 Hall of Fame special. At least they played it!! Ok..It’s a song that most likely you’ll never hear in rotation on any oldies / classic hits station..but it was played!! This tells me and hopefully listeners back there in NYC that a station, like WCBS, is willing to branch out and play something else above and beyond the ordinary playlist of songs. This makes WCBS more diverse and attractive to the audience. “Seasons in the Sun” may not be heard again for months..but they played it..That’s the difference between a station that’s boring and repetitive and one that’s willing to try something new. By the way, they air a Top 20 countdown every Sunday Night for a certain year.

    Reply
  17. Tom Lawler
    Tom Lawler says:

    I grew up with a variety of oldies stations in the 90’s/early 00’s – KLDE where I lived and CBS-FM/WOGL in Central Jersey on vacation (before they evolved – and I’m not that old, only 20). Thoes stations hammered away at the oldies name – and to me it meant songs from the 50’s, 60’s and some 70’s tunes thrown in.
    Now when I hear the True Oldies Channel proclaim “playing the songs other stations forgot”, then slam into “I Will Survive,” I start the search again for a “real” oldies station, or turn my iPod back on. At least some stations arent trying to fit the oldies square peg into the “classic hits” round hole.
    Oldies has been defined for roughly 30 years – when a station uses it as branding, I have certain expectations. And “I Will Survive” isnt it. Thats what has me disapointed about the True Oldies Channel – its not “true oldies.” 70’s Weekends dont really do it for me when I want to hear some Ronettes, Classic Motown, or some 50’s doo-wop.

    Reply
  18. Gary C.
    Gary C. says:

    I would suggest Pat Cloonan’s post about Pittsburgh is a bit misleading. WAMO-AM is less than a blip in the market and Porky Chedwick’s once a month appearance is a courtesy nod to history more than valid programming.

    Reply
  19. Cliff Edwards
    Cliff Edwards says:

    What relationship does 80’s music have with 60’s music? How about…none. Folks who listened to 60’s and 80’s had different life experiences, probably lived in a different place. We get listened too because we offer oldies that listeners cant find anywhere else.

    Reply
  20. Charlie O'Brien
    Charlie O'Brien says:

    I still remember telling a GM years ago: “there are no NEW oldies…” as the sales dept. kept pushing for newer songs that “they” knew. ie 70’s & 80’s.
    While we do test songs – the real test is “running it between my ears.”
    While not everyone in the market grew up here, we never forget the Detroit musical heritage, with as Sean mentioned songs like ‘Donnie Elbert’) but all the others that got played in the city. ALL the others – Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Tim Tam & The Turn-Ons, Fantastic Four, Parliaments, Al Kent, Flaming Ember (4 deep) and EVERY Motown artist.
    Oh, you’ll hear Terry Jacks as well.

    Reply
  21. Ken Busser
    Ken Busser says:

    I love the oldies of the 50’s-60’s-70’s… I feel I grew up in the very best of times. Yes, I am a baby boomer, but we had Rock-Pop-Country-Soul & the British Invasion, along with BOSS RADIO on the radio– all at the same time! AM Radio was king… You could DX’ the car radio or your transistor radio up and down the dial and hear the hits from market to market all with a little different flare.
    I’m in the process of recording all my vinyl records (about 4000+ 45’s and 1500 LPs) into my computer. I can relive those early days of radio along with the classic jingles I have on tape. My MP3 player takes me to radio heaven. I haven’t given up on dx’ing AM & FM, but the future looks grim, in getting anyone to commit to playing the good stuff. You know, the music that wasn’t TOP 10. No, I want to hear the stuff from number 23 down to number 40, on the top 40 survey.

    Reply

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