by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
Throughout the ‘90s, conventional programming wisdom held that there was only one right way to do the Oldies format: focus on 1971 and before, take 200 impeccably tested oldies (fewer was okay, too), and play the biggest among them in rotations that wouldn’t be out of place on a Top 40. It was, undeniably, a winning approach for KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles for many years under PD Mike Phillips, who somehow managed to make “Brown Eyed Girl” sound exciting every six hours, even to an industry person who didn’t have any particular need to hear that song ever again.
But a decade later, with a once reliable Top 5 franchise eroded, there’s confusion at the center of the Oldies format. Even those PDs who might think that the ‘90s model still works now find themselves at odds with a sales department that wants them to skew younger. WCBS-FM New York, an object of programmers’ derision a decade ago for playing the ‘70s and ‘80s, is a new source of inspiration to many Oldies stations, but there’s clearly no consensus. The handful of Oldies stations still found in the top 5 sound nothing like each other. Hold on to pre-Beatles? It’s worked for KKSN Portland, Ore. Go deeper into the ‘70s? Sounds great on WMJI Cleveland, although not for many of the stations that tried to clone it.
I’ve been waiting for an Oldies version of “Classic Rock That Really Rocks.”
If there’s confusion at the center of the format, there’s anarchy at the fringes. While the first-wave of pre-Beatles AM stations in the late-‘80s were built from the same super-tight model as K-Earth 101, the handful that have popped up recently are often an inch wide and a mile deep. I can hear four pre-Beatles AM stations in Central Jersey and, even as an oldies collector, a few of them regularly send me back to my Billboard chart books to figure out what I’m hearing. In fact, thanks to the Internet, I now have more than enough places to hear oldies I don’t know, if only because of European Oldies radio.
From a programming standpoint, though, what I’ve been waiting for was an Oldies version of “Classic Rock That Really Rocks,” a more male-targeted approach where the most-played Dave Clark Five oldie wasn’t the ballad, “Because.” Or an Oldies version of Canada’s “Jack”/”Bob” phenomenon—an Oldies format with some strategic “Oh Wow” records and the notion of variety as a selling point, not a liability.
There are elements of both those approaches in veteran programmer Scott Shannon’s “True Oldies Channel.” Launched a month or so ago at WREF-AM Danbury, Conn., and (in slightly different form) at Southern California’s XESURF-AM, before its official offering through ABC Radio Networks, TOC is Shannon’s attempt to find a middle ground between today’s FMs (still tight, just more confused as to era) and the new AM outlets (too tight on era and too much depth).
I’ve been listening to WREF at least once or twice a day for the past 2-3 weeks now. It is still taking shape, so it’s hard to talk about the network in absolutes. But here are the rough parameters of what I’ve heard so far:
ERA: About 45-55% pre-Beatles. There’s a handful of early ‘70s pop and R&B titles, but you can go for a while without hearing them. You won’t hear the Classic Hits ‘70s that have invaded many of today’s oldies FMs. You also won’t hear a lot of the AC’ish late ‘60s—Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, for instance.
DEPTH: Again, it can vary depending on the stretch, but about 35-40% of what I’ve heard is music that tests for most Oldies stations (or at least those that still test pre-Beatles titles). Most of the remainder falls in the “Reach Out Of The Darkness” category—hits that you used to hear on Oldies radio before KRTH inspired every PD to cull their library. They’re not songs people haven’t heard of; they’re just songs people haven’t heard recently. (There are songs that you didn’t hear on Oldies radio, even in the late ‘80s, such as “Show Me” by Joe Tex, but they’re few and far between.) Whether that’s dangerous music—even if it’s supported by hits and positioned as variety—is likely to depend on your programming worldview. I shared a sample hour with one major-market PD and the songs that made him arch his eyebrows weren’t necessarily the ones I expected. So no two readers will likely react to these monitors the same way.
REPETITION: Without monitoring, I have to answer this one like a civilian. Listening at roughly the same times every day, it took about 5-7 days before I heard anything twice in regular rotation. By and large, it’s the pre-Beatles music that feels like it’s coming around faster. I’ve heard songs in special features repeat once a daypart, however.
SPECIAL FEATURES: So far, just a handful, but with more reportedly to come: a Top 5 on this day in a given year and a “this day in rock history” feature.
PRESENTATION: Jockless, but very reminiscent of the early days of Shannon’s “Pirate Radio” with promos that do a good job of explaining the selling point of the station: “not just the same oldies over and over.” There are stagers for one-hit wonders and “cruising classics,” as well as one positioning the TOC as “where doo-wop still lives.”
It will be a little while before True Oldies Channel shakes out into its ultimate on-air product and longer before we know how much variety can be sold to an Oldies audience that, for years, was thought to want none. WREF, which was doing less than a share with its previous network Oldies format, is a decent signal in a market without many radio stations of its own, so it has a reasonable shot. But any true test will depend on seeing the format on FM, since a lot of the current AM Oldies outlets are shaking out somewhere around a 1.5 share range, regardless of how they’re programmed. The good news is that I’m still coming back two weeks later to see what comes next. And, unlike some of my Internet Oldies choices, I don’t feel like I’m listening for the wrong reason.
April 20, 2004, 5:20 p.m.
Archies, “Sugar Sugar”
Newbeats, “Bread And Butter”
Hank Ballard & Midnighters, “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go”
Cowsills, “The Rain, The Park, And Other Things”
Beach Boys, “Do You Wanna Dance?”
Orlons, “The Wah Watusi”
Kinks, “You Really Got Me”
Edwin Starr, “Twenty-Five Miles”
Steppenwolf, “Born To Be Wild”
Righteous Brothers, “Unchained Melody”
April 22, 2004, 10:05 a.m.
Zombies, “She’s Not There”
B.J. Thomas, “Hooked On A Feeling”
Jr. Walker & All-Stars, “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)”
Fleetwoods, “Come Softly To Me” (No. 1 on a countdown feature)
Shadows Of Knight, “Gloria”
Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)”
Freddie Cannon, “Palisades Park”
Santo & Johnny, “Sleepwalk”
Gary Lewis & Playboys, “Count Me In”
Spaniels, “Goodnite Sweetheart, Goodnite”
Isley Brothers, “Shout”
Smith, “Baby It’s You” (with “one hit wonders” stager)
Dave Clark Five, “Do You Love Me”
Jaynettes, “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses”
Dion, “The Wanderer”
Three Degrees, “When Will I See You Again”
April 22, 2004, 5:00 p.m.
Happenings, “I Got Rhythm”
Elvis Presley, “Treat Me Nice”
Jay & Techniques, “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie”
Honey Cone, “Want Ads”
Hondells, “Little Honda”
Dionne Warwick, “I Say A Little Prayer”
Lemon Pipers, “Green Tambourine”
Marvin Gaye, “I’ll Be Doggone”
American Breed, “Bend Me, Shape Me”
April 28, 2004, 7:10 a.m.
Fortunes, “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”
Bobby Freeman, “Do You Want To Dance”
Mickey & Sylvia, “Love Is Strange”
Bobby Vee, “Come Back When You Grow Up”
Gene Pitney, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance”
Rick Nelson, “Never Be Anyone Else But You”
Byrds, “Mr. Tambourine Man”
Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”
Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man”
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.