by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
It would be easy to attribute Oldies radio’s current crisis to a generational shift among the people who make the decisions at radio groups and ad agencies. ‘60s Oldies probably isn’t their music. ‘50s Oldies definitely is not their music. And even though we like to think that anything recorded after 1956 would always be part of the larger body of “rock and roll” to everybody who came afterwards, how could the 40-year-old music on an Oldies station not sound ancient to a 25-year-old ad buyer? Frank Sinatra sounded ancient to those of us who grew up in the ‘70s. But his early ‘50s hits were only as old as “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees is today.
Before fleeing the format outright, maybe it’s time to consider another option: Oldies without apologies
But as the format suffers one defection after another, the crisis of confidence is clearly spreading to the format’s supporters. The Oldies format disappeared in Charlotte, N.C., Austin, Texas, and Jacksonville, Fla., and nobody rushed in to pick it up. Now, comments about the Oldies format being “over” are coming from programmers and owners who were happily making a living there just a year ago—folks who had seemed not to get the memo about the evacuation.
However, some stations still haven’t gotten the memo. The fall Arbitron came back with WMJI Cleveland again atop the market with an 8.5 share. There were up books at WOMC Detroit, WWSW Pittsburgh, and WODS Boston, and in smaller markets (WKNL New London, Conn., WQLL Manchester, N.H., and KUUL Davenport, Iowa, among them).
There was also one of the oddest success stories of recent months: WLNG Eastern Long Island, N.Y., whose broad playlist, retro jingles, and endless remotes have made it a radio junkie’s favorite for years. Then the market got its first ratings, and suddenly WLNG was No. 3 12-plus—an individually owned station hanging in when the groups were pulling out, or at least getting nervous.
What are your options if you don’t own one of those stations? You can try to go younger. In fact, WMJI, WWSW, and WODS all have a significant ‘70s component at this point. But so did many of the low-rated stations that had pulled out. It’s an even more daunting task when you consider that the Top 40 coalition was starting to splinter as early as 1968. Look at an Oldies test and you’ll see plenty of age and gender polarization on some late ‘60s rock—not just the ‘70s titles. You might expect to see that with the Doors, but it’s also on acts as seemingly mass-appeal as Credence Clearwater Revival and the Guess Who. And a lot of Oldies stations are relying on those titles more than ever.
There’s switching to Classic Hits outright—but there aren’t a lot of markets where that hole is sitting open. And even when Classic Hits is a viable option, it’s not really the new Oldies, as some have contended. Oldies radio plays all the hits for a generation that grew up with music as a shared cultural experience. Classic Hits and Classic Rock play about a third of the era’s music for an audience that had splintered accordingly.
There’s the Jack/Bob format, which can at least cover more turf, so it’s appropriate that KBPA (Bob FM) Austin, Texas, is one of the few replacements for an Oldies station that convincingly went a generation younger. (WOLL West Palm Beach, Fla., also made a successful ‘50s/’60s to ‘70s/’80s transition last year.)
You can’t blame an owner for leaving a format to fill an obvious hole (e.g., FM gospel in Montgomery, Ala.). But we’ve also seen the Oldies exodus send one prominent station to classic hits in a combo that already included Classic Rock and all-‘80s. That’s not a case of following an opportunity. That’s somebody looking for an escape route. So before fleeing the format outright—especially if there’s no particular place to go—maybe it’s time to consider another option: Oldies without apologies.
For the last five years or so, owners of Oldies stations have been so determined to change the composition of their radio stations that they’ve all but declared war on their own audience. When Oldies stations aren’t forcing in Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, they’re yanking listeners from frequency to frequency within a market. Or they’re on the air threatening to change format unless listeners somehow improve their revenue. In any other format, programmers would try to get the most out of the audience they can have, and hope that being a bigger station will get them exposed to more fringe listeners.
So it would be interesting to see what happened if a station tried to be “Oldies proud” on the air. That starts with the name. The word “Oldies” used to be so potent that most stations didn’t feel they needed any other name. (You only needed to be sure to register “Oldies Radio” with Arbitron before somebody else did.) Now, Oldies stations sound like those Country stations during the format’s various doldrums that thought being called something other than Country would solve their problems. Know a lot of successful stations positioned as “America’s Music” these days?
What else could an Oldies station do? There’s the full-service option. It’s no accident that WMJI, WOMC, and WODS all have heritage morning shows. On its Website, WLNG brags about its news and weather elements. (The only slug lines on its homepage, not incidentally, are “Radio Eastern Long Island” and “Live and local.”) Oldies listeners grew up with personality and with news as part of the larger package. Gradually, however, their services were peeled away and the jocks they grew up with were replaced by a generation of air talent who barely knew the music.
And maybe the lessons of “Jack/Bob” aren’t just for 25-to-44-year-olds. Those listeners get to hear three-and-a-half decades of music and they’ve been trusted to understand an 800-song library. So maybe a 50-year-old no longer wants the same powers he’s heard twice a day for the last 15 years. Jack/Bob can span the mid-‘70s to today—30 years—but Oldies stations feel they have to choose between the ‘50s and the ‘70s. The pre-Beatles purge has made Oldies stations sound even more claustrophobic—the first eight years of Rock ‘n’ roll have been replaced by a much smaller group of usable records.
When the FM Oldies template took hold in the late ‘80s, the format was designed as a cume machine. Then again, with the marketing budgets of the time, it was a lot easier to run a cume machine back then. Now the KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles strategy of 175 immaculately testing oldies has clearly lost its potency over the last few years. And it may be time to start thinking of Oldies as a TSL proposition. If Oldies has indeed only a handful of remaining years as a viable FM format, its industry supporters—rather than apologizing for the format—should consider programming the type of station they want to hear. Because it’s not out of the question that it could also be the station other Oldies fans want.
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.