Not Dead Yet! The Online Rebirth of WCBS-FM

By “Tom Webster”, Edison VP

What has been lost amongst the brouhaha of WCBS-FM’s departure is the fact that it didn’t really leave…exactly. “Newsday”:,0,3474359.story doesn’t mention it. “The New York Times”:, and the “Daily News”: don’t mention it in their separate “eulogies” of Cousin Brucie. The Daily News’s follow-up piece, “CBS Fans think they got Jack-ed”: , barely gives it a sentence. Nonetheless, WCBS-FM, “The Greatest Hits of All Time”, is still alive—at least for those of us who listen to radio on the Internet.

…the brand is not being extended as much as it is being evacuated from the path of the JACK tornado

“”: is now a part of Infinity’s “RadioMat”: portfolio of stations, and is also being promoted as a future HD Radio multicast. In 2000, Edison and Arbitron presented the results of “The Side Channel Study: Extending Your Brand on the Internet”: and this appears to be what we have here—a side channel, though the brand is not being extended as much as it is being evacuated from the path of the JACK tornado. As it stands, WCBS-FM’s abrupt departure from the airwaves has made a lot of Oldies listeners–and New York radio aficionados in general–fairly unhappy. For them, the new, “side channel” incarnation of WCBS-FM will provide little comfort. Had the switch been handled differently, the headlines might well be trumpeting the creation of a branded online Oldies channel as a spirited defense against the iPod barbarians at the gate instead of an endless source of “listeners got JACK’ed” headlines.
There are over a dozen stations already listed on Infinity’s RadioMat (and they have similarly preserved WHFS and K-Rock 2 as exclusive online entities) so streaming unique content is nothing new for them. However, WCBS (along with fellow “retiree” WJMK) is the most prominent broadcast Oldies station to make the move to broadcasting exclusively online. Given the preponderance of 12-29 year olds on the Internet, what might an online Oldies station expect in terms of potential audience?
According to our most recent “Edison/Arbitron Internet and Multimedia Study”:, there is certainly great potential to reach the 45+ demographic that broadcast media has increasingly abandoned. Consider the following facts:
* Amongst persons 45+ with Internet access, 26% have listened to a radio station online.
* With this same group, 10% indicated that they use the Internet to hear the radio station that they currently listen to most, and 18% listen to stations outside their local area.
* The number one reason cited by Internet users 45+ for listening to online radio was “to listen to audio [they] cannot get elsewhere.”
Since Oldies as a format is rapidly becoming “audio you cannot get elsewhere,” one senses that moving WCBS-FM online is a risk, but not one without potential. Consider also that despite this demographic’s diminished appeal on Madison Ave, apparently these Boomers didn’t get the memo: 38% indicated that they had made a purchase over the Internet in the past month, and 45-54 year-olds also spent an average of $1209.00 over the Internet during the last 12 months, which is considerably more than the $524.00 that the “hot” 18-24 demographic spent. Even 55-64 year olds who had made Internet purchases over the last year spent an average of $838.00. As we have seen in our “series of Internet and Multimedia studies”: over the years, streaming audio is widely used as a “soundtrack” for shopping online, so audio streams that cater to frequent spenders may prove to be lucrative channels for online advertising.
So Oldies has commercial potential as an Internet-only format, and perhaps even more as an on-demand/subscription content stream. After all, in the early days of XM, lots of people signed up solely to hear the all-reggae or all-blues stations. A compelling, well-produced Oldies stream might be one of the enticements to taking a chance on HD Radio. Certainly, the fact that the satellite radio operators are now targeting Oldies fans in New York and Chicago indicates that they are all too aware of the power of the format–and of the demographic it delivers.
Execution matters here, of course. Although RadioMat is fairly new, Internet Radio has been around a while. There are a _lot_ more people listening to Internet-only audio streams than there are subscribers to both satellite radio services, and some of the stations they are listening to have been around for almost a decade. Infinity has a great deal of catch-up to play here, and it shows. For instance, although I have already registered at RadioMat to hear KYOU, I had to re-register to listen to WCBS – hardly an integrated user experience (and a detail that might turn off some listeners, wary of receiving their SPAM in triplicate.) The fact that the website itself consists of a brief letter and no fewer than _sixteen_ banner ads only reinforces that perception.
There are also lots of niggling little typos and inconsistencies on the site that add up to create the impression that the station was launched on the fly, and not as part of an integrated marketing strategy. Even the player itself brandishes a logo for “WCBS FM 101.1 (a now meaningless and confusing frequency) The Greatest Hits of All Time,” while the actual audio stream is labeled “The Greatest Hit’s [sic] of the 60’s and 70’s.” Picayune? No, just some of the many shelves left undusted even as the “Grand Opening” banner is unfurled.
When Broadcast Radio dips its toe into the Internet audio space, its competition goes way, way beyond the other 20 or so signals in their individual markets who may also be streaming. Look at this online-only “radio station from Poland”: for example. They may only be a handful of twenty-somethings in a Warsaw garage somewhere, but it’s a pretty well-designed site, even if you don’t speak Polish. The more broadcasters continue to launch “under construction” sites, the more they miss an opportunity to excel and create a valuable, positive first impression. Design is as integral to the package as content. To paraphrase noted usability consultant “Steve Krug”:, all you have to do when designing a site is ask “What would do?” Then do that thing. People will keep coming back.
Infinity is being vilified in the New York press for “killing Cousin Brucie,” but I take them at their word and hope that many of the great personalities of the station do return to its online incarnation and provide the “Good Times” that must accompany “Great Oldies.” Then, and only then, can broadcast radio flex its real muscle and demonstrate its competitive advantage over five guys in a Warsaw garage. Radio, however, _must_ get its Internet production values in line with its on-air production values.

9 replies
  1. Tom Schuh
    Tom Schuh says:

    Great article, Tom. the more I read and hear, the more I shake my head at how Infinity has bungled this important, maybe even historic transition. Banner ads? Spam? Typos? Pretty sad for one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates. If Oldies is indeed headed towards “non-traditional” outlets, there are plenty of talented and experienced “media designers,” both aural and visual, who are no doubt DROOLING at the opportunity to show how to do it right. Good luck to them….

  2. Harvey
    Harvey says:

    Why can’t all these MBA’s and Ph.D’s figure it out? Why have they run broadcast radio into the ground and buried it, and have not been able to see the plain and simple fact that they are alienating their listeners?
    I just plain don’t listen to the radio anymore. Hearing the same 15 songs played over and over is not exactly an incentive (My record collection when I was 10 years old was more ecclectic and larger than the playlists of most stations today!)
    I can’t stand the quantity or [lack of]quality of the commercials! I don’t know why a car dealer thinks I will purchase a car from him if he SCREAMS at me on the radio- but all he accomplishes is getting me to turn my radio off and enjoy peace and quiet and the sounds of real life.
    I can’t stand the blabbing, babbling DJ’s who all sound alike- as if they attended the Cookie-Cutter Institute of How To Sound Like Everyone Else- and who have terminal cases of diarrhea of the mouth.
    I don’t want to listen to some yammering DJ going on for 15 minutes about some contest to win a free pizza or Subway sandwich or a few dollars- I don’t listen to the radio to win crap- I listen to hear music that I like, but no one’s playing that.
    I don’t even bother turning my radio on anymore. Let them cater to the 13 year-old Britney Spears fans, -it’s nice that they’re doing that, considering that 13 year-olds don’t have any money to spend.
    Give me a call when they decide that they want to stop alienating us 40+ers who have some money- and when they want to make the airwaves an hospitible place again, rather than catering to antisocial welfare recipients and children.
    -A disgruntled ex-radio listener.

  3. Mirza Ahmed Baig
    Mirza Ahmed Baig says:

    That is no doubt a good article on the state of radio listening in the United States of America. Particularly,in the busiest place like NewYork where alone the automobile presence runs into millions the dearth of radio listeners is quite strange. The pattern presented in the article is going to establish that Internet growth will go hand in hand with Radio and Music.

  4. MarkDaniels
    MarkDaniels says:

    I dont buy it!!!The CBS FM Online “Station sounds like the last year of the format with only 500 songs and NO JOCKS. Also CBS wants these jocks to voicetrack with pay far below union scale. Would they go for that??? Even an entry level jock would have a tough time with that type of deal.
    This CBS FM Online offers me NOTHING I do not already have with my computer. Not only can I listen to many other choices fro oldies on the internet high speed alone…BUT I have every song played on the last incarnation of CBS FM Oldies as well as almost every song they ever played on a regular basis from the 70’s to 2002 stored on my hard drive. I can and have already put such a group of over 200 playlists together over the years. I cna merely listen to their old format musically this way. Why do I need CBS FM online?
    However if some of the personalites return, they move direction musically of the old 1996 CBS FM I knew as well I would have a good reason to listen. Otherwise I wont waste my time. Most people with computers able to recieve CBS FM Online have far better chyoices as well. This CBS FM Online thing does nothing for anyone. If you dont have a high speed you cant get it any way. If you do have one you have many other options.

  5. Merrick @ Pop Goes The '70s!
    Merrick @ Pop Goes The '70s! says:

    Tom: Good piece — you might also want to take a look at which is revolutionizing internet radio — well, actually it already has! I’m a broadcaster there and in the Oldies genre alone there are more than 600 stations, but likely hundreds more (for those broadcasters that classify their stations by an oldies sub-category, such as classic rock or by decade, rather than “Oldies”).
    In their latest listenership statistic published on their “About Us” page, Live365 boasts more than 2.6 million listeners per month.

  6. Steve Coan
    Steve Coan says:

    You obviously just don’t get it. People didn’t just listen to WCBS for the music! The same way they didn’t listen to Alan Freed or many other greats for the music. Let’s face it. Radio is DEAD. TV is on life support. It’s OVER. We will never see or hear great radio and TV again because any stations with a decent signal are owned by corporations that don’t and never will care.

  7. Tom Webster
    Tom Webster says:

    Steve–thanks for the comment. There are many things I probably just don’t get, but rest assured the importance of the jocks to the old WCBS-FM isn’t on that list. If you read to the end, you will note that I agree with you about the inestimable value that a great jock can have for a radio station. You might also note that I don’t think the online-only stream of WCBS-FM was executed particularly well, and the lack of those great voices only exacerbates the problem.
    Where I disagree with you, vehemently, is that radio is dead. The passion you obviously have for the “golden era” of radio may not (for you) have an outlet at the moment, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that you are, indeed, capable of that passion. If this article (and my colleague Sean Ross’s great tribute article to WCBS-FM) were about toasters, I doubt we would get so many passionate commenters. Radio is still capable of generating and fostering this kind of passion. It’s all in the execution.
    Radio is far from dead. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all radio stations are now programmed by some central processing agency in the bowels of some corporate headquarters, but the fact is that unlike a lot of the media you consume, you can still drive over to your local radio station, walk in, and meet lots of very talented, creative and passionate folks who care just as much about radio now as you once did. If there is anything the industry should be castigated about, it is failing to tell that story as loudly as the podcasters and webcasters have been telling theirs. New media rarely kills the old–it just makes it stronger. Is there a correction happening (even now) for radio? Of course. But “adapt or die” doesn’t necessarily guarantee the latter option.
    Again, thanks for reading!


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