It was shaping up as another frustrating year for fans of Oldies radio: another year of heritage FM outlets ditching the format altogether; another year of hearing the survivors add so many ’70s and ’80s songs that they effectively became Classic Hits stations; another year of 50-year-olds in the prime of their earning years being told that they were somehow viable to advertisers only if they listened to a News/Talk or Sports station.
So without knowing what plans the CBS folks might have really had for heritage Oldies station WOGL Philadelphia, it didn’t beggar credibility when rumors began circulating this spring that a Web address had been reserved for Fresh981.com. WOGL was a top-five station 12-plus. But, hey, what did that mean anymore?
Then Arbitron made the March PPM figures for Philadelphia public. And while it was hardly an apples-to-apples comparison, WOGL was no longer a 4.5-share 12-plus radio station (still a respectable number by comparison to many of its brethren) but a 7.5-share radio station. Two months later, it’s in the high six-share range, No. 4 12-plus in the market and No. 5 in 25-54. And in a format hit by the combination of aging and attrition, having “only” a 4.5 share is a lot easier to walk away from than a 7.5.
Articles like this one are on the Web for a long time. So I would just be asking for trouble by suggesting that PPM might have saved WOGL indefinitely. And on May 22, CBS made Oldies the stunt format, not a destination, for their new launch in San Diego. But the Fresh 98.1 rumors did die down after the March numbers, and now one at least hears the question posed in the industry, “Is it worth launching Oldies stations again?”
A few people have thought so. KKLZ Las Vegas ended a Classic Rock war of attrition and reimaged itself as “Classic Hits” (but with a ’60s component more typical of an Oldies station). ABC (now Citadel)’s WGVX Minneapolis dropped Adult Modern for “The Greatest Songs of all Time” as “Love-FM.” And Minneapolis was a market where heritage Oldies outlet KQQL (Kool 108) had not entirely vacated the space yet.
Oldies fans that were faced with the choice of Classic Hits stations that wouldn’t play any R&B beyond “Superstition” or waiting for the handful of ’60s Oldies that Mainstream AC still played have been given a reprieve, at least in some markets. It’s not quite a new lease on life. But it’s an extended warranty.
And even without PPM, there have been resurgent books for Oldies at KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles (2.4 – 3.5 12-plus from summer ’06 to winter ’07), WZZN (True Oldies) Chicago (2.4 – 3.0 during the same timeframe), KLUV Dallas (3.7 – 4.4), and WBZO (B103) Long Island, N.Y., (2.4 – 3.1).
Okay, time for some managed expectations here. The word “Oldies” isn’t going to make a comeback (and not everybody who likes music from the ’60s likes that word anyway). KKLZ and WGVX, with the advantage of starting clean, aren’t using it. And KLOU St. Louis, which, several years ago, had made a point of bringing back “Oldies” retrenched a week ago, becoming My 103.3 and segueing to the same late ’60s/early ’70s-driven mix heard on most stations in the format these days. (The recently revived WGCO Savannah, Ga., is calling itself Oldies 98.3, however.)
And there’s no sign of that hyper focus on the late ’60s/early ’70s changing anytime soon–judging from both the new and surviving outlets. If you were in the class of ’72, you’re still very well-served by the Oldies format. If you graduated high school before 1969 or later in the ’70s, it can still feel a little claustrophobic. If there’s any good news, it’s that the handful of pre-Beatles titles with undeniable durability today seem to have found their way back on to some stations that were going to draw a hard line at 1964.
That the music window remains so focused on the late ’60s/early ’70s is, to some extent, a function of something observed here in Oldies and Classic Hits music testing in the past two or three years. Even if you’re one of the Oldies PDs who refuses to test “Sister Golden Hair” and “Just The Way You Are,” you’re still likely to get back a music test with a lot of later Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs at the top of the page, while onetime mainstays like “Cherry Cherry” and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” drift toward the middle of the pack–less resonant with a 45-year-old (and perhaps diminished for a 53-year-old after 20 years of daily exposure).
So what we have is not quite the wave of defiance I had hoped for several years ago. If you’re a serious ’50s or ’60s fan, you’re probably going to be happier with what you find through streaming or on satellite radio. But it’s still good news for a format that broadcasters might have banished entirely this year. Oldies fans that were faced with the choice of Classic Hits stations that wouldn’t play any R&B beyond “Superstition” or waiting for the handful of ’60s Oldies that Mainstream AC still played have been given a reprieve, at least in some markets. It’s not quite a new lease on life. But it’s an extended warranty.
Changes at Mainstream AC may give the Oldies format a new currency as well. There are certainly ’60s songs that continue to resonate even for listeners who didn’t grow up with them. Up until now, however, it’s been pretty easy for AC to pick them off. Now, while some of us regard James Taylor and James Blunt as being of a piece, some PDs are likely to decide that the new Snow Patrol-flavored AC format no longer supports playing the soft ’70s, much less the handful of remaining ’60s songs.
WOGL has, through the years, been a better, more durable major-market Oldies FM than many. It has gone through stretches that were, for me, heavy on the “Rihannon” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” type of Classic Hits that could in no way pass for “Good Time Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But it has always been identifiably Oldies, well produced and well executed. There was a reason it was top 5 even before PPM.
That said, much of what PPM unearths is listening that just wasn’t top-of-mind for diary-keepers. So even taking into consideration that WOGL’s 7.5 share was based on a different universe of listening, divided among a smaller number of encoded stations, that’s still at least a few shares of added presence-of-mind any way you look at it. So it makes sense that in the diary world, the most viable Oldies stations were often those with viable morning shows; that’s one good way to remain top-of-mind. But until PPM comes to their markets, Oldies broadcasters have to ask themselves: What can they do to reactivate the passion for the format that now manifests itself as several potential shares’ worth of phantom cume? Stations hear from those listeners when they change format. But broadcasters–particularly those considering new Oldies stations–need to figure out how to activate that passion now.