It was the most potentially controversial aspect of the WCBS-FM New York re-launch. But so far the decision to not just include ’80s gold in the mix, but to image extensively around “the greatest hits of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s” has gotten a surprisingly favorable response–at least within the industry.
On the day after CBS-FM returned, one prominent Top 40 PD e-mailed to me that Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” sounded much fresher on CBS-FM than it would on, say, Hot AC rival WPLJ. For his part, consultant Mike McVay wrote that his Oldies clients were already playing the ’80s. As for the station’s new slogan, he wrote, “With WCBS-FM using the statement, you’ll find that it will become the newest darling of Oldies stations everywhere.”
Those in the Oldies format who have struggled with contemporizing the format for years will doubtless be relieved to know that the ’80s incursion into Oldies radio has been such a bloodless coup. But if it were that simple, most stations would have done it a long time ago; some, in fact, have already tried the early ’80s and had to retrench. And no matter how well it’s done for Mike McVay’s clients, or however well WCBS-FM may debut, it’s important to think through the implications of playing the ’80s, and why New York differs contextually from any other market.
The key difference is that WCBS-FM had already played the ’80s for most of its last 15 years as an Oldies station under PD Joe McCoy. In fact, it was common to hear other Oldies PDs trash WCBS-FM in the ’90s for playing so much depth and era variety. But the station did develop users with a tolerance for some newer music, and not just the “Uptown Girl” and “Kokomo”-type titles that have some Oldies feel or credentials.
After CBS-FM became “Jack FM,” its former listeners–unless they left terrestrial radio altogether–were probably hearing at least a few ’80s as well. It’s possible to hear at least the handful of obvious early ’80s titles on most remaining Oldies stations and some go well beyond that. Some, like Eastern Long Island’s WLNG, WKXW (New Jersey 101.5) and suburban WGHT (North Jersey 1500) have always played the ’80s. Among New York area Oldies outlets, only WMTR-AM Morristown, N.J., has held out–and even they have moved their pre-Beatles mix into the ’70s since WCBS left.
If you didn’t go to an Oldies station, you might have gone to Monmouth/Ocean’s McCoy-consulted gold-based AC WWZY (the Breeze), with its wide mix of eras. If you stayed on 101.1 FM during its two years as Jack-FM, you heard a lot of ’80s, of course. If you went to Classic Rock WAXQ (Q104.3), their music extended into the early ’90s grunge era. If you switched to WLTW, you got some of the most enduring ’60s hits, but you also were listening to currents as well. And with WWFS (Fresh 102.7) attacking it from below, WLTW has been sounding pretty contemporary lately.
So WCBS-FM has a little latitude. It’s starting with the cume of an ’80s-driven station. It’s playing enough older-sounding ’60s titles to keep it identifiably Oldies sounding most of the time. It sounds decidedly more like an Oldies station than WLTW, but shared its biggest records–as it did a decade ago. And the station has the rare combination of a halo and a blank slate.
That is not, however, a position that many other Oldies stations are going to find themselves in. The main reason that most Oldies stations have not added the ’80s is that so many were still getting blowback over the ’70s–often less over the records themselves (which were, indisputably, top-of-the-page research titles for many stations) than how it was handled. Not every station that moved into the mid-to-late ’70s has finessed it as well or as gradually as WOGL Philadelphia or WMJI Cleveland. Many managed to antagonize the core without making their audience delivery appreciably younger.
The biggest problem with the ’80s is the same one that PDs encounter with the ’70s: the songs that sound and feel like Oldies are often the diametrical opposite of the songs that test. CBS-FM has, so far, done a reasonable job of at least finding ’80s songs with tempo–“Walking On Sunshine,” “Summer Of ’69,” “She Drives Me Crazy,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” But there aren’t an unlimited number of those titles. And some of the ’80s titles with the most obvious “Oldies” credentials– “An Innocent Man,” “[I’ve Had The] Time Of My Life,” “At This Moment”)–aren’t exactly good time rock ‘n’ roll.
The ’80s also have the challenges of ubiquity and high burn. “Jack and Diane,” with its Tastee Freez and James Dean references can claim a spiritual connection to Oldies. “Old Time Rock ‘N’ Roll” is about the other records on an Oldies station. And yet, the latter record has been spectacularly burnt for years, and the former is getting there. There’s not a lot of excitement in hearing them. Then again, there are some Oldies PDs who did very well for many years worrying about being cume-friendly and not worrying about burn.
To some extent, the Oldies format has worked its way through the “not-so-good-time ’70s” issue through grim determination, finding a “Magic” by Pilot here or “Come And Get Your Love” by Redbone there that becomes playable, once you play them enough and help develop a ’70s-centered audience. One hopes PDs can do that for the ’80s as well–cultivating songs that can’t be heard on Classic Rock or Soft AC.
And it’s not inconceivable that some of the ’70s and even ’80s titles that don’t feel special now may ultimately be given to stations like WCBS-FM. Both Mainstream AC and Hot AC have been forced to modernize, for various reasons, in many markets. Many of the Oldies stations that didn’t bail outright two years ago had evolved to something that could essentially be described as “WLTW without the ’90s and currents.” Those stations don’t yet own “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” But they could, eventually.
So far, CBS-FM has done a good job of not sounding merely like WLTW without the currents. They’ve just come off of a special weekend that allowed them to go as far back as “Rock Around The Clock” and play Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Dion and Elvis songs that predate “Suspicious Minds.” Even so, however, there are moments where one hears a ’80s song followed by “Jackie Blue” or Heart’s “Magic Man” and the feel of the station changes dramatically for a few minutes.
But a lot of stations aren’t going to put the same work into covering all the eras of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than just sounding too new. And not everybody should have to. WOGL Philadelphia–the station whose success has helped spur at least a few Oldies relaunches–has done very well with just that handful of early ’80s titles. In situations where the market will let you play the ’80s and still be unique, the ’80s are perhaps an option. But they shouldn’t yet be taken as an imperative.
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