The Greatest Hits Of The ’60s, ’70s . . . And ’80s?

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.

12 replies
  1. Steve Allan
    Steve Allan says:

    The ultimate ‘deciderer’ of all this is the listener. Will a 60’s-to-80’s hybrid satisfy the oldies fans while generating a new legion of solid gold listeners? Time will tell. If any station has the image and the power to pull this off CBS-FM is the one. Perhaps – finally – they can prove that older demos are not to be shunned.

  2. JJ Duling
    JJ Duling says:

    I think CBS-FM’s music is dead on for where they are today AND for where they need to go in the future. Somebody I know once said, “the longer you hang on to what you’ve had, the longer it’ll take to get where you want to be” and it’s so true as today’s increasing technology and choices continue to accelerate.
    At the recent Conclave in Minneapolis, we were part of an Oldies panel discussion and I remember pointing out (to the surprise of some) that Oldies is the only format in America that went through almost no evolution over the past 20 years; it was that 1957-1971 format and the operating mindset was “let’s ride this horse ’till it dies”; all the while, AC, rock, country, even N/T were pretty consistently evolving and changing to meet listener demand. Oldies stayed centered about 1965 most of that time.
    “Oldies” in it’s 90s form was a blast but it’s now 2007 and time to look forward, not back. Good job to Brian Thomas and WCBS-FM.

  3. Michael Lowe
    Michael Lowe says:

    We have a similar situation here with the arrival of a 60s-70s based oldies station which debuted in December ’06. This will be our first Arbitron with them in the mix. I’m hearing them in many places where I used to hear my station. To defend our top spot in the market 12+ and 25+, we’ve had to broaden our gold categories and still maintain our “Lite Rock” position. We’ll know next week if our move was successful when the Spring ’06 numbers arrive. These results will go a long way in determining the future of Mainstream AC in this market and where we can grab market share, either from the Oldies stations or our Hot AC and Mainstream CHR competitors. Let’s face it. A 28-year old female today was rockin’ to Green Day’s “When I Come Around” and jammin’ to “Mo Money, Mo Problems” as a teenager. Our core demos are being attacked by listeners from the golden era of CHR radio (1994-2000). Playing re-tread ballads from Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and others of that genre won’t cut it anymore. The next year will be big for the re-definition of “Mainstream AC.”

  4. Mike Shannon
    Mike Shannon says:

    We’ve been doing what CBS-FM is doing for over a year and our numbers are growing and we have had 95%+ positive comments. It’s time oldies stations break the “rules” and wake up before it’s too late!
    Mike Shannon
    GPD WQRK FM Bedford, In

  5. Aldo Bender
    Aldo Bender says:

    Maybe programmers will figure out they can program two stations instead of one. It seems pathetic to me that with all the over saturation in many markets, the powers that be can’t seem to find not one, but two very low rated stations to do format changes with. Leave the 50’s and 60’s in the oldie category as they always have been. As you have pointed out correctly, changes in the audio and creative processes dictate that. But, please, let’s find another home for the 70s and 80s, in my opinion, the music deserves it and there is more than enough room on the dial for two “Oldies” formats. Stop the herd-like mentality!

  6. Jack Armstrong
    Jack Armstrong says:

    Hi Sean,
    There is one thing about “GOLD” that a lot of people fail to recognize and that is the listener split that occured as FM came into dominance. Up till say the early 70s AM was the almost the total ball game and TOP 40 was a war among at least a couple of stations in town. If you wanted contempory music it was one of those stations or often both. When FM fragmented that huge audience and we suddenly got AOR and different types of AC on the dial for choices and the HUGE audience shrunk the audience wasn’t the same. It is certainly arguable playing “GOLD” from that period on today is picking among many different formats that WERE NOT blending very well back in the day! To put it another way, the interspersing of basic “CLASSIC ROCK” GOLD may NOT go down well with the faitful CHR listener that has stayed with the Top 40 format and “POP” music throughout their life. And another thing while I’m at it, we have gone from playing a very limited playlist when those hits were “currents” to playing a much broader selection now. Whatever happened to that “PLAY THESE RECORDS TO DEATH OR YOU’RE FIRED” mentality? It is almost like the “JACK” presentation of the Gold format!
    Jack Armstrong

  7. Kimo Akane
    Kimo Akane says:

    The math on this still has me wondering. If you were 15 in 1960 you’d be 62 now, 1970 – 52 and 1980 – 42. There is not much commonality . . . in music from 1960 and 1980 (or
    ’65 and ’85).
    I hear those train wrecks in era/styles you were referring too but they seem more dramatic if your perspective is older (60’s) or younger
    (40’s). Remove one of the endpoints and the dichotomy disappears.
    50’s and 60’s music worked together because that was the time.
    I always ask people who speak more than one language if they translate in their mind. For example if they speak Japanese and English do they
    hear English … do they translate it to Japanese or do they hear Japanese and translate it to English.
    I think this relates because in the 70’s we started to shift from aural stimulation (the people of the 50’s and 60’s) to visual stimulation and by the 80’s people became as visual as the people of the 50’s were
    Thanks for again for the thought provoking article.
    Kimo Akane

  8. Frank Gillette
    Frank Gillette says:

    Rich Brother Robbin invented this format back in 1993 at KCBQ-FM. Unfortunately he was ahead of his time. Like I’ve been saying oldies is a “sound” not a strict era. If I wasn’t already programming in a Top 5 market, I would approach some key people about my approach to the format.
    Reaching back to the days of “kick ass rock & roll”, my approach will give you both cume & TSL.

  9. joe benjamin
    joe benjamin says:

    I am from brooklyn,ny11230-midwood and have been listening to the breeze since 5/14/03—the first day on 107.1.The breeze has made an impact on NYC radio—its wide playlist makes it attractive to even me,a COUNTRY listener who would prefer 98.5’s country format to be put on 107.1. CBS_FM,FRESH,THE BREEZE and even wmtr and wnyh 740 have changed ny radio in terms of non-hispanic/non-urban music stations.Also many listeners like have gotten disgusted and have turned to hd,internet radio and ipods.I have a large number of cassettes taped from vacations /trips and the internet(using a fm transmitter) covering country,standards,oldies and israeli and jewish music.No— I can not rely on NY market radio—-my family doesn’t matter in this heavily scewed market.But, my daughter who is 13 likes Fresh(but is craving for a country station).

  10. Dave Mason
    Dave Mason says:

    Frank Gillette has it sooooo right. “Oldies” is definitely a SOUND – not an era. Never mind when you were born. Oldies worked in the 80’s because it was a format that (finally) provided UPTEMPO music that ADULTS loved. We got hung up in our own research in the 90’s because the 70s songs that tested in were the passive ballads. We forgot the real reason these stations worked. Thank GOD for “Jack” for letting us realize that we can serve the faithful core and provide them with other songs they know (and like) – like “Katrina” and whether it be a special feature or special weekend, we don’t have to neglect the technically perfect sounds of Bill Haley, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison. The movies have it right. No one ever walked out of “The Wedding Crashers” because Mungo Jerry is in it. Bill Medley sounds as righteous on “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life” as he did with Bobby Hatfield. The format is a sensual experience, not the best mix of ANY specific eras. There are still hundreds of songs that will appeal to the CORE -that are being ignored. Remember it took almost 30 years for “California Girls” to show a “high burn”. That doesn’t mean it will send your listener away. Keep givin’ them the feeling they like-they’ll love you forever.


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