by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
After 33 years in the Oldies format, WCBS-FM New York—which became 101.1 Jack FM last Friday, June 3—deserves a final sendoff. And not just for the reasons you might think. The press has focused on the veteran air talent displaced by the switch and its larger implications for a format already at a crossroads. But there is more to appreciate about CBS-FM.
WCBS-FM kept the flame alive for the Oldies format during its first fallow period
WCBS-FM kept the flame alive for the Oldies format during its first fallow period. In the mid-‘70s, the “American Graffiti”/”Grease”-led nostalgia for all things ‘50s and early ‘60s tapered off, and the Oldies FMs that had popped up in most cities—usually automated—took another path. WMOD Washington, D.C., became Country WMZQ, WFYR Chicago (now WKSC) segued to AC, as did WHNE Detroit (now WCSX). But in the cradle of doo-wop, WCBS-FM never got the memo. After more than a decade in AM exile, Oldies began returning to FM in the late ‘80s. And, by then, CBS-FM was a 15-year-format veteran.
For that reason, WCBS-FM was the product of a different time and mindset than much of what followed in the Oldies format over the next 15 years. It never became the 225-record “oldies in a box” module of the sort that was plugged in from market-to-market, usually very successfully at first. And programmers outside the market never really understood WCBS-FM or gave it the respect it deserved.
WCBS-FM PD Joe McCoy gradually reassembled much of the airstaff of legendary AM WABC from its Top 40 days—many of whom were first heard at the station on its radio reunion weekends, then on a regular basis. Unlike its contemporaries, WCBS-FM never tried to be a ‘80s Top 40 station that just happened to be playing older records. And McCoy knew better than to hassle Dan Ingram or Harry Harrison to talk less. But beyond that:
- WCBS-FM always played the pop ‘70s. Most Oldies stations cut the music off between 1971 and 1973. If you wanted to hear anything from the rest of the decade, you had only what was offered on Classic Rock or Soft AC stations. The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac never disappeared from WCBS-FM. If memory serves, neither did “I Will Survive” or “Stayin’ Alive.”
- WCBS-FM always had a few tentacles in the ‘80s and currents. Songs like “Every Breath You Take” were always there. So, for a while, was the “future gold” category of recurrent music that had been part of most Oldies stations during the ‘70s. Newer songs eventually became the most controversial aspect of CBS-FM. In the early ‘90s, when Oldies were hot and current pop music was at an ebb, those songs were like playing the Eagles and Marshall Tucker Band on a Country station—they seemed unnecessary.
- WCBS-FM always sounded like New York. Even beyond the doo-wop records that were most important in the Northeast, there were always local hits like “The 81” by Candy & the Kisses and “Just Look What You’ve Done” by Brenda Holloway, and it wasn’t because McCoy didn’t have access to research or know how to play the hits.
These differences were enough to make WCBS-FM one of those stations that didn’t make sense to anybody besides the audience. In the early ‘90s, when KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles’ tight playlist and retro-Bill Drake formatics were being plopped into every market (including those that had never heard the Drake jingles in 1966), it was common to talk to Oldies programmers in other markets who gave CBS-FM no respect at all, no matter how good the ratings were.
Invariably, the discussion in that era would turn to how somebody needed to do something more like K-Earth in New York (where only a handful of old WOR-FM fans would have had any idea what you were trying to recreate). Say that you thought WCBS-FM was too strong to compete with and you’d be told that they were unfocused, played too many records, talked too much and were only doing well because they didn’t have any competition.
The irony was that a decade later, when Oldies GMs finally began to notice that their audience was both eroding and aging, stations began trying to shoehorn in the same records they had castigated WCBS-FM for playing a decade earlier. When the pre-Beatles music went off most Oldies stations and “Come And Get Your Love” and “Every Breath You Take” went in, it was a stretch for most stations. It should have been less so for CBS-FM, although that didn’t spare CBS-FM some bad consumer press, anyway—particularly when WABC veterans such as Harrison and Ingram became less of a presence.
For that reason, the “end of an era” that CBS-FM’s format change represents really took place a few years ago when the station began adding ‘70s weekends and phasing out the word “Oldies.” While its final PD, Dave Logan, did manage to give the station some promotional and presentational energy in its last days, it’s ironic that the station that once provided the blueprint for modernizing an Oldies station could not easily modernize at the end, perhaps because it was called WCBS-FM.
It’s ironic, too, that a station that very publicly tightened its playlist in recent years was replaced by a format built on variety. While I have been known to find antecedents of Jack/Bob lurking everywhere, the original CBS-FM did indeed play four decades of music, including recurrents, deliberately recalled an era where all types of music were played on the radio together, and tried not to sound too overly formatted in its presentation.
Time will tell whether the hole for a Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrid in New York is bigger than the one that the market’s current Hot AC and Classic Rock outlets have been able to create. Whatever one thinks of the change, WCBS-FM’s contributions, and those of Joe McCoy in particular, deserve some special recognition. And while its departure (particularly in tandem with several other Infinity Oldies outlets) will look like a referendum on the state of the Oldies format, it should be remembered just how different WCBS-FM looked from the rest of the format—even if all Oldies stations look the same to a 26-year-old agency buyer.
For another take on WCBS-FM, read Tom Webster’s recent look at the new WCBSFM.COM “here.”:http://www.edisonresearch.com/homeimg/archives/2005/06/not_dead_yet_wh.html
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.