Oldies Become Classic Hits, And Motown Goes MIA

During the boom years of the Oldies format, you could count on ’60s R&B, or more specifically Motown, as a core sound. In the early ’80s, the Motown-driven soundtrack of “The Big Chill” became its generation’s “American Graffiti.” By the time Oldies FMs began to proliferate a few years later, Motown was to TV and ad agency music supervisors what Indie Rock is today. A cluster of Motown hits was reliably at the top of any music preference study, not just in Oldies but even for many AC stations. And markets like Kansas City where R&B music didn’t perform well were the aberrations.

So it was telling recently to look at Mediabase’s 50 most played titles at the since-renamed Classic Hits format, at which you can find all of three R&B hits: Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (No. 24); Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “The Tears Of A Clown” (27), and War’s “Low Rider” (33). That’s only one Motown song. The next one is “My Girl” at No. 57.

It’s also worth noting that there are almost twice as many “reverse crossovers” here: pop songs that got varying degrees of R&B airplay at the time (“Bennie and the Jets,” “The Letter,” “I Can See Clearly Now,” “Drift Away,” and even “Satisfaction”). And sitting ahead of “Respect” at No. 18 is “Build Me Up Buttercup,” which wasn’t an R&B hit but certainly has its Faux-Town aspects. In the same way that CHR has cultivated its own R&B flavored-pop that R&B radio doesn’t play, Classic Hits stations give more airplay in music on the cusp of R&B. In the end, even Motown, famous for pop-flavored R&B that became the “Sound of Young America,” isn’t mass-appeal enough.

We also took a look at the 2 p.m. hour on two different days, Sept. 5 and last Monday, Sept. 29. The only station that hit 50% R&B in either sample hour was WOGL Philadelphia. A few others hit the 40% mark in one hour or the other. More typically, the number is somewhere in the 20-30% range. The other stations with the most R&B are typically in the Southwest and Northeast; those with the least are in the Midwest, although neither regional pattern is absolute.

The changes have been gradual over the last few years. Marc Fisher’s “Something In The Air” describes at length the music test and focus groups that sent WBIG Washington, D.C., on the path from traditional Oldies to Classic Hits. And my first conversation as a researcher with a PD on whether “My Girl,” traditionally one of the safest Oldies of all time, was still big enough to play in a given market took place nearly two years ago. But the actual numbers will likely surprise some programmers. How did “Respect,” one of the most universal songs of all time, get less airplay last week than “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest?

The answer starts with the same demographic shift responsible for the much more publicized change in the average era at Oldies/Classic Hits radio, and the move away from the mid-’60s. A 54-year-old, the oldest listener conceivably targeted by most of those stations was 18-years-old in 1972. By that time, Top 40’s ability to set the musical agenda had been challenged for five years by the rise of Rock radio. Top 40 didn’t collapse during these years – even in decline, its numbers are enviable by today’s fragmented standards. But the songs and artists that Top 40 and Rock radio shared in the ’70s had a greater reach among those listeners now tested at Classic Hits radio than the pure pop or R&B hits. It’s not until Disco reached “shared experience” status in the mid-to-late ’70s that you start to see another handful of common denominator records emerge.
The “Rock + Top 40 = More Enduring Songs” formula first became noticeable during the early ’90s when the first “All-’70s” stations that did music research had a hard time finding anything that separated them from Classic Rock stations. Even among late ’60s music, that formula helps make core artists of Steppenwolf, Creedence Clearwater Revival and particularly the Doors – once thought of as an act that Oldies should cede to Classic Rock.

During that same late ’60s/early ’70s era, Motown lost a little of its steam as a hit-making machine. It may seem odd to say this about the years that gave us “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Superstition,” “What’s Going On,” “Someday We’ll Be Together,” the Jackson 5, and the peak output of the late producer Norman Whitfield, but the years between 1968-70 saw spotty output (in terms of the charts, anyway) from Diana Ross & the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, and the Four Tops. And even the listeners who graduated high-school during those years are no longer the listeners targeted by music testing.

There was also a change taking place in R&B music in the early ’70s. As R&B radio grew, it was also shearing off listeners from Top 40. A lot of the most important songs of that decade for an R&B fan were the five-to-seven minute ballads never played at Top 40 radio. And as artists like Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Isaac Hayes and others gave rise to the R&B album as a creative force, some of the most important songs like Green’s “Love & Happiness,” were never even singles.

There are more recent programming developments at play here as well. Other formats came along to superserve R&B oldies fans: Urban AC, Jammin’ Oldies, and then Smooth Jazz. The irony here is that Jammin’ Oldies has disappeared in all but a handful of markets, while Smooth Jazz has had its own heavily publicized issues over the last 18 months. Urban AC is going through its own change in era as a new generation of listeners enters the demo. In 1995, a mainstream Urban like KKBT (the Beat) Los Angeles could play “Love & Happiness” 12 times a week. Now, even at Urban AC, only the ’70s songs of that magnitude endure, the ’60s are long gone and secondary ’70s are being phased out. Increasingly, the format’s retro flavor is coming from Alicia Keys, Noel Gourdin, and Robin Thicke – not the artists who inspired them.

There’s also the matter of Mediabase’s Classic Hits station panel. It’s now made up of just 51 stations, several of which adhere more to the original meaning of Classic Hits as a softer version of Classic Rock. Classic Hits PDs who are still able to test their music on a regular basis are likely starting out with fewer available titles. There’s also not a lot of cultivation of playable R&B titles. As the Oldies format moved into the ’70s, some PDs went out of their way to nurture some once unlikely titles, just because they needed something to separate themselves from Classic Rock. The same effort that went into making “Magic” by Pilot or “You Are The Woman” by Firefall playable again hasn’t gone into doing the same for, say, “Back In Love Again” by L.T.D. And you can’t prove that it would ever pay off.

It’s worth noting here that at least a few of the stations from the original Classic Hits template as well as some older-skewing Triple-A stations have been more willing to throw in a very occasional R&B megahit: a “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” here, a “Lean On Me” there. Those stations still play very little R&B overall, but they have changed the expectation of what their audience would stand for.

Could anything reverse the trend away from R&B oldies at the Classic Hits format? The changing demography of many markets rates some consideration by PDs. So does the ability to own many of those songs again, in the absence of Jammin’ Oldies and Smooth Jazz stations in many markets. Many Mainstream AC stations will eventually relinquish late ’70s disco (and some likely wouldn’t fight you for it now.) It’s also not hard to imagine that as Classic Hits forges further into the ’80s, it will have a hard time getting around Prince, Michael Jackson, “Super Freak” and “Let It Whip.”

8 replies
  1. Marc Fisher
    Marc Fisher says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Sean. You explain the demise of Motown and 60s R&B very persuasively, but I’m still puzzled by the relative absence of the mid-70s sounds that still dominate the wedding/corporate parties scene–deejays there say there’s little dropoff in demand for the Commodores/Sister Sledge/Spinners soul school, yet that category of music is nowhere to be found in most of the formats you’re discussing.

  2. Rod Novak
    Rod Novak says:

    Being a total motown/stax/atlantic fanatic, I also find the reverse-crossover phenomenon amazing. Amazing…… but I’m not complaining.
    Thanks for a good article.
    Rod Novak
    King Harvest

  3. Gregg Colamonico
    Gregg Colamonico says:

    I think we have two problems here. First, I don’t think stations that grew out of Oldies should be called “Classic Hits” since that title already refers to not-too-hard-edged Classic Rock stations. Classic Hits stations that are rock-based play almost no R&B, don’t use jingles, don’t have DJs talking over the intros, don’t sound like Top 40 stations from 30 years ago. I really think they’re two separate formats.
    Secondly, it may be true in some markets that by the early 70s, rock stations became the magnet for young listeners, not Top 40 stations. So today’s 25-49 adult may have not been exposed to much R&B music. But in many markets, including NYC and LA, Top 40 FM stations were consistantly on top.
    I think programmers of Oldies-turned-Classic Hits stations have to look at their market today vs. 30 years ago. Playing a mostly white group of songs, and not playing enough Motown and other R&B oldies, might be shooting yourself in the foot if your market today is more diverse than it had been. I wonder if the audience that gave higher ratings to “Dancing in The Moonlight” than “Respect” is truly representitive of the market in 2008?
    Soft AC stations have been doing very well in markets with large minority listenerships because they still play Respect and Just My Imagination, even if it plays no white artists from the 60s. They know they have to maintain a high percentage of rhythmic titles to appeal to a workplace made up of many different listeners. When WLTW plays “Forget-Me-Nots” by Patrice Rushen or “Heaven Must Have Sent You” by Bonnie Pointer every day, is that because they test so well? Or is it that WLTW is trying to maintain a 40% rhythmic playlist and is playing any good sounding rhythmic soft to moderate hit to meet that goal?
    Unlike Rock, Classic Rock or Country, an Oldies-turned-Classic Hits station can be one of the buttons on the radios of many adult black, Hispanic and Asian listeners. Playing too much “Dancing in The Moonlight” by King Harvest and not enough “Upside Down” by Diana Ross might be a mistake.

  4. Super Harlow
    Super Harlow says:

    …And that’s why more and more listeners are turning to the Internet and Wi-Fi radio for their 1960s Oldies.
    In the late 1960s, Top 40 radio listeners weren’t afraid of diversity — whether it came in the form of Soul (Supremes, Temptations), Bubblegum (Ohio Express, Archies), Hard Rock (Jimi Hendrix, Cream) or mainstream pop of any tone or color.
    It helped those of us who grew up listening back then to appreciate everything from The Beatles to Frank Sinatra, from Tom Jones to Led Zeppelin, from James Brown to The Carpenters. It made us appreciate the diversity of great music in all its forms.
    Today, “Oldies” (Ooh! Forbidden term!) or “Classic Hits” formats are so safe, homogenized and dumbed-down that it might as well be 1957 again — only whitebread “chicken rock” makes the air.
    We’ve let the memory of 1960s Top 40 fade so much that we might as well no longer refer to the great music of Motown, Stax and Atlantic as “Soul” — let’s just call them “race records” and ban them to forgotten graveyard channels on the AM band.

  5. Kevin Barrrett
    Kevin Barrrett says:

    Too many consultants and PD’s in Oldies formats burned the Motown titles to a crisp. The same thing happened in the Jammin’ Oldies format. You can’t keep going back to the same well.
    In 1992 I approached several stations with a Jammin’ Oldies format targeted to Hispanics. This was years before it debuted nationally. They weren’t interested,my approach didn’t contain enough Motown, and featured too much East L.A. music. The point is everything was Motown. It’s now in a down-cycle. I am sure it will return but maybe not yet.
    I hear Classic Hit stations making so many mistakes with their music it’s hard to believe. A ton of the strongest songs from the early 70’s were all R&B crossovers, yet they are underplayed in comparison to the pop-rock which has been played on so many other format platforms over the years that I see little value in their inclusion on a gold-based format.
    I always liked Dancing In The Moonlight,here’s an old school segue play King Harvest into Cheer by Potliquor.

  6. Michael McDowell
    Michael McDowell says:

    There’s also the notion that some of the Motown hits such as “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, “Baby Love”, “For Once In My Life” and “The Tracks Of My Tears” have just been flat out overplayed. Motown is about a lot more than the same half-dozen records. But stations with narrow playlists could certainly turn a potential Motown convert away in short order.
    For that matter, Aretha Franklin made a lot great records. Yet “Respect” would be much more appreciated via spins from the earlier (and better) versions by the Rationals and Otis Redding. Let the Rationals and Otis Redding have their say and find another Aretha monster hit to play to the point of overkill.
    I’d go with “Master Of Eyes”. Reasonably sized hit in its day and practically ignored by radio today. It would take a long time to burn that one out the way “Respect” has been burned out in the ears of many.

  7. Chris Coleman
    Chris Coleman says:

    I am currently the APD/MD at a smooth R&B and Classic Soul station in the south, and I must say times are a changing! We see it in the request we get from the phones to talking to our listeners out in the streets. They are passionate about their classics and some of those classic motown songs still live here with us, it’s choosing the stongest songs, the “Oh WOW!!!” effect. It all comes down to knowing your market and what Motown songs stick out to your listeners.

  8. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    Motown-Soul-R&B has not lost appeal. Its value is simply lost by radio.
    Sure, someone in their 50s grew up on this style. Very potent impact.
    But is the case recently, the emotional connection with listeners is leaving radio stations.
    Some may think of this musical style as only appealing to 50+. See what happens when you play it for a bunch of 14+ teens into those in their 30s. Now that has an emotional connection.
    Oh, but why would a radio station try to reach a younger audience than the perceived target. What would one do being #2 12-18 or 25-34 year olds?


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