Will Chicago Love “Soft Jammin’ Oldies”? First Listen: WILV (Love 100.3) Chicago

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

The ‘70s oldies format boomed and busted in 1993-94, but the records it brought back to the radio never really went away—they came back as the center of most Classic Hits or mainstream AC stations. The ‘80s format needed even less time to resurface as the musical center of the Jack/Bob phenomenon. Listeners, after all, never decided that they didn’t like these records in the first place—it was more a vote of no confidence for the first wave of radio stations built around them.

So it was inevitable that Jammin’ Oldies would show up again, as well. That format fizzled out in the early part of this decade, leaving only a handful of survivors that didn’t get the memo (WMOJ Cincinnati and KMGV Fresno, Calif) and taking most of the related R&B oldies format with it. (KMEZ New Orleans, one of the longest running such outlets, finally segued to Urban AC recently; WJMO Richmond, Va., flipped last week). But there have been a few new launches in recent years as well: KKBB Bakersfield, Calif., and NextMedia stations in Saginaw, Mich., and the Chicago suburbs.

Chicago, in particular, is one market where Jammin’ Oldies has had a lot of believers over the last five years. During the boom, there was Big City’s WXXY simulcast on 103.1, then Clear Channel’s WUBT (the Beat). And even before Next Media launched its WWYW, rhythmic oldies usually popped its head up in any discussion of market holes. Now Jammin’ Oldies has been crossed with Soft AC in Bonneville’s new WILV (Love 100.3), which switched from ‘80s/early ‘90s-based AC WNND on Nov. 2.

Chicago’s R&B audience has a long history of exposure to pop music.

What WILV took from Jammin’ Oldies is the concept of combining R&B oldies that crossed over to Top 40 radio with pop music that an R&B audience will accept. But you could also describe Love 100.3 as an R&B version of its equally distinctive soft Classic Hits sister WDRV (the Drive). Or a Smooth Jazz station if you got rid of any actual jazz (even the Kenny G. variety) and just kept the vocals that have become almost the center of the format over the last few years. Like WDRV the presentation—jockless so far—is deliberately minimalist with non-traditional imagery like “feel the passion of the new 100.3 Love FM” or “Chicago is falling in love with the new 100.3 Love FM” and jingles that recall soft AC 20 years ago.

Here’s what makes sense about the new format:

  • Chicago’s R&B audience has a long history of exposure to pop music. There was WYNR, the early ‘60s Churban-in-reverse that kept the staff from an R&B predecessor but played Top 40 music. There was the all-ages/all-demos ubiquity of Top 40 powerhouse WLS in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And there was a lot more pop music on R&B radio than in many other places—not just Boz Scaggs or Hall & Oates (who crossed over in every market) but everything from “To Sir With Love” to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” to “You’re So Vain.”
  • In many markets, mainstream AC has become Rhythmic AC over the past few years, thanks to the new potency of “You’re My First, My Last, My Everything,” “I Will Survive” and “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel” When WSNI (Sunny 104.5) Philadelphia went to Supersoft AC two years ago, it used a lot of those songs and the early ‘70s Philly sound to balance the Streisand and Manilow records that were there, as well. So it’s a way to play Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel” and Carly Simon’s “Haven’t Got Time For The Pain” without having to play them next to each other.
  • For that matter, soft R&B used to be a core sound at AC radio in the ‘80s and early ‘90s days when Lionel Richie and Jeffrey Osborne dominated the format. Then AC and Hot AC split into two different formats. Then Hot AC spun off Modern AC, which began setting the musical agenda for both other formats—Hot AC directly and mainstream AC because it depended on Hot AC to get songs started. And with R&B radio skewing younger these days, there are very few AC-feeling records available for export, even if AC was more amenable to them. So WILV can play songs like James Ingram’s “I Don’t Have The Heart” or Natalie Cole’s “I Live For Your Love” that have been missing from the radio for years.

WILV isn’t the only AC station realizing that the future of the format in a demographically evolving America is inclusionary, not exclusionary. WLTW New York has made a point of being palatable to blacks and Hispanics, at least those who are inclined to use any pop radio. You can see the same philosophy at work on sister WASH Washington, D.C., and even more outreach on KBIG Los Angeles. WNEW (Mix 102.7) New York took WLTW one step further this year. It became, for a while, the closest thing America had to London’s successful Heart FM, but in recent months, Mix has become less like an AC in texture and more like dance rival WKTU without that station’s currents.

Love 100.3 appears to be aimed at three Clear Channel stations: Urban AC WVAZ(V103), Smooth Jazz WNUA, and soft AC WLIT (Lite-FM). It also has the potential to hit Oldies WJMK from one side while the Drive attacks its other flank. It could also allow sister WTMX (the Mix) to filter some ‘80s gold back in, at a time when that music is looking a lot better for Hot AC again.

The big challenge for WILV, as it was for the Jammin’ Oldies stations, is that there are too many important records you can’t play if you’re that determined to go down the center. When the author was programming WGCI-AM (Dustryradio 1390) Chicago in the early-to-mid-‘90s, the best testing Al Green record among African-American adults was “Love & Happiness,” the most important Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell song was “If This World Were Mine,” the biggest Gladys Knight & the Pips record was “Everybody Needs Love,” and the most valuable Spinners song was “Love Don’t Love Nobody.” The Supremes had one playable record—“Someday We’ll Be Together”—otherwise, the core audiences considered their hits (and most Diana Ross solo material) too pop.

When the R&B Oldies format moved to FM a few years later, Jammin’ Oldies programmers steered way clear of those records. I know one or two who tried unsuccessfully to get “Distant Lover” by Marvin Gaye to test with the half of their audience whose frame of reference was pop radio. But many probably weren’t aware that it needed to be tested in the first place. Without those songs, Jammin’ Oldies stations could always get cume from African-Americans, and even a disproportionately high percentage of their quarter-hours. But they never engendered the same loyalty as R&B Oldies and Urban AC stations that could play those hot-button records.

So far, I’ve only heard one of those records, the Isley Brothers’ “For The Love Of You,” on WILV. And I’m waiting to see how they handle the Temptations’ “Silent Night,” easily the single most important Christmas record at R&B radio, but a record that pop audiences have always failed to appreciate.

It’s also a little frustrating to see stations keep swerving to avoid filling the R&B Oldies hole straight on. Last year, WSRB (Soul 106.3) signed on with a heavy dose of R&B gold, but also with enough currents to keep it in the same arena as V103. Many R&B radio people have long viewed going all-Oldies as too limiting. And it’s not as if the pop Oldies format has that many industry fans itself these days. But the author remains unshaken in his belief that an actual R&B Oldies FM in Chicago would be a Top 5 station 12-plus and 25-54, and even bigger 35-64.

That said, several years after its launch, WDRV remains a consistent player, usually just below a 3-share 12-plus. There’s no reason to think WILV can’t do at least that well. It’s also a welcome addition to a reasonably innovative year that saw the Jack/Bob formats finally make inroads in the U.S., the launch of Latin/R&B hybrid KLOL Houston, and the launch of “yesterday-and-today” Hip-hop at KZBA Los Angeles. But whether it’s Rhythmic Top 40 or Jammin’ Oldies, it’s hard for stations to be in the R&B world, but not of it, indefinitely.


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.