Radio stations nudge oldies format off the air

The industry updates playlists for the iPod generation, alienating older listeners.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Whenever Lawrence Cavallo felt nostalgic, he only had to tune the radio to New York City's WCBS-FM, the legendary oldies station.

"They played a lot of stuff that conjured up great memories and reminded me of growing up in the Bronx," says Mr. Cavallo, a telecommunications project manager who now lives in New Jersey. He was especially thrilled when his 8-year-old son recently discovered the music of the King of Rock 'n' Roll and began asking to hear the station in the car.

So much for hound dogs and blue suede shoes. Elvis has left the building, along with the Supremes, the Beach Boys, and a famous Big Apple disc jockey named Cousin Brucie. WCBS-FM dumped its oldies format and fired its staff on Friday, joining a long list of stations from coast to coast that have abandoned '60s and '70s "feel-good" music over the past six months.

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Meanwhile, many existing oldies stations are barely holding on, the victims of declining ratings and radio-industry apathy. "Golden oldies" stations, home to artists like Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller, are in even worse trouble. Ultimately, observers say, the radio industry simply doesn't have much interest in baby boomers like Cavallo, let alone the 70-somethings who prefer Ella Fitzgerald to Otis Redding.

"The day you turn 45, there is not necessarily a radio station concerned with serving you unless you can bring your 25-year-old daughter along," says Sean Ross, a radio consultant with Edison Media Research in Somerville, N.J.

Indeed, several of the converted oldies stations - including WCBS and others in Chicago and Baltimore - have begun wooing younger audiences with a popular new radio format called "Jack."

The stations, with names like 100.7 Jack FM, share the snarky slogan "playing what we want" and rely on unusually large playlists of songs from the past two or three decades.

They compare their zany musical blends - bouncing from Abba to Mötley Crüe to Coldplay in a manner of minutes - to the randomness of the "shuffle" feature on the ubiquitous iPod music player; in some cases, the stations have dumped their disc jockeys, leaving nothing but promos and commercials between songs.

And what of the oldies? In some metropolitan areas, like Nashville, Tenn., and Raleigh, N.C., competitors swooped in and began offering oldies after stations dropped the format, Mr. Ross says. But other cities - including Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Orlando, Fla., and Austin, Texas. - now have no traditional oldies stations to call their own, and the one in Portland, Ore., found itself banished to the obscurity of the AM dial.

Some radio insiders blame ad agencies for losing interest in older customers and their musical tastes.

"When you talk about Motown and the Beatles, you're talking records that are 40 years old, and there are a lot of 30- to 40-year-old decisionmakers who don't have a lot of empathy for this format," says Ross.

Then there's the perception that older people are stuck in their ways and unwilling to try new products, hardly an advertiser's dream. Ad agency bosses "don't have an image of people who are 45 to 54 as relatively young and vital," Ross says. "There seem to be a lot of stereotypes."

Faced with the demise of their favorite stations, oldies fans such as Michele Catalano of East Meadow, N.Y., are hardly dancing in the streets. "It was just very sad to know it's not there anymore," says Ms. Catalano, a secretary and Long Island native who remembers listening to WCBS-FM with her family back in the early 1970s, when its disc jockeys first started spinning oldies. "I feel like a piece of my childhood was gone."

WCBS-FM and other stations pioneered the oldies format, gearing it toward listeners like Catalano's parents, who missed the doo-wop sounds of the 1950s. Over time, however, oldies stations started losing their focus. As their audience grew older and less desirable to advertisers, some began playing songs from the '70s and even the '80s. "Classic rock," meanwhile, attracted listeners who prefer the hard-rocking Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to the softer style of the Association and the Dave Clark Five.

Now, the format has evolved again. In essence, the "Jack" stations offer oldies for people younger than 40.

Alienating older listeners may seem like an unusual business plan in an era of slipping overall radio ratings and rapid growth in alternatives to AM and FM. Oldies fans can find their favorite songs on satellite radio, Internet broadcasts, and even audio channels offered by their cable TV systems. And, of course, listeners have their own music collections. Catalano, for example, relies heavily on her iPod.

"There are so many baby boomers who are going to keep listening to their music," says Robert Unmacht, a radio consultant in Nashville. "They'll go somewhere, but it may not be radio. That will be a loss for radio, and the industry just doesn't quite get it yet. But this is not the first time they've been kind of clueless."

Not everyone is accepting the demise of oldies radio, however. WLNG-FM, on New York's Long Island, has found ratings success by focusing on local events and embracing the past, even digging up corny jingles to create a sense of nostalgia. In San Diego, Kool 99.3 is taking a page from the "Jack" competitors and adding hundreds of songs to its playlist.

But the station's parent company, the radio monolith Clear Channel, recently converted oldies stations to Hispanic formats in an effort to boost profits. It wasn't promising news for station boss Dave Mason, a veteran disc jockey. "It's still a business, and I can't fault anyone for that," he says. "If I owned the company, I'd do things my way. But I don't."

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