Thursday, July 19, 2007

And Now, A GOOD Piece Of Radio News!

After an ill-advised format change, a much-loved New York radio station backtracks to actually please the listeners. Imagine that!

(Taking a momentary breather from breathing fire—while I re-load my political plasma/acid rifle.) :)

With all the bad news about radio going around lately, this piece of news cheered me up in a big, BIG way:

In a move sure to thrill legions of New Yorkers, WCBS-FM returned to its roots at 1:01 p.m. Thursday afternoon, playing the hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s at 101.1 FM.

The station changed to JACK-FM in 2005 in an effort to attract a younger audience. Popular disc jockeys were let go, in fact live DJs were eliminated completely, and the music was replaced by an "adult hits" format – a shuffle of songs from the past three decades.

With the switch, though, it saw ratings and advertising revenue fall off.

"I didn't like the music they were playing,” said a listener. “I love the oldies though.”

The station brought back the oldies Thursday with "Do It Again" by the Beach Boys and station officials say they are thrilled to be back; listeners agree.

"We are so excited, I think I never could have captured the energy level that is in the streets of New York," said WCBS-FM General Manager Jennifer Donohue. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook with fans that are so happy for its return. And, internally, people have come so alive because this is a culmination of everyone hard work bringing the radio station back."

This story warmed my heart and kind of brought a tear to my eye.

You see...anachronistic as it may be nowadays, I love music radio. With a passion. It's what I, and and many millions of New Yorkers...hell, Americans, grew up on. The glory days of Top 40 radio is one of the most enduring, tactile memories of my youth. I can remember where I was when I heard certain iconic songs. The Fifth Dimension's "Wedding Bell Blues”, Hendrix's rendition of “All Along The Watchtower”, The Doors' “Light My Fire”, and Boz Scaggs' “Low Down”.—I remember where I was, what station it was, hell—even the brand of radio I was listening to.

Now, I used the word anachronistic to describe my love for radio. I did that because I know in my heart of hearts that the medium--at least in it's standard terrestrial form is a dying thing. My kids listen to music via the internet. I laugh when they're in the car with me as they nod, with eyes closed, and softly lip-sync to their own individual beats of what's playing on their respective iPods. They don't know from Dee-Jays, call-in contests, request lines, workforce blocks or hit countdowns. These are teens I'm talking about—so knowing that they're not checking for radio (along with their friends), and knowing that that once-rich target market is disappearing, tells me everything I need to know about where radio as I knew it and loved it is headed.

That doesn't blunt my love for the medium at all. And I'm not alone.

But what happened here in New York two years ago when they switched from the "Oldies/Greatest" format to the abysmal "Jack" format sent a large group of loyal NY radio consumers into a rage.

You see, New York has long been one of the "big four" radio meccas in the country (The others being Los Angeles, Chicago and Memphis), and has always had rather provincial tendencies as far as its AM-FM tastes. It was the birthplace of FM Rock radio in 1966 at WOR-FM. It was also the hub of Top 40 radio with the legendary WABC and WMCA AM superstations. And even with the dollar-chasing, demographic splitting "niche" broadcasting that took over the airwaves ("Urban Contemporary", "Lite", "Smooth Jazz" and so on), New York still maintained holdovers of the glorious sounds of music radio's "Platinum Age" from 1962 to 1982. Those holdovers were stations like the now-gone WPIX-FM ("Where Rock Lives"), and WCBS-FM 101, which continued "the classic Top 40 sound", albeit as an oldies format as soon as the venerable WABC 770 Musicradio's power began to wane and later switched to all-talk.

For close to 33 years, CBS FM played a mix of songs from the fifties (Elvis, Fats Domino, Doo-Wop, The Everly Bros. and everything in between), sixties (The Beatles, Motown, Stax, One-Hit Wonders, seventies (Elton John, Philly Soul, Disco, P-Funk, Paul Simon—you get it...), and even a bit of the eighties, including New Wave and Synth Pop.

It was the ultimate "Boomer" station—and it featured some of the most legendary DeeJays of the "Platinum Age", like Ron "Hello, Love!" Lundy, "Cousin" Brucie Morrow, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Dan Ingram. They continued the the school of "Personality" radio, where the jocks spinning and their song choices and patter was a piece of performance art—every broadcast. Still using the old-school jingle packages (the same company that I'm sure did your local Top 40 superstation's jingles, too— PAMS of Dallas ) , the perfectly modulated reverb/echo combo to recreate that "amped-up" sound of yesteryear, and of course, the great voices of the Jocks themselves, CBS-FM became an institution in this town. And basically became the repository for rock music history as well, as no other stations were programming as much of the seminal stuff as they were, with context and oftentimes historical backstory.

The station got great ratings and had a verrrry dedicated fan base, of which I was a part.

But as radio's audience in general began to show shrinkage, due in large part to changes in consumption habits—such as internet radio not being bugged by the vagaries of weather, and signal chop due to location (i.e. the canyons of Lower Manhattan), the rise of satellite radio, and yes...the power of the iPod, the ratings eventually dipped. Not catastrophically, but just enough to give an overpaid radio consultant the chance to trot out his or her newest sub-sub-sub-niche format as the savior.

The "Jack" format.

You probably have a "Jack" station in your listening area. And they're all the same—a focus group tested group of songs, loaded into a computer and played "at random" (or so they'd like you to think—these songs are checked and tested for what people "like" in the morning or at night—right down to the hour), with a snarky, know-it-all "DeeJay" who sounds like the annoying guy you didn't invite to your party who's criticizing the music you're playing. Except here, he's "in control" and riffing repeatedly about how cool it is that what you're listening to is just some stuff he's thrown together.

Trouble is, he's not actually there. There is no live person picking the music or commenting on it. He's digitally recorded too, and dropped in here and there to make it sound like there might actually be a human being connected to what you're hearing.

When there isn't.

The format took off for awhile in the U.S. for one obvious reason—a station could fire all its actual "Personalities", saving on paying out salaries and benefits, reducing the size of the "physical plant" of stations (less money spent on rent and so on), and basically drastically decreasing the expenditure footprint of a radio station. Sure, you might lose a percentage of faithful listeners, but that loss is recouped in what you save on not spending for certain things anymore, right?

Well, it was right for a lot of stations. And the ones that caught the brunt of it nationwide were the CBS "clones"—stations who were using the "oldies/greatest" format with cost outlays to well-known on-air talent. Having worked in radio for years, I'd seen variations of the automated systems at work in "Dusties" formats (R&B Oldies ststions) in the south, where as good as the music sounded, the loss of the "soul", namely the personality of the Jocks doomed them. And oldies radio responded to the marketing whizzes pushing their snake oil, winnowing out their pre-1964 music from the playlists, and filtering more late 70's-to-mid-80's tunes to snag the MTV'ers. But alas, radio consultants never tire of new ways to re-package failed themes, so, a few years ago, "Jack" was pushed. And it caught on in just enough markets where it became "the thing". When Chicago's CBS Oldies station WJMK switched over in mid-05', the writing was on the wall for CBS-FM, but the question was only when?

"When" was the afternoon of June 3, 2005, when in the middle of the broadcast day, Disc Jockey Bill Brown said cryptically, "CBSFM 101.1, ever get the urge to shout "RESCUE ME!!"? Well I am getting that feeling, Here's Fontella Bass." "CBSFM 101.1, ever get the urge to shout "RESCUE ME!!"? Well I am getting that feeling, Here's Fontella Bass.", and that song played.

Brown knew something was up that day, and at the moment his show was over (with Bass's "Rescue Me" trailing out) he and the rest of the on-air staff were called into an immediate meeting as that song played, and the announcement was made then and there to them that the format was changing to "Jack". No on-air announcement, No good-bye. Just a random, fill-in engineer playing out the string with the last oldies and jingles—no on-air Jock—for the last half-hour—4:00 to 4:30, with the last song being Sinatra's "Summer Wind" —a wistful, but ominous farewell. A creepy, non-sequitir montage of sound effects was heard for the next half-hour until 5 p.m., and then a jarring intro of the new station, and it's snarky motto: "Welcome to the NEW 101.1 Jack FM, playing what we want."

Trouble was, it wasn't what most New Yorkers wanted. Many stores, delis and workplaces had kept their station dial locked to CBS-FM for so long that the dials had seized into place. Now, the "new" station there was pissing them off and the listeners had no place to go for that ear-pleasing mix of music spanning several generations.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg supposedly responded to the change in his typically kinda vulgar non-public manner, saying he would "never listen to that f---ing CBS radio again". The station tried to use Bloomberg's rant as a publicity tool, razzing him for the statement, and then snarkily (that word again), ripping the irate former listeners who were making a very public stink about their favorite station being so callously ripped away.

The station tried to placate the listeners by putting the "oldies" station online, while leaving the broadcast version as the schizophrenic "Jack". It didn't work. The station was branded a joke in town, and while the numbers were trending upwards in the desirable younger demos, these people were also listening to less radio—not because of increasing age‚—but because of more distractions. IM-ing, texting, online activity including video games, and yes...the iPod.

Off Topic For A Moment: To see how much the iPod/iTunes has changed how people listen to music, think of the last time you saw big ads in the paper for stereo components. Think of how many parties you've gone to recently where the music was run off an iPod or Mac blasting through custom playlists for the party. When was the last time you actually looked at radios while electronics shopping? It's a different time, indeed.

Okay, I'm back—they lost close to 30% of their listenership. Which in NY is an awful lot of people. And that angry, cast-off listener base never forgot or forgave, in spite of JACK-FM's on-air entreaties to "give us a try". It never caught on. Then they tried the idiocy of pushing it as "It's like your iPod...on your radio!" The problem with that?

"Well, if I have an iPod what the hell do I need your station for?"

And two years into the programming clusterfuck, they gave up the ghost. In my radio connections, I'd heard rumblings of the switchback. I even participated in a focus group this Spring that I'm pretty sure was testing the failure of Jack and the possibility of CBS returning. But last week, it was verified—Jack was jacked up, and CBS was returning. And everywhere you went around town, one could hear people talking about the return to the familiar. Happy talk.

Happy talk about radio. Bringing back memories of those endless nights I slept with my cherished Panasonic monaural boom-box, perched on my bed at wall-side—facing my right ear, while Carly Simon coo-ed "That's The Way I Always Heard it Should Be" as I drifted off to sleep.

Or swinging my beat-up, blue Pepsi-Cola pocket transistor radio by its black nylon strap as the O'Jays blared "Love Train" from its tinny, little speaker while I bopped down Northern Boulevard.

Memories of all those tapes I made of songs off the radio, catching snatches of weather updates—where if I listened to a tape made in the Summer on a Winter's day, I'd get that wistful feeling hearing a 70º degree forecast on a 2º degree day. Songs I incorrectly, knee-jerk anticipate the follow-up to, to this very day because of the crazy-quilt sequences I taped them in years the radio. Whenever I hear Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are", I expect to hear Boz Scaggs' "Low Down" next—with a "Three-ten in the afternoon, in the most beautiful city in the world!" timecheck in between.

Because that's how I heard it...on the radio.

I can hear 'em all again, now—and it makes me happy, which is a lot to ask for in this awful world today. Still have that vintage Pepsi radio, too.

And the music sounds damned good comin' out of it. :)


Update: If you're into the classic Top 40 radio sound—especially the killer New York sound that set the pace, check these great links:

For the WABC 77 Musicradio Sound

For the WCBS-FM Sound

And of course, the WMCA "Good Guys"

(Note that these recordings have been "scoped" which means that the middle parts of the songs have been removed for copyright reasons—but the run-ups and trail-outs remain intact. TRUE RADIO-HEADS UNITE! :) ) LM

Update #2: One of the other great things about CBS's return is that once again I can occasionally hear my dad's voice on the radio. He was a member of a group of some reknown in an earlier life, and yes, I snuck him and his group into the image in the photo illustration I put together for the post. But I ain't sayin' which. I'm a little stinker that way! :) LM