Don't Know Jack
The world of radio was shocked over the weekend to hear that WCBS-FM in New York, the highest-rated oldies station in the country, dumped the format Friday afternoon in favor of the we-play-anything "jack" format. CBS-FM had been doing oldies for 30 years (practically since oldies were currents) and was still one of the top-rated stations in New York, but Infinity Broadcasting decided that the "jack" format would fill a need in the market, and in an instant, the old CBS-FM was dead. (Infinity also flipped Chicago's WJMK to "jack" on Friday after 21 years playing oldies, even though there's been a we-play-anything station in Chicago since last fall.)
Radio being what it is, somebody in New York will pick up the likes of Bruce Morrow, Norm N. Nite, Harry Harrison, and the other on-air gods who've made their home on CBS-FM for many years. (The same is true in Chicago, where Dick Biondi and Fred Winston were among those displaced on JMK.) They're likely to end up on lower-powered, lower-profile stations, however--and some of them are likely to retire. And it seems possible that this switch might be the canary in the coal mine signaling the coming death of oldies radio.
One of the reasons given for the CBS-FM and JMK switches is that ad-agency media buyers in their mid-20s have trouble comprehending oldies music and are therefore resistant to directing ad buys toward those stations--which is the same obstacle that contributed to the demise of beautiful music radio in the late 80s. When you consider that the people who were teenagers when Elvis exploded are in their 60s now, it won't be long before oldies confronts the same demographic crunch that beautiful music encountered in the 1990s. There's reason to doubt that oldies will die out as quickly as beautiful music did, though. The core artists in the oldies format--the Beatles, Buddy Holly, Elvis, and so on--have a far greater cultural reach than Mantovani, Frank Chacksfield, and the Hollyridge Strings, and they'll remain relevant in a way the giants of beautiful music did not. But as the boomers, the navel-gazingest generation in history, start dying off, how viable will radio stations that celebrate rock's past remain? Will today's iPod generation be interested in a similar type of radio playing Eminem and Green Day 30 years from now?
(That's a question worth asking about the jack format right now, by the way. Given that its eclectic mix is often compared to an iPod in shuffle mode, will people listen to it, and to the commercials it will include, if they already have an iPod?)
The big wheel rolls. The old must give way to the new. We all know it. Nevertheless, Infinity's decision to suddenly flip still-successful WCBS-FM without so much as a whisper of warning, and to replace it with "jack," a fad of the moment whose staying power is completely unknown, seems like an especially egregious example of disrespect for the old. The station and its jocks--and its hundreds of thousands of listeners--deserved better.
The Day the Music Died: The CBS-FM format change was rather low-key--Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind" faded out, followed by a one-line promo that said, "There's lots of songs in the world. Why don't we play what we want?", followed by "Fight for Your Right" by the Beastie Boys. Stations seeking to make a splash with a new format often take a higher-profile approach. For example, it's fairly common to signal a flip by playing the same song over and over for a whole weekend, but there are other ways to do it. Ten years ago, I worked part-time at a soft adult-contemporary station that flipped to classic rock. The weekend before the flip, we got a memo from the program director with a instructions for new formatics--a new identifier for the station, new rules for commercial breaks, modified music playlist, and a lot more. The station was still playing soft AC, but it sounded a lot different. On Monday morning, however, the program director was fired and the station played "Another One Bites the Dust" for two hours straight before unveiling the classic rock format. (We were never sure of the reason for one weekend of new formatics, unless it was to provide a subtle warning to listeners that change was afoot. But if the warning was so subtle that the jocks and the PD didn't get it, what chance did the listeners have?)
The most famous format flip of all time was probably the one made by WCFL in Chicago in 1976, in which the station went from Top 40 to beautiful music. Unlike many flips, this one was announced in advance, and resulted in the unprecedented spectacle of the station airing ads for its competitors, in which they urged listeners to move over after the change. The station also held Chicago's top jock, Larry Lujack, to his contract, which meant that he would spend several months playing Mantovani, Frank Chacksfield, and the Hollyridge Strings. A short aircheck is here, which features Lujack reminding listeners that a promotion in which listeners could win a Kiss concert for their school was still going on. The afternoon before, Lujack had hosted CFL's final Top 40 show, before the station played two hours of rolling ocean waves to kick off the new format. You can hear Lujack's final Address to the Nation here. I was listening that day. (Also worth a listen is midday jock Bob Dearborn's last hour on WCFL. He's as complete a pro as ever sat behind a microphone.)