A Noble Experiment
My post from two weeks ago on Real Oldies 1690 in Chicago and the comments received on it have sparked two posts' worth of additional thoughts. To read Part One, click here.
I was critical of the music format on Real Oldies 1690 in my original post, calling it "largely 50s and 60s MOR." That was a mischaracterization--the intent of the station, as Tommy Edwards described it in this 2003 interview with Edison Media Research, was to cover a specific period of the rock-n-roll era in more depth than mainstream oldies stations do:
We’re really focused on ’54-63. We’ll play a few songs from 1964, but those were holdovers by groups like the Four Seasons--there’s no British invasion music whatsoever. The songs we play from Sinatra and Nat King Cole were songs that were on the pop charts, although there are a few album cuts like “Chicago (My Kind of Town)” for obvious reasons. We also play a lot of the great R&B stuff that was segregated off the pop chart at the time . . . and the country crossovers and instrumentals of that era. Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka had a lot of hits; we’ll play 10-15 when you only hear one or two on other stations.I don't know if Edwards' statement at the time the station signed on reflected the reality for very long. When I listened to the station, what I heard seemed pretty housewifey, and I didn't hear much R&B or country crossover stuff, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there.
Other stations around the country have tried this sort of pre-Beatles format, but it seems unlikely to me that that there's a big-enough audience for it to succeed anymore. Part of the reality is demographic: the kids who grew up on the music of the 1950s are pushing 70 now. The Grim Reaper killed elevator music radio in the early 90s, and he'll put big pressure on 50s-based formats in the next 10 years or so. In addition, "narrowcasting" has been fashionable for quite a while now, but the format as Tommy Edwards originally described it is one of the narrowest pop formats you'll find on terrestrial radio. It's more scholarly historical excavation than living format. Even with the broadening variations Edwards describes--adding R&B and country crossovers to the pop stuff--the format is ultimately airless. The artists who make up the core of mainstream oldies formats (and classic rockers like my radio station) are in many cases still touring and recording, so they retain some contemporary resonance. Far fewer artists from the pre-Beatles period are still viable, or even visible outside of PBS pledge specials.
But me no buts about the viability of jazz and classical formats. Even though the pioneers in those forms are long since dead, new generations continue to work in them, thus they are self-renewing in a way that rockabilly and doo-wop are not. It's not that there isn't any audience at all for pre-Beatles radio pop. There are people who remember when it was the stuff of mainstream radio, and people who are merely searching for something different, and certainly some of them will gravitate to such a format--but not in large-enough numbers to make it viable on terrestrial radio. In the future, they'll likely have to go to Internet radio or satellite to get it.
In the end, the ace up Real Oldies 1690's sleeve--the one that could have turned the game if Clear Channel had understood it--was its jocks. If the station was going to make it, it would do so as much on its personalities as on its music. However, there's an argument that a station staffed by guys who made their reputations in the 1960s and early 70s, as Larry Lujack, Scotty Brink, Ron Brittain, Jerry G. Bishop, and others did, might have done better overall by covering a different slice of time in the same way--say from the rise of Elvis to the release of Revolver, 1956 to 1966, playing the hits plus the MOR and country crossovers that don't make it onto oldies radio now. But there would be more duplication of that format with traditional oldies radio. One thing a pre-Beatles format doesn't have to worry much about is duplication, apart from Elvis, Buddy Holly, and maybe Jerry Lee Lewis--and even they're disappearing from mainstream oldies stations, which are largely 60s based anymore. But a 60s version of what Real Oldies 1690 was trying to do with the 50s would have to include artists such as the Beatles, Beach Boys, and various Motown performers, who are also core artists on mainstream oldies. However, if a station were willing to sell its veteran jocks as hard as it sells its musical image, it might be able to separate itself--but such a station wouldn't be viable outside the country's largest markets, and there'd be little point in doing it on national satellite. The attraction of Scotty Brink and World Famous Tom Murphy is obvious in Chicago, but in New York, you'd need different personalities to resonate in the same way.
In the end, we can probably chalk Real Oldies 1690 into the column of "noble experiment." Said column is littered with failed ideas that might have worked if they'd been executed better, but that's the thing about noble experiments: We'll never know what might have been.