what are oldies? tribune

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Posted by Bunker Town on June 16, 2011 at 13:34:19:

For music lovers who are old but not that old, there's a shock that comes with hearing The Cars and John Mellencamp on an oldies radio station for the first time.

OK, so "Good Times Roll" actually is 32 years old, and "Jack & Diane" is almost 29, but still … oldies?

Oldies are the Chiffons, the Shirelles, the Marvelettes. They're Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & His Comets. They're the Four Seasons, the Four Tops, the "5" Royales.

Are they really also Bryan Adams?

As time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin' into the future, a battle is being waged on commercial radio — and in the culture at large — over the soul of the oldie. You might look at "oldies" as a genre, certain music from a certain time with a certain aesthetic. Or perhaps you think "oldie" merely connotes something that's a certain amount of old.

Or here's another possibility: The whole concept of "oldies" is on its way to history's dustbin, taking with it songs from the '50s and early-to-mid-'60s.

"Nobody that listens to the radio wants to say they're listening to oldies," said Bob Burke, vice president and managing director for the radio-industry trade magazine/website Friday Morning Quarterback. "They're just listening to their favorite songs. People don't want to be told that they're old."

"Oldies is an antiquated term," said Scott Shannon, who launched the syndicated True Oldies Channel several years ago and hosts middays on WLS-FM 94.7. "Oldies used to be doo-wop and Sha Na Na and Elvis and all of that. Those were oldies because they were for people who grew up with that music. Now there's an ever-sliding line depending on when you were born. Where were you when John Mellencamp sang 'Jack & Diane'?"

The term "oldies" has been applied to rock 'n' roll for almost as long as the music has been around. The first edition of the best-selling compilation-album series "Oldies But Goodies" came out in 1959 and featured rock 'n' roll, R&B and doo-wop songs that were just a few years old at the time, including the Moonglows' "Sincerely" (1955), the Penguins' "Earth Angel" (1954) and Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day" (1957).

The country really embraced the concept of oldies when George Lucas' music-drenched 1973 hit movie "American Graffiti" asked the question, "Where were you in '62?" The soundtrack, packed with '50s and early-'60s songs, became a top 10 album and provided a kind of template for the first wave of oldies radio stations, though some, such as Phoenix's KOOL-FM, already had launched such a format.

Now step back for a moment and imagine a current movie rewinding a mere 11 years to ask the question, "Where were you in 2000?" Can you envision a similar wave of nostalgia for the year that gave us Christina Aguilera's "What a Girl Wants," Matchbox Twenty's "Bent" and Vertical Horizon's "Everything You Want"?

The oldies radio format peaked in the 1980s and thrived through the 1990s. Chicago's WJMK-FM 104.3 became "Magic 104" in 1984 (and later "Oldies 104.3") to focus on oldies, which it came to define as rock, soul and R&B (oldies generally aren't country) from the mid-'50s to the early '70s. But by the mid-2000s the oldies format was flagging nationwide as advertisers supported stations that aimed for listeners younger than folks who were in high school in the '50s and '60s.

"You have radio stations that are trying to lower their demographic because advertisers are not buying baby boomers," said Ron Smith, WJMK's music director from 1984 to 1992 and DJ on "Real Oldies 1690" from 2003 to 2006.

In 2005, owner CBS Radio flipped WJMK to the Jack FM format, which featured adult-targeted rock and dance hits from the '70s onward. (Disclosure: My wife, Mary Dixon, works on the morning show of another CBS-owned station, WXRT-FM 93.1.) That same year WZZN-FM 94.7 stepped into the void and began carrying Shannon's syndicated True Oldies Channel format, and in 2008 it reverted to its old call letters, WLS-FM.

In March of this year, WLS, still calling itself "Chicago's True Oldies," increased its local programming while expanding its playlist well beyond those traditional '50s-to-early-'70s years, meaning that Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" or Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" may occasionally show up alongside the Supremes. Among the changes, WLS quit airing Shannon's syndicated show and instead has him host a separate show with songs programmed by the station.

"When Scott created 'The True Oldies Channel,' he really had this idea of appealing to purists in the oldies landscape and so included a lot of early-'60s-type things, which we've moved away from," said WLS-FM operations director Michael La Crosse, noting that although the station still plays Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, "we realize our audience is more interested in hearing music that's a little bit newer and a little bit more well known."

Shannon acknowledged that he's had to change his tune for WLS.

"If you're going to be an oldies station, the older the song is, the more careful you have to be that the song was a huge hit," Shannon said, though he added: "You can't underestimate the people who listen to oldies. They want to hear some Shirelles. They want to hear an Elvis song that wasn't No. 1. They want to hear an occasional 'Tossin' and Turnin'' by Bobby Lewis (1961). They want to hear the Four Seasons. We really work hard to keep the music mix interesting."

La Crosse said that in March the average year of music played on WLS moved up to about 1970-71; it was in the 1965-66 range a few years earlier and had been creeping toward the late '60s before this latest shift.

"While that doesn't seem like a big shift in terms of years, musically that was quite a change," La Crosse said.

One recent midday stretch on WLS went from Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" (1964) to the Knack's "My Sharona" (1979) to Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" (1985) to Natalie Cole's "This Will Be" (1975) to the Youngbloods' "Get Together" (1969) to Van Morrison's "Wild Night" (1971) to the Vogues' "You're the One" (1965).

Meanwhile, in March, WJMK dropped its Jack identity to become "K-Hits," which promises "Chicago's Greatest Hits: '60s + '70s + '80s," though the emphasis is largely on the latter two decades. Note: This "classic hits" format is devoted to singles, while "classic rock" stations such as "The Loop" (WLUP-FM 97.9) and "The Drive" (WDRV-FM 97.1) play more album tracks.

During that same midday stretch, K-Hits played Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" (1986), Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You" (1973), Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" (1972), Wang Chung's "Dance Hall Days" (1984), the Doobie Brothers' "Takin' It to the Streets" (1976), Michael Jackson's "Bad" (1987) and Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown" (1976).

Both K-Hits and WLS played Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" (1970).

Both stations appear to be benefiting from their tweaking. In the just-released May Arbitron ratings, WLS-FM has moved up to fourth place among all listeners (from seventh in April, ninth in March and 11th in February) and into a tie for seventh place in the coveted 25-54 demographic (up from a tie for ninth in April). WJMK was a more modest 18th overall and 16th in the 25-54 demo, its audience share similar to where it was in April but up a bit from the beginning of the year. (WBBM-AM 780 was No. 1 among all listeners, while WVAZ-FM 102.7 topped the 25-54 chart.)

Chicago broadcast radio consultant John Gehron said oldies stations have been boosted by Arbitron's change in measuring listenership from written diaries to Portable People Meters (PPMs), which automatically report any stations encountered by listeners wearing the devices, even if it's just music playing in a supermarket. Arbitron switched Chicago to the PPM system in 2008.

"PPM saved the oldies format," Gehron said. "Oldies has performed very well in the PPM world where in the world of diaries, it was pretty much falling off the map."

Smith, who now runs the Oldies Music (oldiesmusic.com) website and wrote the recently released "Eight Days a Week: Births, Deaths and Events Each Day in Oldies History," said he's not crazy about the sliding-scale approach to "oldies."

"I'm on the side of oldies is strictly a mid-'50s-to-early-'70s phenomenon," he said, bemoaning the disappearance of early rock and R&B history from the airwaves. "I think we're going to lose more as time progresses. You can't hear Connie Francis or Gene Pitney on the radio any more. It's a shame."

Smith also argued that major sociological changes — the '50s youth culture, civil rights movement, British Invasion, Vietnam War and '60s/early-'70s counterculture — give music from those years a deeper resonance than songs from later years. Plus, popular music covered all genres back then, as opposed to the dramatic splintering of audiences that followed.

"That is music that appealed to anyone who listened to rock radio in those days," he said.

But even if Smith's definition of "oldies" stands still, culture doesn't. Satellite and Internet radio have provided homes for niche programming such as '50s and '60s music, while broadcast radio aims for the fat middle favored by advertisers.

All the same, some 30-year-old bands still sound more natural on an oldies station than others.

"We don't play any U2," WLS' La Crosse said. "That's just one step over the line. They're all great songs. They're all hits. I just don't see them fitting with the texture of what we do."

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