Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Is An "Oldie"? (Part 3)

(Scroll back to read any other parts

of this series that you may have missed)

Today we're doing a brief interview with Ron Smith, one of the original voices and braintrusts behind Chicago's Real Oldies Radio Station.

One of the more innovative attempts at oldies radio occurred here in Chicago a few years ago when Real Oldies 1690 was launched. (Unfortunately, MOST of us didn't even know our AM radio dials went UP to 1690!!! And, when they did, the signal wasn't very strong ... and it was often difficult to listen through all the static ... but, if you persevered, what you DID hear was a whole bunch of music that hadn't been played on the radio in DECADES!!!)

I asked our FH Buddy Ron Smith a little bit about the early days of the station ...

What was the opening day on-air line-up for Real Oldies 1690?

5 AM - 10 AM: Tommy Edwards and Larry Lujack
10 AM - 3 PM: Scotty Brink
3 PM - 8 PM: Ron Britain
8 PM - Midnight: Ron Smith
Midnight - 5 AM: Len O'Kelly
Weekends: Herb Kent and Jerry J. Bishop

That's some pretty heavy duty on-air talent, all with significant ties to Chicago's radio past. It was SO good to hear some of these voices on the air again ... although I will admit that it was unusual to hear Larry Lujack and Ron Britain ... deejays I grew up listening to here in Chi-Town ... playing music that predated their OWN glory days of radio! Early on, Real Oldies 1690 concentrated on oldies music that predated 1965 ... covering instead the earliest days of rock, mixed in alongside all of the "pop" hits that were still so popular during this era. (kk)

FH: We all witnessed a little bit of radio craziness when Ron Britain left the air. What were some of the other changes made to this line-up over time?
RS: Ron Britain left after four months and was replaced by World Famous Tom Murphy (after guest shots by Clark Weber, Chuck Buell and Kris Erik Stevens). Scott Miller joined for weekends a few months later. Richard Steele did some fill-in work, as well. The staff was remarkably stable.

FH: What was the original vision regarding the radio station's playlist? (It seemed to be only music before 1965 when the station first signed on ... and, even then, The British Invasion was completely ignored ... then, later on, the "blueprint" seems to have expanded to about 1969 and featured lots more "local rock" hits as well.)

RS: The station started during a period when WJMK was heavily into '80s music -- playing the Police and Billy Joel, etc. Essentially, they were playing nothing before 1964, when the British Invasion began. So Real Oldies 1690 was designed to super-serve that neglected core audience. Later I dubbed that the first decade of rock 'n' roll. General Manager John Gehron believed in the notion that top 40 radio was always about playing ALL the hits of the day and oldies should be no different. So we played standards from Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole right along with Little Richard and Elvis. It was a delicate balancing act, but I think Program Director Tommy Edwards pulled it off admirably. In fact, we did our job so well that Infinity pulled the plug on WJMK! Now there was no station playing music AFTER 1964 (True Oldies was several months away from coming to Chicago). So the decision was made to expand the playlist to include music from all of the '50s and '60s. Some listeners were disappointed at first, but they soon realized we weren't dropping any of the older music, we were simply adding the later tunes that were now unavailable anywhere else. "Keeping the music alive" was not just a slogan to us. As for a "local flavor", the station always played local hits. In the early days it was Sam Cooke and Ral Donner. Later we added the garage bands and Chicago Sound groups. Make no mistake about it -- this was a Chicago station right down to the local countdown show I hosted. And every on-air personality knew the city intimately.

(In addition to his evening show, Ron Smith hosted The Chicagoland Radio Countdown on the weekend, playing back The Top 20 Songs from that week in Chicago Radio History, featuring many of the songs and local hits that we all grew up loving on The WLS Silver Dollar Survey ... as well as traveling back even further and featuring some of the old WJJD Charts. Much of this music had been absent from the airwaves for DECADES!!! It was MUST listening for anyone who grew up in this city ... and, back then, it came on right at noon on Sunday, immediately following Bob Stroud's "Rock And Roll Roots" Program on The Drive ... for my money, it was the best one-two punch on the radio ... and I would just LOVE to see WLS-FM pick up Ron's countdowns again as part of their "localized" programming on the weekend. Even sticking exclusively to the WLS Charts, he would have 25 years of material to draw from ... and it would be SO nice to hear this stuff on the radio again, played by somebody both knowledgeable enough ... and AFFECTIONATE enough ... to appreciate and showcase this incredible era in Top 40 Radio. It would also go a long way to help keep the incredible legacy of "The Big 89" alive today.) kk

FH: The most frustrating thing for me was WANTING to listen and then losing the station signal to a simply unlistenable pool of static. (In fact, I couldn't even pick it up INDOORS!) The patter of Tommy Edwards and Larry Lujack was SO entertaining in the morning on the way to work that I'd find myself suffering through the static trying to catch a glimpse of ANYTHING they were saying, rather than tuning into a different radio station with a clearer signal ... now THAT's "appointment radio"!!! (lol) Quite honestly, it was the first time I'd listened to anything on the AM dial in DECADES!!

RS: Ultimately, the terrible signal did the station in. 1,000 watts at night is bad enough, but on the X-band (1600-1700 AM) it's deadly. Add to that the fact that we had no promotion budget (our entire year's worth of promotion money in 2004 was given to Kiss FM to buy TV commercials for Drex). The company would give us seven billboards they couldn't sell every January. There's a reason I dedicated my last book to the WRLL staff by saying, "Never have so few done so much with so little."

FH: I, for one, was extremely disappointed when the station decided to throw in the towel. (Incredibly, they're still streaming on the web ... without any live deejays ... playing all the music that Ron Smith programmed into the computer way back when!) Rumors ran rampant for weeks about what the station was going to do next ... and then the fateful announcement was made ...

RS: Clear Channel was finally able to lease the frequency to WVON for about as much money as we were bringing in but without our overhead. But I'm proud to note that WVON's ratings have never come anywhere near what ours were. Clearly we outperformed the signal. And if we had stuck around long enough for the Portable People Meters (which measure actual listening instead of recalled listening usually a week later) to be used for ratings as they now are, I think we'd have had some decent, if not outstanding, numbers.

Magic 104 FM (where Ron Smith ALSO worked with Dick Biondi) signed off unexpectedly when JACK-FM took over their signal. (Believe it or not, WJMK 104.3 FM is still streaming oldies on the web, too ... without any deejays!!!) There have been rumors for years now that (with Jack-FM's rating tapering off), somebody may be primed to pick up the signal and start programing REAL oldies (if not "Real Oldies") again, especially since WLS-FM's True Oldies Channel has also fallen into the pattern of playing more and more '80's and even some '90's music. (The local spin of Chicago's True Oldies Channel deprives of us hearing The Scott Shannon 24 / 7 Show heard in many other cities across the country and on the web. This is ESPECIALLY frustrating when Scott is doing his specialties weekends ... oft-times projects that we've helped out with in some fashion ... and better than 12 hours are missing due to "local programming"!!!) Meanwhile, Y103.9 (also the victim of an incredibly weak signal ... but broadcasting loud and clear on the web) offers a viable alternate to oldies programming, playing more and more of the songs that traditional oldies stations ignore. They're also real big on listener input and requests ... and indications are strong that Chicago listeners WANT to hear more and more of the stuff that's a little off the beaten path of the beaten-to-death oldies regularly being shoved down our throats. (kk)


Meanwhile, we also came across this recent interview that WLS-FM General Manager Michael Damsky did with Rick Kaempfer's Chicagoland Radio blog. In what falls into the "perfect timing" category, Damsky (responsible for both WLS-AM and WLS-FM, which is the Chicagoland version of The True Oldies Channel), sat down with Rick Kaempfer last week and discussed his philosophy on how HE feels oldies should be presented today. I think you might find this kind of interesting:

"I think that the old model for oldies radio was to recreate the type of
radio that people went to high school with — you not only played the music, you presented it with the talent they remembered, like the guys you mentioned — who are all great talents.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: For the record, the deejays mentioned by Kaempfer included Larry Lujack, Fred Winston and John "Records" Landecker, all of whom ... incredibly ... thanks to the huge number of radio positions eliminated recently due to syndication and automation ... are available for a prime spot on the radio again ... and all of whom were HUGE names on Chicagoland Radio in the past.) kk

What we’re trying to do is frame the music a little differently. We’re not just trying to present the music to the people that listened to it originally. This music has an appeal beyond that audience -- people of a slightly younger generation who love the music from shows like Jersey Boys or American Idol. For them, the presentation needs to be slightly different. We’re taking the opportunity to broaden the appeal to a younger generation, still playing the music those older listeners like, but presenting it in a way that the 35 year olds can relate to."

I agree 100% that there is an untapped audience of younger listeners out there who are PRIME oldies radio candidates ... the catchiness of this music blows away ANYTHING being recorded today ... and there seems to be a never-ending opportunity here to convert these youngsters to oldies music fans. The way this music is being featured in movie and television soundtracks ... Broadway Shows and TV Shows like "Glee" and "American Idol" ... along with all kinds of advertising commercial campaigns ... being played non-stop at amusement parks, shopping malls, pizza parlors and birthday parties ... it's a NATURAL for building your next generation of oldies music fans. And honestly, why WOULDN'T they like it? It grabbed OUR hearts at a tender young age, too ... but I disagree that this music needs to be presented in a modern-day "more music hour" format. I think that as these kids discover this great music, they (like us) will want to learn more about it and explore it deeper than the only 200 or 300 tracks we're allowing them to hear. That "education" is how you build an audience ... and, once you do, chances are you've got 'em for life ... and they will expose THEIR children to this music and, pretty soon, for generations to come, kids will still be singing along with Buddy Holly, Peter Noone and Frankie Valli ... because it's FEEL GOOD MUSIC ... plain and simple. (kk)


We step away from the "What Is An 'Oldie'"? theme for a few days and interview Eric Lefcowitz, author of a brand new book on The Monkees called "Monkee Business: The Revolutionary Made-For-TV Band" ... followed up with some weekend comments. And, speaking of comments, please keep yours coming in on this hot new topic ... we've still got HUNDREDS to read through and edit ... so we'll pick up more of this discussion again next week in Forgotten Hits! (kk)