Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Is An Oldie? (Part 6)

Ron Smith, a 30-year radio veteran (both behind the microphone and behind the scenes), clearly shares our love and appreciation of oldies music. In fact, he even named his website "" ... (now who wouldn't kill to have THAT domain name!!!) ... and has dedicated it to keeping alive the great
memories of this music that we all grew up loving.

Ron has published several books documenting the History of the Chicagoland music charts and, later this spring, will release his latest publication, "EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: Births, Deaths And Events Each Day In Oldies History" ... sure to be the ultimate oldies calendar book. (He also currently programs the '50's and '60's channels for Slacker Radio ( ... where you help to create your own personal radio station based on your tastes in music.

We ran a short interview with Ron last week regarding Real Oldies 1690 AM here in Chicago, a radio station he was with from start to finish both as an on-air personality and as a programmer / music consultant.

Clearly his focus has been ... for the past thirty years ... oldies music ...

So who better to ask ...

"What Is An 'Oldie'?"

We wanted to know:
Is it based on a very specific, locked-in era in time?

Has your definition of an "oldie" changed over the years?

What was your inspiration for starting the website way back when?

And, based on your steady stream of visitors over the years, where is the oldies focus today ...

And is it where it SHOULD be?

Or has radio gone astray programming oldies music today?

If you're a fan of oldies music, I think you'll enjoy Ron's perspective and insight on this topic ... it really is quite enlightening. More "food for thought" for an industry that seems to have lost its way. (It's pretty simple really ... If you don't believe in what you're selling, you probably can't sell it.)

Read on ...

In the mid-'90s, I worked for a software training company and part of my job was explaining this thing called the "Internet" to businesses and industrial organizations. As an evangelist for the Net, I posited that it would allow everyone to share with the world the things they knew well, allowing all of us to have instant access to unlimited information. (If only I had though to call that "Wikipedia," I could have retired in luxury by now.)

To that end, I created
, sharing information I'd collected over the years as program director of WCCQ-FM in Joliet, as the producer of Art Roberts' "Hey Baby! They're Playin' Our Song" and as Music Director of WJMK in Chicago. I shared my Oldies Calendar (soon to be a best-selling book), the number one songs in Chicago each week, trivia and -- best of all -- a community of other Oldies fans sharing and helping each other. Even the commercial aspects of the site -- books, CDs and DVDs -- were originally designed to help those in areas not served by the great mom-and-pop Oldies record stores we have in Chicago find the latest releases.
(As a side note, thanks to the passage of an Internet sales tax by our politicians in Springfield, Amazon has dropped all Illinois affiliates, including me, placing all of that in jeopardy).
When I started the site, there was some objection to my including the '70s at all (my list of #1 songs goes all the way to 1980). However, I felt that with the popularity of Classic Rock stations and even "All '70s" stations (we had one briefly back then in Chicago) that the site should cover three decades.

As you've already pointed out in your series, music has had several "milestones," if you will. There were rock 'n' roll songs before 1955 but when Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock" went to #1 that year and Elvis Presley became the first teen phenomenon the following year, it was a milestone. Likewise, the advent of the British Invasion was another milestone. Some would say the psychedelic and heavier music of 1968 and 1969 is another milestone. That may be too strong a term for it, but it certainly marks a differentiation.

These milestones are not only musical but, in many ways, sociological, as well. As someone who was in college at the time, I can state that a sociological change occurred in 1972, as well. I would say the '60s ended that year. And when one looks at the music on the charts in the Fall of that year -- Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson, Johnny Nash, the Moody Blues -- it's easy to add that the '60s ended musically after that, as well. I've often said that "Crocodile Rock" by Elton John was the last sixties song.

It's harder to delineate the next milestones --

Is it Disco or the Urban Cowboy fad?


That's hard to say because you are no longer dealing with a cohesive audience. People listening to the hits of the '60s primarily listened to Top 40 stations. So oldies stations playing the '60s are reaching most of those who listened to rock radio back then.

But in the '70s, the audience fragmented into Top 40 and album-oriented stations. Playing music from the '70s garners you only a portion of those listeners. That's one of the reasons why an all - '70s station has a problem. They have a difficult time balancing the Carpenters, Bread and Barry Manilow with Blue Oyster Cult and Foghat. Those are two separate audiences. Things get even worse in the '80s, as you add heavy metal and alternative stations.

When I interviewed with the West Coast consultant putting WJMK on-the-air in 1984, he asked me what years I thought the station should encompass. For the reasons I just enumerated, I said 1955 to 1972. He immediately asked if I knew that WCBS-FM in New York played currents.
I said I was aware of this, but felt they had evolved into what they were and we couldn't start out trying to be all things to all people (WCBS-FM broke a lot of rules successfully but they weren't a great role model for new stations in other cities). Somehow, I was still hired (as Acting Music Director -- I got the full title two months later) and we put the station on-the-air his way (without an actual Program Director). To the credit of our General Manager, Harvey Pearlman, the station wasn't on-the-air four hours before he doubled the number of '50s tunes because it didn't "sound" like an Oldies station. And he asked me to get more local artists like the New Colony Six, the Ides of March and Aliotta, Haynes & Jeremiah on the playlist ASAP. I'll take credit for convincing the GM to remove the "recurrents" (former current tunes six months-to-a year old) from the playlist and Gary Price finished off the currents ("Future Gold," they were called) when he was hired as Program Director two weeks later.

It was a pretty gutsy move. One General Manager in town was quoted as saying something to the effect of, "All Oldies is okay for Saturday nights but you can't make an entire format out of it." But WJMK did, for over 20 years. (I met that GM at an industry function a couple of years ago and wanted to throw his words in his face. But he was too drunk to appreciate the irony. Yes, I have a long memory.)

We never intended to change the time frame of the music. Why should we?
We were appealing to Baby Boomers, who would always be the largest segment of the population. As they mature (and so do their IRAs) they become the most affluent retirees ever
-- houses paid, kids married and treating themselves to life's luxuries. I don't buy the notion that they've made their product choices and are set on them. I don't drink Schlitz or drive a VW microbus anymore and I believe Beechnut Gum (an old American Bandstand sponsor) is out of business now. Baby Boomers' tastes change right along with everyone else's. Advertisers ignore them at their own peril.

I have never seen an Oldies station lower its demographics by playing more recent music. They end up becoming less appealing to their core audience, who find alternative sources for the music they love, such as satellite radio, Internet radio ("I hear the '50s Hits and '60s Hits channels on are outstanding," he said shamelessly) and I-Pods.

Certainly, there has been great music recorded since 1972. I love much of that music. So I'm not going to argue with those who appreciate that music and want to find a place for it on the radio. But diluting the oldies format with music that isn't as strong as that from the "Golden Age of Top 40 Radio" creates the kind of situation that caused the demise of WJMK and WCBS-FM in favor of "Jack FM" six years ago.

What is an oldie?

Anything you want it to be.

What is the Oldies radio format?
Past Top 40 hits from 1955 to 1972.

Certainly not the '80s.

And here's another thing --

If you're ashamed to say the word "Oldies," you're probably not playing them.

Nor should you be.
-- Ron Smith

Well said, Ron, well said.
Lock into an era and GO with it!!!

Let the other 30 stations in town fight over the same audience by playing the same music up and down the dial.

Be unique ... do something to stand out and set yourself apart from every other radio station in town ... but stay true to your format.

As we said the other day, there are literally THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of other songs you could be playing from this same era that are being ignored. Stick with the format and feature more of these as "Wow" songs and continue to build your audience by being true to yourself.

Practice what you preach ... trust me, a list of The Top 300 "Greatest Hits Of All Time" does NOT include any Eddie Money songs!!! And certainly not at the expense of the HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of legitimate Top 20 Hits you're not playing instead.

Deliver what you're advertising ... and the audience will come ... and a very LOYAL audience you'll find it to be. America LOVES its oldies ... so let 'em rip! (kk)