Saturday, August 11, 2007

A review of the return of WCBS-FM

In New York radio, the big news this year has been the return of the mother of all oldies stations, the big fish in that medium-sized oldies pond, WCBS 101.1 FM. It departed from the scene two years ago as the ratings were dropping, not only in key demographics like mid-20 year olds and males (not the target audience anyway), but also in the 30s and 40s year olds. older males, and women. No advertisers, no station. (There was little hard evidence that ads had ceased to be effective, but one could hardly resist concluding that it had started to happen.) So, they changed to a Jack-format. There are several of these around the country -- faceless, characterless, almost voiceless, iPod shufflers. They boasted "we play what we want", which meant that they had jack-poor taste. Would that sell in New York? It quickly became clear that it wouldn't. Then, CBS brought in a PD who used to run a major SF Bay Area oldies outlet until it folded (similar demo problems, plus owner problems). I heard that and thought, oh my, they'll bring the oldies back when this jack thing is all jacked out. Sure enough, that's what they did, keeping that Jack director.

Okay, Bob, so enough radio shop-talk. What's the station like?? It's pretty much like what it was the last two months before it closed. Their morning and early afternoon shifts are familiar voices, the music of the '60s thru '80s is featured, Mr. G (my fellow Hofstra alum Irv Gikofsky) is back doing morning weather, they still try to bring on radio legends as best they can. They key on personalities, which is important anywhere but is crucial in New York. The last few months before closing, they had made futile changes such as dumping doowop and lessening ballads. Those changes only made things worse. They've undone that in a minor way, by once in a while playing a "Hall of Fame" pick (with a brief lead-in to say it's coming). Indeed, those lead-in montage/announcements for older oldies and for country (which is also segregated out of the main mix) may be the best new thing they're doing, because they need to create a trained/educated/spoiled audience that's easier to keep because there's few other places for them to go to get the quality they want.

Problems? A few.

Their flattened signal makes the songs, especially the mid-60s stuff, have a sound like the record's trying to be heard past other noises. If it wasn't so 'brightened', it'd be almost like having the voices wash out. Do that to recordings that have that problem to begin with (like 'Dancing In the Streets' or 'Go Now'), and it becomes really difficult to pick out the voices. The percussion becomes like sand. They need to address this, through both their broadcast settings and getting clearer copies of those songs, because it's quite distracting at times, and those recordings simply sound better on some other stations.

Also, they could try expanding the format. I hear you -- "are you nuts? It's already unmanageably large!" No, it wouldn't be. I mean expanding in both directions, selectively. I find it hard to believe that the audience would go running if once in a blue moon they heard, say, "Count Every Star" (the Ravens) or "Nature Boy" (Nat Cole) or "Dream a Little Dream" (Louis & Ella). Or for that matter, "The Game of Love" (Santana & Branch) or "Bailamos" or "Could I Have This Kiss" (Enrique Iglesias). The key is to be selective, with high-quality tracks that don't sound like big band or hip-hop. This is called "spicing". It creates enjoyable radio experiences others don't have, it's too rare for noticeable turnoff, and it spoils the audience. For all their playing on peoples' memories, they sometimes forget that their listeners are still alive and are still making great memories, including while they're listening to your station. The main music, the 'audience education', and the spicing can all be part of that.

Also, they should become the place to hear famous artists upon their death. What made them so big in their kind of music? Once again, it's a way to spoil, and the death-time guilt and curiosity factors would lessen button-pushing.

In its later years, WCBS was slower than snails on things that were happening with oldies artists. Like, for instance, the pre-rock rock side of Louis Prima when it was getting popular thru its use in commercials, or Johnny Cash as his popularity rose. Many little waves of popular attention to oldies acts were just plain missed. I hope the new WCBS does better with that.

Anyway, it's good to have a broad-format station back on the FM dial. People can relax from tending to their iPod mix for a while.


Anonymous said...

Have you tried out music social network yet?

Mademoiselle said...

There's a station like that in this area. I see a commercial for it every now and then.

If I ran a struggling "oldies" station, you know what I think I would do?

Try to play music that's more "current". I bet that would work.

Bob Longman said...

To Mademoiselle :
Yes and no. If an oldies station plays current music, it will lose its core audience. I think an exception can be made for select new tracks either by oldies artists (which now, by including '80s in the definition, includes U2, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Whitney Houston, and Sting). Sorta like what happened with Orbison's "You Got It" or Beach Boys' "Kokomo" -- which WCBS was slow in taking up, despite their obvious appeal to the audience.

The other exception is when a "current" artist makes a hit song that clearly fits in with some part of the oldies sound. Back when they were "current", Billy Joel, Lenny Kravitz, and Huey Lewis did this; ones who might do it among now-artists include John Legend and Enrique Iglesias, or anyone who teams up with Santana. Don't wait the usual 5 years. Sometimes, just wait until it de-charts, sometimes take it out of the box.

It can be done, but you must be very careful, especially about the sound of the specific track. Otherwise, the core flees.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed. Being so rigid in their rules and playlist that they couldn't play Elvis' rereleases (Rubbernecking and another)a couple of years back left some of its listeners scratching their heads and having to go elsewhere to hear an Elvis song!