WCBS-FM doesn't know JACK

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Written on 11:37 AM by Jack B.

A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while.

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

- from the song "American Pie" by Don Mclean


A few days ago, the only Oldies station in New York, 101.1 WCBS-FM, went off the air and became something called JACK-FM. Those of you who not from New York may not recognize the significance of this but for several generations of listeners it was a crushing blow. I grew up on WCBS-FM, it was the station my parents listened to when I was a child and it was the station I listened to as an adult. My alarm clock was set on WCBS-FM to wake me up in the morning, it was usually the music I listened to as I studied and it was the first pre-programmed station in every car radio, in every car, my family has owned. Now that is gone. No more Elvis or the Platters. No more Bobby Darin or Connie Francis. No more classic MoTown. No more Beatles. No more Sam Cooke. No more Three Dog Night. No more “Love Potion No.9”.No more “In the Still of the Night”. No more “House of the Rising Sun”. Just no more.

My father came of age in the 1950s and 60s. My mother in the 60s and 70s. CBS-FM aired the music that spanned those generations. They were the only station left in New York who did. It was through listening to my parent’s musical experience that I was able to pick through the muck of my own. The raw talent of Elvis makes one go Eminem who? The energy of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis (not to mention the fact that both actually played a musical instrument) puts lie to the hype that is Justin Timberlake and Usher. Maroon 5 or Oasis vs. the Beatles or the Stones? Fifty Cent vs. Chuck Berry? Destiny’s Child vs. The Supremes (with or without Diana Ross)? Michael Bolton vs. Otis Redding? Brittney Spears vs. Brenda Lee? The list goes on and on. Compared to those so called “oldies, the music of my generation just plain sucks. Is it any wonder I listened to CBS-FM instead of the current Top 40 or hip-hop stations that glut the market?

Something else that made CBS-FM stand out is that it had actual deejays. Not “shock jocks” of the likes of Howard Stern, Don Imus or Opie & Anthony, but actual DJs who spin records (now CDs) in a specific order, sometimes taking fan requests or dedications to a loved one, sometimes bringing having life performances or interviews on the air, sometimes telling you a little story or history or anecdote about the song/performer you’re listening to. Making you feel a connection to the song. Soothing you with voices that seem made for radio, making the listener feel as if they know them personally. DJs that became an important and well-known part of the city’s cultural mosaic. Cousin Brucie, Dan Ingram, Don K. Reed, Harry Harrison. The names slip off the tongue of any even casual listener of the old 101.1 FM. Now that too is gone.

Here's basically what happened - Rock shock: Nation's No. 1 oldies station changes formats:

It's the day the music died again.

WCBS-FM, the top oldies station in the nation for more than three decades, stunned its legion of listeners by abruptly switching formats this weekend. Goodbye, Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys.

Hello, Duran Duran and Jet.

"I'm sure this move angered and bewildered its listeners," said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. "A lot of people punched in WCBS-FM, heard Pink's `Get The Party Started,' and said, `Something's wrong with my radio."'

The station switched to an oldies format in 1972, initially as a bastion for the doo-wop sounds of the '50s. Although the playlist changed over the years, WCBS-FM always remained the outpost for classic Top 40 radio in the nation's largest radio market.

It was also the home to many of New York's legendary Top 40 DJs, including "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram and Norm N. Nite. Radio formats came and went _ disco, punk, hip-hop, talk, sports talk _ but WCBS-FM remained unchanged, a warm and welcoming presence at 101.1 on the FM dial.

The station's new format is called "Jack," an eclectic mix of hit music from the '70s through the present. The station's owner, Infinity Broadcasting, made the same format shift Friday at its Chicago oldies station, WJMK-FM, where classic Top 40 had aired for the last 21 years.

There are currently about a dozen stations nationally using the Jack format.

"Youth must be served," Taylor said about the changes. "If you look at a lot of media, older Americans aren't important unless you're selling Craftmatic beds."

At 5 p.m. Friday, just as Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind" faded out, WCBS listeners heard a voice announce, "Why don't we play what we want? There's a whole world of songs out there." The first song played on the new 'CBS-FM: "Fight for Your Right" by the Beastie Boys.

Prior to that moment, there were no indications of any imminent change at the station. Earlier in the day, morning show host Mickey Dolenz _ yes, the former Monkees drummer _ celebrated his 100th show with the station by hosting a live broadcast from B.B. King's Blues Club on 42nd Street.

In the winter 2005 Arbitron ratings, WCBS-FM was ranked eighth among the city's stations _ a strong showing, but apparently not strong enough.

"We did a lot of market research and found a hole in the market that wasn't being served by any other station," said Chad Brown, WCBS-FM vice president and general manager.

Got that? In one minute it goes from Frank Sinatra to the Beastie Boys without warning. Even the on-air personalities had no idea this was coming (not to mention how tasteless it was for management to let Mickey Dolenz celebrate his 100th broadcast without telling him it would also be his last) but who cares what they think anyway? "JACK-FM" doesn't have any DJs or on-air personalities, it's all canned and syndicated, with random songs playing non-stop. Which is basically the same thing as many other FM stations these days (this "hole in the market" business is malarkey). They say its like a radio version of the i-Pod with thousands of songs in its catalog except they forget the fact that people can pick what to put on their i-Pod. With "JACK-FM" there is no choice for the listener, unlike in the WCBS days, listeners can't even call up with requests.

Everything is computerized, impersonal. Is this really the way to the youth market?
Is the all mighty demographics the only reason why this was done despite the fact the station was still holding its hold its own? Yep.

Take a look -WCBS-FM making a play for youth:

As one radio analyst jokingly put it, WCBS-FM listeners have no one to blame but themselves for the demise of the city's last oldies-format station."Boomers are doing the unforgivable thing of getting older," said Tom Taylor, editor of InsideRadio.com.


That, analysts said, is essentially what drove WCBS owner Infinity Broadcasting on Friday to abruptly switch from playing oldies -- which it had done for 33 years -- to the trendy "Jack" format, a mix of rock and pop from the 1970s to today. Advertisers want to reach younger audiences, they said, and oldies don't deliver youngsters.So while the change may have surprised WCBS listeners, it wasn't a shock to industry watchers, who said the drive to find programming that skews to younger audiences isn't unique to radio. In fact, broadcast network CBS -- which, like Infinity, is owned by Viacom -- dropped from its fall schedule four of its top five oldest-skewing shows. And it's the top-rated network.


Such format changes come at a time when radio owners like Infinity and Clear Channel Communications are battling for the ears of listeners who increasingly have turned to more niche-oriented satellite radio and podcasting, a radio-like format designed for digital music players. Moreover, while WCBS may not have earned as much as in past years, it still was the 10th-rated station in the competitive New York market. The thinking is simple, said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and corporate research director for media-buying firm Horizon Research in Manhattan: "The younger the audience profile, the more money you'll make."


Needless to say, the change hasn't been taken lightly. Allan Sniffen, an industry watcher who runs the New York Radio Message Board Web site, said he can't remember another format change that has created as much backlash as WCBS' has. The site is full of posts from angry listeners, "and not all of them are old," said Sniffen, who questioned why Infinity wouldn't instead change the format of one of its lower-rated New York stations."If they don't care about selling to people over the age of 40 or 45, they could care less if they're mad at them," Sniffen said of Infinity. Still, he said, "If they've got faith" in the "Jack" format, "you wouldn't have thought they would want it on a frequency where you have thousands of people angry at it before it even gets started."

Here are some more articles on the fall out:

Oldies suddenly a thing of past in WCBS shift

'CBS fans think they got Jack-ed

David Hinckley: Thanks for the memory & melodies

'The doo-wop is gone'

A few years back, WNEW-AM, the last station that aired popular standards like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald also stopped broadcasting. Once again because the listening demographic was too "old". Since then no other station has taken its place. Want to listen to Miss Peggy Lee now? Go and buy her CD. Haven't heard any Cole Porter or Irving Berlin lately? Go rent an old musical. This too will happen with the music that created Rock 'n' Roll. Does anyone really think there's any chance that listening to JACK-FM or any of its "demographic friendly" clones that the upcoming generation will be exposed to the likes of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" or Roy Orbison's "In Dreams". I'm just glad to experience this music on free broadcast radio when I had the chance because in all probability the next generation never will.

On behalf of all the Jacks in the world (and I don't mean the pseudo-Jacks who are really Johns or Jacobs adopting the name of Jack because they think it's a cool nickname) I resent that Infinity Broadcasting has taken to using my name for their crappy "format". I hope it fails and they look like fools. Still, I realize that may not happen. But whatever happens, "JACK-FM" (oh, that name!) will never be WCBS-FM and that is not Infinity's loss but all of radio's itself.
Les Moonves, Viacom's co-president, (who once now-famously said when he cancelled Joan of Arcadia: "I think talking to ghosts may skew younger than talking to God") showed again why he could care less about the majority (i.e. older than 24) of his consumers when he seemed surprised at the outrage the dumping of WCBS's Oldies format, saying "It would seem like we shot somebody when we changed the WCBS format."
Really, Les? You think? And this supposed-genius, ladies and gentleman, runs one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world. Believe it, as Ripley would say, or not.

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