Classic Hits vs. Oldies

The high profile switch of WCBS-FM from its "Jack" format back to oldies is going to require very carefully considered programming moves to be successful in the long run.

What CBS is doing today is introducing to New York City the classic hits concept that has been working very well in some of their other markets. New York, you remember, is where disenfranchised oldies listeners have literally willed their oldies station back on the air.

That is, if it is their station -- the one they remember. Two years time can blur the memory. Will CBS-FM be as listeners hold it in their memory without most of the air talent they loved and the huge playlist of music that wended its way back into the 50's when rock and roll began? I'm flying back east in a few weeks and I plan to give it a large listen.

This is a good problem to have.

As I mentioned in a previous post, name the last time listeners recalled a radio format they didn't like and got the previous one put back on the air.

One more time -- former CBS Radio President Joel Hollander's decision to drop the format because ratings and billing were slipping is only one of his many blunders. The problem could have been fixed. Now CBS gets to fix it.

It's tricky.

For one, the last term I'd use when CBS-FM returns is "Greatest Hits of the 60's, 70"s and the now 80's" as they were doing in promos on the run up to 1:01 pm. Thursday is probably not the time to even say the word "Eighties" when they have been waiting to get their oldies station back. You could just agree to call it "The Greatest Hits" and forget being so specific as to name the years.

I sure wouldn't add one new jingle to the new format for a while. Those classic JAM jingles mean, we're back. There's time to augment but not replace the jingle package later -- no rush.

The "New York, New York" station I.D. needs to be on the top of the hour every hour even when some of the format pruning takes place.

It means "your station is back".

On day one, the former listeners are going to return -- you can bet on that. These listeners are to radio what the base is to a political party. You play to the base first and then -- in the case of a political party -- moderate on the way to the general election. In this case, make the library younger.

I fear the short music rotation.

Somehow I get the creeps that such a short playlist won't work the second time around. It may not have been intentional but the GM's press release on the format change mentioned the hundreds and hundreds of songs the station would play. If that's true, hundreds and hundreds sounds like formatic suicide even though we all know that short playlists get ratings. But this situation may be different.

CBS really created its own problem.

For over 20 years PD Joe McCoy made listeners fall in love with the station. This may be a problem because will the station they love be the station they get when it returns.

I'm not naive. I know CBS has to make the music appeal to a more youthful and "desirable" demographic. My friend, the respected programmer John Rook warns on his website that there will be trouble if CBS-FM -- the sequel -- avoids some 50's music. Several of my program director friends also think Billy Joel for Elvis may not be a smart trade. Proceed carefully at first.

And don't judge any ratings until the People Meter comes to New York because this station could be a blockbuster once the diary is out.

So with great admiration for CBS Radio President Dan Mason and much respect for his talented management staff I humbly recognize that getting to blockbuster status isn't as easy as I'm afraid everyone seems to think.

They can do it.

Just don't fear the word oldies. Don't use the words classic hits until you have a hook in your listeners' mouths. Don't be too proud to get Joe McCoy on the phone to seek his advice on the care and nurturing of his station - he created that monster. And remember, as the song says, "Love is lovelier, the second time around" which means this audience is available for a second love affair with a terrestrial radio station.

Good luck, my friends. I'm wishing you every success.

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