How CBS-FM is Like the iPhone

I hate to say I told you so, but in the case of CBS dropping arguably one of the best radio formats in the country for an unproven, not-ready-for-prime time format like "Jack" ("We play what we want") I must say it.

I told you so.

I can't brag about being the only one to say it because almost everyone in radio knew dropping CBS-FM's oldies format was a mistake.

Forget about the fact that CBS never bothered to listened to its New York listeners preferring instead to let a salesman named Joel Hollander listen to his gut. For a man who is reputed to have trashed the popular oldies format and ordered the "Jack" format up and running on a mere whim it was rather gutless.

The fact that Hollander's concern over slipping revenues of the oldies station was premature as some estimates put "Jacks" ratings around $16 million a year making CBS-FM's $40 million look good.

Be careful what you wish for.

It took the courage of CBS' new radio President Dan Mason to switch the station back to its oldies roots. In my mind there was never any doubt that Mason would do the right thing. He's been doing the right thing ever since he started mopping up Hollander's mess. Mason rightfully started with the format only a salesman would think of -- Free FM -- by replacing it everywhere he could.

And anything I've ever said that was critical of CBS CEO Les Moonves I take back.

Moonves is a TV guy who obviously knows more about radio than "the radio guy" Joel Hollander. Moonves knew enough to bring Mason back to CBS and to give him the mandate to fix the place. (Notice how I didn't mention Katie Couric?)

So I'm reading a lot of trade accounts that wax nostalgically about the return of CBS-FM to its listeners, but there is a bigger story as far as I'm concerned.

When have listeners ever been able to talk our arrogant radio companies into returning a format they obviously love and cherish? I know of no time -- and it never happens in a major market like New York.

The last time I saw an outpouring of love and devotion like this (not to mention eager anticipation) was when consumers lined up at AT&T and Apple stores to buy all the iPhones they could get their hands on.

CBS-FM is radio's version of the iPhone.

You'd be hard pressed to come up with another time something radio did got so much love and devotion from listeners. Listeners generally use radio like toothpaste these days without passion but they use it nonetheless.

The reason for this love and devotion to WCBS-FM is the station, the music, the personalities, contests, weekends -- the feeling it was real and personal. Radio doesn't seem to do real and personal very well these days. Some Einstein thought "Jack" would inherit the 101.1 frequency by using no djs and by playing "what we want". Now they know they were wrong.

To pay for their mistake "Jack" will be relegated to HD2 Thursday when the format flip-flop takes place. HD2 -- a fate worse than death. It will forever burn in HD hell -- at least in New York.

"Jack" is a multi-year format at best -- in some markets where there is a formatic hole for it. It's not a franchise like CBS-FM's oldies format.

Joe McCoy, the steward of CBS-FM all these years is the main reason for the station's success. He lived it, breathed it, respected it -- more than its detractors did before they took it down.

And I want to weigh in on the old dj issues -- Cousin Brucie may be around 70 but listeners of all ages appreciate his connection with them. This doesn't mean CBS-FM has to hire all their old djs back -- they can, but the younger ones would be wise to go to school on this vanishing breed. They won the loyalty of their listeners.

At the end McCoy had to fight off near assassination attempts by programmers and others who wanted to tighten the playlist when his better judgment said otherwise.

So now it will be Classic Hits (music from the 60's, 70's and 80's) which is working on other CBS stations. But the new PD of CBS-FM will have to be cognizant of what this station's listeners whose loyalty spanned over 20 years expect of the station now. And like the iPhone, their expectations are high. He will have to adapt to be successful. This is not a slam-dunk.

You only get one comeback.

Just as Les Moonves is trusting Mason to make the right decisions, Dan Mason will have to trust his PD.

My students at USC listen to K-Earth 101. Many of them can even sing the K-Earth "1-Oh-1" Johnny Mann jingles for you with the emphasis on "oh" and all. They listen to other stations first as is to be expected, but include K-Earth on their very wide music palates.

They also would not ever think to write K-Earth 101 down in a paper Arbitron diary.

In fact, they wouldn't think of writing down too much on paper.

And they wouldn't fill out a diary, either.

So here's where Dan Mason is more than simply nostalgic -- he's shrewd.

Mason would never have made the decision to return to oldies if it wasn't a good business decision, too. Especially in New York.

With Arbitron's People Meter coming to New York, CBS-FM stands to greatly benefit from electronic ratings. In Philadelphia, which went live with The People Meter recently, CBS oldies station WOGL-FM gained huge numbers of cume listeners with the new technology. The same is likely to happen in New York and CBS-FM is likely to be a clone of WOGL and other CBS Classic Rock stations musically.

No need to get all excited about making the oldies station younger. How about making your ratings more accurate so it picks up listening that might not have been reported in diaries.

CBS-FM never lost it.

The diary system of ratings lost it for them.

And broadcasters are the ones who stubbornly held on to the antiquated diary system at their own peril.

Joel Hollander will go down in radio history as the ogre who killed off the beloved WCBS-FM oldies station. The old CBS-FM motto could now be modified to describe what happened to Joel Hollander, the man who killed it who ultimately took "The Greatest Hit of All Time". He lost his job for that and other poor decisions.

Dan Mason will be remembered as the CBS executive who knew a mistake when he saw it and had the smarts to fix it.

The diary system of ratings contributed to the disconnect between what the listeners were thinking and what the suits at CBS were thinking.

The return of CBS-FM to its listeners is more than a warm and fuzzy story.

For me, it's a USC case study for one of the many things that are wrong with terrestrial radio.

Listen to your listeners (write this on the board 1,000 times).

Fight for the best audience measurement system -- don't impede it.

Listeners love personalities who are knowledgeable and connect with them.

And the most important lesson of all...

Never build a station around the concept of "playing what we want".

Play what they want.


And make sure you know who they are because they may be younger than you think and they may like music older than you give them credit for.


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