So CBS FM is back. After 25 months of being held in captivity by Jack, the station that played “the greatest hits of all time,” was set free Thursday, July 12. As Jack got the heave ho, in a mock Sopranos’ takeoff, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” segued into Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind”, an obvious kiss up for the unseemly exit two years ago; and, after a montage of songs and moments going back to 1964, the first official song, the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” was played at (now get the pun?) 1:01 P.M. From the minions of grateful oldies fans, a gigantic “Thank you, God” could be heard across the tri-state region. Jack had left the building; what was once new was now old again; the enemy had been vanquished and all was right with the world.
But hold onto your jukeboxes, sock hoppers. This isn’t your daddy’s CBS FM. For one thing, rock-n-roll seems to have begun in 1964, not 1955. I wonder what Bill Haley and Alan Freed would have to say about that. In fact, no mention of any pre-Beatle song is found anywhere on the updated WCBS website. The word oldie has been completely eliminated and replaced with hits. In deed, the theme throughout is the greatest hits of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. No Doo Wop, no Elvis, no nothing! And while it was nice that the Beach Boys got first dibs, the more sentimental favorite would’ve been “Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles. But, truth be told, the song never stood a chance of getting the green light, and for one very important reason: the suits at CBS still don’t believe that Jack failed. Deep down, the reason for the switch back to CBS FM was the feeling they simply didn’t handle the original transition well. In other words, it wasn’t the message, it was the messenger. In one respect, it was gratifying to learn that someone high up on the food chain had some degree of shame and regret over their conduct in ’05; credit Dan Mason, at the very least, for understanding that much. But that appears to be where the introspection has stopped. While Jack may have been officially relegated to the CBS HD2 channel, until yesterday reserved for the oldies format, the goal of corporate still has not changed: to move forward with the younger demographic. In other words Jack, plus ‘60s music, plus DJs equals compromise (i.e. truce) and, hopefully, ratings. The obvious intent is to get the original listeners, hence the advertisers, back in fold, keep a few of the Jack fans (those that didn’t go back to playing with their iPods), and in the end make everyone happy. Good luck!
Because, deep down, CBS still doesn’t get it. Whether or not you think that the oldies format has a future or is even relevant at all, know this: No other format has had the loyal following that this one has enjoyed. The moldy oldies, as they are jokingly referred to, are NOT your typical radio listener. Many of them grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s, and had one, possibly two favorite stations that they would listen to. And heaven help anyone who tried to change the dial in the middle of a song. Further more the DJs on those stations were like icons; they were as big as the artists they were playing on the radio – sometimes bigger. Names like Bruce Morrow, Dan Ingram, Bob Shannon, Harry Harrison, Bill Brown, Don K. Reid and Jack Spector were, in their own way, as popular as the Beatles, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Stones, the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Aretha Franklin. You eagerly awaited the next song these guys would play, and far from an annoyance, their charm, wit and soothing voice, would be the perfect antidote for the hustle and bustle of the work week. You had coffee with Harry, joked with Dan and Bob, guessed which secret song Bill would play, sang along with Brucie, and reminisced with Don K and Jack. It wasn’t the dressing for the salad; it was the whole damn salad!
Compare and contrast that with the generation that grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s – the age of the walkman and the personal computer. Before the ‘80s you didn’t even have presets on car stereos; by the ‘90s you had multiple bands for both FM and AM. With MP3 players and satellite radio in the mix, a typical terrestrial radio station would do well to score a 3.5 in the ratings, let alone a 4.0. And yet CBS FM, which was pulling in the mid threes for most of this decade and in the first three months of '05 was actually in 8th place according to Arbitron - this in spite of the stripped down format and reduced playlist - was scrapped for a format that for all intents and purposes never got off the ground, and as of the first quarter of '07 was mired in 16th place( a 2.0 as of sign off); a format that reached out to a demographic that can measure listener loyalty in the millisecond range. Even stranger, is that CBS chose this format in more than a dozen markets, and on stations that heretofore had been holding their own and for the most part were playing oldies. Go figure! Was it any wonder that more and more people were choosing to fork over $12.95 per month for Sirius and XM? Satellite radio, despite its reception problems, has now become the number one choice for music lovers. No matter what genre of music you prefer – rock, R&B, jazz, oldies, hip-hop, country – you can find a plethora of choices with a seemingly endless selection of songs. There are no restrictions. And the DJs know something about the music they're playing and aren’t afraid to offer valuable insight, something sadly lacking on most stations and completely devoid of at Jack.
But, I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. After all, I am grateful to have CBS FM back, even if only partly. Yes it was nice to hear Bob Shannon again. Two years was long enough. But, Broadway Bill Lee? Where hasn’t this guy worked? KTU, Hot 97, LTW, Fresh 102.7 and XM channels 5 and 8, all in the last eleven years! I’ve had less jobs than him. And can somebody please track down Bill Brown and see if he’s still alive? I miss my Brown Bag. CBS has talked about bringing back the Top-20 countdown, and doing other specials that have long been a staple of the station. If that happens, it will be good news. But I remain cautiously optimistic, in deed, somewhat skeptical over the motives for this return to the past. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being around senior management, it’s that they seldom get it. More often than not they repeat the same mistakes. If, in deed, this is more than just a PR move designed to placate disgruntled listeners, then here are some suggestions for the current CBS FM to incorporate into their fabric.
1. Play some ‘50s music. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, the Drifters, Frankie Lymon, the Everly Brothers and the Platters are not dinosaurs, nor are they dirty words. Without them, much of the music of the ‘60s would have been impossible.
2. Drop the playlists, or at least drop the restrictions. There are thousands of songs from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and even the ‘80s. Play them; play them all. Don’t sell the audience short. Enough “playing what we want”; play what the listeners want. Trust me, they can keep up; and those who can’t still have their iPods.
3. Keep in touch with the past by resigning past DJs who have worked at the station and who still have a presence in this market. Perhaps someone at CBS could sit down with Scott Greenstein of Sirius and work out a deal where Cousin Brucie’s Saturday night oldies show could be simulcast? Talk about a coup.
If CBS FM is to survive, it will survive being what is has historically been: the city’s station, playing the songs that a generation of fans grew up listening to. It can’t afford the “luxury” of appealing to a demographic that never listened to it in the first place, and who could care less whether it is called CBS, Jack, Bob, Brenda or Exene.
In the meantime, just to keep our new good guys honest, below is a playlist of hour one of CBS FM, compared with Sirius, XM and True Oldies. To be fair, I will limit the satellite selections to their ‘60s and ‘70s channels. I have no control over what decade True Oldies plays from. And the hits just keep on coming!
The Beach Boys – “Do It Again”; Frankie Valli – “Oh What A Night”; Aretha Franklin – “Respect”; Bruce Springsteen – “Glory Days”; Fleetwood Mac – “Don’t Stop”; Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City”; Maxine Nightingale – “Right Back Where We Started From”; The Rolling Stones – “Satisfaction”; Billy Joel – “Only the Good Die Young”; The Contours – “Do You Love Me”; John Mellencamp – “Jack and Diane”; The Beatles – “Twist and Shout”; The Bee Gees – “You Should Be Dancing”; Roy Orbison – “Pretty Woman”; Tommy James and the Shondells – “Mony, Mony”; Donna Summer – “Last Dance”; Sam the Sham – “Wooly Bully”; Bruce Springsteen – “Pink Cadillac”.
Sirius ‘60s Vibrations:
The Hombres – “Let It Out”; The Byrds – “Turn, Turn, Turn”; Bob Dylan – “Like a Rolling Stone”; The Beatles – “All My Loving”; Spencer Davis Group – “I’m A Man”; Stevie Wonder – “My Cherie Amour”; The Archies – “Sugar, Sugar”; The Doors – “Light My Fire”; Aaron Neville – “Tell It Like It Is”; Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston – “It Takes Two”; Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City”; Chad & Jeremy – “Yesterday’s Gone”; B.J. Thomas – “Hooked on a Feeling”; Gary Puckett & The Union Gap – “Over You”; Spanky & Our Gang – “Like To Get To Know You”; The Vogues – “Five O’Clock World”; Animals – “It’s My Life”; Lou Christie – “Lightning Strikes”; The Hollies – “Bus Stop”.
Sirius Totally ‘70s:
Lee Michaels – “Do You Know What I Mean”; Atlanta Rhythm Section – “Spooky”; Carole King – “I Feel the Earth Move”; Joe Walsh – “Life’s Been Good To Me”; Andrea True Connection – “More, More, More”; Curtis Mayfield – “Freddie’s Dead”; Jigsaw – “Sky High”; Al Green – “Look What You’ve Done For Me”; Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Sweet Home Alabama”; Paul Simon – “Me & Julio”; Cornelius Brothers – “Treat Her Like a Lady”; Sammy Johns – “Chevy Van”; Elton John – “Bennie & The Jets”; Samantha Sang – “Emotion”; War – “Low Rider”; Aerosmith – “Walk This Way”.
The Beatles – “Birthday”; Percy Sledge – “Warm & Tender Love”; The Zombies – “Time of the Season”; Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Down on the Corner”; The Youngbloods – “Get Together”; Sandals – “Endless Summer”; Paul Revere – “Just Like Me”; Jan & Dean – “Honolulu Lulu”; Herman’s Hermits – “Leaning on a Lamp Post”; Rascals – “Beautiful Morning”; James Brown – “I Got the Feeling”; Sly & The Family Stone – “Dance To the Music”; Del Shannon – “Keep Searchin’”; Jimmy Glimmer – Daisy Petal Pickin’”; Mel Carter – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”; Jackie DeShannon – “What the World Needs Now is Love”; Bobby Lewis – “Tossin’ & Turnin’”; Elvis Presley – “Good Luck Charm”; The Beatles – “Love Me Do”.
The Rolling Stones – “Brown Sugar”; Andy Gibb – “Everlasting Love”; Charlie Rich – “The Most Beautiful Girl”; Elton John – “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down”; Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough”; Eric Carmen – “Never Gonna Fall in Love”; The Chi-Lites – “Oh Girl”; Starbuck – “Moonlight Feels Right”; Jim Croce – “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”; Hurricane Smith – “Oh Babe, What Would You Say”; John Travolta & Olivia Newton John – “Summer Nights”; Toby Beau – “My Angel Baby”; Dorothy Moore – “Misty Blue”; Eric Clapton – “Lay Down Sally”; Dr. Hook – “Sharing the Night Together”; Steve Miller Band – “Take the Money and Run”; England Dan & John Ford Coley – “We’ll Never Have To Say Goodbye Again”.
True Oldies Channel:
Herman’s Hermits – “Wonderful World”; The Spiral Staircase – “More Today Than Yesterday”; The Beatles – “I’m Looking Through You”; The Drifters – “On Broadway”; Roy Orbison – “Pretty Woman”; The Temptations – “Ain’t To Proud To Beg”; Swinging Blue Jeans – “Hippy, Hippy Shake”; The Hollies – “Long Cool Woman”; Dionne Warwick – “Walk on By”; The Box Tops – “Cry Like a Baby”; The Coasters – “Charlie Brown”; The Supremes – “Love Child”; Every Mother’s Son – “Come on Down To My Boat Baby”; The Rascals – “Good Lovin’”; The Beach Boys – “California Girls”; B.J. Thomas – “Rain Drops”; Blues Image – “Ride Captain, Ride”; Paul Revere – “Hungry”; Al Wilson – “Show & Tell”.
While all the stations faired well, including CBS, which was a pleasant surprise, the True Oldies Channel edged out Sirius’ ‘60s Vibrations for top prize, if for no other reason than they had a more diverse selection. Were it not for that, though, ‘60s Vibrations would have won hands down. Neither of the ‘70s stations distinguished themselves; either the decade is too eclectic for its own good, or neither can handle it properly. Kudos to the XM ‘60s station as the only one in the bunch to play an Elvis song, and two Beatles songs ALL IN THE SAME HOUR. Are you listening CBS FM? It can be done. And speaking of our dear lost station, the mix was about what it was before the initial switch over two years ago: nine songs from the '60s, six from the '70s and three from the '80s. Eighteen songs in all, with the clear winner, not surprisingly, the '60s. Perhaps I was a bit premature predicting a Jack Facsimile, afterall. Only time will tell. But if you still need a hint as to where this station's sympathies will most likely lean, look no further than the lyrics in the Fleetwood Mac song "Don't Stop." "Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone." It is in deed.
Well, I’ve written all I intend to on this. I’ll listen to CBS FM from time to time, but based on what I heard today, Bob Shannon’s emotional return notwithstanding, I will not be canceling my Sirius subscription any time soon. The lack of any serious pre-'64 content will, I fear, keep a lot of long-time listeners away, and the long-term prospects of increasing its demographic among a younger audience seems dubious at best. I wish them well, and sincerely hope they make it. Prior to this afternoon, there was only one FM station worth playing on the dial: WFUV. Now there are two, which if I’m not mistaken was how many there were on June 3, 2005 when all this mess started.