Sunday, July 08, 2007


Faced with ratings that continued to spiral downward and unable to defend a format that more closely resembled an iPod than a radio station, Infinity Broadcasting cries “uncle” and brings back the format that memories were made of.

It was Friday, June 3, 2005, 3:57 in the afternoon and long-time DJ Bill Brown was doing his usual sign off for WCBS FM, but something was missing. It was customary for the exiting DJ at CBS to announce the next DJ, in this case Bob Shannon. But Shannon never got a chance to sign on that afternoon. Instead he and the rest of the CBS crew were called into a conference room at 4:00 P.M. and told that they would no longer be employed at the station. WCBS owner Infinity Broadcasting had decided to change formats from oldies to “adult contemporary” and, under the new call letters JACK, would no longer need disc jockeys. At 4:30 that afternoon, while CBS was issuing its pink slips, Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” was winding down. No one at the time thought it would be the last song heard at CBS. After 30 minutes of movie and song clips that seemed to make no sense at all, a voice came on to announce the new call letters. The next song heard was the Beastie Boys’ “You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party,” and that, as they say in the biz, was that. As Don McLean would’ve said, it was a day the music died.

For almost 33 years, WCBS FM (the golden 101) faithfully played the songs of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and, with some of the best talent on the radio, was recognized as the preeminent oldies station in America. But sagging ratings, and an increasing demographic shift towards a younger audience, spelled trouble for the iconic station. The first sign of clouds on the horizon occurred in the summer of 2002 when Don K. Reed's long-running Sunday night Doo-Wop Shop program was closed down. They also cut pre-1964 product down to once or twice per hour and began playing '70s music even more often, becoming focused on the years from 1964-79. At this point they were playing at least two ‘80s songs per hour. In a July 2005 keynote address to the Radio & Records Convention, musician/actor/DJ Steven Van Zandt labeled this switching out of 1950s music for 1970s music as the key death blow to WCBS-FM (and other oldies stations), not the later Jack takeover. [1]

The station canceled more specialty shows in 2003 such as the "Top 20 Oldies Countdown". In the summer of 2003, to appease some fans, they did bring a specialty 1955-64 oldies show called "Heart & Soul of Rock & Roll" with Norm N. Nite (another longtime air personality who had been with the station on and off since 1973). Still in that year Harry Harrison left mornings and Dan Ingram also left. In the spring of 2004, the station tightened its playlist even more, playing almost entirely songs from 1964 to 1979. They played one pre ‘64 song every other hour. They were down to about 30 pre '64 songs altogether. They played several ‘80s songs per day down to a couple dozen of those as well. The rest of the playlist was about 500 songs totally. Harrison still came back for Saturdays in that fall of 2004.

And then came “Black Friday,” as it has been called by both listeners and industry insiders. Never in the history of radio had such a move been made on such short notice. Not even the blood-letting at WNCN in December of 1993, when the station switch formats from classical music to rock and changed its call letters to WAXQ, could compare. In that scenario listeners had been told ahead of time that the switch was coming, and in any event, there was still another venue for classical music: WQXR. When CBS FM went off the air, suddenly and without warning, it meant the end of oldies music in New York.

Critics argued that the manner in which Infinity flipped formats angered long-time devotees of the station, calling it a slap in the face for the DJ’s they had grown up with. As if to add insult to injury, during its inaugural week, Jack poked fun at the CBS FM listeners, while at the same time having the audacity to “invite” them to visit an internet site that had been set up to play the songs of the old format. So not only did the station unceremoniously part ways with its past musically, it completely severed ties with virtually ALL of its listeners in the tri-state area. Jack was now in uncharted territory. Never before had a format change resulted in such a drastic demographic shift and a plunge in ratings, all at the same time. It would take months before the station was able to even approach the ratings CBS FM enjoyed for most of its tenure. To date, it has never equaled those pre-Jack ratings, a triumph of personality over attitude if ever there was one.

But there were other problems that plagued the new format, even worse than its lack of class. It was obvious that Infinity Broadcasting had seriously miscalculated the demand for a music format that more closely resembled an iPod than a radio station. What was billed as an eclectic mix of music representing all genres and all age groups proved to be nothing more than a very restricted playlist. Additionally, Infinity did not count on the fact that while the demographic for oldies music was shrinking due to the fact that some of the baby-boomers were dying off, they were among the most loyal listeners out there. Conversely, the market that Jack was courting was anything but loyal. Instead of enjoying a monopoly on a loyal, if shrinking, market, Jack was now competing within the adult contemporary market, which included the likes of WPLJ, Z100, WLTW and the new "Fresh 102.7" WWFS, formerly WNEW. Further exasperating an already dreary future was the fact that most of these listeners were not, contrary to the station’s promos, music lovers. They were more casual listeners, who owned maybe 100 or less CDs and were more interested in music for background enjoyment than for serious listening. Without quite realizing it, Jack had become for pop music what CD 101.9 had become for jazz. Failure was inevitable.

So now, having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Jack is poised to exit stage left and leave the building. If reports are accurate, WCBS FM will return this week to reclaim, and hopefully, recapture its rightful place as the best oldies station in the country. The move is said to be the decision of the new CBS Radio CEO Dan Mason, who returned to the company in March of this year after leaving it in 2002 to work as a consultant for the industry. Mason also recently restored 92.3 K-Rock to its alternative music roots when it became obvious no body was listening to the Free FM format either. But what about the on air personalities that helped shaped WCBS's identity? Certainly, some will return; but others like Bruce Morrow, who now calls Sirius his home, are likely lost forever. There is also the rumor that, in an attempt to attract a younger audience, the “new” CBS FM will play mostly music recorded between 1964 and 1979, and may even include some '80s hits, virtually ignoring all pre-Beatles music, and almost certainly annoying its most ardent listeners, without whom the station would never have made it to the ‘80s, much less 2005. But still, limitations and restrictions notwithstanding, it will be nice to hear the old call letters return to where they belong. Hopefully, the suits at Infinity have learned a valuable lesson from this debacle. Never underestimate the power of people who love music, and never overestimate the value of people who think mall music is where it’s at!

No comments: