originally published January 7, 2012
Bringing you the Stax of Wax from way back in the Pax(t), I present today’s topic: New York City’s WCBS-FM, 101.1 on your dial, provided your dial is located in New York City.
I have clicked through numerous radio stations on Wikipedia in search of writing material, and this is the first time I’ve found one with enough history to fill a column. WCBS has been broadcasting on the FM band in America’s biggest radio market for more than 70 years. They have probably played “I Want To Hold Your Hand” over 300 million times.
The station launched less than a week before Pearl Harbor, seventy years and one month before the historic launch of this writing project. The format back then was fast, 40’s-style talking, featuring lots of expressions like “Big Cheese”, “Cat’s Meow” and “A one-way ticket to Palookaville.” It was a popular format, but never quite nailed down the bobby-soxer demographic.
Like most radio stations back before television and crazy 1950’s sex took away their audience, WCBS played a lot of serialized shows, talk shows, and a small selection of music. In 1966, they tried out a format called “The Young Sound”, which was an easy-listening format for young people. Specifically, they focused on soft, elevator-esque instrumental versions of current pop songs. So if you really wanted to listen to the Kinks sing “You Really Got Me”, but didn’t want that awful cacophony of electric guitars hurting your 17-year-old eardrums, you could tune in for crap like this.
After three years of being so far from cool it was medically dangerous for anyone under 30 to enter their offices, WCBS switched over to the increasingly popular “Freeform Rock” format. This was a great time for music and a golden age for radio. DJs could play what they wanted, which allowed bands like The Swingin’ Medallions, 13th Floor Elevators and The Chocolate Watchband to hear themselves on the radio, despite being very non-chart-friendly and having somewhat goofy names.
For whatever reason, WCBS’s transition from horrific to hip was rocky, and they clearly sucked at rolling with the Freeform format. They were running third in the market (out of three) in the Freeform world, and in 1972 they opted to try a new approach. On July 7, the radio station re-launched as one of the first Oldies stations in the world. An “Oldies” station now will focus only a portion of their playlist on pre-1972 music – back then, they had to reach back before the Great Musical Shift of 1964.
Initially the station stayed true to the years between 1955 and 1964, while mixing in the occasional soft (meaning ‘non-frightening’ or ‘not Hendrix’) hits from ’64 on. They played two songs every hour which they deemed “Future Gold”, so probably safe hits from Donny Osmond or Tony Orlando – stuff you could chew on if your ears didn’t have any teeth.
The Oldies format was a hit, more so as popular music began to degenerate from Led Zeppelin and Elton John into KC & The Sunshine Band and Elton John & Kiki Dee. WCBS conducted a survey of its listeners in 1973 to come up with the top 500 songs of all time. They ran the same survey every two years on through 1995 and the number one song every single year was the same: “In The Still Of The Night” by the Five Satins. Nope, that isn’t a joke, that was picked above every other song in existence as the greatest for more than two decades. I mean, it’s a fantastic piece of music, but wow.
In the early 80s WCBS shifted their concept of ‘oldies’ more into the 1964-1969 period. They cut back on their Future Gold selections, probably because Hall & Oates sounded really out of place next to Sonny & Cher. Also, a number of well-known New York DJs were brought in, including Bob Shannon (who was discovered by Marv Albert), Ron Lundy (whose style was described as a mix of ‘crawfish and country’, so… yeah), and “Cousin” Brucie Morrow, whose blistering cacophonic yammering can still be heard on Sirius Satellite Radio’s ‘60’s on 6’, often in the middle of the songs he’s playing. Because everyone really wants that.
The station’s ratings continued to climb in the 1990s, most likely because the popular music heard on other stations was getting increasingly horrid. I can imagine that the brass at WCBS still refers to the “Achy Breaky Spike” in the ratings in 1992 when pop-country hits drove rational people away from top-40 radio in droves.
(NOTE: Musical opinions expressed in this column are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions of everyone involved in managing and maintaining this site. Except, in this case, they do. Come on, people. Billy Ray Cyrus?)
In 2005, ratings were still good for WCBS, except that the denizens of listeners were discovered to be “not exactly un-old,” which did not please the advertisers. So, shortly after ex-Monkee Mickey Dolenz finished up his 100th show on June 3, the format changed to an “Adult Hits” format known as JACK radio.
Most people are familiar with this joke of a format. They proclaim “We play what we want”, which suggests a return to the freeform rock-anarchy of the late 60’s and early 70’s, but actually the playlist is specifically cropped from overplayed hits of the 60’s through the 90’s, with no more than 2000 songs in their repertoire. The adult hits scam has been repeated in markets all over the place, with names like “FRANK,” “JOE,” “MIKE,” “ED,” “MAX,” “DAVE,” “SIMON,” “SAM,” “CHARLIE,” “BEN,” and “MOOSE.”
Our local equivalent, called JOE, used to advertise that they’d play “anything.” I have tried requesting Mozart, Duke Ellington, and noted dark metal band Anal Cunt. No such luck.
The good news is that JACK tanked in New York, finishing at the bottom of the ratings in the ‘People Who Are Not In A Persistent Vegitative State’ demographic. Even mayor Michael Bloomberg was quoted in the New York Post as saying he would “never listen to that fucking CBS radio again.” Talk about a ringing endorsement.
In a surprisingly stylish move, on July 12, 2007 WCBS chose to terminate the JACK experiment by playing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, cutting it off precisely to recreate the series finale of The Sopranos. They returned to the Oldies format, and all was well and good in the village again. (Greenwich Village, of course)
But they still won’t play this.