"L.A.'s Arrow FM Revitalizes the '70s Oldies Format"
The hot new '70s oldies format is just a new box for old product. In radio,
packaging is everything.
By Sean Ross in Pulse Magazine, May 1994.
Less than a year ago, a trade journalist friend -- after attending enough
'70s revival parties to be curious -- asked some heads of major radio chains
if, finally, there was a place for '70s oldies on radio. Seventies babies --
now well into that 25-to-45 age bracket, the only demographic most radio
advertisers acknowledge as human -- had been buying '70s compilations for
nearly five years, yet there was no radio station specializing in the pop
music of their childhoods.
True, most admitted. Then, to a person, they declared that there was still no
way they were going to play that crap on their stations. These radio moguls,
after all, were kids of the '50s and '60s, not the 12-year-olds calling for
"Seasons in the Sun" in 1974 whom the moguls (then DJs) lambasted. Why would
they want to play those songs again?
Because -- as often turns out to be the case in radio -- somebody else went
first. Eight months ago, two suburban outlets with negligible signals and no
budgets specialized in '70s music. The industry newsletter "M Street Journal"
recently estimated 20 stations specializing in some form of the '70s; new
converts are signing on weekly. (This doesn't include '70s weekends and
"Saturday Night '70s" shows now popping up on other formats.)
Of course, once a few stations took the plunge, others were willing to follow
without waiting for results. Much of the cloning has taken place as the
result of one station, L.A.'s KCBS-FM (aka Arrow 93), which signed on last
September. By Thanksgiving, owner CBS switched three more of its FMs -- in
Houston, Dallas and Washington -- to the same format. By Christmas, before
Arrow's first full ratings book was out, the trades were talking about Arrow
being syndicated via satellite. Already, stations from Nashville to Anchorage
are paying CBS to use the Arrow name and concept.
Some stations tried '70s gold because they needed to do *something*. Country,
the recent destination for desperate owners, is now saturated in most
markets; modern rock still scares some owners. Seventies junk culture may be
resurgent, but I'd lay odds that '70s oldies happened despite bell-bottomed
25-year-olds lining up for live reenactments of "Brady Bunch" episodes.
Stations that play '50s and '60s oldies eschew the Brylcreem-and-custom-cars
stereotype; I've yet to hear any '70s cultural references on any of the new
'70s outlets, or any semblance of the screaming high-energy presentation that
was Top 40's hallmark during that decade.
Same goes for "Season in the Sun," or the goofy '70s in general. Seventies
stations come in several different permutations, from pop (Chicago, Tampa,
San Francisco) to more rock-leaning (L.A. and most of its followers). Some
throw in '60s and '80s titles. What most have in common, however, is a
reliance on "Year of the Cat" over "Little Willy." Those stations playing any
'70s r&b lean on "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love" during the week and save
"The Hustle" for weekend disco shows.
In other words, many '70s gold stations are getting attention just for
playing songs you could already hear on the radio along with the less
polarizing of the one-hit wonders, like "Rock On" by David Essex. But
packaging is everything in radio, judging from listener reaction to some of
the new outlets. Hearing "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" -- a song that never
died at classic rock and adult contemporary radio -- seems to have just as
much "oh wow" value as "Magic" by Pilot, which fell off the face of the Earth
for nearly 20 years. Both are the music of someone's life.
All of this proves that there's no hit music that will never come back. The
"hot country" movement is barely showing signs of peaking but there already
some industry rumbles about a format specializing in all the Ronnie Milsap
and Don Williams oldies it displaced. Even before the resurgence of the '70s,
my radio friends and I had already moved on to the issue of where there'll be
an oldies format for Expose, Bell Biv DeVoe, Hammer and other late '80s/early
'90s dance and hip-hop hits already being demonized by the industry in the
same way the '70s hits were. With the success of '70s gold, I consider that
question already answered.
Sean Ross is program director at WGCI-AM Chicago; he was formerly radio
editor at Billboard and an A&R man for Profile Records.
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