Musical Cheese

Radio Ga-Ga

As much as I enjoy oldies music, there’s a very big flaw in the way it’s been presented on the radio: there’s nothing new!

Once a playlist for an oldies radio station has been set, there seems to be an Iron Curtain around it that prevents any songs from being added or removed. Each Memorial Day weekend, the Chicago oldies station, WJMK-FM, would present a "Memorial Day 500 Countdown." This consists of playing every song on their playlist based on some mythical ranking system, perhaps listener requests which they ignore anyway. I mean, how can any pop song be quantified lower on a list than "In the Year 2525?" Since it takes little more than a day to go through the entire list, they usually just repeat it on Monday. And you’ve just heard every song they will ever play on that station. Oldies stations in other markets do the same thing, just as their jingles all sound alike, too.

About the only change WJMK made to their format in the past 21 years was to shift the time span they drew their oldies from: 60s and 70s instead of 50s and 60s. Goodbye "Hello, Mary Lou;" Hello "Lady Marmalade." The explanation given in the radio columns was that they were moving with their audience demographic from "Beaver" oldies to "Brady" oldies. But the result was still a very tight playlist. Better to make you sick of hearing "Respect" over and over and over than to take a chance on any of Aretha Franklin’s "forgotten" #1 hits.

Still, the presentation of the music was bearable due partly to the many pioneering DJs that called WJMK home, especially Dick Biondi, one of the very first Top 40 "screamers." And as other station switched to other formats, WJMK remaind the only FM outpost in Chicago to hear oldies.

Well, as will happen in the radio industry, Infinity Broadcasting abruptly pulled the plug on the oldies and brought in the hot flava format of the minute, something called "Jack." Essentially, it’s more oldies, just 80s and 90s stuff, expanded from a 500 song rotation to perhaps 1,200. Now, another station was already doing this in Chicago to much better effect — but their website is still under construction. But Nine-FM has the saving grace of being owned by a small chain, instead of the second largest radio corporate in the country. Yes they present the "Jack" music with no DJ, just some drop-ins claiming that "All the other station managers are scared now that Jack is in town." Really? With their usual 30 minutes of commercials per hour? The kicker is that their tagline is "Playing What We Want." I’d like to know who this "we" is. Certainly nobody who listens to radio for personality and variety.

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