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In the 1980s and 1990s, "oldies" meant the 15 years from the birth of rock and roll to the beginning of the singer-songwriter era of the early 1970s, or about 1955 to 1972, although this varied and some stations chose 1950-1969. After 2000, 1970s music was increasingly included, and early 1980s music is beginning to also be called "oldies", though the term "classic hits" is used to distinguish the "new" oldies (the Generation X oldies) from the "old" oldies (the Baby Boomer oldies).
Oldies tunes are typically from R&B, pop and rock music genres. Country, jazz, classical music, and other formats are generally not considered oldies music, although some of those genres have their own oldies format (for instance, classic country), and a number of songs "crossed over" from country to Top 40. Occasionally the term is used to describe the rare station that includes 1940s music as well, although music from before 1955 (coinciding with the "birth of rock and roll") is typically the domain of the adult standards format. However, the term constitutes ambiguity for people who like old dancing music.
This format is sometimes called Golden Oldies (after another album series of the same name, which was sold through bulk TV commercials), though this term usually refers to music exclusively from the 1950s and 1960s. Oldies radio typically features artists such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Animals, The Four Seasons, and Sam Cooke; as well as such musical movements and genres as early rock and roll, rockabilly, doo-wop, soul music, Motown, British Invasion, early girl groups, surf music, teen idol singers, teenage tragedy songs, and bubblegum pop. One notable omission from most oldies playlists is the music of the folk revival of the early 1960s.
Most traditional oldies stations limit their on-air playlists to no more than 300 songs, based on the programming strategy that average listeners and passive listeners will stay tuned provided they are familiar with the hits being played. A drawback to this concept is the constant heavy rotation and repetition of the station's program library, as well as rejection of the format by active listeners. This can be avoided either through the use of a broader playlist or by rotating different songs from the oldies era into and out of the playlist every few weeks. The oldies format has an inherent advantage over current-music formats in that it can draw popular songs from a broad period of over a decade and is not bound to devote the majority of its spins to a single top 40 playlist as current stations are.
Oldies has some overlaps with the classic rock and classic hits formats; classic rock concentrates on the rock music of the late-1960s and 1970s and sometimes plays newer material made in the same style as the older songs, while classic hits focuses on rock and pop hits from the early/mid-1960s to mid/late-1980s, and occasionally early/mid-1990s. (Traditionally, classic rock focuses on the heavier rock music of the era while oldies focuses on the lighter pop music, and classic hits focuses predominantly on music from the 1970s.)
Oldies stations as they are known today did not come into existence until the early 1970s. In the 1970s, KOOL-FM in Phoenix, Arizona became one of the first radio stations to play oldies music, at that time focusing on the 1950s and early 1960s. KOOL is still playing oldies today.
In the 1960s, very few Top 40 Radio stations played anything older than a few years old. In the late 1960s, a few FM stations adopted Top 40 formats that leaned towards adults who did not want to hear the same 30 songs over and over again but also did not want to hear easy listening music featured on MOR radio stations. They mixed in oldies with their current product and played new music only several times per hour. These radio stations were often referred to as "Golden" or "Solid Gold" stations. Some AM radio stations also began to employ this format. There were also syndicated music format packages such as Drake-Chenault's "Solid Gold" format, frequently used on FM stations that needed separate programming from their AM sisters due to the new FCC rules on simulcasting, that functioned as a hybrid of oldies and the adult-oriented softer rock hits of the day. The popularity of the movie American Graffiti is often credited with helping to spur the 1950s nostalgia movement of the early 1970s, and it was out of this 1950s nostalgia movement that some of these stations, such as WHND/WHNE "Honey Radio" in Detroit, WCBS-FM in New York, WQSR Baltimore, and WROR in Boston, sprang up and were classified as Oldies stations and not Adult Top 40 stations. These stations, however, did play current product sparingly (one or two per hour) throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s; WCBS-FM, for example, played current hits under the moniker "Future Gold" as late as the late 1980s, and WLNG on nearby Long Island featured a roughly 50/50 mix of current hits and oldies from the early 1960s until about 1999. WGAR in Cleveland and KRLA 1110 in Los Angeles were other examples of Top 40 stations with heavy oldies orientations; KRLA was in fact promoted in the 1970s as the "Elvis-to-Elton" station.
Most of these "Solid Gold" stations began to either evolve into other formats or abruptly drop the format altogether from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Most AM solid Gold stations simply flipped to other formats. Some FM stations evolved into Adult Contemporary stations such as WROR Boston, WFYR Chicago, for example. Other FM stations simply moved into other formats like Rock, Top 40, Urban, or Country. In the early 1980s many Adult Contemporary stations began mixing in more oldies into regular rotation. Many of these stations had oldies shows on Saturday nights.
Gradually, beginning in 1982, both AM and FM stations began flipping to a full-time oldies format playing "All Oldies All The Time". These stations played strictly music from 1955 to 1973 focusing on the 1964 to 1969 era. By the mid to late 1980s stations like pre-1988 WNBC in New York City, WDRC-FM Hartford, WODS Boston, WOGL Philadelphia, KLUV Dallas, 970AM WWSW Pittsburgh, WJMK Chicago, 1050AM CHUM Toronto, and many others had sprung up. Some had as few as 300 songs while stations like WODS and WOGL had as many as 1,500 songs in regular rotation. By 1989, most large and medium markets had at least one Oldies station. By 1990, most were on FM.
This period also saw the rise of syndicated radio shows specifically aimed at an oldies format. They included "Soundtrack Of the 60s" with Murray the K, "Dick Clark's Rock, Roll & Remember", "Live From the 60s with the Real Don Steele", "Cruisin America With Cousin Brucie", and "American Gold with Dick Bartley". Most of these shows were three hours in length and featured much of the same music from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that was in rotation at affiliate stations. All but a few of these shows had ended their run by the mid-1990s, though Bartley's show remains on air (now focusing on the 1970s and 1980s) while Clark's and Steele's can still be heard in reruns.
From 1986 to 1990 several solid gold stations evolved into full-time oldies stations by eliminating current and recent product while also gradually eliminating 1980s songs and limiting 1970s songs substantially. KRTH and WQSR both did this in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. WCBS-FM however continued playing current product in regular rotation until 1988. After that, they continued playing it once an hour between 11 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. until 2001. WCBS-FM also played several 1990s songs per shift during these overnight hours. They also continued to play between one 1980s song every couple hours to as many as two per hour day and night. WCBS-FM also played from three to five songs per hour from the 1970s. They indeed played more 1970s music than any other notable oldies station. At the same time, WCBS-FM featured slightly more pre 1964 songs than the average station playing as many as five of those per hour.
Oldies stations continued to be late 1960s based throughout the 1990s. WCBS-FM was an exception. Most AM oldies stations also disappeared by the early 1990s except in markets where there was no FM oldies outlet. The format fared well with no end in sight.
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In 2000, oldies stations began to notice their demographics were getting older and harder to sell. Still, at that time few stations dumped the format altogether. A few (such as Orlando's WOCL) went for a flavor-of-the-month format called "Jammin' Oldies". But most continued to hang onto the format initially.
Since 2000, stations have begun to limit selections from the 1950s and early 1960s. At the same time these stations began playing songs from as late as 1979 and even a few 1980s songs. WCBS-FM New York slightly cut back on the pre-1964 oldies and slightly increased the 1970s and 1980s songs early in 2001. They also eliminated the overnight currents and recurrents at the same time along with some specialty shows.
In 2002, many oldies stations began dropping pre-1964 music from their playlists, since the earlier music tended to appeal to an older demographic that advertisers found undesirable--hence, the addition of music from the 1970s and early 1980s. WCBS-FM canceled their "Doo Wop Shop" program and began playing only one pre-1964 oldie per hour; by 2003, there were fewer than 50 songs from the 1950s and early 1960s in the regular rotation. Many other oldies stations eliminated their early rock-era catalog altogether, and rare exceptions included mainstay songs such as "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen and "Stand by Me" by Ben E. King.
From 2003 to 2006, many FM oldies stations--including KRTH, WOGL and KLUV--evolved into classic hits, classic rock, or gold-based adult contemporary formats (e.g. WHTT in Buffalo, New York). Others simply dumped the format altogether.
The changes in selection have created some confusion over the definition of "oldies", while many stations have adjusted their logos to accommodate their new formats. Stations that continue to use the term "oldies" in their on-air positioning generally do not play music made after 1979 (with some exceptions) and still may play one pre-1964 oldie an hour. Still, that is not always true. But most stations that do play post-1975 music have generally dropped the word "oldies" from their positioners, using identifiers such as "Super Hits", "Classic Top 40" or "The Greatest Hits of All Time" (a la WRIT in Milwaukee, KLUV in Dallas/Fort Worth, WRBQ-FM (Q-105) in Tampa) or "Classic Gold" (a la the former format of CFCO in Chatham, Ontario, which has since switched to country music, or the now-defunct "Classic Gold" oldies-radio network in the United Kingdom). Many such as WODS, KLDE, and WWBB said "Greatest Hits of the 60s and 70s". WSRZ-FM in Sarasota, Florida dropped their "Oldies 108" advertising nomenclature in favor of "Your Home Town Station" while expanding their playlist up to 1980. They still have their "Cruise In" segment for late 1950s and early 1960s music. KQQL in Minneapolis - St. Paul and WLDE in Fort Wayne, Indiana, are two other examples of oldies stations which have relegated early and mid-1960s music to weekend specialty shows.
In 2003, Clear Channel's WSAI launched the first "Real Oldies" branded station. It was created by Programmer Dan Allen and featured mostly the songs from the beginning of rock through the Summer of Love, 1967. It was a recreation of the WSAI that dominated Cincinnati ratings in the 1960s and early 1970s and returned original WSAI DJs to the air, such as Dusty Rhodes, Jack Stahl, Ted McAllister and Casey Piotrowski. Unlike the 300 songs normally played, the Real Oldies format featured a very wide playlist and spawned clones all around the country. Soon, other radio stations such as WWKB in Buffalo, WCOL in Columbus, and WRLL in Chicago adopted the "Real Oldies" moniker. Most of these "Real Oldies" stations were on the AM dial and featured legendary personalities from the 1960s-1970s golden Top 40 era (for example, WLS legend Larry Lujack was part of the WRLL air staff). The "real oldies" format mostly faded in popularity from 2004 to 2006 as less expensive formats, including satellite-fed progressive talk radio, became more attractive to station operators who began reducing their investments into AM radio stations. A handful of stations remain. Clear Channel has maintained the Real Oldies format on Iheartradio.com with Dan Allen programming and hosting along with two other WSAI personalities, Bobby Leach and Marty Thompson. It is also available on AM and FMHD2 stations in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Binghamton, Albany, Portland, Oregon, and Waco.
Veteran New York radio programmer Scott Shannon developed a format known as the "True Oldies Channel," distributed via satellite by ABC Radio, which features some of the music featured on "Real Oldies" stations as well as hits of the 1960s and very early 1970s, but generally nothing after 1975. The most high-profile "True Oldies Channel" affiliate is probably WLS-FM in Chicago, which adopted the "True Oldies" approach in the wake of WJMK's change to Jack FM. However, WLS-FM has slowly been adding more local personalities (including veteran radio personalities Greg Brown and Dick Biondi), and now only airs 'True Oldies' from 10am-3pm weekdays, overnights, and weekends. WIFO-FM Jesup, Georgia airs the True Oldies Channel during weekends as a contrast to its normal weekday country programming, and it is well received. True Oldies has also evolved to include more 1970s music and less pre-1964 product, and at times plays 1980s material, despite initial promises to the contrary.
Many stations have since dropped the oldies format because of low ad revenue despite high ratings. On June 3, 2005, New York's WCBS-FM, an oldies-based station for over three decades, abruptly switched to the Jack FM format, resulting in a tremendous outcry from oldies fans in the Big Apple and a huge decline in revenue followed.WJMK in Chicago (WCBS-FM's sister station) switched to Jack FM on the same day. Some[who?] point to the demise of WCBS-FM and WJMK as a sign that the oldies format is in danger, for many of the same reasons that the adult standards and smooth jazz formats are disappearing. However, WJMK had been struggling for many years, and was in much worse shape than most other major-market oldies stations. In addition, unlike New York City (with the possible exception of WMTR (AM) in nearby New Jersey), the Chicago market has not technically been without an oldies station since, due to the existence of the aforementioned WRLL and now WLS-FM.
Yet another reason for the discontinuance of oldies stations in recent years is the attraction of a more lucrative format as an attempt to lure younger listeners. In 2001, Baltimore's WQSR (105.7 FM) and WXYV (102.7 FM) swapped frequencies, with WXYV being flipped from CHR/Top-40 to hip hop at the same time, and WQSR retaining its oldies format. These two stations have since changed formats again, with 105.7 going to talk and eventually to sports radio, and 102.7 being a Jack FM station. In 2004, WWMG ("Magic 96.1") in Charlotte, North Carolina, switched to a Rhythmic CHR format and was renamed "96.1 The Beat". A new oldies station, nicknamed "Oldies 106.1" and carrying the WOLS callsign, was created to serve the Charlotte area, but has since been flipped to Spanish-language programming.
The oldies format returned to WCBS-FM on July 12, 2007 in an updated form featuring music from 1964 to 1989 (and without the word "Oldies", but rather "Greatest Hits" in the on-air positioning), with songs such as "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper, "Gloria" by Laura Branigan, and "We Built This City" by Starship in rotation (though the original WCBS-FM played current hits mixed in with its oldies as late as the late 1980s and the three songs mentioned here during most of their years). Also included on the returning format were a selected number of classic oldies from the pre-1964 period. The resurrected WCBS-FM has been well received. Still, WCBS-FM is positioned as "Classic Hits" rather than oldies. Since 2017, the station has focused on hits of the 1970s to the 1990s, having gradually decreased the number of 1960s songs on its playlist while increasing the number of 1980s and 1990s hits it plays.
After spending almost six years as Jack FM, WJMK reverted to its oldies format in an updated form on March 14, 2011. Much like New York sister WCBS-FM, the updated playlist was broader in time range, featuring music from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. In addition, the format is positioned on-air as "The Greatest Hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s" rather than "Oldies". WJMK's reversion to the previous classic hits format it dropped in 2005 resulted in a significant increase in ratings from its previous "Jack FM" format, whose ratings began to struggle after WILV (now WSHE-FM) debuted a 1980s-shifted adult hits format.
By the mid-2010s, as the phrase "classic hits" came to entail a format centered around late 1970s (disco-era) and 1980s pop, dance and rock format, the phrase "oldies" had come to entail a 1960s to mid-1970s format that centered mostly on soft rock and easy listening (akin to the old MOR format), examples including WRME-LP in Chicago. More upbeat 1960s and 1970s stations are known within the industry as "gold" classic hits.
The oldies format remains one of the most popular formats on radio in markets where it is still active. Some of the most successful major-market oldies stations today really lean towards the Classic Hits format and include KRTH "K-Earth 101" in Los Angeles, XHPRS-FM "105.7 the Walrus" in Tijuana-San Diego, KOLA 99.9 in Riverside-San Bernardino, KYNO in Fresno, California, 98.1 WOGL in Philadelphia, WMJI "Majic 105.7" in Cleveland, and KLUV in Dallas. WLS-FM in Chicago, however is similar to the way oldies stations sounded several years back. They still play one or two pre-1964 songs an hour during the day and as many as 4 an hour at night. However, to illustrate the continued decline in the format, San Francisco's KFRC moved toward Classic Hits in 2005 and dropped this format entirely in 2006 in favor of the Rhythmic AC "MOViN" format which left most of Northern California without an oldies station until the debut of KCCL (K-Hits 92.1) in Sacramento in January 2007. (However, KFRC had already evolved its format and positioning to classic hits at the time it changed to "Movin".) But KFRC was not gone for long. On May 17, 2007 with Free FM hot talk format failing on 106.9 KIFR CBS relaunched KFRC with a rock leaning classic hits format on 106.9. But KFRC was not back for long either. On October 27, 2008, 106.9 KFRC FM became an all news 740 KCBS AM simulcast. KFRC now only airs on 106.9 FM HD-2 and online at KFRC.com. But KFRC came back again. On January 1, 2009, KFRC returned on the radio at 1550 AM, as true oldies.
KZQZ, which airs in St. Louis, Missouri and began playing oldies in March 2008, has held onto the traditional oldies format, playing a wide variety of top 40 Billboard hits from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s.
Non-commercial WXRB, 95.1 FM in Dudley, Massachusetts (one of the very first non-commercial all-oldies stations in North America) began playing Golden Oldies on March 6, 2005 at 1:00 PM, focusing on the years 1954 through 1979.
On August 27, 2009, Grand Rapids, Michigan station WGVU became the first public radio station to feature an all-oldies format. The format has since been imitated by other public radio stations; for example, WCNY-FM in Syracuse, New York has begun broadcasting a personality-based oldies format on its HD Radio digital subchannel.
Jones Radio Networks, Waitt Radio Networks and Transtar Radio Networks also offered 24-hour satellite-distributed oldies formats; since those companies have integrated into the Dial Global corporation, the networks have merged into one, Kool Gold. Satellite Music Network offered "Oldies Radio;" Oldies Radio survived until its acquisition by ABC but has since rebranded as Classic Hits Radio under current owner Cumulus Media Networks, focusing on music primarily from the 1970s and 1980s, with some limited 1960s music.
ABC also offered The True Oldies Channel, a 24-hour oldies network programmed and voice tracked at all hours by Scott Shannon, at the time morning show host at ABC's WPLJ. The True Oldies Channel was conceived on the concept of avoiding the drift into 1970s and 1980s music that the oldies format was undergoing in the first years of the 21st century. Eventually, by the end of the network's terrestrial run in 2014, it had taken a hybrid approach, with both 1960s and 1970s music being featured at the core of the network, with some limited 1980s music included.
In North America, satellite radio broadcasters XM and Sirius launched in 2001 and 2002, respectively, with more than a dozen oldies radio channels, with XM offering separate stations for each decade from the 1940s to the 1990s, and Sirius doing the same for the 1950s through the 1980s. These companies also offered specific genre channels for disco and dance hits, garage rock, classic rock, classic country, and vintage R&B and soul hits. These pay radio channels boasted thousands of songs in their libraries, ensuring far less repetition than traditional broadcast stations. (In November 2008, following a merger of Sirius and XM, the two services shifted to a unified group of "decades" channels, with the playlists for most cut back to reflect a more conventional style of oldies programming.) Music Choice similarly offers an interruption-free oldies station (which covers the 1950s and 1960s, primarily from the rock and roll era) as well as decades channels for the 1970s through the 1990s. A number of Internet radio stations also carry the format.
A variation on the oldies theme is classic hits, which provides most of the playlist of oldies with some classic rock with an addition of contemporaneous R&B and pop hits as well, striking a balance between the mostly 1970s-focused classic rock genre and the more broad-based oldies format. The evolution of oldies into classic hits is an example of channel drift.