'70s music labeled newest 'oldies'

Radio fans search in vain for '50s faves

Monday, November 3, 2003

— One of the surest ways to feel older is to listen to the radio and hear songs from your childhood -- or, even worse, your adulthood -- described as "oldies."

If over the years it seems those songs have gotten newer while you've gotten older, it's not your imagination. Oldies radio stations that once featured songs from the 1950s and '60s now play songs from the '70s.

"Radio is an ever-changing thing, especially an oldies station," said Jeff Gold, a 44-year-old DJ whose build and voice personify his station's call letters, WBIG.

"As the years go by, newer songs become oldies. That's just the nature of the beast," said Gold, known as "Goldy" to his listeners in the Washington area.

So roll over Chuck Berry and make way for Fleetwood Mac. Your music hasn't lost its appeal to listeners. But advertisers? That's another story.

Advertisers covet the 25-to-54 age group. The first baby boomers -- the generation born right after World War II and the primary audience for oldies music -- are pushing 60.

"This is Marketing 101," said Dick Bartley, who is host to two nationally syndicated oldies programs, "Rock & Roll's Greatest Hits" and "American Gold." "The oldies format is doing what every business has to do -- follow your demographic."

So as radio stations seek to attract advertisers, it's increasingly difficult for fans of 1950s and early '60s rock to find those tunes on the dial. A study by Coleman, a North Carolina media research firm, found the vast majority of oldies stations in the 50 largest markets are playing more modern music than they did three years ago.

"The only reason that our oldies stations have moved into the late '60s and '70s is the advertisers are telling us we have to do it in order for them to place business on our radio stations," said Marty Thompson, operations manager at KQOL in Las Vegas and director of oldies programming for Clear Channel, the nation's largest chain with 1,200 stations, including WBIG.

But the newer music has turned off some longtime listeners. Indeed, a new study by Coleman found oldies fans abandoning stations in direct proportion to the amount of '70s music on the air.

That includes people like Joe Barnard, 61, of Fairfax Station, Va., who said he listened to compact discs or cassette tapes because he couldn't find '50s songs anymore on the radio.

"I have nothing against '70s music," he said. "It's just not the music I'm interested in hearing. My real interest in music began in the '50s. I still want to hear '50s music."

Jenny McCaw, 54, of Alexandria, Va., agreed. "The Eagles are a good group, but they're not '50s, and they're not old enough to be oldies," she said.