What Has Become of Oldies Radio?

Reading Time: 6 minutes
a suitcase full of records (albums and 45s)
Image by Nathan Copley from Pixabay

Most of you are probably old enough (or you will be soon, I promise) that this has happened to you: you’re listening to an “Oldies” radio station, and suddenly a song comes on that you have clear memories of being new. This isn’t an Oldie! It only came out…oh, wait…twenty years ago…how did that happen?

I don’t mind that, so much, although I do have to check myself from referring to music that came out a decade ago as “new” (but, um, isn’t it???) This isn’t an article about getting old. It’s an article about my second-favorite geekdom (first favorite if you discount the one I’m actually employed in), the history of rock and roll!, and what IS Oldies Radio, anyway? I’m not entirely sure it’s figured out how best to adapt with the times.

My parents are smack-dab-in-the-middle Baby Boomers. They graduated high school in 1969. They literally grew up with rock and roll, as in, rock was a baby when they were babies, and reached its peak glory days when they were teenagers…not that any HUMAN person’s glory days are in their teens, but for a genre of music originally meant to embody the teenage experience, it makes sense. My dad, a classically-trained choir boy, didn’t actually get rock until he saw a Beatles movie in his early teens and decided, these guys are hilarious, I should give their music a chance!* And then he became a serious rock aficionado and got a weekend job helping a local deejay, for which he was paid in 45s.

So I was raised on what was first called “oldies radio”: early rock and roll, Motown, British Invasion, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. It was every bit a part of my life as the actual ’80s pop that came out in my childhood, and a good deal more part of my life than the ’90s pop of my adolescence, which I couldn’t stand at the time (though I developed a liking for some grunge and alternative bands later in my life. Still don’t care much for too much ’90s pop, though).

Besides the oldies station, my parents usually kept the “adult contemporary” station on in the kitchen. I remember the tagline when I was little: “Playing the hits of the ’60s, ’70s, and today!” When we got into the ’90s, they changed it to “the ’70s, ’80s, and today!” A decade later it was “the ’80s, ’90s, and today,” but after that, Adult Contemporary went the way of the “We Play Anything” station, often given a random man’s name (it’s “Bob” here in the Pittsburgh area), as if the station was, in fact, playing the collection of a real middle-aged man. It does play hits across the decades, but it plays it safe, too. If you listen to it enough, you notice the variety isn’t actually THAT big. It sticks to pop, for the most part, and the biggest hits of rock or R&B. It wouldn’t dare stretch back into the ’50s, and its ’60s collection has some shockingly gaping holes.

Meanwhile, the “Oldies” station turned itself into a “Classic Hits” station, that basically plays what the “We Play Anything” station plays, but without the 21st century music. But lately, at least on weekends, it’s started saying “ONLY the greatest hits of the ’70s and ’80s!” Really? REALLY? Do they not remember what group BROKE UP in the very first part of 1970? What’s an Oldies station without ’60s music?

I think the problem is generational. The Baby Boomers were the first people to grow up with rock and roll. So when they were adults, the people who program radio stations figured those adults would stick to the music that came out in their own lifetimes, because that was how far back pop-rock went. But the next generation inherited a much broader collection of pop-rock to grow up on. We weren’t just interested in the music that came out when we were alive, and I know I’m not just speaking for myself!

My college radio station had various time slots devoted to different types of music. Many of the shows were only a couple hours long, one day a week. Every weekday morning they played new pop. But every weekday afternoon, for an equal amount of time, we—I was one of the deejays for all but one of my semesters there—did our classic rock show. If you couldn’t already tell from the station devoting so much time to it, it was one of the most popular shows on the station. My generation loved the music of our parents’ generation! During my time slot, I was even playing the actual vinyl records my dad had collected as a teen. My friends and acquaintances were always calling in requests. My best friend had a turntable in her room, and she and her roommate and I would come back from breaks with the most wonderful obscure records we could dig out of our parents’ collections to share with each other.

Apparently the heads of major corporate radio stations didn’t get the memo about this. They look and say, “what demographic are we trying to sell ads for? 30-50 year olds? Oh, so we won’t play anything from before they were born or from after they grew up. BAM, we are catering to the demographic!”

I’d like to say, “and that’s why radio is boring,” but most of the time, I hardly notice. Nice enough music to have running in the background, and when a commercial or boring song comes on in the car, I switch stations.

I, uh, switch stations a lot.

I only really notice when I listen to the small local station in the next town over (as opposed to the large Pittsburgh stations that are always talking about how they “Heart Radio”). This little local station is an Oldies station, too. It plays music from the ’50s through the ’90s in equal measure, and more than once or twice an hour I’ll shout, “WOW, I haven’t heard this one in years,” or “I don’t think I’ve ever heard this on the radio,” or “I DON’T EVEN KNOW THIS SONG HOW COOL IS THAT?” Then I look back at the I Heart Radio stations and wonder, why are they so stuck on bland late-seventies rock, anyway? They could be playing so much more!

I have a pretty big, eclectic music collection of my own, but it’s got holes that I doubt I’ll bother trying to attempt to fill. I’ve indoctrinated my children on the Beatles since birth (well, before, to be perfectly honest), so they’re good there (yes, radio heads, that means today’s kids like their grandparents’ music, too). But there are swaths of music my parents used to play that I don’t have, and when I don’t hear it on the radio, I wonder. Does this mean my children don’t know or maybe won’t know music that’s etched in my brain?

It’s an odd feeling, but it must happen to some extent in every generation. It’s impossible to pass down all ones pop culture, not when more pop culture is created all the time. Some of it’s going to fall through the cracks. Much of what falls through the cracks wasn’t worth keeping around anyway, and some of the lost oldies that independent local station I like finds should have stayed lost.

Still, that’s better than all the stations playing the same music.

I know what some of you are going to say. “What about satellite radio? What about Spotify or Pandora? Why are you listening to commercial radio at all?” Well, that’s a bit elitist. Commercial radio is free, it’s convenient, it’s accessible to all. It’s all you’re going to get in my crappy old car, and I depend on that car radio to keep me alert on the road. Besides, it’s all well and good to choose a satellite station or playlist when you know the music ahead of time. Radio can expose people to music they don’t know! My kids will finally learn who the Supremes were!

I’m tired of bland late-seventies rock being the extent of what radio thinks of as “Classic Hits.” There ought to still be true OLDIES radio stations out there, stations not focused on playing the music of the adult demographic’s childhood, but on the sound of the early years of rock and pop-rock. It’s not about age, it’s about genre. And some of us middle-aged folks want to hear the music we’ve always known as “Oldies.”


*I mean obviously. Come to think of it, nearly the same thing happened to me— I saw a former Beatle in concert on TV in my early teens, and then suddenly became obsessed and developed my rock geekitude and deejayed in college. Now, as this whole article makes a point of, I’d been aware of and liked the music before that point, it was just seeing a Beatle in action in my early teens that set me off into obsession territory.

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