Oldies a Thing Of the Past At WBIG-FM

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Elvis has not only left the building -- he's leaving the airwaves.

So, too, are many of his fellow hitmakers from the 1960s and '70s, including the Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, Simon & Garfunkel and Wilson Pickett.

In a generational as well as cultural shift, the area's only oldies station, WBIG (100.3 FM), yesterday dropped much of the music that has been a staple of local radio for more than 40 years and replaced it with "classic" rock from the 1970s and early '80s.

Out: the cheerful sound of Motown, which appeals to racially diverse audiences, and early Top 40 radio that harks to the civil rights and Vietnam eras.

In: familiar cuts from rock giants such as Journey, Queen, Supertramp, Aerosmith, the Police and Cheap Trick.

Still holding on: the Beatles and Rolling Stones, but not the epoch-changing British Invasion hits of the mid-'60s.

WBIG, owned by radio giant Clear Channel, ushered out the format at 5 p.m. by playing the Isley Brothers' early 1960s classic "Shout." The music segued into Bachman Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," inaugurating the station's new playlist. WBIG later played tunes by Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller and Peter Frampton.

The change is not nearly as jarring as WHFS-FM's sudden abandonment of alternative rock for Spanish pop, or WETA-FM's dumping of classical music for news and talk last year. Still, in one swift move, WBIG consigned a whole swath of iconic pop -- hits of the Temptations, the Monkees, James Brown and Mamas & Papas -- to the same scrapheap on which radio programmers dumped their Frank Sinatra and Perry Como records more than a decade ago.

The switch reflects the decline of the "oldies" format, and the changing contours of the radio business, which faces a many-headed threat from satellite radio, the Internet, iPods and other music-playing devices. By focusing more on music that was popular when today's forty-somethings were in their formative musical years, the station hopes to capture a larger audience and the younger listeners favored by advertisers.

"The audience [for oldies] is getting older and going away," said Jeff Kapugi, Clear Channel's regional vice president of programming. "It's hard to attain new audience [with the format]. We have to make the music more accessible to more people. We think this is a natural evolution."

Although oldies stations continue to do well in cities such as Los Angeles, Denver and Boston, the format has fallen into disfavor elsewhere. WCBS-FM in New York killed it last year, bumping legendary deejay Cousin Brucie off the air and replacing older hits with an expanded, multi-genre mix of pop known in the industry as "Jack" (the move resulted in a disastrous public-relations backlash for WCBS and a precipitous ratings decline that forced the station to get rid of Jack last fall).

WBIG has edged away from an association with "oldies" in recent years, changing its on-air name from "Oldies 100" to "BIG 100" in 2002. It also has updated its playlist in that time, dropping music from the late 1950s and early '60s.

But Clear Channel's decision to move WBIG from its familiar format seems curious in light of the station's recent financial performance. Although the station's ratings have dipped -- it had 2.6 percent of the local audience last quarter, compared with 3.2 percent a year ago -- advertisers paid a relatively big premium to reach those listeners. WBIG ranked No. 10 among local stations in ad revenue last year, generating $16.8 million -- even though the station finished only in a tie for No. 16 among all listeners, according to BIA Financial Network, a media research firm in Chantilly.

WBIG had the oldies niche all to itself, but now faces competition from WARW-FM (94.7), which has been the local classic station for years. And WARW, "The Arrow," had even lower ratings than WBIG, with a 1.7 percent share last quarter.

"There's a concept in radio known as 'owning the hill,' and WARW already owns the classic-rock hill," said Charlie Sislen, a partner in Research Director Inc., an Annapolis-based radio consulting firm. "I don't know what [WBIG is] going to do to displace them."

WBIG fan Matt Neufeld was even more emphatic about the loss of his favorite tunes: "We're going to lose an entire library of music that no one else is playing," said Neufeld, 44, who lives in Greenbelt. "It doesn't make sense. WBIG [was] the only station playing that music. We already have a classic rock station."

But Kapugi said the station has its eyes on older music fans who were set adrift by the demise of contemporary music station Z104 FM in January, and on talk-radio fans seeking a home since Howard Stern went to satellite radio.

Under its new format, WBIG will drop all its current on-air personalities, including morning team Gary Murphy and Jessica Cash, and replace them within the next 90 days, Kapugi said. Until then, he said, the station will have live deejays who will be "pretty anonymous."

WBIG's change follows management turnover at Clear Channel, the area's biggest station owner with eight outlets, including rocker DC 101, soft-rock WASH-FM, sports-talk WTEM-AM and country music WMZQ-FM. Kapugi arrived from Clear Channel's operation in Tampa five weeks ago, and a new general manager of the group, Dave Pugh, came from Detroit in February.

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