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The Songs You Want to Hear

The songs just keep on coming: ABBA (way down), the BeeGees' "How Deep Is Your Love" (decent score but a big age split), Harry Chapin's "Taxi" (dives in all age groups), America's "A Horse With No Name" (a winner across the board), the Fifth Dimension's "Stoned Soul Picnic" ("That song never tests," Allan mopes. "Too bad -- I love it." So do you play it? I ask. "It doesn't test," he repeats. End of story.)

The easy part of the evening comes each time a Beatles tune streams through the speakers -- "Strawberry Fields," "Back in the USSR," almost any Beatles number does the trick, which is why WBIG, like most oldies stations, plays two or three of the Fab Four's hits each hour. But move forward in time, and the picking gets dicier.

Here's why: Since oldies radio was born in the 1970s explosion of niche formats, radio executives have believed that the Top-40 tunes of the '60s were America's new standards. Unlike the pop music of, say, the early 1950s -- the songs of Perry Como and Doris Day that were pretty much never heard again -- the hit songs that reigned during the heyday of Top-40 AM radio seemed to win new fans with every generation. This was the stuff that high school kids and their parents could agree on in the car. But in about 1995, the research numbers began to reveal a crumbling of that consensus. People in their 30s didn't necessarily want to hear "Surfin' Safari" or "Sloop John B." They hadn't grown up with those songs, and, therefore, their kids weren't growing up with them, either. As Dan Michaels, Big 100.3's new program director, put it, "Your musical tastes are defined when you're between 18 and 22, and you kind of lock into that for the rest of your life." But when managers of oldies stations tried to update their playlists, they were smacked in the face by the reality of what the previous three decades of radio had wrought: Modernizing the oldies format wasn't a simple matter of deleting the early '60s tunes and adding the hits of the '70s. The FM revolution had altered the musical foundation of the nation.

In the '60s, nearly everyone grew up listening to the same kind of go-go AM Top-40 stations, with happy, shouting deejays, lots of jingles and an endless stream of two-minute pop dance hits. But by the mid-'70s, as FM radios became standard equipment in cars and as home stereo systems got cheaper and better, Top 40 was dying, and young Americans headed off in all directions, to underground FM rock, to hard rock, to soft folkie rock, to disco, and on and on. Now, when oldies stations tried to bring those listeners back together again, there were precious few unifying tunes.

Kids who had grown up on Boston, Kansas and Steve Miller wanted nothing to do with the music of those who grew up on Chic, Gloria Gaynor and Parliament-Funkadelic, and they in turn had little in common with those who came up with Billy Joel, Celine Dion and Gordon Lightfoot.

"The times and the music became more fragmented," Allan said, "so the commonality isn't there. There are some songs that work, but then you hit disco in '78, and that changed everything."

Songs that even hint at disco are far too divisive to reach the consensus WBIG needs among its 40- and 50-year-olds. For example, research shows that white women generally want their oldies station to play the melodic disco anthems -- "I Will Survive," "Last Dance" -- but black women hate them, preferring the '70s soft soul groups the Spinners, the Stylistics and the like.

Buried somewhere in that decade lie the hits that will offend few enough listeners to make them acceptable. The challenge at the Holiday Inn was to find the songs that might bring in younger folks without chasing away older, core listeners. (The perfect '70s song, at least according to this night's test, was Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)," which sent the EKG lines straight up like nothing but a Beatles tune. Whatever Bill Clinton's real musical taste may be, his advisers certainly knew their music testing when they chose that tune as his 1992 campaign anthem.)

Allan's task was to push the average age of WBIG listeners down from 48 without losing overall audience. "We had to move to more '70s music, because, sadly, in America, if your average age is over 50, your money's no good here anymore," he said. "Once you hit 45, American business doesn't believe you're going to spend any money." WBIG was playing 45 percent '70s music, and this test wasn't showing much tolerance for more than that. (Anything by the Carpenters: Numbers fell off a cliff. Linda Ronstadt: Every song tanked.)

To make matters even more difficult, something new was happening on this night, something that surprised even the experts. Every time the computer served up a Motown song -- every time, whether it was the Supremes, the other girl groups, Marvin Gaye, the Chi-Lites -- the lines on the screen dived.

How could this be? Motown was the heart of the oldies format, every bit as essential a component as the Beatles or the Beach Boys. The appeal of the Supremes, for example, is no more dated than the new "Dreamgirls" movie. Had Oldies 100 and similar stations overplayed a handful of songs, burning out listeners on those tunes? If they mixed in some other songs, would it reconnect listeners to the infectious joy of Motown? We may never know: The rules of radio ordained short playlists of songs listeners already knew they liked. The executives saw the numbers streaming across the computer screen at the Holiday Inn, and the numbers ruled.

"Maybe we ought to rethink Motown Mondays," which were a longtime staple at the station, said Bob Karson, who was then WBIG's creative director. "They're really shooting down every one of those songs."

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