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The Songs You Want to Hear

Except for one thing: "So Motown Monday's got to go, huh?" Allan asked.

Absolutely, the group confirmed.

NOT LONG AFTER THE MUSIC TEST, the owners of WBIG, Clear Channel Communications, decided that traditional oldies had had their day. Like many other oldies stations across the country, WBIG switched formats this past spring. Big 100 adopted an approach known as "classic hits," which consists of top rock songs from the 1970s -- Steve Miller Band's "The Joker," The Kinks' "Lola," Queen's "We Will Rock You," Styx's "Lady," and lots of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones. It strives to entertain listeners by serving up clever themed weekends of music, such as Big Decomposers (three days of songs by departed artists) or Big Ugly Rock Stars Who Score Great Chicks (Steven Tyler, Billy Joel).

So far, the new Big 100.3 is doing what its owner wants it to do. It is "skewing" younger, reaching an audience that on average is a little closer to the low end of the 25 to 54 age group than the oldies format drew. The classic hits are luring more men, so the audience is almost evenly split by sex, while Oldies 100 leaned more toward women. "This is a much more appealing advertiser demographic," Michaels said.

The bigger picture, however, only grows fuzzier. As young people choose to discover, share and collect music via iTunes, blogs and MySpace, decades of music research suddenly seem irrelevant. If listeners can create their own music stations, what will radio's role be?

Wrong question, many radio executives contend: Choice is overrated; most people don't want to spend their leisure time sifting through hours of mediocre tunes in search of their new favorite. They just want someone to deliver the music they love. The trick for radio is to find a way to capture the spirit of the Web -- the interactivity, the flattened hierarchy, the sense of empowerment -- while maintaining radio's traditional authority ("The hits from coast to coast," "The hits just keep on coming").

Satellite radio attempts to find that balance by giving deejays more freedom to select songs but only within the boundaries of narrowly defined channels of music (XM, for example, has one channel for "greasy, gritty" country tunes, one for honky-tonk hits of the '50s and '60s, one for current country hits, one for country stars from the '80s and '90s, and one for country classics). The satellite services use some of the same research tools that FM radio deploys but claim to escape the resulting blandness by giving programmers leeway to create sets of music that feel as if a human hand is at work. Whatever the result of that recipe, the bottom line is that in this tough time for radio, the bedrock belief in the efficacy of music research is finally cracking.

"Everything's cyclical," Michaels said. "Research had its time, and it's still important, but now people are willing to have a gut feeling and go with it."

In the 1950s, when TV came along and wiped out most of radio's most successful programming, radio defied predictions and survived. What saved radio -- playing rock-and-roll records for a new generation -- emerged from a combination of accident, innovation and desperation. What will save radio this time is very likely a similar combination. The desperation is growing, the innovation is beginning to bubble up, and accidents are waiting to happen. What they will sound like is unknown, but at long last, most everyone in the industry agrees they won't happen in a Holiday Inn meeting room.

Marc Fisher is a Post columnist. This article was excerpted from his new book, Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation, published this month by Random House. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.

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