Friday, March 8, 2013

Am I really that old?

It was a culture shock for we teenagers in 1987 when Hot Hits WCAU in Philadelphia flipped formats to Oldies 98 and the hits from the '50s and '60s.
Flash forward more than 25 years and WOGL-FM is now the greatest hits of the '60s, '70s and ... wait for it ... the '80s. With the Gen-Xers coming to terms with reaching mid-life, imagine my jaw dropping one Saturday afternoon when I caught this series of songs on 98.1:

*Van Halen - Jump

*Rick James - Superfreak

*The Bee Gees - How Deep is Your Love

*The Supremes - You Keep Me Hangin' On

And ... wait for it ... The Police - Don't Stand So Close to Me

Oy, that song is an oldie now? Well, yes and no.
The contemporary, correct term is "classic hits," and WOGL music director and Philly radio veteran Tommy McCarthy -- who's been with the station nearly 23 years -- noted in a phone interview that formats/stations that survive in the dog-eat-dog world of the Philadelphia radio market are the ones that grow and evolve. For example, he said, short-sighted thinking killed off the beloved hit music station WFIL, which remained stuck on the AM band as music on commercial radio migrated to FM.
WOGL dropped the "Oldies" from its name somewhere between 2002 and 2004 because, said McCarthy, the term "made (listeners) feel like they were fuddy-duddies." It was done subtly, without fanfare, as was the gradual playlist additions of hit songs from the '70s and then 1980-1982. 
Classic hits is about living in the present, as opposed to the escapist nostalgia of what the '50s and '60s oldies format was when it first hit the airwaves around the country.
"We talk about Lady Gaga. We know what's going on in the world. It's not the oldie oldies station," McCarthy said of the WOGL DJs, several of whom used to be on the old Solid Gold 102 (now Q-102).
WOGL's bread-and-butter demographic of adults 35-64 (leaning slightly toward a female audience) includes both Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. McCarthy's daunting task is to find upbeat songs that you'll like whether you're 35 or 55 -- songs that will get people dancing at a wedding reception:

*Donna Summer - Last Dance

*Barry White - You're the First, the Last, My Everything

 *Lipps Inc. - Funkytown

 Ballads that go on WOGL need to have "a rhythmic Philly feel," McCarthy said
He also has to schedule the songs in such a way that won't sound -- as DJs like to say -- like a "train wreck." An example he gave was a '60s song followed by Madonna.
"You can't go out to a nightclub (without someone requesting) 'Build Me Up Buttercup' (by The Foundations). They'll forget when it came out," he said of a seemingly timeless hit that has cross-generational appeal.  The song came out in 1968, by the way.
A Cherry Hill, NJ native, McCarthy -- with a lot of help from a company that conducts auditorium research on people's dispositions toward certain songs -- also has to use his instincts to pick songs that particularly resonate with people that grew up in the Philadelphia area or South Jersey: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, The Spinners, The O'Jays...  
"Once you get out of college, you lose a bit of a passion for music as you get your career started. You get into your kids' music as you age ... (until finally) you know that next generation's music as well as yours," said McCarthy. The station consistently ranks in the ratings top five among the coveted 25-54 demographic, he said.
Still, says McCarthy, ultimately it comes down to playing a good song -- songs that you associate with a first love, a "toga party your sophomore year in college," songs you devotedly listened to in your bedroom throughout high school and college before career and family took a higher priority.
"As long as they come here (to WOGL) to feel good, that's my job," McCarthy said.   
So what does the future hold for the classic hits format? "Stick with the hits and good-sounding music. There may come a day -- maybe not in the next three years -- we may drop the '60s, and it'll be the greatest hits of the '70s, '80s and '90s," McCarthy said.
Time marches on, I guess.

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