August 4, 2008

Oldies Not So Old Anymore

By Eric Stark

It's been nearly 10 years - I was 26, single and still had hair - but I remember the moment like it was yesterday: my father driving the family van and turning up the radio, saying to his boys who were complaining about his selection, Oldies music will never die.

I thought he was wrong and, being a bad son who always had to have the last word, told him so. When his generation died, I said, so would its music.

No, he argued, this is quality music and songs, and sounds this good will stand the test of time.

Boy, I hope he's right and I'm wrong. Maybe the years have mellowed me, or maybe I've wised up. The sounds of Motown - the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Miracles - and singers like Frankie Valli had great melodies and timeless lyrics, and the artists of today copy the music my father grew up listening to and still fondly plays.

So oldies will never die, but what's considered old will change.

The radio station my father cranked the volume on, Oldies 96.1 WSOX-FM, was new at the time. The Harrisburg station celebrates 10 years on the air this month. As I listened to the station last week, I noticed something different about the format: James Taylor, Billy Joel and John Mellencamp had replaced Marvin Gaye, Johnny Mathis and Smokey Robinson. Sure, Motown tunes were occasionally sprinkled in, but they were few and far between. The Oldies is gone from the station description as well.

Bobby D, the program director and weekday afternoon on-air personality at WSOX, shies away from labeling music. I don't like to use the term oldies,' he said. I'd say classic hits will never die.

He said popular television shows like American Idol stand by the classics, hits with emotion and a good rhythm. They are classics for a reason, Bobby D said. Hits won't go away.

The station has evolved, he said, and is not your parents' or grandparents' station; it's your station.

A few years ago, WSOX did some research (that's code for some consultant giving the word to station officials) and deemed a steady diet of upbeat hits that make people feel good to be the right fit.

Party songs like the Commodores' Brick House made the cut, although that 1977 hit isn't the type of song my dad was referring to the day he turned up the volume. Nevertheless, it is a good song and illustrates the shift in what's considered old nowadays. I guess 1977 was a long time ago, and that song is a classic - one of the all-time best dance-party songs (cue wedding DJ).

WSOX has evolved but tries to stay true to its mantra, which is to be a good, adult radio station. It hasn't tried to hone in on adult contemporary, alternative or Top 40 niche markets. Rather, almost anything that is an upbeat hit is fair game, and the station normally plays 10 songs in a row before breaking for commercials.

WSOX plays a great variety of songs parents and their children can enjoy, stuff that's passed on from one generation to the next. My father is 62, and the music from his generation has carried on and the influence of his favorite singers can be heard in the musicians of today. Daryl Hall and John Oates were inspired by Motown, as were the Rolling Stones and many other artists whose music now plays on 96.1.

The influences are still there, even if all of the artists are not.

Sorry, Dad.

Staff writer Eric Stark discusses trends and tidbits in broadcast media each week in the Sunday News. He can be reached at [email protected]

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