At Radio, A Very Partial Motown Story

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Hitsville Motown Soundtrack RadioFor a decade, after the 1983 Motown 25 special and the release of The Big Chill six months later, ‘60s Motown was one of the safest, most mass-appeal things an AC or Oldies station could play. Then the center of the renamed Classic Hits format became first the ‘70s, then the ‘80s. Mainstream AC stations moved away from the ‘60s altogether, then the ‘70s as well. Even a decade ago, when we last looked at the presence of R&B in the Classic Hits format, Motown was considerably diminished not just by the passage of time, but also by the increasing rock lean of the format.

If you came away from Showtime’s Hitsville: The Making Of Motown, which premiered in late August, wanting to hear the ‘60s Motown music featured in the documentary, that’s not the Motown that you’ll find represented on broadcast radio. The recent growth of “The Breeze” and other Soft AC formats means that certain songs are probably easier to find than a year or two ago, but it also means that the Motown titles easily found now are newer, often softer, and a relative handful. A few of the biggest are from the post-Berry Gordy era of the label, although one is from Berry Gordy’s son.

Based on combined U.S. airplay from Nielsen BDSRadio for Classic Hits, Mainstream AC, and Adult R&B radio — the three formats most likely to still be playing R&B titles from the ‘80s or before — these are the most-played Motown titles.

1 – Lionel Richie, “All Night Long (All Night)” (1983) – 734 spins last week

2 – Commodores, “Brick House” (1977) – 351 spins

3 – Rick James, “Super Freak” (1981) – 318 spins

4 – Boyz II Men, “I’ll Make Love to You” (1993) – 313 spins

5 – Boyz II Men, “End of the Road” (1992) – 280 spins

6 – Dazz Band, “Let It Whip” (1982) – 227 spins

7 – Stevie Wonder, “Part Time Lover” (1985) – 221 spins

8 – Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” (1973) – 201 spins

9 – Stevie Wonder, “Isn’t She Lovely” (1977) – 193 spins

9 – Stevie Wonder, “Superstition” (1972) — 193 spins

11 – Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me” (1984) – 187 spins

12 – Debarge, ”Rhythm of the Night” (1984) – 182 spins

13 – Commodores, “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” (1981) – 180 spins

14 – Stevie Wonder, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (1984) — 176 spins

15 – Debarge, “I Like It” (1982) – 170 spins

By contrast, here’s the number of spins — from all North American BDS reporters in all formats — for a random selection of the classic ‘60s and early ‘70s Motown titles. (These spin counts include some smaller stations, non-commercial outlets, and even a few Internet stations, so even those numbers that seem comparable with those above actually represent less airplay of the sort that you’re likely to encounter in your listening.)

Temptations, “My Girl” — 170 spins – Has the advantage of being one of the few ‘60s titles with considerable airplay on the new group of Soft AC/Oldies stations

Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” – 155 spins

Marvin Gaye, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — 102 spins

Four Tops, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) — 77 spins

Stevie Wonder, “My Cherie Amour” – 70 spins

Temptations, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” — 70 spins

Jackson 5, “I Want You Back” — 60 spins

Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go” — 44 spins

Smokey Robinson & Miracles, “Tears of a Clown” — 40 spins – A decade ago, being a hit in 1970, three years after its initial release, gave this song extra currency at Classic Hits, but less so now.

            Contours, “Do You Love Me” 32 spins

Martha & the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street” — 33 spins

Edwin Starr, “War” –- 28 spins

A few stations emerged from my BDS searches as more likely to be playing ‘60s and early ‘70s Motown. WRME (Me-TV-FM) Chicago doesn’t stream, but you can hear its syndicated Oldies/Soft AC hybrid on WMYX-HD-2 Milwaukee on Radio.com. KONO-AM San Antonio, Texas, plays the ‘60s and leans R&B, as does its successful Classic Hits FM sister. A handful of Canadian stations — CKDO Oshawa, Ontario, and CHTG Hamilton, Ontario — lean older than traditional Classic Hits FMs. So does the syndicated Cumulus Classic Hits format, as heard on WWIZ (Z104) Youngstown, Ohio.  WAKY Louisville, Ky., still plays the ’60s and ’70s. Its ratings are now being published again and it’s beating the more traditional Classic Rock-based competitor.

TV and movies have been priming listeners to hear music no longer easily found on the radio lately. Of the songs that Quentin Tarantino chose to represent the late ‘60s in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the only one with any radio legs at all is “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel, and even that one is harder to find since the ‘60s were phased out at Classic Hits. Ken Burns’ Country Music sounds as if it will focus heavily on those titles that now represent the older end of Classic Country radio.

Could Once Upon a Time … or Hitsville give some ‘60s music a refreshed pop-culture presence in formats that are otherwise much newer? It’s hard to imagine now. Reservoir Dogs rescued “Stuck in the Middle With You” from being a lost ‘70s nugget on the order of, say, “Free Ride,” and made it a Classic Hits staple for two decades, but it did so at a time when playing it meant going forward, not backwards, for Oldies stations. Personally, I’d be excited to find an excuse to play “Bring a Little Lovin’” by Los Bravos again, but it’s one of many songs — new to most viewers — blaring briefly from a car radio, not an indelible image like the Stealers Wheel hit.

It’s worth noting that the Classic Rock format hasn’t been quite as fast to push the ‘60s out — you’ll still find Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and ‘60s Led Zeppelin among the top 150 titles. Classic Rock is famously attracting new listeners who don’t remember the music as currents, and many of them are starting toward the beginning. If listeners didn’t grow up with Hendrix or Motley Crue, there’s no reason to think they’d automatically default to the newer band.

There are certainly non-broadcast places to find Motown. Hitsville is on Showtime, not NBC, as Motown 25 was, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the music be found on a specialty channel. There’s Sirius XM’s 60s on 6, 70s on 7, and Soul Town; Pandora’s Motown Radio; many Spotify playlists. I was going to express regret that broadcasters aren’t the ones trying to fill the need, even with side channels, but iHeart Radio does have a Motown Sounds channel, tied to the label’s 60th anniversary. (When I turned it on, it was playing the non-Motown “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but it hasn’t strayed since.)

Among serious Motown fans, the consensus is that Hitsville is the latest in a series of officially sanctioned Motown souvenirs. The documentary repeats a lot of the most-told stories about the label and sidesteps most of its controversies. But I’ve also heard from friends who enjoyed the documentary. If the legacy still resonates 60 years later, where is the place for radio to take advantage of it?

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14 Comments
  1. Tom Lawler says


    I am honestly not sure how radio would take advantage of 60’s/early 70’s Motown nostalgia – the Classic Hits biggies (CBS-FM/K-Earth/WOGL) are hyperfocused on the 80’s (and 90’s), and seem to be content with leaving Motown behind.

    3WS is spiking in some of the evergreen 60’s Motown cuts – but Pittsburgh is an older market, so I am not sure if that is a result of the documentary. Motown is alive and well at (shameless plug) WLNG & WOLD-LP (we even do Motown Monday!)

    I do think “Once Upon A Time” & “Hitsville” can help expose oldies to people who didn’t grow up with the music – but I don’t think there is enough mass audience to have Classic Hits reverse course and add those titles back in…unless someone does a music test and they come back well.

    1. Sean Ross says


      If radio tested that music for an audience too young to have grown up with it, and at least the biggest, most enduring titles came back, would they acknowledge it? Or would they not even confront themselves with the question. I have seen evidence in the last few years that “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” can still test, for instance.

  2. Mike says


    Detroit/Windsor’s CKWW, not surprisingly, plays a lot of Motown, and does Motown Monday every week. Bonus: lots of Canadian Content.

    1. Sean Ross says


      You’ve inspired me to check them out again. Happy to say they’re not geo-blocked to America, like some Bell stations. https://www.iheartradio.ca/am-580

    2. Sean Ross says


      I’ve been inspired to check them out again. Happy to say they’re not geo-blocked to America like some of their Bell Media brethren. They’ve just gone from “Young Girl” by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap to “Summer Nights” by John Travolta/ONJ. Hard to imagine those as “songs you never hear on the radio” and yet that’s what they’ve become.

    3. Sean Ross says


      And now they’re playing Chilliwack/Come On Over!

  3. chrisbubb says


    Detroit’s gold-based Soft AC, 98.7 The Breeze, also plays more Motown than other stations in the same format. One surprise I heard the other day: the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain.”

    1. Sean Ross says


      Makes sense. Thanks, Chris.

  4. Charles Everett says


    Quentin Tarantino has his reasons for using 1960s music in a movie. Terrestrial radio has its reasons for avoiding Detroit-era Motown. The music has been burnt beyond a crisp because it was so overexposed in the Oldies format that remained frozen in time.
    Such can also explain why Motown’s early L.A. era and MCA era are underrepresented at Classic Hits. [Motown was the last big independent label of the 60s to switch to major label distribution.]

    1. Sean Ross says


      I understand anybody being burned on any of the Motown songs I mentioned in that second list, but music lovers are pretty burned on “Mrs. Robinson,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” CCR, and the few things from the era that still get any sort of airplay.

      The one that Tarantino didn’t use from that time period was “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me),” certainly not one of the overplayed Motown titles. Would’ve fit somewhere in that film.

  5. slimmons says


    Surprised to see “I Like It” considering few if any of those spins came from Classic Hits or AC.

    1. Sean Ross says


      Noticed that, too. Always liked that song and I’m glad it still has a footprint.

  6. borderblaster says


    It’s hard to believe all of those songs are gone. I fell in love with Motown and R&B on The Big 8 CKLW, which blasted into my lily-white home town in Ohio. It was always on at the pool during those late 60s summers. Fortunately, we have Spotify, YouTube and the other outlets you mentioned. Don’t forget Charlie O’Brien’s Big 8 tribute station at http://www.big8radio.com

    1. Sean Ross says


      Charlie O’Brien did a great job of keeping the unique musical heritage of the Motor City on the radio at CKWW and now at Big8Radio.com. As Mike notes above, that music is not entirely gone from CKWW now either.

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