The Day The Music Died (Before It Was Reborn)
Friday, June 3, 2005 was shaping up to be just another late Spring day until CBS turned the entire radio industry on its head with simultaneous format changes at Oldies 101.1 WCBS-FM New York and 104.3 WJMK Chicago.
The flips to Variety Hits as “Jack-FM” took everyone by surprise. Not-so-much for the launch of the then-booming format, but rather the stations chosen in those markets. The Jack brand had been launched earlier that year on CBS owned stations in Baltimore, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Seattle and quite possibly would have been launched in Boston and Philadelphia had competitors not beaten them to the punch with the similarly named Mike and Ben-FM respectively. CBS was facing a programming battle on two fronts as their Oldies stations were aging out of sellable demographics and Howard Stern was months away from departing CBS Radio for Sirius.
While revisionist history may say otherwise, but WCBS-FM and WJMK were shells of their former selves when the plugs were pulled. Former Monkee Mickey Dolenz had taken over mornings in New York after the retirement of Harry Harrison. Music from the 1950’s and early 60’s was being phased out, but the stations were not yet ready to insert the 1980’s music that became the center of the Jack brand. With the PPM beginning testing in Philadelphia, companies knew things were going to be changing, but not yet sure how.
In retrospect it could be said that it made more sense to place Jack in those markets on 92.3 WXRK and 105.9 WCKG both of which were on their way to becoming flagships for the “Free-FM” debacle and a series of format changes. That way CBS wouldn’t have dealt with the responses to many beloved personalities being axed as it was already known Howard was on his way out and his show could’ve been used to spotlight the new format just as it was in Buffalo and Sacramento. But that would’ve only been a short-term band-aid as the Oldies format still would’ve need to see its demographics made younger or we’d be looking at “101.1 Amp Radio” in New York while Jack kept going at 92.3.
It took a management change at the upper tiers of CBS to bring back the WCBS-FM branding in July 2007, but the format that came with it was not the one that left. The twenty five months without the brand left the audience finally accepting of an evolution of the music to catch up to the demographics. Eighties music has become the backbone of the Classic Hits format as a woman born in 1960 who was 25 in 1985 was 47 in 2007, but is now 55 and out of the prime 25-54 demographic which will eventually force the format to begin to phase in more 1990’s music or face the same issues it did in 2005.
The revitalized WCBS-FM became a powerhouse in New York and has been a consistent top five performer in the market and currently second in audience share and cume. That success led to an eventual flip to Classic Hits at WJMK in 2011, where it joined Cumulus’ 94.7 WLS-FM in the format. It wouldn’t be until this year when WJMK would return to the top 10 in Chicago where it is currently seventh and like WCBS-FM features more music that was played in its Jack era than on its predecessor Oldies format.
Could CBS have aged the stations gracefully into 1980’s music while bringing in younger listeners who wouldn’t have previously been caught listening to their parents or grandparents station? We’ve seen that happen in markets like Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia for CBS, but have also seen it fail in Boston. Regardless the 2015 versions of WCBS-FM and WJMK are in much better places than they were in 2005 and much of that may have to do with their time playing what we wanted after all.