When I was growing up, listening to the radio in Chicago was a remarkably regimented experience. Turn to any station on the FM dial, and you knew exactly what you were getting. For example, there was a station for current top 40 and dance music. There were a couple stations for “light” adult contemporary hits. There was a station for alternative rock.
And there was a station for oldies.
For the majority of my childhood, my family’s radios alternated almost exclusively between “light” rock and oldies. To this day, I can authoritatively sing along to almost any rock or pop song from the late 1950s or 1960s, while many 1980s soft rock hits send me flashing back to my toddling days in a car seat in the back of my parents’ Buick.
The point is, the stations’ formats were straightforward, especially where the concept of “oldies” was concerned. “Oldies” meant longtime Chicago deejays like Dick Biondi spinning the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the best of the British Invasion, Dion, Chubby Checker and all points in between.
But in a chilling wake-up call over the past couple years, I’ve noticed that it’s increasingly difficult to find these oldies anywhere on traditional radio. In fact, some of the songs of my 1980s childhood days are starting to qualify as oldies. Even hits of the ’90s are starting to be peddled as a unique throwback for a weekend of radio programming. What is going on? And when did I get so old?
Tonight I heard John “Records” Landecker queuing up the “80s at 8” on 94.7, a channel that until very recently was a watered down last bastion of true “oldies” on the Chicago airwaves. As John Mellencamp (from his Cougar era) filled my eardrums, I came to a startling conclusion:
There are now simply too many oldies.
Maybe that’s always been the case. Maybe that’s why I didn’t really hear any 1970s music until a “timeless rock” station came on the air in Chicago in 2001. Maybe that’s why I didn’t really hear any pop standards from the 1930s-1950s until I stumbled upon an old Frank Sinatra cassette in high school and sought out more at the library.
The scary reality, however, is that the songs that were “oldies” to my generation are now no longer on the air, the same way Sinatra’s ilk were long since radio-silenced by the time I first tuned in.
If you were new to American music, the current state of Chicago radio stations would lead you to believe that nothing of musical note (puns!) came out of the 1960s beyond the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Some might try to argue that point academically, but the fact remains that my childhood would have been far more deficient of joy if I hadn’t been able to sing along to “Runaround Sue” and “It’s My Party.”
In the new world order of Pandora and Spotify and iTunes, building a personal, on-the-go music library has almost replaced the institution of being at the mercy of songs delivered via radio. But if I hadn’t had the static (more puns!) formula of radio stations to inform and form my musical tastes, any personal music collection I attempted to curate would be neither wide nor deep. If I hadn’t grown up hearing the Zombies or the Lovin’ Spoonful, chances are pretty good I wouldn’t be adding them to any Pandora stations or tuning in to the British Beats channel on a satellite radio. I cringe whenever I’m with someone young and musically uninformed who hears a hit by the Four Seasons and calls it “that song from ‘Jersey Boys.'”
Don’t get me wrong — I welcome a world in which the Chicago airwaves devote a single station or an entire weekend of music or even just an hour of airtime to the hits of the ’80s and ’90s. You can even call them oldies, if it’s already time to do that. But let’s not forget the musical building blocks that paved the way for everything we enjoy today. Besides, there were some dang catchy songs back in the day. It would be an awful shame if the radio continues to neglect entire eras of music and future generations of listeners are deprived of being into something good.