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Life After the Safe List posted on March 19th, 2015

By Sean Ross (@RossOnRadio)

It’s always a little dangerous to single out a programmer for playing “oh wow” oldies. In the early ‘90s, I wrote about John Gorman, then the PD who took WMJI (Majic 105.7) Cleveland to oldies. Gorman launched by including a handful of garage rock titles that definitely weren’t on the format’s top 300 safe list. When we talked after the profile he was upset. “You made it sound like I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.

That wasn’t my intention. I was congratulating Gorman on choosing to break, or rewrite, radio law. WMJI played enough hits to throw in “Open Up Your Door” by Richard & the Young Lions occasionally. Gorman had a successful run at Majic, and that station went on to be just as much of an enduring powerhouse as the tight-and-right KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles, a station which played its powers in six-hour rotation and became the template for the format for the next decade.

I had a Majic moment a few weeks ago listening to Sirius XM’s “‘60s on 6” channel and hearing “All Your Goodies Are Gone” by the Parliaments, the future Parliament/Funkadelic. I would have been thrilled by “(I Wanna) Testify,” the R&B classic and top 25 pop hit from 1967 that came one single earlier. As best I can tell, it had something to do with veteran DJ Pat St. John being on the air. When St. John shows up, so do oldies from his former hometown of Detroit. A few years ago, St. John even managed to spike “Open Up Your Door” while doing weekends on WCBS-FM New York.

Even when the channel isn’t throwing in extra “Goodies” of that sort, I’m really enjoying “60s on 6” these days. There is an increasing amount of variety under PD Lou Simon (who would certainly know how to program the safe list if he chose to). I’ve also been making a point of checking out Brisbane’s 4KQ and its “Jukebox Saturday Night.” 4KQ is a mainstream, hit-driven “greatest hits” outlet during the week, but on Saturday mornings (U.S. time), it’s a great place to hear pre-Beatles, British Invasion, ‘60s garage, and bubblegum, along with big Australian ‘60s hits that are still pretty exotic here.

For me, the appeal of either 4KQ or “‘60s on 6″ has been hearing “Cinnamon” by Derek, a ‘60s bubblegum nugget that never made it to the safe list. But for a lot of listeners, the appeal is increasingly hearing the ‘60s at all. A few days ago, 4KQ APD/MD Brent James mentioned, with surprise, the amount of e-mails he’s getting from the U.S. One would think there were plenty of places to hear the ‘60s in the U.S., James said.

But on mainstream Classic Hits stations, there really aren’t. Songs from the ‘60s have become a less-than-once-an-hour occurrence on stations such as WCBS-FM or K-Earth, which has gone back to its old super-tight rotations and is becoming a standard-bearer for the format once again. Stations such as WOGL Philadelphia that successfully play anywhere from one to three an hour are the exception. Fans of the ‘60s used to complain about a watershed decade being reduced to “Respect” and “Mrs. Robinson,” but those are now the good old days.

As with any other era evolution at a gold-based format, it’s hard to tell whether the ‘60s fans jumped or were pushed. Even the reliable top-of-the-page songs, “Unchained Melody” and “Twist and Shout,” that were exposed to subsequent generations have gone from “power” to “playable” in music research. Researching music for gold-based stations of all stripes, I can attest that you can still fill a pretty good ‘60s category if you’re so inclined, but when they think about playing songs that are 50 years old or thereabouts, many PDs are not.

A few years ago, there was a tiny contingent of oldies FMs, mostly fringe stations in a market, which were playing the safe list of 15 years ago. There were no “Cinnamon”-type surprises, just the “More Today Than Yesterday” ‘60s warhorses that were once hard to avoid. Now, most of those stations are gone as well.

So if nobody is going to try to program the ‘60s for kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s time to consider life beyond the safe list. Do you give the format back to the people who were there at the time? Do you rework the format for the sensibilities of an audience that never heard the music, as the U.K.’s Absolute Radio did with its ‘60s channel a few years ago? It’s a question we’ll be asking about the ‘70s in the not-too-distant future.

It’s not impossible to put together a gold-based format out of songs that endure many generations later. In the ‘80s, Walt Sabo and Harry Valentine’s KFRC (Magic 610) San Francisco was an adult-standards station I could listen to and enjoy, even though its music preceded even my parents’ frame of reference. But other standards stations hewed to a wider library and far less hit-driven approach.

The latter type of oldies station is readily available among internet radio’s 100,000 choices. (Look for a longer list of favorite oldies outlets in the near future.) I hope the Magic 610 approach will exist, too, so that those unfamiliar with this watershed decade have the same basic education in that music that KFRC provided me for standards. And I hope Gorman, who is now doing hosted Triple-A online with the new oWow Cleveland,  will do well enough to do a ‘60s/’70s station as well. Because what I still want most is to hear those songs when there’s some element of calculated risk involved.

Here’s Sirius “‘60s on 6” at 4:30 p.m. on March 18:

Jackie Wilson, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”

Dave Clark Five, “Reelin’ & Rockin’”

Rolling Stones, “Under My Thumb”

Tommy James & the Shondells, “Mirage”

Jackie DeShannon, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”

Beach Boys, “Barbara Ann”

Joe Cocker, “Delta Lady”

Byrds, “All I Really Wanna Do”

Dawn, “Knock Three Times” (the beginning of Cousin Brucie’s show, which isn’t strictly ‘60s)

Beatles, “I’m a Loser”

And here’s 4KQ’s “Jukebox Saturday Night”:

Elvis Presley, “Kissin’ Cousins”

Shirley Ellis, “The Name Game”

Don Fardon, “Indian Reservation”

Chiffons, “He’s So Fine”

John Fred & His Playboy Band, “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)”

Gene McDaniels, “Point Of No Return”

Drummond, “Daddy Cool” (early ‘70s Australian remake of the Rays ‘50s hit)

Beach Boys, “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)”

Turtles, “She’d Rather Be With Me”

Atlantics, “The Crusher” (Australian ‘60s surf instrumental)

Blues Magoos, “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet”

Buddy Holly, “Heartbeat”

Johnny Burnette, “You’re Sixteen”

Desmond Dekker & the Aces, “Israelites”

Helen Shapiro, “No Trespassing”

Chris Andrews, “Yesterday Man”