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An Obituary for a Radio Station

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I’ve “lost” radio stations before. WNEW moved away from the album cut format. WLIR stopped playing new wave. Q104 went from heavy metal to adult oriented rock. I’ve always bemoaned these losses, but never exactly mourned the loss of a station. Until now.

When I heard that WCBS FM had changed their format, I felt like someone had slapped me in the face. I hadn’t listened to the station in a long time, but knowing it existed was like knowing there was a friendly face from the past still out there, smiling at you.

I grew up listening to CBS. I know the words to every doo-wop song. I remember the intro songs – Those oldies but goodies remind me of….WCBS FM. Don K. Reed. Norm N. Nite. The way it always sounded as if they were broadcasting from an echo chamber. My childhood memories are so intrinsically tied to music because there was always music playing in our house. And it was always CBS. Hearing the news of its demise, I felt like a small piece of my soul had been ripped from me. Dramatic, I know. But you have to understand what part this station played in my life.

When I hear the old doo-wop song “In the Still of the Night,” I am in my parents backyard, about eight years old, wearing a yellow tank top and tan cotton shorts. It’s early evening and my parents have company over. They are scattered around the yard, sipping exotic drinks with fancy stirrers and smoking long cigarettes. I can smell the sweetness of the drinks, the smoke from someone’s cigar, the chlorine in the pool. There are fireflies flitting around the yard, and I’m running after them with another girl, the daughter of one of my parent’s guests. She smells of coconut suntan lotion and the beach. The radio, a little am/fm portable with a bent antenna is tuned to WCBS. The DJ announces the next song. “And now, here’s The Five Satins with In The Still of The Night.”

shoo do- shooby doo shoo do- shooby doo

The girl and I stop chasing fireflies. We stare at the grownups. They are all singing along, the women and the men with their funny drinks and half-drunk voices and some men are singing louder than the others and some of the women are giggling.

In the still, still of the night I held you, held you tight

They are swaying and crooning and it’s almost embarassing, yet something about it is giving me goosebumps. My mom and dad are holding each other and dancing, and a lot of the other couples have started dancing and the men are all singing to their wives. They sing off key, their voices full of beer. But it’s oddly sweet and I stare at them for a minute before the girl I am playing with pokes me in the side and starts giggling.

It was always like this, and it was always CBS. The Sunday night doo-wop countdown was a ritual. Earth Angel would always be towards the top and I could count on my father walking into the room at the moment the song started, singing his heart out, knowing damn well that his voice sounded like that of a wounded animal’s. My sisters and I would cover our ears, pretending to be offended, but we’d all start singing eventually.

As I got older and had my own radio tuned to the rock and roll of WNEW, I never tired of hearing CBS emanating from the kitchen or the backyard. I prided myself on knowing all those doo wop lyrics, all those early rock artists. Even now, walking into a store that had CBS on the stereo, to hear the call letters was the equivalent of comfort food; the warm, cozy feeling of your past reaching out to give you a squeeze. It made my heart and soul feel good and now it’s gone. I never thought I’d be saddened over the loss of a radio station, especially one I rarely listened to anymore – I’ve been angry and pissed off and cynical every time a station I like changed formats, but I’ve never been so sad to see something go.

There was no warning. Nothing was said about imminent change. They just went straight into the Beastie Boys “Fight for Your Right” and like that, an historical place on the New York radio dial was gone. Dead. Murdered by corporate radio.

The new format is something called Jack (which I believe is owned by Infinity). They tout it as “playing what we want” but that’s just so much bullshit. No one plays what they want on commercial radio anymore. It may sound like they’re playing what they want because Beastie Boys will be followed by Pink and Def Leppard and Derek and the Dominoes, but it’s all just a computerized playlist.

K-Rock switched to the same type of format, playing what they call an eclectic collection of rock, but what I call formulated pandering.

I understand that commercial radio stations are in deep shit, trying to compete with satellite and iPods. Every move like the CBS move is a business decision. When I lost WNEW, K-Rock, Q104 and WLIR, I was sad for each of them. But not like this.

An old friend has died. I may not have visited this friend as often I used to, but it was nice knowing it was out there if I ever needed to feel the comforting warmth of my childhood.

It’s time to load some doo-wop and 50’s rock and roll onto the iPod. Too bad I can’t recreate that echoing DJ voice to play in between songs.

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About Michele Catalano

  • I never had the pleasure of listening to WCBS. In fact, when I began reading this post, I thought it siad WCSB, a Cleveland college radio station that I used to listen to whenever I could get a signal down in Akron when I lived in Ohio. But your point is well taken. I midd real radio. I have traveled the country coast to coast in the past year, and it saddens me to hear the homoginization of radio. Every station sounds the same, no matgter what town you’re in. Same songs, same commercials, same announcers. Amoment of silence for WCBS.

  • I happened to comment on this yesterday, as I too was saddened by the format change. Perhaps the last vestige of the glory days of New York’s rock radio is gone (unless you count the little ossified bits of Scott Muni that WAXQ parceled out to us in his twilight).

    A business decision indeed, and as I pointed out on another thread yesterday, it’s interesting that WCBS-FM falls victim to the short-term bean counter view, when its’ Arbitrons and demographics were far superior to those of the NYC classical station, WQXR (and to reiterate, the only quibble I have with WQXR is that it is stodgy; classical music can be fun and enjoyable).

    While WCBS-FM was an institution, I think there were faults in the playlists that may have led to its downfall. Had they stuck with the more eclectic model of its early days where a show like “Doo-Wop Shop” was possible and flourished, I think it would’ve generated more interest. WCBS stayed in the comfort zone, playing the same Motown songs ad nauseum until they stopped being fun, no Beatles other than what was on the red and blue albums, not to mention completely ignoring Stax. Part of the problem with WCBS as I perceive it was that they went by what was on the Billboard charts, rather than what was more important to the progression of music in those wonderful decades. WCBS could certainly play Sinatra followed by the Stones, but then you’d get tracks that should be napalmed – things like “Sugar Shack” and “Mr. Lee” being two of the more egregious examples of annoying records WCBS played. Things like Kai Winding’s “More” – a nice MOR record, but what the heck did that record have to do with rock?

    For all of its faults, it was a bit of a time capsule, and it was about the only way to explain to the young’uns what radio was like before Clear Channel and Infinity lobotomized it. I shall miss WCBS-FM.

  • Not living in New York I wasn’t exposed to WCBS but love the oldies format. It’s a genre that’s difficult to find in today’s world of pre-programmed computerized playlists. Thankfully Infinity had the good sense to startup WCBSFM.com which plays the same music on the web. I’ve been streaming it often at work and love it.

  • artur j. caputo

    It’s NOT only the music,movie’s , entertainment in general has turned to no talent garbage, if the truth be told. That goes for the actors, writers, and now becoming more evident with young kid “executives” at the radio stations who weren’t exposed to the talent and good music in their lifetime. They only know garbage ,so that’s what they want to give you.It’s about controling the money, the profits. Look who is controling “American Idol”the corporations Sadly, the people don/t know what is happening to them.It shows you what kind of people are behind the change at CBS. Heartless, unfeeling, dirt bags. You have to be if you reject the beautiful music called Doo WOP. The slime is winning.They want the kids to be heartless, unfeeling and bad. Hence the slaughter in Iraq . Families being killed and raped by 21 year old American kids – Heartless and unfeeling. Music helps shape personality. Think about what is happening to us, all for money.!!!!!