Roll Down The Window & Crank Up The Radio

When was the last time you experienced an “oh wow” song?  As you might imagine, an “oh wow” song is one that upon hearing the first few seconds, you immediately reach to turn up the radio, while simultaneously exclaiming something to the effect of, “Oh wow, I haven’t heard that song in years!”  In most cases, it is a song from the time period so deftly described by Bruce Springsteen as your Glory Days.  Radio, regardless of format, is at its best when it is able to elicit such a strong emotional response from listeners.


Whenever I hear an “oh wow” song (yes, even those of us who program music-formatted radio for a living will occasionally encounter a song we’d forgotten about), I’m immediately transported back to a time when burgers and fries were readily consumed without a scintilla of thought given to the effect on my blood pressure, when running up the stairs didn’t involve stopping at the top to catch my breath, and when life’s most sublime moments were marked by hands on the wheel, and eyes darting back and forth between the road ahead and the youthful feminine smile that occupied the passenger seat.  One might say that a radio station built to attract an adult audience regularly traffics in the currency of memories.


I would venture to say that my Glory Days’ memories are not that uncommon among suburban bred individuals of my generation.  That the automobile has played a central role in our upbringing is evidenced by shared memories of things like the politics of the high school parking lot, the sigh of relief that accompanied seeing a college campus in the rear view mirror after completing another term, and the anxious anticipation that arose when that first steady paycheck after college meant I could afford to pay for a weekend roadtrip to someplace new and interesting, and share the experience, including an overnight motel room, with the woman behind the youthful smile referenced earlier.


Given that one hundred years is a mere millisecond on the clock of human history, it is interesting to note that it has been only one hundred years or so since the automobile was just a rich man’s toy, and radio, other than ship to shore communication, was but a hobby shared by a few like-minded enthusiasts.  In fact, radio and the automobile have, in a sense, grown up together.  In 1930, two brothers from Chicago, Joseph and Paul Galvin, created the first radio specifically designed for installation in automobiles.  They named their creation the Motorized Victrola, or Motorola, and thus, a new American industry was born.


Just as normal human emotion is subject to ebb and flow, so too must the product that emanates from your radio speakers.  As a rule, most music-formatted stations including Sunny 92.3 try to seek a balance in the tempo, texture, mood, and era.  As such, we pay particular attention to trying not to play too many fast songs or slow songs in a row, or too many loud songs or soft songs in a row, or too many happy songs or sad songs in a row.  Era, of course varies from station to station.  Across the hall from Sunny 92.3, our sister station, Hits 96, caters to a younger audience.  Era for Sunny’s audience is represented by cultural markers greatly affecting the music industry such as the emergence of MTV in the 80s, or meteoric rise of Nirvana’s Nevermind album in the 90s.  For the Hits audience, a separate era can be represented by the previous school year.  The point is that a good mix of era is an essential part of successful music programming.  


Through the years, era for radio songs has become generally categorized as currents, recurrents, oldies, and nostalgia.  Currents are the current hits of the day, and on Sunny 92.3 it is not uncommon for a song to remain in the current category for the better part of a year.  Recurrents are songs that were recently current hits, however not yet ready to be categorized as oldies.  For Hits 96, that may be six months or a year, but for Sunny 92.3 some songs remain recurrents for 2 or 3 years.   For listeners of Hits 96, anything more than a year old is an oldie and, for much of the audience, anything more than 5 years old is either too old for them to remember, or has lost all cultural relevance.  Therefore most oldies on Hits 96 fall within that span.  On Sunny 92.3, the oldies category runs much deeper into the past and is further divided into sub-eras, separated by cultural markers as referenced in the previous paragraph.  Nostalgia is generally made up of songs that were current hits during a time most in the audience are too young to remember.  These songs are, nonetheless, familiar to most listeners.  For example, on the day I was born, Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis was the number one song on the USA pop charts.  I don’t remember hearing it back then, but it is hardly an unfamiliar song to me.  Even Hits 96 employs nostalgia from time to time with their Throwback Weekends featuring many songs from the 90s.


Over the years I’ve watched as the songs I remember as the soundtrack to my Glory Days have passed through the different oldies categories.  Songs that represent the politics of the high school parking lot to me already represent nostalgia to many in Sunny 92.3’s listening audience.  Passing time and memories that spark our emotions are nothing new.  However, as we mark the passing of time with emotional memories of songs we grew up listening to, we may also be witnessing the fading into history of the era that gave rise to music formatted radio and the “oh wow” song.  The era created in-part by those two old friends who grew up together, the car and the radio.   If you’ve been to a new car dealership recently and taken a seat behind the wheel of a new model, you’ve no doubt noticed a touch screen in the place where the now dinosaur-like radio dial had become perennially entrenched.  The AM and FM bands are still there, but now they are joined by access to satellite radio as well as online streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify.


However, the apparent passing of radio’s dominance in the dashboard is only half the story.  Earlier I pointed out the shared experience of suburban bred individuals of my generation.  Most of us grew up with two cars in the garage.  When Henry Ford began cranking out Model Ts, few women worked outside the household, and a visit to a grocery or dry goods store often involved the entire family.  The proliferation of cars and roads built to accommodate those cars became part of a changing landscape in which mom and dad each needed a car to drive to work, as well as to make shopping trips for their respective roles in household upkeep.  Mom took her car to the grocery store and dad took his car to the hardware store.  Now, the technology that is crowding radio’s place in the dashboard, is also working to restructure that shared suburban existence that so shaped our generation and helped to force stereotypical gender roles on our parents.  Moms and dads today may no longer need to drive to work every day because they are telecommuters.  They may no longer drive to brick and mortar retail outlets in favor of shopping online, perhaps with purchases delivered to their doorstep by a drone.   Need proof that things are changing?  Drive through north Chattanooga and count the number of young families, or make a note of how finding a parking spot at a shopping mall, except perhaps one near a food court entrance, is rarely a problem anymore.


Of course, as many of you know from my traffic reports each weekday afternoon between 3 and 6, we are far from seeing a wholesale disappearance of cars from our highways.  However, just as my grandparents, graduating approximately one hundred years ago, likely never experienced the politics of the high school parking lot, my grandchildren’s only reference to an “oh wow” song may be if they Google their grandfather (or whatever a search will be called then) and the text of this blog appears.


Categories: Robin Daniels