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Spurned by Radio, Boomers Find Music in New Places

(The Listener column from Sunday Arts--with an online-only postscript below....)

First the standards vanished from radio, as stations that played lots of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald went dark. Then over the past couple of years, the oldies format collapsed, and suddenly the sounds of Motown, Elvis and the Beach Boys were hard to find on the radio. Now, even classic rock stations are starting to feel the pressure, as commercial radio strains to find ways to connect with younger listeners who find most of their music online.

But while big radio and TV companies join with the advertising industry in chasing after the 18-to-34-year-old crowd, the music that appeals to pop culture's increasingly forgotten demographic -- the boomers -- is starting to appear in all sorts of odd places.

Paul McCartney put his new album up for sale at Starbucks. James Taylor launched his latest CD in Hallmark shops. Sirius satellite radio cut a deal with Nancy Sinatra and retooled its standards channel as "Siriusly Sinatra." XM satellite radio responded by bringing on board Deana Martin, daughter of Dean, to host a program of Vegas Rat Pack hits on the service's '50s channel.

Now, AARP -- the organization whose membership invitations deliver a shock of "You're old!" to boomers the moment they turn 50 -- is turning into a radio programmer and concert promoter, sponsoring a Tony Bennett national tour, shows with Rod Stewart and Earth, Wind and Fire, and a radio service designed to do what commercial radio won't: Recognize that the fastest-growing market for the music industry is people ages 45 and older.

"We're not done writing our soundtrack yet," says Emilio Pardo, chief brand officer at AARP headquarters in the District. "Our membership -- the boomers -- are looking for options. We're at a stage where we want to experience new music and share our music with our kids and grandkids."

Unlike teenagers, who are more likely to download music, often illegally, boomers still buy lots of CDs. At Amazon.com, the five best-selling artists in the online merchant's history are the Beatles, U2, Norah Jones, Johnny Cash and Diana Krall. The top five sellers last year included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Andrea Bocelli -- all staples of the boomer crowd.

AARP is eager to hook into the boomers' passion for music to establish itself as something more than a lobby for the Geritol generation.

"We're constantly barraged by talk of the prime demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds, and it's like nobody else matters," says Steve Mencher, senior producer of digital media for AARP. Mencher, who earlier in his career worked at National Public Radio, creates programming to challenge the assumption in American business that only teenagers and 20-somethings are still discovering new passions and are still open to new brand loyalties.

So AARP produces daily radio features on "Music for Grownups" -- a recent show included a Nashville funk band called the Dynamites, a Nordic jazz trio, blues singer Marva Wright and the inevitable Frankie Valli. There's also a talk show called "Movies for Grownups," which consists of features and reviews about flicks of interest to people 50 and older.

"Despite Hollywood's infatuation with youth, half of movie tickets are bought by people over 30," says the show's Web site. The show -- which can be heard online at http://radioprimetime.org, or on many public stations (which receive the programs without charge) -- has recently included features on Robert Duvall, John Wayne, Ozzie and Harriet and the old "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" TV soap.

But although the book and magazine industries have come to accept that it's the older generation that keeps them afloat, radio and TV continue to resist the idea that there's merit or profits to be found in appealing to older audiences.

AARP is happy to address "the frustration that there's not enough choices on the radio," Pardo says. The organization is finding that its 39 million members are eager for programming they can tap into through the latest technologies. AARP is podcasting, Web streaming and even offering a branded version of Pandora.com, the online music service that deploys recommendation algorithms to suggest tunes based on preferences you plug into the computer. Pardo says one of the most frequently visited areas on its Web site is the online games section. And Mencher says that AARP's next wave of audio programming will be "user-created media a la YouTube."

Although AARP's radio programs are available without fees or advertising, the organization is not above selling tickets, and it plans to expand its concert offerings beyond the annual membership meetings where Elton John, Bill Cosby and Jose Feliciano have played. Inspired by the success of Bennett's sold-out, 20-city tour, Pardo says the group is looking to stage concerts around the country.

Meanwhile, back on commercial radio, industry analyst Sean Ross says he's seeing tentative signs of rebirth for oldies. Even as the format is dropped in some cities, there's some evidence that the growing desperation over the young generation's turn from broadcast radio is prompting some companies to look anew at oldies.

In Minneapolis, a rock station switched over to a "Greatest Songs of All Time" format, playing Bobby Darin, the Supremes, the Mamas and the Papas and the Temptations. And ratings for surviving oldies stations on Long Island and in cities such as Chicago and Dallas have suddenly surged.

"If you're a serious '50s or '60s fan," Ross says, "you're probably going to be happier with what you find through streaming or on satellite radio. But it's still good news for a format that broadcasters might have banished entirely this year."

ONLINE-ONLY POSTSCRIPT:

New York's WCBS-FM, a pioneering oldies station that won respectability for the format in the early years of FM radio's popularity but then killed the format two years ago to chase after younger listeners, is expected to return to oldies in the next few days.

The New York Times reports that the oldies format is suddenly more attractive to the station's owners because the format that was put in its place turned out to be so sterile and so lacking in distinctiveness compared to what's available on the web that younger listeners just didn't tune in. Older listeners are more loyal and more accustomed to relying on radio. But the new version of CBS-FM is likely to focus more on 70s and 80s hits than on the 50s and 60s sounds that made the station a mainstay of New York life for more than three decades.

By Marc Fisher |  July 7, 2007; 8:47 PM ET
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Comments

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er, "pop culture's increasingly forgotten demographic -- the boomers"? HA! i mean, i respectfully chuckle over most of that statement. why? please indulge this chronically short-changed "Xer" (now *there's* a forgotten demographic!) a bit of a mini-rant ...

... for, being born in 1971 & therefore raised on a pablum of virtually inescapable (& i mean that literally, for there was no "online" music "downloading" to save me back in the dark ages of the 80s & 90s) boomer autonostalgia, i must finally plead: isn't it about time you all left the dancefloor, moms & dads? (& stepmoms & stepdads?!)

no? well, your own article reinforces my point, toward the end, with this quote about WCBS (emphasis added): "... the 50s and 60s sounds that made the station a mainstay of New York life FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES." three! yes, that is but one example of a generation - in this case the bumptious baby boomers - getting more than its fair share of media attention - in this case dedicated radio formats - for just about my entire. freakin. life.

that said, my "generation" (and btw thank you, demographers, for giving us so-called gen-Xers all of a decade, at very most, during which the media - when it noticed us at all - portrayed us as either bungee-jumping hipsters making easy money at internet start-ups, or basement-dwelling slackers making no money at crap jobs *on purpose*) and yours can make common cause on at least one thing: the overall suckage of a culture being (yes) increasingly dumbed-down for today's totally over-catered-to youth. harumph!

ok, i am now officially old. peace out. ;-)

Posted by: radiofreenova | July 8, 2007 5:11 AM

I laughed at this article until I realized I wasn't reading The Onion -- for all the boomers, that's the equivalent of the old National Lampoon magazine if it were online and if it were funny. The only bright spot was reading the comment by "radiofreenova." Mom, Dad, please do indeed retire from the dancefloor.

Posted by: Sherrodzilla | July 8, 2007 8:06 PM

Between 80 and 95 percent of the music that is recorded and marketed in any period is DREK. This observation applies to popular music of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
Give me a LIVE band any day, regardless of the genre, style or periodicity of its music.

Take it from an AARP Old Fart.

Posted by: Mister Methane | July 8, 2007 11:32 PM

Can anyone speak to the unprecedented powers this new school system is getting? I heard Lew will not have to go through DC Procurment. I cannot see him spending the $1 billion any other way, but if DCPS had such privilege it would not be in such a situation.

Posted by: RobGreg | July 9, 2007 10:29 AM

I love oldies, but really, who wasn't tired of people being told that the best TV was from the 1950s and the Simpsons, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The Office, and modern shows don't live up to Lucy? I remember a boss once telling me that Nirvana owed everything to Jimi Hendrix. They sounded NOTHING like Jimi Hendrix, not remotely. No, the Baby Boomers are like the old boys network in the south- continually trying to steal what isn't theirs and complaining that it was all better before.

Posted by: DCer | July 10, 2007 11:39 AM

Choices will be further restricted when Internet radio stations go dark in a few days because of RIAA straitjacketing and usury! Crush the usurpation of music! Duke lacrosse rapists! Perverted Republican congressmen with free Internet! Yeagh!

Posted by: No more music | July 10, 2007 12:48 PM

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