SSAR: What music sticks around on Oldies and Classic Rock stations?


In the previous installment I analyzed what I called contemporary radio: Top 40, Hot Adult Contemporary, and Modern Rock stations. Those stations play older songs with an exponentially decaying frequency, to the point where songs from just two years ago almost never get played. But now we look at the other end of the spectrum, stations that only play old songs: oldies and classic rock stations.

The three stations sampled were:

  • K-EARTH 101 LA (oldies)
  • WNCX (Cincinatti’s classic rock)
  • K-Hits Chicago (classic hits)

As before, I recorded every song play during the year and when the record played (day and time), including repeats.

Below is shown how many song plays (counting repeats) that the stations play for each year.

Each station has a maximum at 1976-1978. Both the classic hits station (KHITS) and oldies station (K-EARTH) have another local maximum in 1983, a particularly good year in music. The top hits were Every Breath You Take, Billie Jean, Flashdance, Down Under, Beat It, Total Eclipse of the Heart, Maneater, Baby, Come to Me, Maniac, and Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), all songs which are still played regularly and most of which are certified classics. By contrast, the hits of 1978 were mainly disco (the Bee Gees made 5 out of 10 of the top songs that year).

The classic rock station has a few songs in the 1990s, up until 1992. The other stations more or less stop short of the 1990s. This has certainly shifted since I was a kid. K-EARTH used to play songs going back to Elvis, with a maximum around the time of Motown, tailing into the 1970s. In the intervening 15 years, the mean moved roughly with the times. This means that songs from before 1960 are all but gone from the radio.

Encompassing a much larger time period, it’s logical that all these stations have a much more diverse playlist than a contemporary station, though it’s still not nearly as large as you’d think. 50% of airplays on KHITS are the same 174 songs. For K-Earth it’s 215 songs, and WNCX classic rock 193 songs. At the 90% level, the numbers range from 590 for oldies to 455 songs for classic hits. Again, I would suggest that many people have as many or more songs on their iPods than 90% of what a radio station plays during a year.

% of
all plays
Oldies Classic Hits Classic Rock
50% 215 174 193
90% 590 455 556
100% 1352 1090 1716

Classic rock suffers from a phenomenon that, although they play a lot of good songs throughout the year, the songs they play the most often are just objectively terrible. The #1 song on WNCX was Electric Light Orchestra’s “Do Ya“, a song that haunts my nightmares, which is played basically every day. The same is true of Triumph’s “Lay It on the Line”, Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, Heart’s “Magic Man”, and Steve Miller Band’s “Take the Money and Run”.

Click here to see the Top played songs on Classic Rock
Song % of total plays
Electric Light Orchestra – Do Ya 0.370
REO Speedwagon – Roll with the Changes 0.738
AC/DC – T.N.T 1.106
Triumph – Lay It on the Line 1.469
Boston – More Than a Feeling 1.829
Heart – Magic Man 2.184
Aerosmith – Back in the Saddle 2.538
Thin Lizzy – The Boys Are Back in Town 2.892
Steve Miller Band – Take the Money and Run 3.246
Cars – Just What I Needed 3.601
Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing 3.953
Foreigner – Cold As Ice 4.303
Rick Derringer – Rock N’ Roll Hoochie Koo 4.652
Eddie Money – Two Tickets to Paradise 4.999
Heart – Crazy on You 5.346
Aerosmith – Sweet Emotion 5.694
Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper 6.040
Sweet – Ballroom Blitz 6.383
Nazareth – Hair of the Dog 6.726
Foreigner – Feels Like the First Time 7.068

The classic hits station had similar issues, playing Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light”, Supertramp’s Logical Song, and Toto’s “Hold the Line” more than once per day each.

Click here to see the Top played songs on Classic Hits
Song % of total plays (cumulative)
Four Seasons – December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) 0.441
Manfred Mann – Blinded by the Light 0.851
Chicago – Saturday in the Park 1.254
Modern English – I Melt with You 1.648
Supertramp – Logical Song 2.041
Daryl Hall and John Oates – Rich Girl 2.432
Cars – Let’s Go 2.814
OMD – If You Leave 3.192
Toto – Hold the Line 3.568
Stray Cats – Rock This Town 3.942
Simple Minds – Don’t You (Forget About Me) 4.316
Billy Joel – Big Shot 4.686
Huey Lewis and the News – Heart of Rock & Roll 5.055
Electric Light Orchestra – Don’t Bring Me Down 5.423
Foreigner – Feels Like the First Time 5.788
Billy Joel – Only the Good Die Young 6.152
Billy Joel – My Life 6.514
Supertramp – Goodbye Stranger 6.876
Supertramp – Give a Little Bit 7.236
Men At Work – Down Under 7.595

Finally, the oldies station plays Frankie Valli’s “Grease” more than any other song by a comfortable margin. “Play that Funky Music”, “Baby Hold On”, and “Give a Little Bit” all are played about once a day, as is, again, “Blinded by the Light”.

Click here to see the Top played songs on Oldies
Song % of total plays (cumulative)
Frankie Valli – Grease 0.525
America – Sister Golden Hair 0.949
Billy Joel – My Life 1.357
Three Dog Night – Joy to the World 1.760
Wild Cherry – Play That Funky Music 2.147
Earth, Wind and Fire – Fantasy 2.514
Fleetwood Mac – You Make Loving Fun 2.878
Eddie Money – Baby Hold On 3.243
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – Blinded by the Light 3.600
Earth, Wind and Fire – September 3.952
Supertramp – Give a Little Bit 4.302
Ace – How Long 4.649
Steve Miller Band – Rock’n Me 4.996
Doobie Brothers, The – Black Water 5.343
Bob Seger – Old Time Rock & Roll 5.688
Stevie Wonder – I Wish 6.029
Looking Glass – Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) 6.367
Jackson Browne – Running on Empty 6.700
O’Jays, The – Love Train 7.032
Stevie Wonder – Isn’t She Lovely 7.360

The lists of top played artists is somewhat more respectable, if not exactly surprising. 10% of all music played on the oldies station K-EARTH was by the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. Half of all music on that oldies station was by the same 53 artists.

Click here to see the Top played artists on Oldies
Artist % of total plays (cumulative)
The Beatles 3.430
Fleetwood Mac 5.566
Stevie Wonder 7.568
Elton John 9.381
Earth, Wind and Fire 11.113
Michael Jackson 12.806
Doobie Brothers 14.275
The Rolling Stones 15.744
Billy Joel 17.113
Marvin Gaye 18.450
Supremes 19.731
Eagles 21.004
Steve Miller Band 22.253
Daryl Hall and John Oates 23.469
Chicago 24.677
Rod Stewart 25.706
Queen 26.734
Creedence Clearwater Revival 27.711
America 28.663
Four Tops 29.526

On the classic hits station KHITS, The Beatles also reigned supreme, with 10% of all music played on that station by them, Billy Joel, Elton John, The Eagles, and the Rolling Stones. Half of all music was by just 43 artists.

Click here to see the Top played artists on Classic Hits
Artist % of total plays (cumulative)
The Beatles 3.303
Billy Joel 5.533
Elton John 7.634
Eagles 9.721
Rolling Stones 11.777
Foreigner 13.722
Journey 15.452
Queen 17.090
Cars 18.622
Fleetwood Mac 20.014
Police, The 21.291
Eddie Money 22.529
Pat Benatar 23.701
Supertramp 24.865
Huey Lewis and the News 26.020
Styx 27.170
Bob Seger 28.311
REO Speedwagon 29.434
Blondie 30.498
Genesis 31.546

Finally, the classic rock station, WNCX: the top played band on that station was Led Zeppelin, followed by the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, who make up 10% of all music played on the station. The Beatles rank only at #24 on this station, perhaps because they are considered too soft. 50% of all songs are by the same 24 artists, which isn’t all that much better than contemporary radio.

Click here to see the Top played artists on Classic Rock
Artist % of total plays (cumulative)
Led Zeppelin 4.439
Rolling Stones, The 8.025
Pink Floyd 11.606
Van Halen 14.794
AC/DC 17.829
Aerosmith 20.424
Tom Petty / and the Heartbreakers 22.803
Who, The 25.046
Lynyrd Skynyrd 27.143
Foreigner 28.985
Journey 30.744
Bad Company 32.497
Rush 34.210
Cars, The 35.877
Queen 37.497
Def Leppard 39.077
Creedence Clearwater Revival 40.622
Doors, The 42.148
Bob Seger 43.643
ZZ Top 45.125

Here is a summary of the number of artists that make up the songs played on these stations:

% of plays Oldies Class. Hits Class. Rock
50% 53 43 24
90% 227 179 107
100% 625 464 329

So what distinguishes these stations? The sets of songs are represented in a Venn diagram below. You can hover over regions to see the most played songs in each segment. Note that the numbers and sizes in the diagram represent unique songs, not counting frequency of playing.

Oldies and Classic Hits are quite similar, but Classic Rock has a very large number of songs that aren’t played on either oldies or classic hits stations. However, this is diminished by the fact that they play Crocodile Rock every f**cking day.

This is far from the last word on this topic. For one, why are these the songs that endured? Every single year has a list of at least 100 songs that were extremely popular, but the number from any one year is a fraction of that. Why is The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” from 1983 played constantly but not “Shame on the Moon” by Bob Seger, which is never played? They were both huge hits in the same year, both by popular artists who have many other songs on the radio. But one endured while the other didn’t. How come?

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