It’s the time of year for Christmas music, and it’s difficult to find any concert during December that does not, in some way, relate to the season, from performances of Handel’s Messiah and The Nutcracker to performances of pop holiday standards. Radio stations follow suit, with some stations going to nonstop Christmas music starting in November.
But it wasn’t always this way, at least as far as Christmas music on the radio goes–and that brought me to reconsider the background music of my childhood, where, each year, sometime not long after US Thanksgiving, we’d inevitably hear the first “song of the season”–sometimes more than one–tossed into one of the quarter-hour-long uninterrupted music segments on the local “Beautiful Music” station. Sometimes, we’d be lucky enough to hear it while decorating the tree or baking cookies. Gradually, through December, the frequency of the Christmas songs would increase, until, on Christmas Eve, the entire day was given over to Christmas tunes. Outside of church and commercials, this was usually the only Christmas music I remember hearing in the 70s.
The 70s were, at least in the US, the age of “Beautiful Music.” This radio format was a close cousin of Muzak, the commercial service that department stores and dentist offices subscribed to–the stereotypical “elevator music.” And it was massively popular. In Columbus, the Dispatch would, on a monthly basis, print the local radio ratings, and for many, many years, at or near the top was not a top-40 station, but something playing what was often characterized as “music to do housework by.” At first, there were two stations, 96.3 and 97.1, adjacent to each other on the FM dial, and nearly indistinguishable–at least until February 14, 1977 when one of them, 96.3, changed their format to album-oriented rock and became the mighty Q-FM-96. I think we actually had it on in the house the day this happened–my mom loved the format, and the radio in the kitchen was always tuned to it. I remember being very confused–I hadn’t yet developed a liking for the rock music Q-FM played. In fact, there were songs on the “Beautiful Music” station that I loved and looked forward to, even though I didn’t know their names. (Still don’t.) And that was, in some ways, the point. The songs the station played were often wordless, lushly orchestrated versions of pop or big band hits of the past, along with some soundtrack music. Because of this orchestration, it was sometimes confused with classical music. Sometimes hits from Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis or Percy Faith might be added in to the flow. A key feature of the format was its breakdown into fifteen minute blocks, with minimal, low-key commercials during the breaks. There were no DJs, and titles of the songs were often not even mentioned. “All music, all the time” was the slogan for one of Columbus’ Beautiful Music stations.
Sometime in the 90s, without fanfare, Beautiful Music slipped from the airwaves of the US as a viable radio format. I (and even my parents) had long abandoned it. So what was this format, and why was it so popular? What happened to it?
When radio became ubiquitous in the 1940s, radio stations tended not to have a “format” as we think of it today. Stations were more like TV stations, with a mix of programming at different times of the day. It became common to program light classics and orchestrated dance band music around the evening (cocktail) hours and late at night. The focus was decidedly highbrow, with the music often termed “thinking man’s music” or “music to read by” or “good music.” In the 50s, FM radio, which could transmit in stereo, began to open up possibilities for broadcasting “high fidelity” music. The FM frequencies were often used at first by private, in-house music services at department stores to transmit background music, and eventually the idea that these bands could work for commercial music as well began to evolve. The AM bands were increasingly dominated by pop/Top 40 music. Music with a full orchestra was still very popular in the 50s, and so radio stations specializing it, particularly FM radio stations, began to pop up.
The “Beautiful Music” format evolved out of this in the Sixties. The real pioneer seems to have been a man named Jim Schulke, whose company (SRP) developed a tightly-controlled, focused format that it then sold to various stations. This is where the 15-minute block that I was familiar with came in. Schulke’s proprietary system was known as “matched flow”, and it was allegedly almost addictive in its ability to retain listeners. The 15-minute blocks often started off with an upbeat tune, then something piano-based, followed by a climactic “big” number, and concluding with something to gently take the listener into the commercial break. There were also arcs to the music during the day, with the most upbeat segment being in the prime “housewife time” from 10 am – 3 pm–the idea being to keep listeners tuned in through this entire period. Evening music was more relaxing. There could only be six minutes of ads per hour, and they were broadcast with the volume dropped considerably. The ads often featured a deep male voice, judged to be most appealing to women (who became the target demographic for these stations). There were a variety of arcane, pseudo-scientific rules to follow as to how the music was broadcast, but one hallmark were the huge, automated reels of highly-proprietary taped music these stations used. Other services sprang up to present their versions of the format, notably Bonneville Broadcasting and Century Broadcasting. The latter addressed an issue with SRS in that regular listeners soon found the station repetitive because the same blocks of four or five songs would always appear together; Century found a way to randomize the selection of songs in the 15 minute blocks. Some of the more popular artists included Mantovani, Andre Kostelanetz, the Living Strings, the 101 Strings, and Bert Kaempfert, although the names and artists of songs were not always given (and never were by SRP).
By the late 70s, with the format booming, independent Beautiful Music stations began to appear. This is the era where, in Columbus, Beautiful Music stations dominated the ratings. I wasn’t able to determine which service (if any) Columbus’ stations used, but I am almost certain at least one of them used SRP because of all the hallmarks mentioned above–the repetitive blocks of music, the ads with lowered volume. I do remember that the two stations were a little bit different, and I suspect that WTVN-FM was a true Beautiful Music station right up to the day it rebranded as WLVQ, with WBNS-FM evolving into an “Easy Listening” station. (The Wikipedia article on the latter mentions they adopted this format in 1979.) “All Music, all the time” was a slogan used by other Schulke stations, so whichever one it was, it’s fairly clear that one of Columbus’ stations used SRP.
The “Easy Listening” format was closely related to the Beautiful Music format, but tended to rely more and more on contemporary vocal tracks, especially into the 1980s. (Beautiful Music generally had at least a 3:1 instrumental:vocal ratio). As this format evolved into what we know as Adult Contemporary (and eventually, Soft or Lite Rock), stations that used it generally moved away from the prerecorded “flow” approach and into a more traditional format with announcers and more commercials. As the demographic that listened to it aged, the largely instrumental Beautiful Music format declined. In many cases, country format stations, until then largely relegated to AM, began to replace the remaining Beautiful Music stations. By the mid-90s, the format was moribund. Today there are still quite a few stations playing Smooth Jazz, in many ways a spiritual successor to Beautiful Music. The format is not completely gone, however–a few independent stations hang on in retiree-heavy areas, and it lives on in the Escape channel on Sirius XM.
Fans of the iconic TV show WKRP in Cinncinnati may remember that the show begins with an abrupt format change from an easy listening or Beautiful Music format to straight-up rock. These sudden format changes were not uncommon in the late 70s and early 80s. I mentioned earlier that Columbus’ Q-FM-96 did precisely this kind of switch, when what had been WTVN-FM became WLVQ. I sometimes wonder whether the choice of Cincinnati as a locale for WKRP had any connection with the Q-FM format switch or whether it was just pointing out a general trend. In any case, WKRP (which premiered 18 months after Q-FM’s debut) always rang particularly true to me because of its parallels with Q-FM.
Like a lot of things from my childhood, I now look back on this music I came to loathe (except at Christmastime) with a great deal of nostalgia. Just hearing it reminds me of my parents’ old stereo with its 8-track player, of avocado green appliances and sculptured shag carpets, and one of the first soundtracks of my life.
For those of you who want to experience a blast from the past, here’s a full hour-long aircheck from WWSH-FM in 1976. Enjoy the marimbas and bongos and lush strings of mid-70s Middle of the Road premium cheeze. One of the few remaining Beautiful Music stations now broadcasts on the internet at www.jonescollegeradio.org