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Taking care of a graying audience of music lovers

As commercial radio chases after the young set, AARP and others look after the boomers.

July 13, 2007|Marc Fisher | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — First the standards vanished from radio, as stations playing 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 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 the advertising industry in chasing after the 18-to-34 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, Dean's daughter, to host a program of 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 reach 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 meant to recognize that the fastest-growing market for the music industry is 45 and older.

"We're not done writing our soundtrack yet," says Emilio Pardo, chief brand officer at AARP headquarters in Washington. "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.

"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 twentysomethings are still discovering new passions and 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, "Movies for Grownups," with features and reviews of 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 website. The show can be heard online at www.radioprimetime.org and on many public stations (which receive the programs without charge). Recent subjects have included Robert Duvall, John Wayne and the old "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" TV soap.

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 evidence that growing desperation over the young generation's turn from broadcast radio is making some companies reconsider oldies.

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

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