For the past week, I’ve been trying to bring something back from the dead. Specifically, a Nashville radio station called Oldies 96.3 that doesn’t exist anymore, and hasn’t for a long time.
It all started last weekend when friends sent me a link to a data project from The Pudding about generational gaps in music knowledge. On the site, you pick your birth year and listen to snippets of songs from different decades, ranking them on a scale from “don’t know it” to “singing the lyrics.”
Unsurprisingly, the songs your generation considers ubiquitous, another generation might never have heard. Case in point: Apparently Gen Z is not so familiar with Hey Ya! by Outkast. I choose to believe this is because they’re newer to the planet and when they do hear it, they’ll indeed feel compelled to shake it like a Polaroid picture.
As for me, I sat on my phone plowing through the ’60s quiz and thinking about how badly I could skew the data as a random ’80s baby with the same frame of reference as the class of 1967. And It got me thinking about why that is.
Perhaps it was because no one told me about Pavement or explained what a Radiohead was, but in the ’90s I listened almost exclusively to Oldies 96.3, which primarily played the most radio-friendly AM hits from roughly 1962 to 1972. I thought music had peaked with the harmonies of The Association and the falsetto of Frankie Valli.
It was Motown forever and ever, amen.
Except not. Now, if I wanted to tap into that exact collection of songs — Love Potion Number 9 by the Searchers, Wild Thing by the Troggs, Carrie Anne by the Hollies — where would I find those? I can tune in to Louisville’s local oldies station, WAKY, but 20 years later the parameters for oldies have changed and the older tunes have been lopped off rotation. And if I pull up a playlist of “’60s music” on Spotify, the algorithm doesn’t understand that the confectionary Daydream Believer by the Monkees might not have even shared the same frequency as Revolution 9 by The Beatles. No AM pop jock was playing an eight-minute cut from side four of an album.
I know this because my dad was a disc jockey in the ’60s and ’70s who sported a respectable set of sideburns and amassed a massive record collection that’s followed us to at least five states. He taught tiny-elementary-school me these important lessons. Over the years, he’s made sure I know practical things like how to write a cover letter, but also that Alex Chilton was only 16 when he recorded The Letter with the Box Tops.
My solution? I got my father on Skype and started a Spotify playlist with every song we could think of that would’ve been on Oldies 96.3 and that we could remember hearing.
In short, I was determined to Frankenstein this station back to life.
And then there was 5 O’Clock World by the Vogues. My love. In modern parlance, it is a bop. It’s an airtight two-and-a-half-minute anthem for working stiffs that leads you to visions of throwing all the papers on your desk in the air, grabbing your car keys and exiting the office in a series of twirls and high kicks.
Spotify’s algorithm even stepped up, offering Elenore by the Turtles and 96 Tears by ? and the Mysterians, even if it was still trying to suggest more recent artists like Journey and Billy Idol. Tapping Add to Playlist, I could see a shape forming — more than eight hours of music that I absolutely heard sitting in the car on the way to school every morning for years.
And that’s a cool little wormhole only tech can open up, right? It was first a 100-year-old technology, a radio, that let me develop an intense affection for a time I never lived through, and then a streaming service that let me return to yet another bygone era already 20 years past.
This playlist is a triple stack of nostalgia that logically should collapse in on itself.
These songs were never mine. I never cruised on a Friday night in a boat-size car with fins. I’ve never used a jukebox. I never went to a sock hop. Far from it. My high school dances showcased Lean Back by Terror Squad and Sugar We’re Going Down by Fall Out Boy.
The oldies were magic, though, and I could recapture that magic with some bandwidth and the right amount of memory power.
Now, there are some notable differences in my version of Oldies 96.3. For one, there are no disc jockeys — no Coyote McCloud on the morning drive. There are no commercials for jewelry stores and call-in giveaways. No news on the hour to remind you that Clinton is in office and that somebody’s trying to put on — ugh — another Woodstock revival.
Admittedly, that’s where I can see the stitches in my revivified creation. I’m reminded how there came a day when, standing in the CD section of a Media Play with my dad, he wisely implored me to buy something generationally appropriate.
Of course, I’m still using Spotify to dig in to the past. I can listen to The Talking Heads, Warren Zevon and Joni Mitchell whenever I want, but it’s without the benevolent guidance of a disembodied voice in a studio somewhere dropping in release years and band factoids amid the weather reports and station IDs.
My dad, the former radio disc jockey himself, has a wonderfully wistful idea that maybe somewhere out there, lost signals from radio broadcasts of the past are still ricocheting around the ether. Maybe if you had the right receiver, you could tune in to this perfectly preserved moment in time — the voices, the music long gone but still playing like it did when it first came out of a transistor radio hidden beneath a bed sheet decades ago.
I often wish I had a little magic radio that could pick up those signals. I could dial back to the summer of ’68. Or even the summer of ’03 to catch that first wave of modern Top 40 pop that washed over me, right before high school.
Instead, I have a playlist that’s the best facsimile possible, and the best attempt at preserving this window on the ’90s, on the ’60s, that I can manage. Perhaps, I can make something that’ll squeak through the seemingly inevitable generational fade-out.
Algorithms aren’t amber. But thanks to some code, and the convenience of having a dad like mine, I can pretend that a piece of both of our pasts, not to mention 5 O’Clock World, is still on the airwaves.
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