Screams vibrate off the purple twists of “The Great Nor’easter” roller coaster. Sirens screech as a water-gun-game operator pronounces “We have a winner.” And multiple times per hour, the anthem: “Those wild, wild, ‘Wildwood Days.’ ...“ Those endless ad loops from ice cream shops: “We’ve got some great flavors. ...” The mostly dreaded and occasionally celebrated: “Watch the tram car, please.”
Wildwood’s boardwalk is sensory overload. Sights and sounds that merge into an aesthetic. ... Or mood, or vibe, or whatever it’s called today.
And then there’s the music. In the Wildwoods — which claims to be the real home of rock ‘n’ roll considering it’s where the Comets first played the genre’s original No.1 Billboard hit “Rock Around the Clock” — it’s impossible to escape. Especially on the boardwalk. Playlists of modern tunes blare from body-piercing outlets and T-shirt shops. And it’s a toss up at the game booths.
“It’s ‘90s alternative today,” said Natalie Caterini, after scrolling for an appropriate Spotify playlist to blast from inside Foul Shot basketball game, set between Magnolia and Poplar Avenues. “I can do ‘90s, because that’s what I grew up on. The new stuff is horrible.”
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Occasionally music blares from the overhead speakers strapped atop more than 100 poles along the beach side of the boards, which are controlled by the local-business-funded Wildwoods Boardwalk Special Improvement District (SID).
The roughly $100,000 sound system was installed more than a decade ago, and soon it will need a complete overhaul, said SID executive director and North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello. Over the last few weeks, saltwater damage to the fiberoptic cables that run under the boards has caused some speakers south of Mariner’s Pier to malfunction just as the summer season wraps up.
So, how does the system work? And who’s in charge of the Wildwood boardwalk playlist?
“It’s not as easy as people think,” Rosenello said. “It’s not like I’m plugging my iPhone in and hitting play.”
Hand to heart
The Wildwood Boardwalk playlist starts around Mother’s Day and ends around Columbus Day. In between, it starts at 11 a.m., sharp, every summer day, with the national anthem. It’s followed by Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America,” and then the Wildwoods anthem: Bobby Rydell’s classic, “Wildwood Days.”
Once or twice an hour are “fun facts,” historical notes written by the Wildwood Historical Society and recorded by Coastal Broadcasting Systems, which runs 98.7 The Coast WCZT and 106.3 The Rock Alternative WJSE.
The notes pertain to the different performers that have played the Wildwoods, followed by their famous songs: Bill Haley and the Comets classic “Rock Around the Clock;” Chubby Checker’s famous “The Twist;” The Turbans “When You Dance,” which coined the phrase “doo wop.”
That term, which stems from the background choruses of so many 1950s pop tunes, has come to encapsulate everything from the time period to the town’s unique style of architecture.
The fun facts are interspersed between smoking warnings and bike-use announcements, and about six times an hour, visitors are treated to the intro to “Wildwood Days” as part of a never-ending branding exercise.
“That’s our captive audience on that beach and boardwalk,” said Robert J Maschio, president of Coastal Broadcasting Systems, which has programmed the Wildwood boardwalk playlist for the last decade as laid out by the SID. “Audio, no matter how you look at things, is one of the biggest components of any type of marketing.”
Rosenello said the SID, which functions similarly to Philadelphia’s Center City District, has gotten pushback from visitors, residents, and businesses on how often and when the speakers play the boardwalk playlist.
And so far, the SID has not discussed any programming changes since it’s still working on the system’s physical upgrade.
“Our thought is that the new system will allow us more flexibility and be able to use the system more to enhance the boardwalk experience without overwhelming that experience,” Rosenello said. “We want to play it enough to be informative and provide an atmosphere and branding. And we also don’t want to drown out the boardwalk.”
The 36-block, 1.8 mile-long boardwalk runs between North Wildwood and Wildwood proper, but the two towns didn’t always work together.
Roughly a decade ago, the towns had separate, manual sound systems.
“It started as a record player,” Rosenello said. “They would play a song over the speakers, and to make announcements, they had a microphone like an old school P.A. system.”
Then the towns became more sophisticated with its fireworks displays, held every Friday night and on July 4th during the summer.
“It originally started as background music for the fireworks,” Rosenello said. “And then we could synchronize the fireworks with the music.”
Then they realized this system could be used for more than just background music on one night a week, which led to more programming: daily announcements, on-brand music, and opportunities to offer a sense of place.
‘We’re not Disney World’
As the sound system evolved into what we hear today, some lessons were apparent.
“We learned that you can’t have the same volume at 10 o’clock in the morning that you can at 10 o’clock at night,” Rosenello said.
Former Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. said he wanted to put background music on the boardwalk to make it feel more like Disney World. You know, pump up the boards with positive summer tunes at a low volume.
“I always thought it was interesting when you go to Disney, there’s always that happy music playing in the background,” he said. “It always gives you that festive feeling that you’re somewhere special.”
But he got flack, he said, from local business owners who were afraid the happy tunes would interfere with their own vibe, or with game-runners’ call outs, or with voice-over advertisements.
Pete Byron, the current Wildwood mayor, said he wouldn’t want to change a thing or overwhelm the senses.
“We’re not Disney World,” Byron said. “You don’t need that up there. You have the sounds of the boardwalk.”