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Have you heard about Jack FM?

December 28, 2005

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Have you heard about Jack FM?
published: Wednesday | December 28, 2005

Stephen Kiehl and Rob Hiaasen, Contributors

MIAMI (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

CALLERS TO the new Jack FM in San Diego are greeted by a smug voice with this message: "If you want to request a song, call somebody else. We play what we want."

A radio station telling listeners to buzz off would have been heretical a few years ago. Now it's just business. As satellite radio and digital music players like Apple's iPod steal listeners from conventional radio, stations are trying to capture certain elements of those technologies - the variety and random order of the songs.

More than five million people - fed up with the endless ads and repetitive playlists of broadcast radio - have signed up for the virtually commercial-free programming of XM and Sirius satellite radio. Apple has sold 15 million iPods, which enable people to shuffle thousands of songs at random and take their music anywhere.

The radio industry's best response so far is called Jack - a format that 12 United States stations have adopted in the past year. One of the most recent converts was Infinity-owned 102.7 WQSR-FM in Baltimore, which earlier this year abruptly dumped its popular oldies format to become a Jack station.

VASTLY EXPANDED PLAYLIST

The new identity means a vastly expanded playlist of 1,200 songs, culled from the hits of the past four decades in all genres, from pop and R&B to classic rock and Motown. It also means no disc jockeys, no promotions or contests, and fewer commercials.

"Jack is a revelation," said Chris Butterick, general manager of 94.7 Jack FM in Jackson, Miss., who sounds as though he has undergone a religious conversion. "Radio had forgotten what its purpose is. People want to hear music and variety. Jack is all about the listeners."

But radio consultants critical of the Jack format say research shows listeners want to feel a connection with a station - and that comes through on-air personalities.

"I always ask people to name a station that stayed successful without personalities, and nobody has come up with one," said Robert Unmacht, a long-time radio owner, programmer and consultant based in Nashville. "Radio is about the music, and it's about doing radio with personality.

"It's not about naming it after a person."

ATTRACTING ATTENTION

Nonetheless, at least in the early going, Jack stations are attracting attention. Butterick's station in Jackson, which used to play "classic hits" and was sixth in its market among non-urban stations, has been either first or second in the past two ratings periods, according to Arbitron Inc., which tracks ratings for stations in the United States and Mexico. Perhaps more encouraging to Butterick is that his regular racquetball partner has been converted. After two months of exhorting the station manager to return to the old format, the friend admitted to liking every third song on Jack.

"I asked him, 'What about the [other] two songs?'" Butterick said. "He said those aren't too bad, either."

Long-time listeners say their biggest complaint with radio is there's not enough music being played. There's too much of what the industry calls 'clutter' - chatty DJs, promotions, contests, giveaways and commercials. That could explain why Americans are listening to less radio these days.

Arbitron reports that the amount of time Americans spent listening to traditional radio fell from 21 1/2 hours a week in fall 1998 to 19 1/2 hours a week last fall.

LOST SIGHT OF LISTENERS

"In the last 20 years, all these spots and sales promotions and contests were designed to deliver to advertisers, but we've lost sight of the fact that we have to get the listeners first," said Mike Henry, chief executive of Paragon Media Strategies in Denver and a consultant who helped launched the first Jack station in Vancouver, British Columbia, in fall 2002.

U.S. stations that want to convert to Jack must buy the licence for the format from Bohn & Associates in Vancouver. Along with it, they get some rules: Jack stations launch without DJs, with low commercial loads and with few, if any, promotions. After a few months, after the station's playlist has been cycled through several times, the stations typically add back some of those elements.

In Baltimore, many radio listeners were upset that popular WQSR morning show host Steve Rouse was fired in the switch to Jack. But several WQSR DJs were retained, though they may not be on the air immediately, said Robert Philips, senior vice president for Infinity Broadcasting's five Baltimore stations.

The new Jack station will continue to air Ravens football games, as WQSR did. Philips said Rouse could be back as well. "We've talked to him about opportunities within our cluster," Philips said. "It's really in Steve's court."

People like to think of radio as their friend, said Donna Halper, a radio consultant and media professor at Emerson College in Boston. She praised the Jack stations for expanding their playlists and offering some diversity on the radio, but she said they'll have trouble surviving without developing strong personalities.

"It's wonderful to play different songs and stop having this mentality of nothing but the same five songs over and over again. But what makes the station unique?" Halper said. "Take away the elements that make it personal, take away all the liveliness, you get a jukebox."

But it is a jukebox jammed with hits. All of the songs played on Jack stations - whether from the Beatles or the Beastie Boys - had to appear in the Top 40 at least once.

If you play 1,500 titles and they're not hits and they're unfamiliar, then you get a radio station that very few people can listen to," said Henry, the Jack consultant. "The key to this, with this large body of music, is you're going to hear hit after hit after hit, that's going to be Led Zeppelin followed by Madonna followed by John Mayer followed by the Beastie Boys followed by Marvin Gaye.

"The format trains the listener to understand you might not like this song, but you're going to know it, and you'll probably really like the next one."

Bob Waugh, the program director at 103.1 WRNR-FM in Annapolis, described the Jack format as "often a lot of smoke and mirrors" disguising a station that is still playing predictable hits. He said listeners might get tired of always hearing music they know.

"When they say things like, 'Radio without the rules,' well, they do have rules: It has to have been in the Top 40," said Waugh, who previously worked for Lanham-based WHFS, which recently switched from rock to a Spanish-language format. That station, like WQSR, is owned by Infinity. "We truly do play what we think is the best music from the last five decades," Waugh said of WRNR.

Philips, of Infinity in Baltimore, said the new Jack station will be playing 50 minutes of music per hour - more than most stations - because it has reduced the amount of commercials and eliminated local news and traffic reports.

"It's music-driven, it's attitude-driven," he said. By comparison, WQSR used to play between 25 and 30 minutes of music per hour during its morning show and a bit more during the day.

Though WQSR had long been a top station in Baltimore, its ratings were slipping. The station fell from seventh to ninth in the Baltimore market between last fall and winter. And because it was an oldies station, the audience was skewing a bit, well, old.

"Advertising dollars are more targeted to the 25-44 age group," Philips said. And that's what Jack stations deliver. The first four U.S. stations to adopt the format now have 70 percent of their audience in that 25-44 range, according to Arbitron.

Listeners of WQSR, now Jack FM, have been hearing in the past few days a recorded voice saying, "It's not a format - it's a feeling." Former morning show host Rouse remembers moments before Wednesday's staff meeting, when a colleague peeked at the last song to be played from the old playlist: It was Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)."

"We knew we were in trouble then," Rouse said.

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