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You don't know Jack

June 12, 2005

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You don't know Jack?

Meet the enigmatic new format on your radio

BY RAFER GUZMÁN
STAFF WRITER

June 12, 2005

New Yorkers like to think of themselves as a unique breed living in a unique region. But the newest sound in New York radio doesn't come from New York at all.

It's called Jack, an unusual radio format franchised out of a Nashville, Tenn., office that's converting stations around the country. New York recently got its first taste of Jack when WCBS/101.1 FM, the much-loved but demographically undesirable oldies station, made the switch.

Without warning at 5 p.m. on June 3, the station began playing a curious mix of, well, nearly everything, from Elton John to No Doubt to The Beastie Boys -- designed to appeal to younger listeners. In a flash, the 33-year run of the New York area's pre-eminent oldies station was over.

The station now features no disc jockeys, weather or traffic reports. The music is interrupted only by commercials or by snarky comments from a pre-recorded, anonymous male voice.

"The research has shown us that people are looking for a radio station in their market with less repetition and more variety," says Les Hollander, senior vice president for Infinity Broadcasting, which owns WCBS. "Whether it's radio, television, iPods or listening to music on your computer, people are beginning to use media a little bit differently. In programming a radio station, you have to take that into account."

The odd playlist, plus the firing of beloved hosts such as Cousin Brucie, hasn't gone over well with all listeners. The New York Radio Message Board -- an influential Internet site for local radio news and gossip -- has seen the most posts on one subject in its history.

Nearly all have been critical of the change, with many posters calling for a boycott of sponsors.

The Jack format is sweeping the country at a time when radio stations are competing against new music technologies such as satellite radio, Internet radio and portable MP3 players. Indeed, the seemingly random Jack format is often described as an "iPod on shuffle."

The format has boosted ratings dramatically for stations in Dallas and Los Angeles, but critics say its lack of on-air personalities and local programming is just another step toward the McDonaldization of radio.

So is Jack really the answer to radio's prayers, or just another gimmick that may ultimately alienate listeners?

The radio industry remains financially healthy -- in fact, it's more profitable than newspapers, network television and cable, says Lee Westerfield, an analyst with Harris Nesbitt in Manhattan. At the same time, the industry has matured. Radio's revenue growth from advertising may total less than 2 percent this year, down from about 6.5 percent in 2000, Westerfield says. Some of those dollars are being snatched by the Internet, where ad revenue is growing by more than 30 percent per year.

What's more, radio listenership is on the decline. Radio's total audience dropped 4 percent over the past year to 194 million, down from 203 million, according to NPD Group, a media research company in Port Washington. Those who do listen are doing so less often: The average time spent with the radio has dwindled to 19 hours per week, down from 30 hours in 1993, according to the latest Arbitron figures.

Meantime, people are turning to the Web to download songs through such services as iTunes and listening to Internet radio. Traditional radio also has to compete with new subscription-based satellite radio services such as Sirius and XM, whose dozens of stations offer something for nearly every taste, from jazz to garage-rock to gangsta rap. (In fact, longtime WCBS jock Cousin Brucie defected to Sirius less than a week after his old station switched.)

Radio is trying various ways of grappling with new technology. Many stations make their broadcasts available on the Web. Some are embracing podcasts, which are pre-recorded music mixes or talk shows that can be downloaded to an MP3 player. One Infinity-owned station in San Francisco, KYOU/1550 AM, recently began airing listener-submitted podcasts. In New York, Clear Channel's Z100 (WHTZ/100.3 FM) is offering podcasts of artist interviews and daily phone pranks by the station's morning crew.

Podcasting is a way to market to tech-savvy fans, says Z100 programming director Tom Poleman. "We know there are times when they have their portable MP3 player with them, and we still want to be front and center in their minds during those times as well."

But it's the Jack format that's really resonating with the music industry.

It was first launched in Winnipeg, Canada, by Rogers Broadcasting in December 2002 and is now handled by a consulting group called SparkNet Communications, which licenses the format to other stations. About two dozen stations in Canada and the United States have switched to Jack, says SparkNet's co-director, Garry Wall, and countless other stations have adopted similar formats with names such as Bob, Ben and Simon. (There's even a country version called Hank.)

What makes Jack so appealing to radio programmers (and, they hope, listeners)? The format can be tough to figure out -- at first. Initially, it sounds like a mishmash of genres and eras with no discernible common denominator. In a given hour, you might hear a familiar rock classic (Aerosmith's "Walk This Way"), a fairly recent pop tune (Pink's "Get the Party Started") and a minor new-wave gem (Re-Flex's "The Politics Of Dancing").

What's going on here? Jack targets a broad demographic of adults aged 25 to 54. That means a lot of hits from the 1980s, at least initially. But after Jack appears on a given station, the local programmer may tweak the playlist, perhaps concentrating on songs that were hits in that market.

"The format is not boilerplate," Wall says. "It begins to change after the launch as the feedback from the market comes in. Each market is formatted accordingly not just on era, but on genres and particular titles."

Howard Kroeger, program director for CHUM Broadcasting in Canada and the man who invented Jack's closest cousin, the Bob format, says the two formats rely on roughly the same formula: "58 percent of the songs are from the '80s. About 25 percent from the 70s. And 13 percent are from the 1990s and the 00s."

But you can't just pick and choose songs at random. "Anybody who is playing The Cars and Bruce Springsteen ... if they're also thinking they can throw in Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, it ain't gonna work." (For the record, Wall insists the two formats are different: "Bob is not Jack.")

Jack's critics point to its canned, homogenous feel and its inability to engage local listeners in a personalized way.

"Radio does three things," says Robert Unmacht, a media consultant with iN3 Partners in Nashville. "It informs, it entertains and it provides companionship. And this one is blowing off two out of three."

Unmacht also notes that Jack's lack of on-air personalities may turn off advertisers, who like to sponsor traffic updates and have their products plugged by popular hosts.

"Could they do product tie-ins with the Jack voice?" Unmacht jeers. "'Jack likes Popsicles! Wouldn't you like to have one now?'" (As it turns out, Unmacht wasn't far off. The Jack voice was recently heard on WCBS boasting about saving money on car insurance with Geico.)

Jack's advocates say it offers what listeners keep saying they want: more music, less repetition. Jack typically offers more than 1,000 songs, as opposed to the 300 or 400 found at most stations.

As for the lack of on-air hosts, that's a bonus, says Mark Ramsey, founder and president of Mercury Radio Research in San Diego. Many listeners view the DJ as someone who "tells them a piece of information that they don't care about."

Whether or not you like Jack, radio is changing just as people's listening habits are changing, says Westerfield, the media analyst. "The iPod mentality strikes different chords than the linear programming of a radio hour in the past. And the Jack formats aim to serve that mentality."

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

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