Why "Jack" Hit The Road

My readers often give me ideas for things that I write about from the perspective of my experience in the media business and my work with the next generation.

After writing about the "Fresh FM" and WCBS-FM "Classic Hits" revival, one reader wondered about my take on the Jack" format.

Of course, "Jack" works in some markets -- and that needs to be recognized -- but it's also fair to say that when the history of formatic radio is compiled (and, say, Bill Drake narrates it), "Jack" will be a mere blip of the VU meter of programming.


Let's start with New York.

New York is an atypical example. Former CBS Radio President Joel Hollander was apparently hell bent on becoming a program director after those years of selling and he gave us "Jack" and took away one of the most beloved stations of all time -- oldies WCBS-FM.

Right there was trouble.

Who blows up a format that admittedly had been declining in ratings and revenue while it still billed $35 million? What the station needed was some smart programming help and a refresher course. It needed to carefully (and I emphasize carefully) integrate newer oldies, if you will. CBS has done that and now we're only days away from ratings proof of what all programmers already know -- the station is back, big and bad.

In the context of "Jack", the unfortunate format that had to follow CBS-FM, it was doomed from the start in New York. But even if "Jack" had been installed on another CBS FM station in the Big Town, it probably would not have been as successful as Hollander had hoped.

My analysis is that "Jack" was a station programmed by radio people for radio people -- and that doomed it.

Let me explain.

No one in their right mind promotes a format by saying "We Play What We Want". That's radio speak. Young listeners told me, "we play what we want and it's called an iPod". This edgy stuff that "Jack" was made of was probably unnecessary. Just playing the music might have worked better.

The liners and sweepers were not helpful to this format but programmers needed to do them more than listeners needed to hear them. (I'll write about what young people tell me they want from their radios and you won't believe it or won't want to believe it. Hell, with that promo, maybe I'd better not write about it at all).

The music on "Jack" was probably the best part. The station was aimed at Gen Xers and Gen Y listeners knew that, but where was the core audience?

Radio reinvented radio and it came out like the same old radio.


Sweepers out the -- well, ears.

Sounding just like a typical radio station.

"Jack" isn't the only format to be sent packing after a relatively short run except today all-knowing radio people send their junked formats to the Internet to be reborn as cheaply produced (and sounding) streams.

Again, that's radio misreading the younger audience.

Young listeners like the Internet. They like streaming stations. I have a student who claims to still listen to Y100 the Philly alternative station that went "underground" t0 the Internet years ago after it was kicked off the air.

Being kicked off the terrestrial dial is a badge of honor to the next generation.

(Try not to attack the messenger here -- some of you can't resist and I want to be blunt with you about perceptions that I have observed about the industry we love).

So, let's get this straight.

1. Our new formats sound like our old formats -- we just change the liners.

2. Listeners hate the liners but we love to do them so we continue to shoot ourselves in the feet.

3. Listeners love a knowledgeable air staff and short of that we'd be better to shut up and play the music.

4. Arrogance and radio go hand in hand in the minds of a lot of young listeners. Playing what you want is one thing -- but it's an empty promo. Radio always plays what it wants.

It's kind of like "My FM".

The next generation isn't going to buy this so make sure you're programming to the suckers who will actually believe "My FM" is their station.

If you think I'm saying radio people have changed very little and their younger listeners have changed their expectations a lot then you would be right. That's exactly what I am saying.

Many of you know that I have returned to USC for another year of teaching but in my "private practice" I am advising radically different approaches to terrestrial radio and even Internet streaming because broadcasters have to spend a lot more time to change the way their programming people think before they can produce formats that listeners will want.

Times have changed.

The day of hiring the voice over talent and writing the new liners has come and gone. It can work with older radio lovers, but it has no chance of working with the next generation.

What keeps me enthusiastic is that I am not at all discouraged by these harsh assessments of today's radio I hear from young people. I have identified several opportunities of which radio can take advantage.


Nothing will change because the next move is for the radio industry to go back to school -- so to speak -- and learn first hand about the problems and opportunities of programming in a different world. We've got iPods, iPhones, e-mail, text messaging, pirated music, dying record labels, social networking.

Just ten years ago we had radio and records.

it's time to get turned on by the emerging options that can only be ours if we change.

We must change our entire approach to what radio is and can be.

Or else, as the Ray Charles song says, we'll all "hit the road, Jack".

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