Thursday, April 14, 2005

Jack On The Rise

Article from Business Week: Invasion of the Robo-DJs

The rules guiding a Jack-formatted station are simple: Unlike a typical radio station, which regularly plays 300 or 400 hits of a particular genre, programmers on Jack stations select 700 to 1,000 songs of completely different genres. Then, they sequence them to create what radio programmers call "train wrecks" -- Billy Idol will follow Bob Marley, Elvis after Guns N' Roses, and so on. And Jack stations often (but not always) use a smart-alecky recorded voice, rather than a live DJ, to make short quips between songs.

This is a step in the right direction. But it's not the solution I'm looking for.

One of the biggest problems with radio today, and you can thank Clinton for this, is the fact that all the mom-and-pop stations have been purchased by heavy hitters such as Clear Channel and Infinity. Eager to make the biggest buck, they stick to tightly-wound playlists, eliminating any creative input. I think the emergence of the XM and Sirius satellite radio companies, and their increasing popularity, has convinced at least a few people that maybe consumers do want a little variety in what they listen to on the FM dial.

So, for that reason, I'm really happy to see that stations are starting to open up their playlists. But the "train wreck" concept, enacted by essentially hitting the "random" button on their computer, isn't necessary. The great influential radio stations of the 1970s did this every single day, except these "train wrecks" were conceived and implemented by disc jockeys (albeit extremely stoned disc jockeys), This is what made radio an art. I'm specifically talking about 102.7 WNEW here, which is now such a joke that I can't even bring myself to talk about it.

It still exists, although it's getting harder and harder to find. I'll once again pimp Radio Paradise, although you can also find it on WFUV, specifically during Mixed Bag with Pete Fornatale and Vin Scelsa's Idiot's Delight. In LA, Nic Harcourt's doing it with Sounds Eclectic.

Okay, no more music-nerd talk from me, otherwise the three of you that read this are never going to come back. Just two things. One, this is a great book. Two, this is a great sentence:

"We're not going to be constricted by radio rules," says Peter Smyth, CEO of Greater Media, which owns 19 radio stations and debuted its first Jack station, Ben-FM, on Mar. 22 in Philadelphia.


At 6/09/2005 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay... I'm going to pose this question to those "hipsters" that think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread like I did in the early 90's with "If Alternative is mainstream, then what's alternative?"

If the format Jack is very generalized and has no real format, then what distinguishes one Jack station from another Jack station?

At 6/09/2005 4:14 PM, Blogger Jason said...

If you're truly using a "no format" rule, then the chances of one Jack station sounding different from another are probably very good, because you potentially have not only many, many tracks to choose from (as opposed to the 25-50 that many stations are stuck with) but a myriad of different combinations in which to play them. For me, I love listening to the radio and having no idea what the hell is going to come next. That doesn't happen much on the radio anymore.

But I'm definitely being idealistic/optimistic here. I know that the Jack format is going to eventually come down to playing the same 100 songs at random intervals, and I'm still not going to hear some rare Elton John B-Side or "deep cut," and then, yes, you are right, all of them will sound the same, because it will come down to money.

I don't think Jack will last long. Sooner or later, people will decide that the now-trendy (thanks, Apple!) randomness is no longer cool. And then, WCBS is going to be in a lot of trouble, because their loyal listeners will have given terrestrial radio the finger and moved to satellite.

Until, of course, satellite suffers the same fate as FM...



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