Sunday, February 26, 2006

Jack: Dull Boy or Rising Tide?

About a year ago, the “Jack” format oozed onto the radio scene. Like many subversive American media trends, this one also had Canadian origins – perhaps their deep-rooted need to hear Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the Guess Who was a contributing factor. In any case, the format spread to America, where it was diluted, of course. But it was picked up in many markets, mostly because of its novelty value. If your station is in the ratings toilet, almost any major format change will attract a larger audience for a while.

Some folks, like my friend Mike McVay at McVay Media, have weighed in on Jack's merits or lack of same:

“Jack/Bob/Whatever is most valuable in those situations where your cluster has an inferior station with inferior ratings. To a station at the bottom of the heap, being mid-pack is an improvement. That’s how I continue to see Jack/Bob/Whatever. It’s middle-of-the-pack at best in most USA situations.”
I think that Mike is right, for reasons that we’ll get to. But what Mike doesn’t mention is the positive influence that Jack (or its cousin, Bob, or Fred, or any of the “name” formats out there) is having on other stations in their markets.

I happen to live in the biggest radio market in the US. I’m sure some of you on the west coast heard the screams when WCBS-FM switched from their oldies format to Jack – it was quite an event. It turns out that, as part of the switch, WCBS also moved to HD radio, which gave them the opportunity to offer up an oldies sub-channel for those that cared – very smart. If Mike McVay is right, we’ll see a ratings pop in the next few ratings books and then a slip into “mid-pack”.

But, the side-effects of Jack’s entry into the New York market are much more interesting. Before Jack, I could depend on the top-rated rock station, Q104, to be playing Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin whenever I turned them on – dependable and boring it was. After Jack, their playlist has expanded, and the expansion has been aggressively promoted. Before Jack, the top-rated AC outlet, WPLJ, sported a playlist that felt like about 25 songs. Just before Jack entered the market, their playlist got bigger, and the station ran TV ads touting “more variety” – prescience, or a pre-emptive attack? No matter – the net effect was that radio in this market got better, thanks to Jack.

I’m a big believer in big playlists – audiences will respond positively to songs that trigger old neurons to fire. But, as Jack’s critics have noted, a big playlist alone does not successful radio make. And, how many Jack listeners are already tired of the “automation + smarmy voice” sound? This is precisely what will ultimately lead to mid-pack performance.

Big playlists help provide two necessary ingredients of winning radio: variety and relevance. But there are other important ingredients that go into the recipe, and that’s where Jack somes up short. Is Jack better than PDRN (Petri Dish of Rat Neurons, see below)? I don’t think so, but the name is cooler…

Sunday, February 19, 2006

My Program Director is a Rat (neuron)

I was reading the other day about researchers in Florida who have gotten a bunch or rat neurons in a Petri dish to simulate flying an F-22 fighter airplane in conditions that are almost impossible for us humans, and the little radio homunculus on my shoulder kept asking “if a bunch of rat neurons can perform this highly complex task, how long before some radio executive somewhere gets the bright idea to apply the concept to radio?”

Now, I want to state for the record that just because some stations sound like they’re programmed by a Petri dish full of rat neurons, this has not been accomplished yet (to my knowledge). And I don’t think it’s all that likely to define market-winning behavior, even in the dark futures I tend to dream up.

Why? Flying an F-22 simulator is effectively a “closed” feedback system – the rat neurons get a set of inputs that are limited to conform to airplane physics, which is unlikely to change quickly. Plus, the rat neurons are not expected to influence the source of their input as a result of their behavior.

Now imagine a completely automated radio station – let’s pick an extreme and use WWV, whose sole function in life is to broadcast the time kept by an atomic clock. This is a prime candidate for programming by PDRN, since its listeners only ever tune in to get the correct time. Can you listen to WWV for an entire quarter hour? Only if your Thorazine has kicked in.

Let’s move up a notch. Consider a completely automated station running music and advertising. Except that it’s not completely automated – the sales staff tunes the spot load and schedule to its advertisers’ requirements. Could the music format be replaced by PDRN? Probably. Can you listen for an entire quarter hour? Probably. Can you listen for an hour? Maybe – but only if there aren’t other options, like a more engaging station, or a CD or an iPod. Is this station likely to develop intense listener loyalty? Doubtful. Now let’s make a small change – instead of a pre-programmed music format, let the listeners weigh in with a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” on the music they hear and have that affect the music programming – this probably defines the limit of PDRN. A station like this should deliver better results, but it can still be beaten by adding (human) talent – if the talent is allowed more range we can get from PDRN.

Why? Radio at its best is the most dynamic broadcast medium – it can adjust its format and content almost instantly in response to changing audience interests, tastes and needs (and note the “can” – how many stations can you think of that exploit this unique attribute?). People are the only way (today at least) to detect and react to changes in audience behavior and interest, both behind the scenes and on the air.

And even good radio creates the most powerful and lasting relationship with its audience of any mass medium – think about it: how many people identify with a TV Station, movie studio, record label or book publisher the way they do with a radio station?

My new pet radio programming benchmark is the Petri dish of rat neurons. Can your station beat it?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


I had this dream: the radio woke me up at 7AM. It was a MegaChannel station. That wasn’t surprising – all the stations in town were owned by MegaChannel. Didn’t matter anyway – I was on the west coast, the station was voiced-tracked from Bangalore and I knew that “Johnny Buzzcock” was really some guy named Dilip. The big media companies had finally gotten the FCC to do away with that silly notion of locality, and so the new ownership rules let any one company own up to 45% of the national media market regardless of media type.

What followed was pretty predictable. In the name of efficiency (spelled p-r-o-f-i-t), the big media companies began consolidating their holdings and trading with each other to gain geographic dominance – like you’d trade one yellow street for a green in order to get all three in a popular board game whose name escaped me…

So it ended up that NoEnd Broadcasting wound up with Boston, MegaChannel got Chicago, etc. Of course, New York and LA were the last to be “rationalized”, but only after things got ugly and the Commissioner of Media was brought in to settle the remaining disputes. Like clockwork, the outsourcing wave swept through the media industry and sent 40% of its US jobs overseas.

After the stock market got done digesting the improved earnings from that phase of consolidation, the media bigs needed to find new ways to grow. So they began buying up adjacent entertainment businesses: movie theater chains, concert venues, and amusement parks. Then, realizing that shopping was considered “amusement” by a large section of the US population, they began buying up retail malls. After the last mall got snapped up, the business analysts starting thinking about “vertical integration”, so the bigs went after the retail stores in the malls, and then the manufacturers of the merchandise in the stores.

So that’s how it was that I got up, showered with MegaChannel soap, brushed my teeth with MegaChannel toothpaste, put on some MegaChannel jeans and a MegaChannel sweatshirt and headed to the kitchen for breakfast. I turned on the television while I was eating, and watched the MegaChannel news, which featured a story on the candidates that MegaChannel had selected to run in the cities it controlled. It was odd, but I couldn’t think of any of the candidates that were running against them. I mean, I hadn’t read anything about them in the MegaChannel newspaper, or heard anything about them on the MegaChannel radio or TV stations. So I guessed they really couldn’t be much of a factor in the election coming up…

I woke up in a cold sweat. It took me a while to get oriented, and then I realized that I’d had a dream, and all that hadn’t happened, and everything was going to fine. I mean, who would let the US stock market reward growth-at-any-cost behavior? And wouldn’t our elected officials prevent the Justice Department from letting industries consolidate past the point of no return? And wouldn’t the FCC, a clearly non-partisan, apolitical body whose only motivation was to serve the long-term public interest, work hard to protect the system that encouraged locality, multiple viewpoints and dissent and fostered competition as a way to remain a vital part of our democracy? All three of those institutions would surely serve as barriers to the kind of future I had dreamed about.

Wouldn’t they?

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

You Know It When You Hear It

There's been a lot of talk about obscenity and media lately, magnified by Howard Stern's move to satellite radio. We'll get to Howard soon enough, but before that I want to recount a radio spot I heard during the holiday season last year. It went something like this:

(sultry female voice discussing the history of mistletoe and people using it to get a kiss)
“…and if twigs and branches can get you a kiss, just imagine
what a luxurious new Jaguar can get you…”

There’s another one in the campaign that is more detailed, progressing from getting a “thank you” for flowers, to a hug for cashmere, to a “steamy kiss” for diamonds and then the big Jaguar payoff. Just so we’re all on the same page: the implicit message is that if you buy your woman a Jaguar, you’re going to get lucky.

Now in this age of FCC behavioral retrenchment regarding indecency and obscenity, we note none of George Carlin’s favorite words, and no lengthy repetition, but what about that gray zone where “material panders, titillates or is used for shock value?”

The cynics in the audience might argue that the above phrase defines advertising. Advertising folks reading this might call that copy “edgy” – and it is. It bumps up against the edge of something, but what exactly? We’re all grownups reading this (at least age-wise), so what’s the big deal?

First, let’s suppose that my two daughters, aged 12 and 16, were riding with me in the car when this spot aired. My 12-year-old might ask: “Daddy, what would a new Jaguar get you?” – a reasonable question that shows the benefits of good production in getting a listener to pay attention to the copy. And I would sputter and mumble something like: “Well, sweetie, maybe an even bigger kiss and a hug to go with it”, and while I was saying that my 16-year old would be making gagging noises and thinking about a steamy scene involving a new Jaguar and the cast of The OC. And both of them would think about the expectation of a woman’s sexual favors in return for a shiny new car.

I’ve got a problem with that, and I’m a guy. Can you imagine how a mature woman might feel listening to this ad? She might chuckle to be polite, but bet that deep down she’s offended in a most basic way at the suggestion that her virtue can be had for the price of some expensive metal (or gemstones, or any other product that’s pitched like this).

Moreover (from the Radio Refugee's point of view), the station airing these ads is committing audience-cide. Jaguar’s agency thought this copy was clever, and sold their client, who in turn paid a radio station to run the ad. Now here’s the old codger talking: what ever happened to the idea of spot approval? The station I heard this on is a highly-rated AC outlet that prides itself on its strong numbers with upscale women. Think about that for a minute: the advertiser is running spots on this station that are almost sure to alienate the very audience the station works hard every day to attract.

I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s obscene.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Rationalizing the Process

Here's the deal: I started in radio in 1971. Junior Achievement in Providence, RI had a program where you could apply to be part of a radio station "company" sponsored by a local station. We learned by doing -- sales, production and on-air work. I remember selecting Baba O'Reilly from the then-new Who's Next as the opening theme to our weekly show on WJAR-AM (take that, CSI). The next year we moved up the dial to WICE-AM -- that was cool because it was a non-union shop and we got to actually touch the equipment. Those of you in the proper age group will nod in recognition when I recall the transcription-sized turntables that were controlled by light switches mounted into their base plates.

Looking back, I think it was the gadgetry that first got me hooked on this crazy business, probably followed by the thrill of hearing my own voice coming out of that little box (come on, admit it, you like it too even if it still sounds a little weird). And I needed more than just the school-year fix I was getting. So, in early 1973, I began aggressively hanging out at WBRU-FM, Brown University's Class B FM outlet, purchased for a song in the late sixties when no one thought FM would amount to anything. I ended up spending ten years at WBRU, starting as a techie, then a newsie, then programmer, Production Director and de facto weekend Program Director. During the latter part of my tenure, I generated the highest ratings ever recorded by the station while also doing a full-time "real" job.

In late 1982, for some weird reason, I decided to start a software company. I went through an agonizing period of introspection and finally decided that making the company a success would take all of my focus, and I'd have to walk away from radio. And I did, literally. One Saturday afternoon during my last airshift, I asked a young intern helping in the studio if she liked radio. She said yes. I said "Good. Do my job", walked out, and didn't look back until about 25 years later. But I did look sideways.

I've had the great fortune to travel all over the world. When traveling, I have always paid attention to radio -- scanning the dial, making station visits when I could, bringing back samples of local music. One of my favorite escapades was in the late seventies: I walked up to the BBC headquarters in London, introduced myself as an American radio guy, and spent a magical few hours in the studios of Radio 1 with Johnny Walker and David Hamilton as they broadcast to an audience of millions, talking about the differences between American and British radio (off air, unfortunately). Couldn't do that today...

About two years ago, I began looking at what had happened to both radio and the music business since I left. The outcome of my research was a new startup that attempted to marry the worlds of music and advertising, and radio played a major role. It landed with a unnoticed thud, for reasons which will be enumerated later. However, during that time, I kept hearing the sirens of radio calling to me, and I've tried hard to ignore them.

I love radio for what it can be, not, in the main, what it has become. I figure that writing this blog might be my last, best chance of resisting the call of the airwaves. Maybe if I bare my radio soul in print I can keep the smell of audiotape, the challenge of talking up a network feed, the frisson of a great seque and the satisfaction of building an engaged audience buried in the deepest recesses of my memory.

Or maybe not. Stay tuned.