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?