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…

1 comment:

Greg Gillispie said...

Considering I've been involved in radio for 33 years and into music long before that my musical "variety" makes Jack's look narrow. Not to sound pompous, but with about 5200 CDs and 2600 albums, I told - and showed - friends years ago - long before anyone had the inkling of Jack came to someone - I could get from Joni Mitchell to Metallica in 20 minutes and you'd never realize the transition between the ends of the spectrum. Funny, I haven't heard that spectrum on any "Jack" station! Greg Gillispie