June 20, 2005 — -- Do you know Jack?
Chances are if you haven't heard of him, you soon will. Radio's answer to ubiquitous MP3 players -- the so-called "Jack" format -- has hit the waves with a frenetic speed. Heavy on hits of the '70s and '80s, and minus the typical DJ chatter, the new "adult hits" stations are taking on standard formats like Top 40 -- and they're making strides.
"Oldies for younger people" is how the genre was described by Scott McKenzie, editor in chief and managing director of Billboard Radio Monitor. He noted that although the stations promote not having a format, they really are heavily programmed. However, they use much larger playlists -- up to 1,200 songs compared to the usual couple hundred -- which translates to the "playing what we want" feel that they promote.
It makes for an eclectic mix, much like many people's own music collections. A recent afternoon on the New York Jack station included Shalamar, Toto, Macy Gray, 38 Special and the Psychedelic Furs in the same hour. "It's not your iPod, it's our iPod," McKenzie said. "It's like having an iPod-on-steroids approach to life."
The format started three years ago in Canada and first hit U.S. markets last spring, but it started taking off about six months ago. "It's really been going gangbusters," McKenzie said. "We're seeing every week something flips to Jack."
Though Jack has quickly become the generic industry term for such adult hits formats -- some of which are more pop or more dance-oriented -- there really are 15 Jack stations licensed by SparkNet Communications, eight of which are operated by Infinity Broadcasting. But similar tactics are being used by Chum Radio's Bob stations and Greater Media's Ben, as well as Emmis Communications' Hank, which plays anything country, among other single-monikered spots on the dial.
Following the success of its Dallas-based Jack station, Infinity launched one in Los Angeles in March, said Rob Barnett, president of programming for Infinity Broadcasting. Now there are eight Jacks in the company's stable playing music primarily from the '70s through '90s, with some recent and older songs mixed in.
"Jack is a radio station that any time you turn it on is going to give you a song that is a great hit, either nationally or locally, from any era," Barnett said. "It's hard to duplicate that. When you listen to most radio stations, they're focused on playing the same 200, 300 songs."
He added that Jack tries to "be responsive to the fact that most people's music collections are wide and deep."
"We meet on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis to take songs that we've been playing, put them on a shelf and rest them, and sit there and brainstorm other songs people may not have heard for years and years and give them a shot," Barnett said, adding that keeping it fluid "gives people a constant 'oh, wow' factor."
By not having show hosts, stations can program in advance, as well as avoid the common listener complaint of DJs talking over songs, McKenzie said. And Barnett said the idea with Jack is for the stations to have a "singular persona" encompassed by the single name.
With more people shuffling their own tunes on MP3 players, McKenzie said, "There's an undercurrent within the industry that there's a need to experiment and try new things and try to hold listeners."
As the adult hits format grows, it remains to be seen how successful it will be and how its expansion will affect competing formats. While many of the stations are too new to have ratings track records, a study released Tuesday by Arbitron and Edison Media Research shows strong initial gains in "cume audience" -- a measure of the total number of different people who listen to a station during a week -- among 25- to 54-year-olds.
The study looked at Arbitron radio listening data for eight stations, including several Jacks and Bobs. Three rank first in cume audience in that age group, and three are in second place in their markets. But many of the stations also have a shorter time spent listening than average.
The study also showed that adult hits stations have an unusual balance of men and women listeners and a strong concentration of listeners between 35 and 44, with more at the younger end of the range -- those often more desired by advertisers than older listeners.
As McKenzie explained, the format is driven by "radio stations trying to stay in business by making sure advertisers are exposed to what they think will be the right sort of listeners. It's not rocket science."
Barnett maintained that the Jack stations are seeking listeners of all ages. "Jack's main music philosophy is: the most important category of music is called a great song," he said, adding, "There's no question that we've gotten as much response from people my age, at 45, as we have from people that are in their 20s."
Still, the change to Jack isn't always a smooth transition. When Infinity converted the country's top-rated oldies station, WCBS-FM in New York, on June 3, listeners were outraged at the change and the firing of longtime personality Cousin Brucie, who had been on the air for 33 years and whose dismissal even prompted a protest by Sen. Chuck Schumer.
But Barnett noted that this Jack station will include songs from the '50s and '60s in its rotation, much as Jack caters to other regional tastes. "Each one has its own local flavor, whether it's different in the music mix or different in local content that is presented to appeal solely [to local listeners,]" he said.
And there's good and bad when a brand name becomes industry shorthand for an entire format. Earlier this month, SparkNet Communications filed a suit against Bonneville International, saying slogans for its stations in Chicago, Phoenix and St. Louis are using the phrase "Whatever We Want" in violation of SparkNet's trademarked slogan "Playing What We Want," which Jack stations use.
But Barnett said he's not concerned about the Bobs and Bens of the radio world. "There are many imitators of the Jack format out there," he said. "At the end of the day, the best ideas and the best-sounding radio stations win."