Are Jack and Bob Mere Mortals?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

By last June, Canada’s “Bob” and “Jack” Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrids were huge successes at home, but attracting little attention from American programmers. For the most part, the initial lack of interest was benign neglect. But early on, there were predictions that “Jack”/”Bob” was destined for the quick build/quick burn of the all-‘80s format, or the all-‘70s/Arrow formats.

Despite those initial doubts, and more than two years after the Canadian boom started, Bob/Jack is finally building a U.S. beachhead. KQOB Oklahoma City has whittled classic rock powerhouse KRXO’s lead to less than a share; Joel Folger’s WPYA Norfolk debuted with a 1-share after being on the air for less than three weeks in the winter; the format is now adding a station every few weeks now, the latest being WEEG Saginaw, Mich., KJAC Denver, Emmis’ KKLT Phoenix, which is doing its own variant as “The Peak,” and suburban Chicago’s WRZA (Nine FM), whose initial research was done by Edison Media Research.

So, now, of course, the day that the detractors (and most Canadian record people) have been waiting for has come, at least to some extent. In the just-released BBM spring ratings, there’s finally some evidence that Canada’s Jack/Bob stations have indeed started to level.

CFWM (Bob 99.9) Winnipeg, the two-year old format flagship had peaked at a 14-share, and then gradually leveled to a 9.3 last fall, still good for No.3 in the market. This time, however, it’s down to a 7.6—now No. 7 overall. It’s still No. 2 in both men and women 25-54 and No. 1 25-54 overall.

CKLG Vancouver, the first “Jack,” had confounded the naysayers by becoming even bigger in the fall, up 12.7-13.4. This time, it was down to a 10.4 share, but was No. 1 men and women 25-54.

CKKL Ottawa, which had only gotten one knockout book from “Bob,” was already trending down (8.9-7.9) in the fall. This spring, with a new adult top 40 taking a three-share out of the market, it fell sharply to a 5.0.

CJAC Toronto, the “Jack” station that has had the hardest time getting traction was up 3.5 – 4.2 last fall. In spring, it fell to a 3.2. CKFM (Mix 99.9), the station that owned the rock AC mantle before the Jack/Bob explosion, rebounded 3.6 – 4.1.

CHST London, up 7.9-12.0 last fall, was at a 10.9.
There were still success stories:

CKIS Calgary, which had to wrest the variety and attitude images from Album Rock CJAY—hardly a station that seemed vulnerable on those counts—opened huge, then leveled slightly fast fall, 19.0 – 17.0. In spring, it was back at a 19.0

CKNG (Joe FM) Edmonton switched from Hot AC after logging respectable shares doing the same format on its AM sister station. It was up 7.8 – 11.4 and second in the market in its first FM book. Two other launches haven’t had the same impact. CHTT Victoria, B.C., which switched from Top 40 to “Jack,” despite its proximity to the Vancouver version, went 7.1 – 6.4 in its first book. CFMK Kingston, Ontario, which gave up an existing Country franchise to become “Joe,” was off 14.5-6.5.

So what’s happening here? Well, more than just the passage of time:

For one thing, the format itself has evolved to some extent. Many of the Canadian stations feel newer than they did at the outset. Most of the Canadian stations have at least a nominal current/recurrent presence now and many feel less vested in ‘70s Classic Hits. The intent might have been keeping the format fresh, (and using newer music to bolster the stations’ legally mandated Canadian content), but many feel less special as a result. Stations that were built on “songs you don’t hear often on the radio” are becoming just another place to hear “Unwell” or (at least in Canada) “She’s So High” by Tal Bachman.

If any format won’t be “one-size-fits-all” everywhere, it’s one that depends heavily on “oh wow” records, and not all the new stations sound local.

The Classic Hits aspect of the format was what gave the early Jack/Bobs (and their predecessor, the Jacor “Mix” stations) such a nice male/female split. It also touched on a body of music that was less exposed in most markets—the late ‘70s/early ‘80s rock that isn’t the center of most Classic Rock stations and isn’t an easy fit on most Hot ACs.

There were also signs that the ‘70s and ‘80s fit better for many listeners than the ‘80s, ‘90s, and now. While variety has become the most exploitable aspect of the format, particularly in the States, as the station’s era is broadened, it’s less likely to be the music of any one person’s life. The most successful American outpost of Jack/Bob thus far, Oklahoma City, is, by most accounts, its most focused and more like a traditional Classic Hits stations than the others.

Many of Canada’s Jack/Bobs have new competition as well. Ottawa’s new Hot AC was meant to siphon off any new music fans that might have been hanging around CKKL for lack of a better place to go. Winnipeg and Vancouver both have new broad-based spectrum ACs—neither has posted a huge debut so far, but both have, as you’d expect, fragmented their cume-driven rivals.

And as with most format booms, as more markets got Jack/Bob-type stations, many weren’t very well customized for their markets. Winnipeg and Vancouver are very different cities, but they were both great rock ‘n’ roll markets for men and women alike, allowing them to logically share a certain amount of music. But if any format won’t be “one-size-fits-all” everywhere, it’s one that depends heavily on “oh wow” records, and not all the new stations sound local.

New formats these days attract a certain amount of schadenfreude (or “playa hatin’,” if you like that term better). WNEW (Blink 102.7) New York was an easy target for many in the industry—had it stuck around for another year, it might have learned to play up its trainwreck segues as many of the new stations are doing. Air America, even beyond its internal difficulties, has found itself attacked not only by conservatives but also by liberals in the talk community; often because it’s not the format the way they would do it themselves. And any gold-based format ends up defending its life from the outset. Format innovation isn’t just a victim of today’s radio landscape; it’s often on the receiving end of friendly fire as well.

So even if Canada’s Jack/Bob outlets are indeed leveling, I’m still a fan of the format. Between its musical coalition and its positioning, the Jack/Bobs helped change the industry’s perception of what’s possible and create an exploitable (and surprisingly researchable) franchise for variety that has eluded broadcasters for more than a decade. While any new format can level off, it would be nice if the thing that stole Jack/Bob’s thunder weren’t just the passage of time, but another unique format—something detractors should accept as their personal challenge.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.