by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
For more than 30 years, there seemed to be an unwritten law among radio programmers that they must not play “Fox On The Run” by the Sweet. Having been 13 years old when “Fox On The Run” was a current, I found that rule particularly disappointing. Still, I understood how that song was meant to occupy a very special place on my iPod, next to “Ballroom Blitz” and “Little Willy.” There it could make me happy without antagonizing anybody else.
But during the Bob- and Jack-FM explosion this summer, there was apparently a bill passed that programmers must play “Fox On The Run,” “Ballroom Blitz,” and even “Little Willy” in some cases. Perhaps those songs were just riders attached to “Waterloo” by Abba, or “I Was Made For Loving You” by Kiss, or “Joyride” by Roxette, or all the other once unsafe songs that somehow became part of the Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid’s safe list. And on some Jacks and Bobs, you could hear those songs in surprisingly close proximity to each other.
I loved hearing these songs on the radio again. But there was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance involved. My programmer side had a pretty good sense of how other people react to “Mickey” three times a week. But 13-year-old Sean kept asking, “Why shouldn’t everybody just play fun, uptempo songs that sound good on the radio instead of playing dumb old ‘Wonderful Tonight’ again?” And for just a few minutes, many of us had to wonder if everything we had learned about programming was wrong. After all, if we didn’t enjoy our own radio stations, how could the listener?
Of course, the new stations came with rules of their own, and not just “you must play ‘Fox On The Run.'” It wasn’t that programmers necessarily were trying to replace old didacticism with new. It was just that programmers needed to lock down the franchise in their markets in a big hurry, which created a certain amount of boilerplate. Besides, a lot of PDs were tired of dumb old “Wonderful Tonight,” themselves, and eagerly embracing change meant a 180-degree-turn from the old rules. So broad became the new narrow. Familiarity with songs became as important as passion.
Two years after the first Bob FM came to the U.S., the thing that is now clearest is that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to do the Classic Hits/Hot AC-hybrid or where it’s going to work.
But two years after the first Bob FM came to the U.S., the thing that is now clearest is that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to do the Classic Hits/Hot AC-hybrid or where it’s going to work. There are stations in the format with an eight share, and some with less than a one. And almost anybody who has done the wide-variety format in more than one or two markets has done it very successfully and not so successfully. There are certain patterns among successful stations, but any potential rule has its exceptions.
“Rule” #1: It’s only for middle-American rock-leaning markets.
It’s an understandable conclusion for a format whose highest rated stations are currently in Nashville, St. Louis and Des Moines. But that doesn’t explain the success of KCBS (Jack FM) Los Angeles, or, for that matter, KKXX (Pirate Radio) Bakersfield, Calif., or KDRF Albuquerque, N.M. One local writer dismissed WCBS-FM New York’s disappointing first book as Jack FM by suggesting the station was “pretty darn white” for such a diverse market. But New York actually signed on with a significantly more rhythmic mix than Los Angeles’ classic rock-leaning blend, including some of the late ’80s Hip-Hop that was so polarizing at the time. But if you want to make a rule that rhythmic product doesn’t work, then you’ll have to explain away WBEN (Ben-FM) Philadelphia, which plays “In A Dream” by Rockell. And if you think some markets are too musically sophisticated for the format, you’ll run into its success at KBPA (Bob FM) Austin, Texas, and KJAQ (Jack FM) Seattle
“Rule” #2: It’s primarily a pop/rock based format.
I have long held that the real draw for Jack, Bob and friends is pop/rock from the late ’70s through the late ’80s. After all, some stations that played that music, but dispensed with the other trappings of the format, did pretty well, too, e.g., WQBW (the Brew) Milwaukee and WBZA (the Buzz) Rochester, N.Y., among them. And stations that got too old or too soft didn’t do as well initially. But WDRQ (Doug FM) Detroit and KDRB (The Bus) Des Moines, two of the broader stations, are growing now. And WBZA’s sister station, WFKL (Fickle 93.3), is starting to get traction with what can basically be described as “soft Jack/less talk.”
“Rule” #3: The format will have the boom/bust trajectory of other gold-based formats. If it’s going to kick in, it will happen right away. Once it peaks, that’s it.
KCJK (Jack FM) Kansas City posted a good first book 12-plus, a flat second book, and bigger than ever third and fourth books. By now, KPKX (the Peak) Phoenix, WWJK (Jack FM) Jackson, Miss., and WPYA (Bob FM) Norfolk, Va., have all been up, down, and back up again. And we’ve also seen relatively late bloomers, such as WDRQ and KYCH (Charlie FM) Portland, Ore., although what that meant was taking four months to kick in, instead of two. Sometimes, the timing seems to have more to do with when the TV marketing starts than with how long a station has been on the air.
“Rule” #4: It doesn’t work if the music is already available in the market.
Detroit’s WDTW (the Drive) was already covering the ’80s rock franchise. KIHT and KSHE St. Louis had divvied up Classic Hits and Classic Rock That Really Rocks between them and were both doing a pretty good job of sounding like the market. Yet, WARH (the Arch) has become one of the format’s biggest success stories to date. KVMX Portland, Ore., was already mixing ’80s MTV pop and ’70s Classic Hits. In Detroit and St. Louis, the difference might have been offering a poppier, more female-friendly package. But that doesn’t explain Portland as well.
“Rule” #5: It can’t be counterprogrammed.
Some proponents of the format asserted that Jack would forever destroy Hot AC or Classic Rock’s already specious claims at variety. And anybody who tried to counter Jack’s “Playing What We Want” by “playing what you want” would just be missing the point. But that positioner isn’t working so badly for WAXQ (Q104.3) New York, WKLU Indianapolis, or KQRS Minneapolis. The latter station has remained pretty solid in the face of Jack by selling an expanded library. Then again, KMYI San Diego has done okay with the opposite approach-taking Jack’s secret weapon records and pounding them 10 times a week. And that was before it added market morning stars Jeff & Jer.
“Rule” #6: Everything you know is wrong.
Okay, back to our opening question. Does the success of some Jacks and Bobs represent a 180-degree shift in listeners’ tastes and the programming paradigm? Or as one journalist friend recently asked, “Does that mean programmers were wrong about what the audience wanted all this time?” Well, even at Jack’s most outrageously successful Canadian station, there was still 80% of the market listening to something else. And in America, the best number is presently an eight share for WCJK (Jack FM) Nashville.
Quiet as it’s kept, Bob and Jack were really descendents of that least radical of formats, gold-based AC. At the outset, what we saw was a continual tweaking of that format’s rules. It was only recently, as the “play anything” aspect of the format became its most publicized, that so many people began thinking revolution, not evolution. Some programmers were afraid that music testing would “ruin” the format. Now, the ranks of successful stations includes both those who have and have not done it.
More than three years into the format, there have been real changes on the landscape. Radio has learned to sell wide variety after 15 years of experimentation. A new generation of listeners has their own music collection on the radio. And if Bob and Jack haven’t become the monsters that eat every market alive, they have forced some of the naysayers to keep the follow-up, “I told you it wouldn’t work” article on their desktop. The old rules didn’t turn out to be entirely wrong, but old and new thinking is constantly being revised-and probably will be again with the fall numbers.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming. 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.