Bob- & Jack-FM: After The Goldrush

There was that moment during the 2004-05 peak of Bob- and Jack-FM-mania in the U.S. when some well-respected industry voices felt the Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrid would change the face of radio forever. Others were quick to dismiss it as a fad format — secure in the knowledge that if they said it long enough the heat would eventually dissipate. But those with a long view of format booms-and-busts could likely predict what would really happen:
* Bob- and Jack-FM would not be bulletproof indefinitely in every market, because no format is;
* The format, no matter how legitimate, would be diminished by the less committed operators who manage to scrape the shine off every format boom before moving on to something else;
* Regardless of what the long-term appeal of “We Play Anything” or “Playing What We Want” might be, the music at the core of Bob- and Jack-FM – the crossover Classic Rock from the era between Boston and Guns ‘N’ Roses – would remain a legitimate franchise for the listeners who grew up with it.
* Regardless of the format’s overall fortunes, there would be very successful operators who “didn’t get the memo” – the stations we’ve been saluting during our Bob- and Jack-FM Week on The Infinite Dial.
To those, you could also add the more format-specific prediction that the best long-term markets for Bob- and Jack-FM would be those where Album Rock radio was the dominant popular music format in the late
’70s/early ’80s and Top 40 was particularly weak, which is to say Midwestern markets like Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, where the format just happens to be doing pretty well right now.
The “Adult Hits” format lost its “format that eats the radio” status around the time that WCBS-FM New York, which was only starting to work through the initial missteps of its publicly derided 2005 launch, decided to return to Oldies/Classic Hits two years ago. Were Bob- and Jack-FM still a hot industry topic, you might have also heard the occasional murmur that despite its seemingly perfect blend of cume- and TSL-friendliness, it hasn’t shown the same sort of PPM bounce as some AC and Classic Hits stations.
Even in Canada, most Bobs and Jacks have settled into a realistic (although very tenable) place in the market. If you haven’t listened in a few years, some have finally added more jockless dayparts, after launching with airstaffs that set them apart from many U.S. operators. Some of the Jack FMs are now using a voice other than Howard Cogan, still the voice and sensibility of many U.S. Jacks.
So what’s happened to the format over the last 2-3 years?
1) Today’s Hit Music became more adult-friendly. In late 2003/early 2004 when American stations made their first foray into the format, the Top 40 hits were “Get Low” and “P.I.M.P.” And Adult Top 40 was riding the tail end of the Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox 20’s popularity, unsure how to handle rhythmic music. Bob- and Jack-FM didn’t just appeal to the 35-year-old who had grown up with ’70s and ’80s music, but to some 25-34s who found “Jessie’s Girl” as interesting as anything new they could listen to. Those windows of opportunity always slam shut at some point.
2) With the passing of time, the format’s perfect 35-44 sweet spot – right in the middle of advertiser desirability – is becoming a 40-49 sweet spot. It’s been a little odd seeing the appeal of the seemingly timeless “Jack & Diane” (and songs like it) start to erode under age 40. But that song is 27 years old and the math adds up.
3) The secondary ’70s and ’80s songs that were the format’s calling card are a little more marginalized with each year: less surprising to those who remember them fondly; less relevant to those who don’t. Last Friday morning, I heard two different stations play U2’s “Desire” — the sort of song that rarely tests, but usually sounds great on the radio — at the top of consecutive hours. That’s not a lot to hang a format on. And with relatively little music testing done in the format over five years, there hasn’t been enough opportunity to cultivate the format’s own body of hits.
4) The eternal question of whether to stay in the demo window or follow your audience as it ages is particularly thorny for those stations that were determined not to just accept being “Oldies for the Next Generation.” In particular, it means trying to delve into the ’90s and ’00s, and those decades offer fewer useable records to an audience that never loved pop music as much after 1988-89. But stations persist in playing “Barely Breathing” and “The Way,” even if they’re relatively weak records for the target.
5) Oldies stations were supposed to obligingly go away. Instead, they did redefine themselves as “Oldies for the Next Generation,” inspired by the success of WCBS-FM. It may be a while before an Oldies station can credibly play “Obsession” by Animotion, but Boston, Springsteen, and Mellencamp are all represented now. Meanwhile, Classic Rock stations which viewed the corporate and hair band eras with open contempt five years ago are coming to grips with finding five AC/DC songs on the front page of the music test. All of which makes it harder for Jack- and Bob- to be “Oldies for the Next Generation” even if they were so inclined.
6) It’s a marketing-driven format. And the tradeoff that most American broadcasters made — doing the format jockless and using the money for marketing instead — has been replaced by no money for jocks or marketing in these troubled times.
6) Many of the first PPM markets to go live had some of the format’s less-entrenched stations (Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston). And yet, there have been success stories. KCBS-FM (Jack FM) Los Angeles had an initial boost, then returned to its respectable diary-era trading range. WDRQ (Doug FM) Detroit has posted a good recent month. PPM will likely force programmers to find a compromise between their initial, “Ptooey! We spit on TSL!” posturing and tightening the format to the point where the variety benefit is lost. Chicago’s Jack-FM, WJMK, both dropped morning man Steve Dahl and tightened the playlist a few months ago. That has gotten it from the high 1s to the low 2s, but Chicago is a market where a station playing the greatest hits of late ’70s WLUP and WLS ought to be dominating.
Those are the challenges, but they shouldn’t be stoppers, and in St. Louis or Milwaukee, they haven’t been. (And while Milwaukee’s Lake still has that new car smell, the music has been played in the market for five years because of WQBW [the Brew].) Classic Rock hung tough against Bob- and Jack-FM in many markets, but there are certainly places where it is not the monolith it was five years ago, thus leaving Adult Hits stations something to own, potentially. The ’70s and ’80s remain one of radio’s last great shared experiences, at least until the Oldies format that plays ‘N Sync comes along. And there’s nobody who couldn’t use an opportunity to feel good with the music of their high-school years right about now.

10 replies
  1. Jim Smith
    Jim Smith says:

    > “… but Chicago is a market where a station playing the greatest hits of late ’70s WLUP and WLS ought to be dominating.”
    Hi, Sean.
    Curious that you would say the above without even mentioning Bonneville’s WDRV, “the Drive”.

  2. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jim. I’ve been a big fan of “The Drive” since its sign-on. And they are certainly part of the reason that Jack has had a rough time. So is WLS-FM’s “True Oldies.” And Jack is musically short-spaced to WLUP, too. Then again, when Jack launched, The Drive was softer and older than it is now. Even with suburban Nine FM, they should have had more room to maneuver and made more of it.

  3. Chris
    Chris says:

    Great piece. I think the age thing is crucial on why the format strugles. 70’s music hits outside the demo. You are in music there that was created when the key demo was under 10 years old??? If you are a 34 year old person today, in 1970 you wouldn’t even have been born? 44 today, in 1970 you were 6?

  4. al arneson
    al arneson says:

    I still think to run a professional radio station….call letters establish the station name as a professional business. In Minneapolis, 104.1 FM is Jack FM.
    The station needs live personalities to really compete in Minneapolis. It is too big of a city and too competitive to just play back-to-back computerized music.
    The Jack FM format I am hearing in the Twin Cities has some really good titles, but there is so much variety….the mix still needs more work. More refinement. I am impressed that songs I test with audiences in Minneapolis like Jet “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” are being played in higher rotation on 104.1 FM Jack FM here.

  5. Larry LeKool Hollowell
    Larry LeKool Hollowell says:

    Fantastic breakdown of the Jack and Bob FM radio phenomenon. I especially found the part about “the new sweet spot” of the format being 40-49! Man, time is really flying. The great musical diversity of the 80s will sustain a lot of radio stations for a long time to come. I think the label “new oldies” fits very well.

  6. Howard Kroeger
    Howard Kroeger says:

    Great insight Sean! I have always believed that the success of BOB, JACK (insert other names here) had a lot to do with what the stations did after the halo effect wore off. The guys who thought it really was all about playing everything and anything under the sun- were the guys who panicked and bailed first when the format didn’t meet their expectations. The stations that have had the most success with the format realized that there is a method to the madness. First off you have to jump in with both feet and recognize that at its truest essence the format is a ROCK AC-POP hybrid that has rules on what you should and shouldn’t play, and rules on where you should play those songs that might not have tested (because those are the ones that will still contribute to the oh wow factor). I have always believed that testing the music, and reading between the lines is what made the difference between a flash in the pan and a performer with long legs.
    Howard Kroeger

  7. Don Beno
    Don Beno says:

    I really think “good” air talent, not just announcers, is the key to longevity. Music like this needs to be “presented” properly, not just played.

  8. Greg "Cavanaugh"
    Greg "Cavanaugh" says:

    Seems in all this JACK “format analysis,” the music flow is left out of the equation. When the rock tunes were new, they were presented on AOR stations within a sensible, coherent music universe. POP and AC stations had their hit artists and songs and stationality.
    The JACK music flow does not make much sense to the listener that “grew up” with the music. Play a tune from one of three categories (AOR-POP-AC) and repeat.
    Howard Kogan is a great imaging voice…but those liners and sweepers will get played and played…until the listener KNOWS he’s hearing a format instead of a station. No jocks = all robot radio, or a well-stocked iPod over the air.
    Don’t forget, the songs originally were played on stations that were FUN to listen to…because there was more than the music to hear!

  9. Joseph Gallant
    Joseph Gallant says:

    Had WCBS-FM New York, when it went “Jack”, offered to keep the airstaff and tell them to inject personality on the air, I think you would have seen quite a station.
    A combination of the “wide” playlist and personalities would have made for compelling and perhaps top-rated radio.


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