by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
In Canada, there was no rule that Bob-FM, Jack-FM or similar Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrids had to be jockless. CFWM (Bob FM) Winnipeg had jocks from the first Monday after its launch. CKLG Vancouver eventually added the market’s heritage rock morning team, which, despite being a high-profile show on a music-intensive station, only helped make that Jack-FM larger-than-life. In keeping with the format’s retro Top 40 feel, most stations not only had air talent, but also did high-profile contesting, usually some variant of the ’70s mainstay, “Don’t Say Hello,” where listeners had to answer the phone with, say, “Is that you Bob?”
Jocklessness has become, for civilians and industry observers alike, the format’s most defining and polarizing aspect
But in America, the spread of Bob, Jack and friends has become an industry referendum on the value of on-air talent, particularly after the Jack-FMs in Nashville, Baltimore, or New York displaced viable Oldies stations and, with them, heritage air talent. Those stations have gotten a lot more publicity than the American outlets with jock staffs (Bonneville’s outlets, for instance), to the point where jocklessness has become, for civilians and industry observers alike, the format’s most defining and polarizing aspect. That debate isn’t likely to be settled by the long-term success or failure of this format, but to some extent, history has already weighed in.
Some of the impetus for jockless Jacks- and Bobs is likely economic. Many GMs couldn’t consider doing the heavy external marketing that helps drive the format without taking that money from somewhere else in the budget. But some of the debate stems from an earnest belief in “better living through jocklessness” that we’ve seen popping up in some form for the last 18 years: programmers who believe that writing and production can more effectively image the format and provide entertainment than any “disc jockeys,” who would just undermine the unique sound of the format anyway, they believe.
Much of the history of radio programming is, of course, an ongoing debate on the role of the DJ. The rise of “Boss Radio” in 1965 and the “Q” format in 1971 each saw a further streamlining of on-air personality and a bitter accompanying debate. Forty years later, only a few holdouts would still insist that stations like KHJ Los Angeles or CKLW Detroit were devoid of personalities. But anger over the Drake format raged until “Q” came along and tightened things up even further. And when the streamlining of radio could go no further, leading us to a liner-card-driven ’80s that was much harder to defend than Drake or “Q,” the debate segued from “what should jocks do?” to “why have jocks”?
Until 1987 or so, most U.S. programmers had given up the belief that jockless was better. The automated Top 40, Oldies, and Soft AOR FMs of the ’70s that promised “no hype” in the ’70s had fallen by the wayside-at least in major-markets. Even satellite networks tried to sound local, hoping that listeners never figured out why timechecks were only given as “22 past the hour.” For a major-market station, being jockless even in overnight was enough to prompt rumors of financial instability or impending format change.
But the late ’80s saw two key developments. One was the success of Top 40 KKLQ (Q106) San Diego. Q106 would eventually unveil a pretty strong air staff including Jack Murphy, Jojo Kincaid, and Whitney Allen, but its jockless sign-on lasted longer than any I can remember up to that time. After that, jockless was the rule, not the exception, for CHR launches, and it eventually spilled over into regular programming as major-market stations like KIIS Los Angeles and WBBM-FM (B96) Chicago experimented with jockless hours or dayparts-and not just overnights.
It was also around that time that even stations with full staffs started letting them take a backseat to the station’s production and imaging. By the late ’80s, the battle between WFLZ (the Power Pig) Tampa, Fla., and WRBQ (Q105), had shown that a station with a staff of market veterans could be vulnerable, not venerable. Now, imaging wasn’t just being used to say provocative, Power Pig-like things such as, “Lock it in and rip the knob off” or “Don’t be a dickhead,” it was also used for more mundane things that had once been the job of the air-talent, like giving the request line number. I remember one late ’80s PD commenting that WHTZ (Z100) New York was only doing four jock breaks an hour; that prompted another PD to brag that he was only letting his staff talk twice.
But over the next decade, the Cult of Personality struck back. Howard Stern’s multi-market success wasn’t good news for those who believed that personality had to be local, but it did prove that something could be more compelling in the morning than six records an hour. Urban radio, which had embraced “more music, less talk” as part of its 1980s streamlining, returned to its community roots, not just because of the success of Tom Joyner, but also because of stations like WGCI-FM Chicago or WQHT (Hot 97) New York, with high-profile DJs (and sometimes celebrities) in multiple dayparts.
Eventually, foreground personality again found champions in multiple formats. PDs bragged about cutting the number of records in morning drive and seeing the numbers go up. Group execs swore that in an era where anybody could play the music, it would be strong personalities that differentiated local radio from satellite radio and ensured its ongoing survival. Full-service AC radio, demolished in the early ’80s, made a comeback, this time on FM music stations.
Even during this resurgence of personality, jocklessness hardly went away. Signing on with “10,000 songs in a row” became the stunt of choice for most new stations. And while sustained jocklessness was once again viewed as a management vote of no confidence in a station’s long-term prospects, a few soldiered on nicely for years without them, particularly KCDA Spokane, Wash., which has instead used pre-recorded backsells for songs since 2003. And the late ’90s rise of voice-tracking resulted in a lot of breaks that were not easily distinguished from produced drop-ins. It is telling, in fact, that when “Jack-FM” replaced Oldies WCBS-FM New York, some listeners initially thought that the snarky station voice was a live D.J.
In America’s first 21 months of hosting Bob, Jack, and friends, you can find stories that support almost any position on whether this format needs air talent to be viable long-term. KQOB Oklahoma City, the longest running American “Bob,” was built around the high-profile morning show from rival KRXO. KPYA (Bob FM) Austin, Texas, the biggest 12-plus success story to date, has a jockless morning show but hosted middays and afternoons. Early adapters with various presentations have all shown an initial leveling, whether it’s the fully hosted KPXK (the Peak) Phoenix, the jockless KJKK (Jack-FM) Dallas, or KJAC (Jack-FM) Denver, which added jocks last fall.
So you probably won’t get any answer on jocks at Bob- and Jack-FM any sooner than you’ll get one on the format’s overall longevity. And the long-term durability of any individual station is probably going to come down to whether there was room for it in the market. Without a musical hole, a transcendent presentation is only going to get you so far–whether that presentation is live or jockless. But there are some things about the importance of air talent that we already know.
1) Throughout radio’s experimentations with jocklessness, there have always been listeners who find jockless radio appealing. And even as New York’s Jack has some fun on-air by letting listeners audition to be “Jack-Js,” it’s also making a point of putting the “please don’t ever have DJs” calls on the air as well.
2) That said, the stations that have sustained long-term jocklessness have been the exception. You can make a long-term commitment to the sort of writing and production that can give you stationality without DJs, but there were some very good late ’80s programmers who found that too tall an order to keep up indefinitely. And even though jocklessness was just one of the scary things that was happening to radio in the late ’80s, its initial rise does coincide with the beginning of lower listening levels.
3) Radio programming history shows that it’s a lot harder to fix your vulnerabilities or co-opt a competitor’s images six months after their debut. For that same reason, introducing jocks after, say, a year, may just be the worst of all worlds. The folks who just want music are dismayed. The listeners who want companionship from the radio have moved on. It is unlikely that any actual listener would think, “Now that I have heard all the exciting ‘oh wow’ songs that this station has to offer, this would be a good time for some more content.” Programmers who launch jockless always figure they can tackle the jock issue down the road. But if you have an inkling that you might need them, it’s probably best not to wait too long.
4) There’s no rule that offering somebody a music-intensive format requires not having jocks. Consider my recent discussion with a 23-year-old co-worker who had switched to Jack from WHTZ (Z100)’s Morning Zoo. “I like that they don’t have a morning show. That’s why I also listen to [WLTW] Lite-FM in the morning,” she said. Lite FM, of course, has a two-person morning show and has just added a third teammate. But what my colleague meant was that she wanted music in the morning-it wasn’t absolutely imperative to her that the experience be unsullied by human contact.
In that way, it’s no more incredible that a listener could both want music in the morning and companionship or services than it is that they could simultaneously complain to researchers both about too much talk and about not being told the names of the songs. At a recent R&R convention panel, Federated Media’s Tony Richards responded to the notion that Jack listeners had said they didn’t want jocks by noting that no listener would say they want more jock presence. Recently, though, we did experiment with a question where Hot AC listeners were told the benefits of having a live jock-with the issue presented carefully, a clear majority of listeners did opt for personality over music-only.
One irony here is that for many years as an Oldies station, WCBS-FM simultaneously offered the most music-intensive morning show and the most information and services on FM. Former WCBS-FM morning man Harry Harrison was the product of an era when listeners’ choices hadn’t yet been culled down to Howard Stern on one side and 10 records an hour. It was an era where talent could be funny and entertaining over the intros-and if we’ve reached the point where the only way to have amusing 10-second content between the records is to produce it, then shame on us. I love hearing great writing on-air. And I particularly miss hearing DJs who can do it.
Is there air talent that could reflect the “different” feel of a station, rather than undermine it? Well, I would have liked to hear former WCBS-FM p.m. driver Bob Shannon on Jack; his sense of humor feels like it would have fit. Beyond that, you wouldn’t necessarily want imaging and air-talent to mirror each other. Produced promos in the “Q” era were laid-back, a deliberate counterpoint to the screaming air talent. The lessons of 1989-where listeners found “don’t be a dickhead” amusing, but not indefinitely, suggest that it might make sense to have a “good cop” in the mix as well.
Finally, one personal story: in 1994, as PD of an R&B Oldies AM, I managed to reconfigure the air staff so that my previously jockless overnights were manned at all hours, except 3-4 a.m. Up until that time, the phones had tapered off at 10 p.m.-two hours before the night jock left. Once listeners knew there was somebody to talk to, the phones kept ringing. And the night numbers improved-even in the hours when the same jock as before was on the air. Five years later, of course, an Oldies AM would have been lucky to have any live and local personality–much less in overnights.
Proponents of strong air talent should take up the challenge to develop personalities that are as effectively different as the new stations’ presentation-or, perhaps, personalities who are classic in a way that transcends it. You can look at any major personality in the days before Howard Stern and many since-chances are, they both rode the wave of the exciting new body of music that powered their stations and embellished it. There is no reason that jocks shouldn’t be able to do the same for this new body of Oldies as well.
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.