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Audio Killed the Radio Star?

Entry by Edison Research | Friday, July 1st, 2005 | Permalink

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.

Read other articles by Sean Ross

5 Responses to “Audio Killed the Radio Star?”

  1. Bill Cloutier says:

    When it’s all said and done, it’s the exceptional station that dominates without personalities. This applies to virtually every format. As you point out, the removal of jocks is simply another expense reduction in a time when radio revenues are down in many markets. Once again, senior management’s desire to not disappoint Wall Street is the driving force behind crucial product decisions. What a way to run a railroad — or a radio station!

  2. Jack Armstrong says:

    There are several valid points overlooked in the article.
    First, without Joxs to listen to the station is saying only the music matters. This will insure the audience will “punch out” the moment you start your endless 8 minute stop set. This means the people who buy the time will find the “Jox-less” station to be ineffective. Repeat buys will be next to impossible.
    Second, without Joxs the listenership will not be close. The audience will “skim” the station and that isn’t good for business either. See above.
    Third, people don’t relate to machines or computers. They relate to other people. How can a machine sell you anything you weren’t already going to buy? See above.
    Fourth, there are stations where the audience actually turns UP the radio when the Joxs come on. These are actually VERY successful stations that NEVER will be confused with the rest of the fragmented competition.
    Fifth, who in the hell is going to do the remotes and appearances…and don’t tell me some promotion guy that nobody knows. The people who buy these services still think the PERSONALITY on the air is the star. You’re going to have a real hard time convincing them that people on the air is a passe’ idea.
    Yours in better radio, Jack Armstrong

  3. David Martin says:

    Sean,
    Being a second generation broadcaster I have the advantage of being informed about Boss Radio learning from someone in the trade at its birth. Allow me please to set the record straight. As a child I recall hearing one of the original non-RKO Drake stations – KAKC. The station was tightly formatted but alive with strong talent. My father, one of those bigger than life personalities of 1940s black radio, heard the new Drake format and proclaimed it a winner. The banal,played out and lazy “disc jockeys” in Tulsa never knew what hit them. As it turned out playing the right records was just not enough. Nobody liked the Drake format but the listeners. The pure essence of Drake was not built upon the music alone but a tight list of hit music programmed in a well-produced way, imaginative promotions,lower commercial loads programmed in clusters and the best talent moving the station forward and entertaining the audience. One reading of the KHJ book by Ron Jacobs provides the proper context and understanding. Part of Ron’s genius was getting the right talent and then getting them to perform. The stories about talent not playing a significant role in Drake’s format are simply not true. The simple facts are the Drake format was a total package, one that worked to create contrast. Later as a talent, MD and eventually a PD for RKO I can say first hand Drew always made a big deal out of Drake’s basics including having great talent on the air – never did he discount the need to skillfully staff, the opposite was most certainly the case.
    What does the fact that a jockless station beating a station with jocks tell us? Unless we examine the context, the actual circumstance, it may tell us nothing in regard to the role of jocks. It may, however, serve to confirm a rather simple truth – some listeners prefer no jocks to bad jocks when they are presented no other options.
    In the final analysis all that is important is what comes out of the speaker, everything else is a footnote. David Martin

  4. Adam Jacobson R&R says:

    Sean,
    Another fantastic column with some very important facts and talking points about “Jack.”
    An interesting find on my end has been how unique — at least musically — each major-market Jack has been. KFMB-FM/San Diego is very pop-driven and features lots of the novelty songs that Jack’s predecesor, “Star 100.7,” aired when the jocks were having fun. Jack in San Diego kept Jeff & Jer — a built-in cume monster for a new format launch. The question now remains if Tracy Johnson will hire air personalities to fill out the rest of the day. If the answer is yes, the challenge will be to bring in the right talent.
    At its peak, “Star 100.7″ was the best Hot AC in the station, with daylong listener interaction, a talk-heavy music mix after morning drive and a fun, personality-based evening show. But the magic could only last for so long, and through staff changes keeping the momentum up while not burning the brand proved to be the ultimate challenge. “Star” in San Diego had proven to become a victim of its own success, as the station’s on-air cutesy “Hi Star, By Star” greeting had arguably become the most annoying radio feature for most San Diego radio listeners.
    In Los Angeles, Jack is now No. 1 English-language 25-54. Why then put Jocks on Jack and spoil the momentum? In the short-term, that may make sense. But keeping the station strong a year from now may have its challenges. But then again, maybe not. KCBS-FM’s previous incarnation, “Arrow,” was *all about the music*. Even with high-profile, highly liked personalities including Uncle Joe Benson, talking was kept to a minimum. Keeping Jack in L.A. jockless, then, is certainly something easier to do and may make sense because of the overall history of the station. Even KNX-FM in its Mellow Rock days was music-intensive. As Hitradio 93 KKHR, only Jack Armstrong (see his note above) provided any huge personality to the station.
    Sometimes Jack may be “all about the music.” Just make sure that’s what your market prefers, not what your bean counters in the front office prefer.

  5. Joseph Gallant says:

    I’m convinced that the reason most “Jack”-type formats in the ‘States do not use live announcers is a financial decision to cut costs.
    For most radio stations, airstaff salaries make up the majority of the station’s expenses. By eliminating the airstaff, a “Jack”-type format will make more profit, even if the station’s revenue goes down a bit. Without that high-priced airstaff, even lower revenues could mean higher profit.
    However, what I’d love to see is a “Jack”-type format with a talented staff of on-air personalities. It would be the most compelling radio station you ever did hear.
    Had New York’s WCBS-FM decided to have a personality-oriented “Jack” format, and gave the existing oldies personalities the opportunity to stay on, I think that at least a couple of them would have remained, and that the end product would have been “Must-Hear Radio”!

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