Jack Hits The Road In New York, But Hold Your Fire

The switch to Jack-FM two years ago at WCBS-FM New York spurred a million articles and TV news features about the end of personality radio, the death of Oldies, or both. And the return of Oldies to that frequency on Thursday will undoubtedly prompt a similar spate of articles declaring the Jack- and Bob-FM movement over, most of them written not in St. Louis, Portland, Ore., or Norfolk, Va., where some of the format’s torch-bearers remain more-than-viable, but in the city where an oft-reviled Jack-FM never achieved traction on par with Los Angeles, Phoenix, or even Philadelphia.
Even with the inevitable tapering off of any gold-based format, the detractors-and they were there from the beginning–have been surprisingly quiet up until now. Instead, the early buzz surrounding the format just kind of tapered off, particularly once it became clear in markets like New York, San Diego, and Chicago that the format wasn’t always going to consume the entire radio dial. But both the WCBS-FM change and the fifth anniversary of format originator CFWM (Bob FM) Winnipeg, Manitoba, demand that this early fan of the format again take stock of Bob and Jack.
It was during that period of hype that the most important thing about the Classic Rock/Hot AC hybrid got lost. The magic was never in Jack-FM’s “playing what we want” or a score of other variants, never in the “iPod on radio” concept, never in the jocklessness of some key U.S. outlets (more a matter of expedience than an aesthetic choice anyway).
What was important was how, from Bob/Winnipeg on, the best of the Variety Hits stations gave the audience that grew up sometime between Boston and Guns ‘N’ Roses their own music. Classic Rock stations often seemed embarassed by Journey and Pat Benatar. Hot AC stations doled out the ’80s between Matchbox Twenty records. At its best, the format replicated the Oldies format for an audience 15 years younger. And it reassembled the Rock and Pop coalitions thought to have been torn asunder in 1974.
We can say right here that the classes of 1977 through 1993 will never lose the desire to hear the songs they grew up with, any more than Oldies fans did, regardless of what happens to the stations that play those songs now. The short-lived “all-’70s” formats that sprung up in the mid-’90s just confirmed for some PDs that the ’70s had no legs. But a decade later, “I Will Survive” and “Staying Alive” were AC mainstays.
That doesn’t mean that three years haven’t at least dissipated the “shock of the new” that Bob- and Jack once enjoyed. For all the “oh wow” songs those stations played, they still had their hits, and some of the biggest-“Summer Of ’69” and “Jack And Diane” in particular-now show dismaying amounts of burn for most stations. Even “Sweet Home Alabama,” which two years ago had replaced “Unchained Melody” as pop music’s most universal song, has started to fry, perhaps because it’s used to sell fried chicken.
Jack-and Bob-FM tore Hot AC’s “’80s, ’90s and now” coalition apart. In 2004, clinging to the “’90s and now” portion of that coalition wasn’t a very attractive proposition for Hot AC. In 2007, AC and Hot AC suddenly have a “now” worth celebrating–K.T. Tunstall, Corinne Bailey-Rae, the Fray, Amy Winehouse–artists who at another time might have belonged mostly to VH1. And just as an occasional “Jessie’s Girl” couldn’t keep the ’80s listeners on Hot AC, once Jack came along, it’s hard now for Variety Hits PDs to take ownership of “How To Save A Life.” And since new music isn’t the calling card here, it’s unwise of them to try–but it was inevitable that many would, given the surprisingly small number of PDs who can come to grips with not playing new music.
And like any hot format, Bob-and Jack-FM drew the operators who were bound to diminish it: the owners who only saw it as an excuse to go jockless and put (some of) the money into TV again; the programmers who spread the same wrong records from market-to-market because they thought that research would somehow spoil the magic, or because they were just so excited about playing their own favorites again.
In New York, Jack-FM got off to a spectacularly rocky start. It replaced a station people loved with the most aggressive possible distillation of the format–too broad and deep; too current for the existing cume; too edgy presentationally. A year ago, the combination of new PD Brian Thomas, more cohesive music and new marketing finally began to move the needle, making Jack-FM a top 10 25-54 station, but never an L.A.-level monster, something that might just not have been possible given its launch.
But even if there is no Jack-FM in New York, there is still an audience for something newer than Classic Rock WAXQ (Q104.3), more music-intensive than WPLJ, more ’80s-based than WWFS (Fresh 102.7), and broader than WKTU. (And if that seems a little overly specific, well, so did the notion of an AC station between WLTW and WPLJ.) WLTW can play some of the big ’80s songs–even Bon Jovi–but they’ve got to stop short of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Funky Cold Medina” (or should). And without the stigma of having fired Cousin Brucie, some listeners may give themselves permission to enjoy a new station in a way that they might not have with Jack. The CBS folks seem determined to head this off, announcing from the outset that the new version of CBS-FM will extend into the early ’80s.
I’m not unhappy about having CBS-FM back. In an ideal world, the New York radio dial would have sprouted an extra frequency in 2005 so both Jack and Oldies could exist on the radio. The hole for Oldies never disappeared in New York–only broadcasters’ willingness to pursue it. Now with the advent of PPM, the format may be considered rehabilitated for the wrong reasons, but it doesn’t mean the results are wrong.
That said, if the ratings of WBEN (Ben-FM) Philadelphia are any indication, PPM would have helped Jack-FM as well, and will likely help any successor. So will a few months of rest and rehabilitation for “Your Love” by the Outfield and “Obsession” by Animotion. The listeners who grew up with those songs-and bigger blockbusters like “1999,” “More Than A Feeling,” “Like A Prayer,” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me”–will be a desirable audience for at least another decade (more, perhaps if an Oldies resurgence helps re-educate the ad community on the value of 45-plus). And if the industry has lost any fascination with the package that these songs came wrapped in for the past several years, maybe they’ll design a new one that works.

13 replies
  1. Bob Buchmann
    Bob Buchmann says:

    Sean…always great reading.
    It may sound alittle self-serving, but I’ll always believe one of the reasons Jack/New York never achieved the kind of success it did elsewhere is because here it couldn’t completely re-define the variety image landscape like it does in other places. I like to think the classic hits we combine into Q104.3’s mix, plus the deep (traditionally non-testing) album cuts we’ve always sampled, made it a bit tougher for Jack to turn the variety image on its ear.
    Just a thought…(and I’m sticking to it!)
    Bob Buchmann

  2. Howard Kroeger
    Howard Kroeger says:

    You have hit on some major points-
    You are right. The BOB Format was never really about “playing everything”. It was a researched rock/ac hybrid whose sole purpose was to play those great songs that resonated with the generation of people born between 1958-1966, who were too young to call themselves “real” baby boomers, and too old to be gemeration X’ers. The second part of the equation was to serve it up differently than it was being done, and that was give the station a “name” make IT the star of the frequency and have the jocks become the supporting actors.
    Unfortunately the idea kind of got hijacked along the way and for a lot of operators, those who drank the “play everything-screw the research-can the jocks kool-aid”, it turned it into big disappointment. Too bad because it could have been soooo much better.
    To be successful with the format- you should still be doing what good successful radio stations have always done: test your music, develop a strong morning show- and for the BOB /JACK stations run specials that package the music in a unique way -like Superstar 70’s Saturdays, This week in The 80’s, One hit Wonder Wednesday’s etc etc.
    Howard Kroeger

  3. Adam Jacobson
    Adam Jacobson says:

    Great comments about the viability of Adult Hits in New York. It is interesting to note that the return of WCBS-FM in New York comes just as Jack FM is seeing momentum in the ratings.
    However, after recently spending some time in New York, I wonder if it really truly caught on with listeners and advertisers in a resonating manner.
    Slow growth for a publicly traded company in a highly competitive marketplace may not be acceptable in the world we live in today. Then again, I am excited to see the “return” of my beloved WCBS-FM.
    Or is it a return?
    The “return” of KFRC in San Francisco is in many ways a sham. This is not the KFRC I loved. It doesn’t have the music mix, it doesn’t have the hosts, it doesn’t have the overall imaging and presentations. It’s like they took a donut shop and put an “H&H Bagels” sign out front.
    If WCBS-FM is coming back it needs to be done right – by incorporating the best songs that were on Jack from the 1980s and, if they fit, put them in the WCBS-FM music mix that should now focus on 1968-82.
    And, if they are smart, WCBS-FM should take a cue from WOGL – America’s best-sounding Oldies station (NOT Classic Hits, dammit) – and do a Sunday-night doo-wop shop or a 1950s/1960s focus.
    With the success of “Jersey Boys” and all of the longtime listeners in New York that still love this music, WCBS-FM should be the station to offer it.
    If not, then the “return” of WCBS-FM is for not.

  4. Tom Barnes
    Tom Barnes says:

    “We can say right here that the classes of 1977 through 1993 will never lose the desire to hear the songs they grew up with, any more than Oldies fans did, regardless of what happens to the stations that play those songs now. The short-lived “all-’70s” formats that sprung up in the mid-’90s just confirmed for some PDs that the ’70s had no legs. But a decade later, “I Will Survive” and “Staying Alive” were AC mainstays.”
    This should be carved into stone (or into the foreheads of any programmer who believes otherwise). Good or bad, People carry the music of their youth to their grave.

  5. Beau Phillips
    Beau Phillips says:

    The real problem is that Jack has no soul. Beyond the whiplash segues, awful imaging and Howard the voice guy…Jack sounds pre-fab.
    While that may play in superficial LA, it was doomed in New York.
    I predict that both WCBS 2.0 and K-ROCK 2.0 will struggle. They’ll either morph again – or change format again – within 2 years. To quote Paul McCartney (about a Beatles reunion) “You can’t reheat a souffl

  6. greg gillispie
    greg gillispie says:

    “Sweet Home Alabama” really replaced “Unchained Melody” as THE most universal song. Huh, how weird is that. Let’s see how many movies its used in and how many times the single will be released.
    Oldies in NYC – a natural. But calling something defined by decades, including the newly added 80s, not a natural. And not a good move.
    Do you really know anyone that refers to his/her favorite radio station by decades of music played? I didn’t think so.

  7. Jim Radler
    Jim Radler says:

    Hey, Sean:
    Great article. I’m one of those from the high school classes you mentioned in the article (’83 to be exact) and couldn’t agree with your assessment on this more! The people from that era may be some of the last who are heavy users of broadcast radio along with the new technologies, and terrestrial radio should be taking advantage of that, not closing their eyes to it.
    Jim Radler
    Program Director/Mornings
    K-98.5 WKMK
    Monmouth/Ocean, N.J.

  8. Ira M. Salwen
    Ira M. Salwen says:

    The part I don’t understand is why, when CBS-FM was doing well with its demographic and was a top 10 station in New York while 102.7 was struggling to find an identity, they didn’t leave CBS-FM alone and put Jack on 102.7!

  9. Brian Landrum
    Brian Landrum says:

    Great report on the return of CBS-FM. I listened on-line from down here in Mobile Alabama and picked out some of the same points you made.
    Was very listenable. Only things is I thought production wise it sounded a bit flat. The jocks didn’t seem to have much fire, especially for an
    exciting relauch as it was. Would have liked to hear some listener interaction and didn’t hear much of that. But these are the things a PD
    would pick out, maybe not the audience.
    Thanks for your weekly words,
    Brian Landrum

  10. Peter Fegan
    Peter Fegan says:

    Excellent article with many good points. If I may add my two cents. I wrote my own piece on this on my own blog (see attached link).
    I wonder how much of the decision by CBS radio to switch from Jack was predicated on the success of WOGL, rather than disgruntled New Yorkers?
    I agree with Ira on his point about 102.7. That station has been looking for an identity ever since it dropped its rock format.
    To Beth, you WERE listening to an iPod when JACK was on the air.
    And finally, to Beau Phillips. I fear he may be right. What is disconcerting about the switch back to CBS FM is the fact that not one of the management team, including the general manager, is over 40. None of these people understand the market and will in all probability end up pissing off the “core” CBS FM listener while doing little to attract the younger demographic they so earnestly crave.
    The most likely scenario (with JACK on HD and streaming) is that the loser of the format wars between 102.7, 92.3 and 101.1 will end up being the final destination for this format. It seems unlikely that CBS would invest SO much in this format only to have it sit in virtual land.

  11. Dave Mason
    Dave Mason says:

    Sean, you nailed it. “…perhaps if an Oldies resurgence helps re-educate the ad community on the value of 45-plus..” There are many “older people” disillusioned by the loss of an “Oldies” station in San Diego. “Jack” is doing well 45+ and so is the classic rocker. No one cares. Agencies want the stations who hit 18-49 and 25-54. There’s an enterpreneurial opportunity here if someone can find $$ in the 45+ audience. Greg Gillispie is dead-on as well. Eras don’t matter, even IF the audience references it once in awhile. It’s the feel, the experience. In the words of Austin Powers, “Ya got to have the Mojo”.


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