by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
The first 18 months of the Jack/Bob phenomenon went, for the most part, unnoticed by American broadcasters. Those who were aware of it often dismissed Jack/Bob as either something that made sense only in Canada, or as the latest successor to the short-lived all-’70s, all-’80s, and Jammin’ Oldies land rushes.
It’s easy to understand why many Hot ACs wouldn’t be inclined to stand and fight.
Now, as the second 18 months of the format wrap up, Jack/Bobs are popping up every week, or so. Billboard Radio Monitor’s Hot AC panel has lost four reporting stations in the last week, including two, WMWX (Mix 95.7) Philadelphia and WRQX (Mix 107.3) Washington, D.C., which launched their own version of Jack/Bob before somebody else could. Other Hot ACs, including WPLJ New York and WTMX Chicago, are starting to experiment with Jack/Bob-like imagery, usually as a way of showcasing library depth.
In many cases, switching to a Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid makes sense. Washington, D.C., is a market with a strong ’80s pop/rock heritage. Mix 107.3 would have been in the position of trying to protect a current-based Hot AC franchise against a station playing the hits it had helped invent. Programming history shows that while you may be able to head a newcomer off at the pass, reacting three months after a debut is always too late. But as with all format booms, there are likely to be stations flipping in markets where most or all of Jack/Bob’s major component franchises (classic hits, ’80s, variety, rock-for-women) are covered and the only conceivable thing missing is a station called “Jack” or “Bob”.
It’s easy to understand why many Hot ACs wouldn’t be inclined to stand and fight. Niched down to a 3-share-format in many major -markets, Hot AC hasn’t owned much since the late ’90s. The format has become gradually more reliant on new music since that time, but many of the singer/songwriters who made that possible have long stopped having hits. The records that the labels are offering instead are, in many cases, the same teen idol pop that Top 40 is relying on. Over the last few years, ’80s pop/rock has started to research well again and it’s scary to hand that franchise to somebody else.
But what if you would rather fight than switch? For that playbook, it’s worth looking at two Canadian markets where existing Hot ACs and Classic Rockers have had the most success holding their own, so far: Toronto and Ottawa. Interestingly, both markets pitted the company that developed “Bob FM,” CHUMGroup, against its Jack FM counterpart, Rogers Communications.
In Toronto, where Top 40 CISS became CJAQ (92.5 Jack FM) in fall ’03, Hot AC CHUM-FM and Classic Rock CILQ (Q107) have actually seen their 12-plus numbers increase. CHUM-FM, the market leader with a 9.4 in the fall ’04 BBM, has passed its 9.0 share of spring ’03, before Jack’s debut. Q107 was at a 6.1 in spring ’03. In the fall, it was up 6.8-7.3. The Hot AC most impacted by Jack is CKFM (Mix 99.9), which was at a 4.8 in spring ’03 and was off 4.0-3.5 in the fall, behind CJAQ’s 3.7-3.3. (Jack’s highest book was its debut of a 4.2.)
In Ottawa, adult-leaning Top 40 CKKL (Kool 93.9), already fragmented by Rhythmic Top 40 CIHT (Hot 89) at the young end, decided to protect its upper demos and become 93.9 Bob FM. Since fall ’03, Bob has gone 7.9-5.0-4.0-4.6. Rogers’ Classic Rock CHEZ has held in the mid-to-high 5s in that frame, while its new Hot AC CISS (105.3 Kiss FM) was up 2.8-3.8 in the fall. Kiss, significantly, seemed intended to siphon off any new music fans that might have been hanging around Bob FM by default.
As a longtime proponent of Bob and Jack, you wouldn’t expect to see me minimizing the format’s success in these pages, and I’m not. Both CJAQ and CKKL, of course, look better in demo. And one Ottawa programmer sees Bob rebounding in his internal research. But at a time when it’s too soon to tell which American converts will shake out as long-term winners, there’s an image of Jack/Bob as uniformly devastating. So it’s worth hearing from two PDs whose stations were clearly not devastated: CHUM-FM’s Rob Farina and CILQ’s Dave Farough.
One advantage that CHUM-FM had was that, like a Jack/Bob station, it too was successfully covering multiple positions. With Toronto’s Kiss gone, CHUM was able to pick up Top 40 listeners, even if Jack lured some of their Hot AC partisans. And like Jack, CHUM-FM has been a pop/rock hybrid since its evolution from AOR nearly 20 years ago. It’s a Hot AC whose top 10 currently includes the Killers, Will Smith, Kelly Clarkson, Collective Soul, Bryan Adams and Michael Buble. Most- played oldies include A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” Haddaway’s “What Is Love,” LeAnn Rimes’ “Can’t Fight The Moonlight,” Alphaville’s “Forever Young” and Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.”
Some of that broadness, CHUM-FM PD Rob Farina notes, is a product of the same differing radio landscape in Canada that produced Jack/Bob. “In America, it seems to be more important that you don’t dip in to the playlist of a sister station, rather than focusing on playing great product. So that’s made a lot of American stations incredibly narrow and given them a pretty thin appeal,” he says.
“We never abandoned our foothold in the ’80s. There was always a great representation of that product not just in our [Retro Lunch] but sprinkled in throughout the day,” Farina says, adding that CKFM had covered the ’80s as well. “The only change, which had little to do with Jack, was to decide that the ’70s show on Sunday mornings was more in [AC] CHFI and [CJEZ] EZ Rock’s territory, so we turned it into the ‘Lost ’80s Brunch.’
“When Jack came into the market, there was no void for them to fill. Jack came on like it did in Vancouver [saying] it was going to fill this void in the market and everything else was shit. But there wasn’t a perception that radio was shit in Toronto,” Farina adds. “It’s hard to steal from a radio station when the station is so highly perceived in the market. They put stuff on the air that was anti-CHUM-FM and learned quickly that negative advertising doesn’t work in this town.”
For his part, Q107’s Farough says owner Corus “had the advantage of seeing Jack go into Vancouver and seeing the damage done there. We made sure we were playing the tightest list of hits we possibly could. We made sure the music was extremely focused, then made sure we were as compelling as possible between the records” in hopes of offering something “that they can’t duplicate.”
Why did Farough respond to a variety-based station by tightening up? “In Toronto, [modern rock sister CFNY] the Edge and the CHR stations have played all those songs that Jack tried playing as ‘oh, wows’ over the years. What Jack thought was going to be ‘oh, wow” was ‘oh, my God, do we have to listen to that again?'” A lot of the music was already so overexposed in the market it just sounded dated.”
Q107 had also made a heavily publicized move away from Howard Stern to a more mainstream morning show a few years ago. “Q107 is a male-oriented station, but it’s not anti-female,” Farough says. “Yes, we’re targeted to the guys, but we never purposely do anything that’s going to drive women away. This market has five stations targeting 25-54 women and two solidly targeting guys . . . Because both Q107 and the Edge are male-oriented, but never anti-female, women don’t feel they have to go anywhere else that packages Classic Rock differently.
“Listeners only go to another radio station if you’re not giving them what they want,” Farough continues. “If they love you, they don’t go, ‘I’m going across the street, see ‘ya.”
In many ways, Farough and Farina’s advice comes down to “stay the course.” That’s a hard strategy for many stations to pull off. Even those stations that accepted the prospect of losing demos that didn’t really belong to them have been known to hold their breath for several months, and then panic and retrench a few months later, ultimately managing to alienate the listeners who stayed without reclaiming those who left. Besides, it’s much easier to brace for the loss of a share or two when you’re starting in the nine-share range.
If stations take stock now, some will find, as CHUM-FM did, that they are already doing the things that make Jack/Bob compelling. Some will find that there is a hole in the market for some combination of Classic Hits, Hot AC and broad variety. Some will find that their station depends on those franchises and they need to defend them.
And some will be distracted by the trappings of Jack/Bob, overlooking the success of WQBW (the Brew) Milwaukee, which combines Classic Hits, the lost ’80s, and female-friendly Rock in a much more straightforward package. Or, for that matter, KPLX (the Wolf) Dallas, which pulled off a mile-wide, inch-deep Country station with transcendent stationality, long before the first Bob FM debuted, much less last week’s arrival of WENS (Hank FM) Indianapolis.
The consumer press publicity about stations that “play anything” certainly gave Jack/Bob some additional cachet. In most cases, though, the most successful of its stations went into a market hole that existed a few years before iPod or the suddenly exploitable consumer dissatisfaction with radio. With the luxury to take stock more often, or a mission to do so, some stations could have found a potential hole much sooner. And some stations that take stock now may find out that the answer isn’t Jack/Bob, it’s the format that everybody will be copying two years from now.
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.