Jack/Bob: When To Co-Opt, When To Fight

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.

7 replies
  1. Howard Kroeger
    Howard Kroeger says:

    Hey Sean,

    As always enjoyed your article. An interesting point about BOB FM in Ottawa that some people forget is that the station (and the market) also have to deal with a hit/non hit regulation, Meaning that 50% of their playist can only be hit, while the other 50% has to be non hit (protectionist policy for the French Radio market). As you can imagine with a hit based format, it’s a real challenge. The natural way to get around the non-hit issue is to look for some of those rock tracks that didn’t crack the top 40 but still tested….and sometimes that pulls you in a direction you might not want to fully go. As a result BOB FM Ottawa has not been able to enjoy the same full range benefits of the format that lets say a BOB Winnipeg, or a JACK Vancouver would…..

    Cheers,
    Howard K

    Reply
  2. Fleetwood Gruver
    Fleetwood Gruver says:

    Hi Sean,

    Ask Cary Pall (who put it on) or myself (programming this format since 1996): WMMO in Orlando invented Jack 15 years ago. We’ve successfully merged Hot-AC and Classic Hits for years and own the image of Variety in this market. Nobody else has ever had the guts to play The Beatles, Talking Heads, Cat Stevens, Blondie and Hoobastank in the same music set…yet we do it regularly.

    Fleetwood Gruver

    Reply
  3. Ross Davies
    Ross Davies says:

    Sean,

    Some observations for consideration:

    1. Bob has not taken off in Ottawa like other markets. I believe one of the factors is the CRTC regulation concerning hits/non hits that applies to the province of Quebec and the Ottawa/Gatineau market. (It’s all about protecting the amount of French vocal music.) Therefore, Ottawa, which is in Ontario but shares the Quebec border with Gatineau (formerly Hull) has to abide by this rule,…meaning that 50% of Bob’s music must be “non hit”. i.e. a song that never reached top 40 ranking. One of the keys to the popularity of the Bob/Jack formats is that you play familiar, recognized hits,..and thus in Ottawa Bob is playing the game somewhat handicapped. They try and bury the non-hits into evenings and non prime hours. With that said, it’s still a factor in Ottawa, just not as much as in other markets.

    It’s also up against some fairly well programmed and entrenched competition. Standard Radio’s The Bear is a very well run “Rock 40″ station, CHEZ has done a good job at cornering the classic rock format and Magic is a very solid soft A/C player.

    2. Another (lesser) consideration might also be that Rogers have their Jack format coming into the market from outside Ottawa, which despite a weakened signal, can’t help matters much for Bob.

    3. In Toronto, Jack has been slow to take off, but make no mistake about it, it’s getting traction. I believe one of it’s handicaps has been its 40% Cancon committment (inherited from its chr days). This is the one area of weakness for the Bob/Jack formats as a lot of the 80’s based Cancon doesn’t hold up today. Also, in its early days, Jack’s music was literally all over the place, and even though that approach is “part of the concept”, the station sounded very inconsistent at the beginning and I believe took a while to settle into the proper “Jack” approach for Toronto.

    Further, as you know Toronto is a much more competitive market with a lot more radio choices, including three varying versions of A/C and Hot A/C (Chum, CHFI, and EZ-Rock), a Hot A/C/Rock oriented station in The Mix, and Q-107 doing a very good job at classic rock with a strong morning show. It takes time to pry some of these listeners away from their favourite stations.

    As a result, Jack’s progress in Toronto has been slower. But they’ve kept with the format,..and they continue to market it heavily. I believe you’ll see it continue to show growth in the BBM.

    4. Last but not least, the original “variety format” that started all of this – Bob in Winnipeg- has now been in the format for three years,..and they’re still #1 25-54. Executed properly, this format has staying power.

    Hope this is of some help.

    Ross

    Reply
  4. Doug Fleming
    Doug Fleming says:

    Sean,
    As always, a good article. A point to note… I believe radio folk are mistaken about the Jack/Bob concept. What makes the format work in Canada is not the music it plays, but the entire package it has. It relies on something that radio here in the US has largely forgotten… live personality, production, promotion, and a counter-intuitive presentation that makes the entire package sound fun and interesting. What many US Jacks and Bobs seem to be missing is the entire package… PDs will copy the music and the production, but they leave out the promotion, the personality and everything else that made the first Canadian Jacks and Bobs huge successes. Speaking with friends in Vancouver, the first thing on Jack FM to which they identified were the people on the station, not the music. I find that very interesting.
    One other factor contributing to the Jack/Bob successes actually has to do with the music, but in a different way than has been discussed thus far. The Jack/Bob concept is not new at all. Roughly translated, it is called “oldies.” Successful oldies stations have used Jack/Bob musical tactics for years. WCBS, by way of example, when it first became oldies, used to play songs from several decades back to very recent gold. Heck, one would even hear a current or two in there as well! Sounds like Jack to me.
    What we’ve seen over the last two decades is a refusal among oldies stations to update themselves. Instead, oldies has become adult standards, and the next generation of oldies listener has been left without oldies on the radio. We are now beginning to see oldies stations include more 70s/80s product, but it has been way late coming, and the 70s/80s product is still often combined with early 60s or even 50s. These decades don’t match.
    To date, US radio stations have virtually ignored true 70s/80s oldies aka “classic hits” as a format. There have been plenty of classic rock stations, classic rock stations masquerading as classic hits stations (e.g. “Arrow”), and there have been plenty of oldies stations that have refused to update or have updated poorly. Likewise, there have been some fly-by-night 70s and 80s stations, along with nichey jammin oldies stations. However, to date, there have been very few classic hits stations that play “all the hits, not just some of them” from 1968-1985. What you have with Jacks and Bobs are stations resurrecting top-40 hits that serve as oldies for the next generation of oldies listener…
    Like WCBS did when it first played oldies, the Jacks/Bobs are largely recurrent from the last three decades, with a few oddball currents. Stations like Frank FM in Portland, ME really are oldies stations– just newer versions of them.

    Reply
  5. Cary Pall
    Cary Pall says:

    Sean:
    Fleetwood is correct. Examine Jack and you will find very similar rotations, song counts and era balances to the original WMMO format (we didn’t have Hoobastank to kick around back then, but no one else did, either!)
    Doug Fleming, you’ll be interested to know that a lot of what became WMMO in 1990 was inspired by listening to a lot of Toronto radio in the 70s and 80s (my dad lives near Hamilton). CFNY, CFTR, CHUM, CHUM-FM and Q107 all contributed to what became the WMMO format (find another American station that played Ian Thomas & The Boomers or The Partland Brothers). So, if Jack came from WMMO and went to Canada, it was only finding its way home, eh?
    Jack, like any other well researched format position, will survive and thrive (as WMMO has for all but a small, dark period in its history) on those stations that bring the whole package to the table. The lemmings looking for the quick fix will go over the cliff.
    Thanks for the forum, Sean…and thanks, Fleetwood, for keeping WMMO alive.
    Cary Pall

    Reply
  6. Lou Pickney
    Lou Pickney says:

    I found this page when doing research for my VarietyHits.com site. There’s some very interesting information on here about how the format has progressed in Canada, which might serve as a barometer for what we might expect to see here in the United States in the next year or two.
    I’ve been on the fence about including WMMO in the VarietyHits.com listings, though after reading the comments on here and looking at the playlist on WMMO’s website, I think it belongs…

    Reply
  7. Steve Imhof
    Steve Imhof says:

    As a listener located at the fringe of the wmmo broadcast area, I can tell you that the station leaves a lot to be desired. I know nothing of the industry protocols and it’s possible that their hands are somewhat bound. Here is my humble opinion of the station.
    I am 52, BS in engineering, and a 60-80’s music fan. I play the guitar so I can appreciate good music. And I am male.
    When I first began listening to WMMO I found it very pleasant. (I was sure to have it programmed on button 3 on my dash. Reception in the office was dependent on the weather, but I digress) It wasn’t very long after I started listening that I noticed they were playing the same artists over and over and over. And in some cases the same song, day after day after day. Many of these artists were not big hitters and some, like Elton John were, although I don’t think anyone would ever accuse him of being Rock. The thing I began to notice was that wmmo was missing the big players in the legends of the 60-80’s. If I heard the Allman brothers once in 2 days I was lucky. And when I did it would always be the one that was widely played during that era. Well, if you have ever listened to all of the Allman Bro albums you would quickly agree that there were tunes that never received the recognition that they should have over the air. But it doesn’t stop with the Allman bros. It applies to every artist. WMMO seems to rely only on the number one hit from a given album and the rest are ignored. Granted sometimes there is only one good song on an entire album, but that was rare back in the 60’s and 70’s. WMMO seems to lack the personnel to research those years. Now I am largely uninspired by the music I hear on WMMO. It’s almost as if the people who are deciding what is to be played never experienced the music from those years. It a totally sterile environment where songs are surgically selected and broadcast with no fanfare or comradery. They are serving up choclate pudding for people who are expecting chocolate Mousse.
    If they started playing the 50’s, for sure Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon would be heard day after day.
    As I sit here I am listening to a song that totally sucks. I have no idea who the artist is. I went to the website to see who it is and its Matchbox. Sorry but I haven’t a clue who they are. Their music totally lacks the character and quality that would allow it to be played after Mick Jagger. If I was Mick Jagger and heard that music after one of his songs, I’d be pissed. And now Billy Joel. God my head hurts. What a line up. Sometimes I think what a great technique this would be to interogate pow’s. And of course, how could an hour go by without hearing from Elton John like I’m hearing now.
    I complained to the station but their only defense was “then tell us the name of the song you want to hear”. Chit, if they have to rely on people calling in to tell them what to play then they may just as well pull the plug. FM radio is quickly fading as foul mouthed shock jocks replace programmed top 40. I don’t know if there is any hope for them with the advent of Satellite radio and high speed internet streaming any variety of music you wish to hear.
    If you all think that WMMO is the industry model, think again.

    Reply

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