You Don’t Know Jack (or, Radio Tries the Shuffle Button)

Here at the Big Picture, we have been a fierce critic of FM Radio’s foibles. Long before it was fashionable, we have observed that the ever shrinking playlists have driven listeners away in droves. Thanks in large part to Clearchannel Communications and The 1996 Telecommunications Act, terrestrial radio version of Hamburger Helper created a huge opening for any company that could satisfy music fans desire for a diverse source of digital music. 

Apple has been the innovator who stepped up to satisfy that demand.

In an odd bit of inversion, a new radio format is seeking to imitate Apple: Its called Jack, and its been called "that
rarest of breeds: a bold new idea


Jack is a format that seeks to imitate the iPod shuffle play. It expands the radio playlist from 200 songs to 1,000 songs, and does it sans DJs: 

From Seattle and San Diego to Baltimore and Buffalo, more than a dozen
big-city radio stations have converted to a format known as Jack-FM over the
past two months. On Friday, even legendary New York City oldies station WCBS-FM
dumped ’60s rock and joined the ‘Jack’ parade.

Boasting they’re "like an iPod on shuffle," the new stations typically dump
their disc jockeys in favor of huge song playlists that mimic a well-stocked
portable music player. The Jack format, which is already spawning
imitators, could be a key to FM’s survival as an alternative to satellite radio,
internet radio and MP3 players.

At stake is the future of an industry that, while far from being on the
ropes, is definitely a little punch drunk. Negative media coverage has turned radio monolith Clear Channel into a top
corporate villain, while satellite radio has snapped up
5.5 million subscribers, with more expected to follow Howard Stern to the Sirius
network next year. Talk radio sputtered
after the election and industry stock prices are limping along.

That’s right, what passes for a bold new idea in Radio is  imitating a button on an iPod.  Jerry Del Colliano  called it "a case of technology triumphing over creativity."

And doing it poorly at that! 1,000 songs is hardly competitive with most iPods.   

At San Diego’s Jack station, for example, a recent morning’s playlist
featured songs from a 35-year span, from 1969’s "Gimme Shelter" and 1982’s "It’s
Raining Men" to Madonna’s "Vogue" and a recent tune by Nickelback. This is an
unusual level of variety in radio: music stations almost always stick to a
narrowly defined niche like
classic rock, oldies, R&B or alternative rock. The (adult album
), known as the triple-A format, typically blends old and new
rock, but pop artists like Madonna, let alone disco standards, aren’t part of
its equation.

"The appeal is that it reminds you of music you might have forgotten
existed," said Scott McKenzie, editor in chief of Billboard Radio Monitor. "We all
have our libraries of music sitting in our iPods. You recognize a song and say,
‘I love that.’"

It might be an unusual level of mix — for radio — but for iPod or mp3 users, it is Jack. On my way home yesterday, ran a shuffle play:

The Association         Windy    
Frank Sinatra            Violet for Your Furs 
*Frank Sinatra           Street of Dreams          
Roman Candle           Baby’s Got it in the Genes
Gypsy Kings              Camino
JayZ and DJ Danger Mouse  Justify My Thug
Bad Company             All Right Now
Stevie Ray Vaughn     Wall of Denial
*Stevie Ray Vaughn    Taxman
Led Zeppelin              Ramble On
Bill  Hicks                  Chicago 1989
REM                          Radio Free Europe
Beck                         Nicotine and Gravy
Sum 41                     Rhythms
Mose Allison              What’s Your Movie
Julie London              Watermelon Man
BareNaked Ladies      What a Good boy
Chet Baker                Let’s Get Lost
Stephen Lynch           Special Olympics
OAR                          Missing Pieces
Fiona Apple               Oh Sailor

*Dunno why, but I get a lot of doubles on my shuffle play

That’s from a narrow library of 8,000 songs. The full library is 10s of 1000s more. How can a list of 1,000 compete with that?

Further, I have storng doubts about a recent survey that "found that people who listen to MP3 players, internet radio or satellite radio
still tune to terrestrial radio two hours and 33 minutes a day, compared to an
average of two hours and 48 minutes among all listeners age 12 and up."

Bluntly, those numbers don’t make much sense. Between work or
school, and an MP3 player, who is listening to radio 2 1/2 hours per
day? That simply doesn’t compute for me.

Bottom line:  Expanding playlists to 1,000 songs from 200 is a small step in the right direction. But lets not get too far ahead of ourselves. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery — but we shouldn’t confuse it for true innovation.

Radio Industry Hits Shuffle 
Randy Dotinga
Wired, 02:00 AM Jun. 06, 2005 PT,1412,67727,00.html

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. fatbear commented on Jun 7

    so, short radio, n’est pas?

    After 40 years in the biz, it has been my unvarying experience that except for a few people (Turner, early Pittman, the late Paul Klein, et alia) what passes for creativity/originality is actually who can jump on the bandwagon fastest.

  2. idook commented on Jun 7

    sheesh… How about that old fashioned thing of letting DJs play music they like and take requests. For every “program manager” at headquarters one could hire – just guessing – 3 people who actually like music.

  3. JJF commented on Jun 7

    The saddest part of the death of radio is the death of the deejay. Still the biggest kick of any job I’ve ever had, I worked the evening shift for an FM station in the latter days of free-form radio a few decades ago. I was spoiled growing up on WNEW-FM in NYC, in its heyday, and hearing the music was just part of why you listened. The deejays were stars as large as any in the firmament. They were intelligent and informed, and brought a unique perspective to the music they played. Not only did they play great music, but you were smarter for listening in. Though FM was new and was able to take more liberties at the time, the same was true for Top 40 radio of the fifties and sixties: the deejays were stars and you listened to hear them as much as the music.

    The idea of radio without deejays is so antithetical to what I want to hear, it bothers me to no end. We had a local concert in the park Sunday (the reunited Gin Blossoms, first date on their tour), and we passed the Jack FM van on our way out. The two twenty-somethings were very friendly and excited to be talking with people. Unfortunately, I was the first person to complain about no deejays. That, in itself, is depressing enough. Anyway, they said, the stations are staffed 24 by 7 — it’s not like they fired everyone — and I still could call at 3 in the morning and talk with someone. But I don’t want to make a telephone call to talk to somebody about music. I want a radio station to talk to me. Play some good music, and tell me about it. What it is, who it is, why it’s good. Tell me a story, tell me something I don’t know. Just don’t be an iPod and think you’re doing me any favors. I can always find more music, and better music, than you’re going to play for me. I know what I like. But, dammit, give me a reason to listen.

  4. Jon H commented on Jun 7

    So they basically took the 200-song playlists from five of their ‘genre’ stations, and made one 1000-song playlist?

    Yeesh. That’s pretty much the worst of all worlds.

  5. John commented on Jun 8

    The death of the DJ is the true reason for the advent of radio suckage, primarily driven by monolithic corporate radio and its rewarding of conformity. One such station is WEGR in Memphis, TN. They had an excellent drive-time show called Drake & Zeke, but the program director, Tim Spencer, ran them off by being a control-freak prick; now Zeke’s on another station, waiting on Drake’s non-compete clause to expire. Those two are really, really good.

    Ahh, but WEGR still actually has a real DJ! He was let go and then brought back because the listeners wanted him back, as far as I kow. His name is Chris Jarman. That’s why the link above; Jarman is on 7p – Midnight Central time, and the station has a web stream. So if you want to hear a real old-skool disc jockey, the sort that can surprise you with songs (within the format, of course; no Sinatra!) and has the sort of on-air rap reminicent of true legends like Wolfman Jack, check out “The Jar”.

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