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for June 8, 2005

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Bawling The Jack
by Sean Carolan

It's a rare day indeed that someone tries something new in New York radio. New York's not where the tryout happens - it's where the finely tuned roadshow finally comes in for a shot at the "real" audience. Of course, when that does actually happen, New Yorkers never acknowledge that anything ever exists before it appears in New York. So goes life in the Big Apple.
And so it goes with Jack FM, the new format at 101.1 FM. The press in New York are focusing on two aspects of the story:
- It replaces venerable WCBS-FM, which has been New York's flagship oldies station since 1972 (following a brief rock format dating back to 1969, back when FM was still considered a money-losing radio band.)
- It's a format that "plays what it wants". (This is, of course, hooey, but more about that in a moment.)
Back on Memorial Day, I listened to a couple of hours of WABC Rewound, where they played several hours of old WABC airchecks (thus giving WABC's usual conservative talk blowhards a day off for the holiday.) It was actually fun to listen to; they knew a thing or two (or two thousand) about making the station sound energetic back in the days before digital production, mostly based on the hosts who, it's got to be said, really put a lot of themselves into the station's sound. This is ths sort of sound that caused British radio in the sixties to look at American radio and say "wow, American radio has such a free and open sound; why can't we have that?" The british public craved that sound so much that broadcasters actually put out to sea in rusty ships equipped with huge antennae and dodgy electrical systems, defining the era of pirate radio. A few minutes of the WABC aircheck confirmed the format's openness - they played Steppenwolf into Stevie Wonder into the BeeGees in 1971 - and of course, the Beatles were always lurking.
That format, given a post-modern veneer, is pretty much what makes up Jack. One thing Jack's missing is a new edge - WABC always played whatever was a hit right now, while the entry criteria for Jack seems to be that every song be very familiar - and if a song's popularity bleeds over into other formats' audiences, it's a shoo-in.
I'm not shedding any tears for WCBS-FM's Oldies format, though. It really wasn't playing 40 years of oldies anymore, and was pretty much as good an example of an oldies station as most alternative stations were examples of their formats when they got switched off. No matter; Oldies 101 still exists on the Internet, of course, and the station's web page strongly hints that it'll be available again when WCBS's HD Radio signal goes live.
I'm still not sure, however, whether Jack's a good thing. It uses the popularity of MP3 players' "shuffle" mode as a springboard - or an excuse - for its format. Its very existence is somewhat disingenuous, too - apparently, it wasn't okay for radio to mix genres until people could actually demonstrate that it was what they really wanted all along.
Which makes one wonder: if the best that radio's most fertile programming minds can come up with is an emulation of a random algorithm that most people can do themselves, isn't it more of a surrender than anything else?


©2005 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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