Radio Turns to 'Jack' for Format Fix Melissa Block talks with Scott McKenzie, editor-in-chief of Billboard Radio Monitor, about "Jack," an increasingly popular radio format. McKenzie says the Jack format is sweeping the nation.
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Radio Turns to 'Jack' for Format Fix

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Radio Turns to 'Jack' for Format Fix

Radio Turns to 'Jack' for Format Fix

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The legendary deejay Cousin Brucie has met his nemesis, and his name is Jack. Jack-FM, that is, the format that, on Friday, replaced oldies on WCBS-FM in New York. Jack has been toppling formats at radio stations across the country. They call Jack random radio, whatever radio, a we-play-anything format. Here's a sampling of what you could hear on WCBS this morning.

(Soundbite of Jack-FM; song)

LED ZEPPELIN: (Singing) I want a whole lot of love, want a whole lot of love.

(Soundbite of song)

THE CURE: (Singing) Whenever I'm alone with you...

(Soundbite of song)

ALANIS MORISSETTE: (Singing) ...have your baby. I'm sure she'd make a really excellent mother.

BLOCK: Led Zeppelin, The Cure and Alanis Morissette. The driving force behind Jack is a company in Vancouver, in Canada. A station signs on, the consultants come in and shake things up. In many cases, they lay off or reassign the deejays. And they work with the station on a new playlist. Scott McKenzie is editor in chief of Billboard Radio Monitor, which tracks the radio industry. We asked him how random this whatever format is.

Mr. SCOTT McKENZIE (Editor in Chief, Billboard Radio Monitor): It's a very, very deep playlist that they draw on. You know, sort of up to 1,200 songs are on a playlist vs. some stations that are very tight with only a couple of hundred songs on them.

BLOCK: It's funny, you say a deep playlist. Twelve hundred songs, when you think about how many songs there are to play, that's not a whole lot of songs if you're thinking about really covering anything you want to play in the last--What?--five decades or so.

Mr. McKENZIE: True. And the reality really is it's not everything that's out there. It's still a very heavily programmed format. Some of them are rock leaning. Some of them are pop leaning. Some of them are rhythmic leaning. There's a country cousin called Hank. The list of names is growing, you know, your Jacks and Bobs and Mikes and Bens. It goes on.

BLOCK: How do those names come about?

Mr. McKENZIE: It began with a Bob format in Canada, in Winnipeg, where a guy had a backyard barbecue. It was a bunch of 30-something friends, and he started to take notice of what they were playing. He went and messed around--he was a radio guy--and came up with a version of Jack. He gave it the name Bob. About 10 months after that, Jack came along in Vancouver.

BLOCK: And do we know why it's called Jack?

Mr. McKENZIE: No one really seems to know. We've asked people within the format, and everyone will give you a different answer.

BLOCK: Now if you do sign on to this format, Jack-FM, are you obligated to play from a designated playlist? Who chooses the songs?

Mr. McKENZIE: No, the program directors at these stations are still choosing the songs. You'll notice market to market that there's a big difference. They signed on in New York with the Beastie Boys, but you're not going to see Beastie Boys on every Jack formatted station. And there'll still be a number of current hits on there as well, though they'll be very much in the minority.

BLOCK: And all the songs they're playing will at one point have been a hit. They're not playing some song you've never heard of before.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yes, they'll have been hits big-time. This is very recognizable music. It runs back into the '70s and the '80s, rarely into the '60s. You'll see K.C. and the Sunshine Band. You'll see Bowie, Nickelback in amongst it as well, or Gavin DeGraw, you know, for another current artist.

BLOCK: Well, Scott, what's the idea behind this? If an oldies station is switching over to Jack-FM, why are they doing that? Who are they trying to target?

Mr. McKENZIE: They're looking for a younger audience, a younger audience, they hope, who spends more than what a traditional oldies audience might spend. It gives them a bigger spread in their demographics that they're hunting which then, of course, makes them a little bit more valuable to advertisers. So, you know, it's the hunt for the elusive dollar.

BLOCK: I wonder if, in some sense, this is just redefining a tiny bit what we think of as an oldie. In other words, maybe it's not from the '60s and '70s anymore. Maybe now an oldie is, well, the '70s and the '80s.

Mr. McKENZIE: Very true, Melissa. The way some people have described it is oldies for young people.

BLOCK: Explain what you mean there.

Mr. McKENZIE: Well, mostly, it's, you know, music you're familiar with in growing up if you grew up through the '70s and the '80s. You'll hear a lot of that back out there again. And those people are now, of course, in that prime demographic where they're spending like there's no tomorrow, so it's an effort to try and capture some of that.

BLOCK: Scott McKenzie, thanks very much.

Mr. McKENZIE: It's a pleasure.

BLOCK: Scott McKenzie is editor in chief of Billboard Radio Monitor.

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