You may have read articles about this in a music magazine, or a New York newspaper or two. There’s a new radio station format showing up all over the country. Promising “we play whatever we want” (or something so remarkably similar that the original, JACK FM, has begun litigation), these stations have music libraries of over 1300 songs that they keep in their rotation instead of the supposed 300 that most other formats use. Possibly inspired by iTunes and the shuffle feature (something I personally dislike, as I’m tend to listen to complete albums), these stations play an incredibly eclectic group of songs in no particular order. There could be Madonna followed by Outkast followed by Jimi Hendrix. They also play more music than most stations apparently, upto twice as much in some markets. In fact, as of this week, eight stations, all owned by the same company, are switching over to this format.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Well, first there’s the actual music change. Having the station higher-ups picking the playlists (as opposed to the DJs) is not a new concept. In fact, the “Top 40” station in the area, B104 (a Clearchannel station), plays the singles at the top of the charts at least twice between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, sometimes even more. Surely the DJs, who promise “Hits of the 80s , 90s and now”, would fill the slots between these top singles with any of the incredible amount of “Hits” from the past twenty years. Unfortunately, it seems that even with two and a half decades to pick from, it’s impossible to go a day without hearing “Superfreak”, or “Hotstepper (Word it up!)”. In the time that I’ve listened to them, it seems like they’ve totally forgotten the songs they were playing to death between 1999 and 2003, other than that damn Evanescence song that I used to like when Daredevil came out. If we go even broader, the Rock station (also owned by Clearchannel), has about forty years to work with, as they play “Modern Rock”, (read: Nickelback’s “Photograph” at least once a day), and “Classic Rock”, (read: KISS’s “Beth” at least once a day). They still have the same problem of the small playlist. Expanding your playlist four-fold would open up a whole new world of programming. I know these stations have the songs. The “Rock” station has specifically programmed Wednesday to feature “Songs that you haven’t heard in a while” between the everyday material. What prevents them from playing these more often? Probably the assumption that the audience likes specific (“popular”) songs because they’ve been played by the station already, and because other stations are playing them (the basis of “Radio Charts“). Of course the reason that other stations are playing them is that the record promoters are calling all of the popular stations and telling them to play these songs. The sort of pretzel logic that says that we like something because we have no other real options is why so many reality shows have succeeded on TV.
Second reason it’s such a big deal: This is the first response in programming to the looming threat of satellite radio. More and more people are switching to satellite because there you can be free to listen to stations more focused to the style of music that you are particularly interested in. In addition there are way more stations than you would have access to in a local market, with the exceptions of maybe New York, LA and Chicago. You have access to more music in general than you would have. The JACK/BOB stations are trying to fix this problem as well as the advertising issue. People don’t like to listen to ads, but in “Terrestrial Radio” (a term that’s popping up everywhere, used to describe regular radio. It bugs me that they have to give it an adjective in front of it to discern it from satellite , even though it was there first), ads are the driving monetary force, so in order to up the music amount while keeping the same ad time, in addition to saving money on personnell, the stations have made the following adjustment.
Reason number 3: NO MORE DJs. No longer are we interrupted with annoying voices that tell us what the song was, or who it was by, or what’s coming up, or dumb jokes (Ken Matthews and the “B Morning Crew”, I’m looking in your direction). Each station now has it’s own personality, instead of dozens of them, spoken over recordings between songs and commercial breaks. If you want to find out what song was playing, you can go to the station’s website (the L.A. one has a backlist of every song they’ve ever played, by time, complete with artist, album, cover art, label it was released on, and links to a review of the album and purchasing information, many times cheaper than buying it anywhere else) and find out there. The only problem with this is the gradual phasing out of DJ jobs, replaced by machines, something which I was never incredibly fond of… mostly because I’ve seen Terminator and The Matrix.
The point is these stations are giving us less talking, more music, more diverse music, and with an irreverent feel. The point is that this is the first wave of defense against XM and Sirius. The point is that soon enough our robot workers will rise up and overthrow us, forcing us to feed them with our energy while we’re laying, unconscious, in a tub of goo. In the meantime, enjoy this new format before it becomes old and all the stations change back to the way they were, or file for bankruptcy.
JACK FM and the copycats get four stars for their innovative (at least in the case of JACK) adaptation techniques and the fact that eventually this may lead to me not hearing Kelly Clarkson five times a day (literally), or the same REO Speedwagon song every afternoon.