Attack of Jack Radio
The new thing in oldies is an iPod imitator
When Greg Ostrozovich came back to suburban Chicago after a business trip in early June, he could hardly believe his ears. His favorite oldies radio station was history. As Ostrozovich tuned in to WJMK, he heard the brash voice of "Jack," bragging that instead of playing hits from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, he would play what he wanted. Ostrozovich, and the rest of Chicago, had been "Jacked."
As traditional radio stations face new competition for audiences from iPods and satellite radio, they are turning to Jack for their rescue. The format--no DJ s and a wide selection of songs played with no regard for smooth transitions (think Quiet Riot's "Cum On Feel the Noize" next to Billy Joel's "Piano Man" )--has been likened to the shuffle feature on portable MP3 players. Jack made its U.S. debut last year and is now in 23 different cities, from Dallas to New York ( www.jack.fm for stations where it airs). Imitators such as Bob, Sam, Hank, Jill, and others are in the markets Jack hasn't already filled. The format's current popularity shows how innovative ideas in one area of personal technology can ripple in unexpected ways.
In fact, Jack started as part of the Internet radio phenomenon. In 2000, DJ Bob Perry of New York City invented radio cowboy "Cadillac Jack" Garrett to spin a mix of everything he liked, regardless of genre. Vancouver-based SparkNet then licensed the format.
Jack first moved to American radio last year on Denver station KJAC 105.5. The playlist is simple yet large: a library of 1,200 songs, compared with 300 to 400 songs in a traditional station's library. But those 1,200 songs must have reached the Top 40 in the last 40-odd years. Matching tunes of similar styles is irrelevant on Jack stations--and sometimes discouraged.
The locomotion. " If they sound like they should go together, then we've done something wrong," says Robert Lewis, program director at KBPA/Bob-FM, a Jack clone. The unlikely pairings are called "train wrecks" in Jack's lingo because that's what it sometimes sounds like to listeners. The mixed hits go against the grain and can invite a wider demographic (25-to-54-year-old white listeners) to tune in. "Even if you don't like a song, the next song you'll probably love," says Perry. While human producers do pick the tunes at Jack station, that's not a requirement. Over at Bob-FM, a computer arranges the lineup.
"Jack," the gritty, sarcastic prerecorded voice that comes between songs, is the only talking listeners generally hear, besides commercials. The decision to go without DJ s probably doesn't hurt the bottom line, either.
But many say that a familiar voice to go with the music is what makes radio special. "The [Jack] format is bland and heartless; there's no communication," says DJ Bruce "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, a former New York oldies mainstay.
There are plenty who agree with Morrow. Lewis of Bob-FM asked listeners to sound off after the first 20 minutes of the format's being on the air in Austin. "Nine people said, 'I hate your guts, you've ruined my radio station,' " he said. "But eight people said they loved it." Not that Bob, or Jack, cares anyway.
Eclectic or Not?
Jack radio mostly sounds like hits from the '80s, as these eight songs played in order on Dallas 100.3 Jack FM demonstrate.
SONG ARTIST YEAR POSITION GENRE
Girls on Film Duran Duran 1981 5(UK) Pop
1985 Bowling for Soup 2004 3 Rock
Ballroom Blitz Sweet 1973 5 Rock
Fast Car Tracy Chapman 1988 6 Folk
You Might Think The Cars 1984 7 Rock
How Bizarre OMC 1996 1 Pop
All Right Now Free 1970 4 Rock
The Glamorous Life Sheila E. 1984 7 Pop
This story appears in the October 17, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.