- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

Think the radio business is giving up its listeners without a fight?

You don’t know Jack.

Stations in Washington and Baltimore have joined broadcasters in other cities that are playing more songs with less repetition and fewer commercials.

This new format — usually called ‘Jack,’ but sometimes known as ‘Bob,’ ‘Doug’ or another simple moniker — represents the industry’s latest attempt to stem the loss of listeners to other media, especially IPods and commercial-free satellite radio, which is available by subscription only.

In the Washington area, WRQX-FM (107.3) shifted to a Jack-style format March 21. Baltimore’s WQSR-FM (102.7) adopted the full-blown Jack sound May 4.

The format is essentially oldies for people in their 30s and 40s. At any hour, a listener might hear songs such as ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper, ‘Super Freak’ by Rick James and ‘Iris’ by the Goo Goo Dolls, with one or two contemporary hits thrown in.

‘Until now, nobody has quite figured out how to do oldies for this generation. This is basically one-stop oldies shopping,’ said Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for Edison Media Research Inc., a Somerville, N.J., consulting firm.

The variety of songs played on Jack stations mimic an IPod’s ‘shuffle’ feature, which randomly chooses the music its users hear.

Apple Computer Inc. has sold 10 million IPods in the United States since it introduced the portable digital players in October 2001.

Overall, ratings in the 100 cities with the most listeners have dropped about 3 percent since winter 2002, according to data from the Arbitron Inc. research service. Ratings are down about 11 percent since fall 1998.

The Jack format originated in Canada a few years ago. Programmers in the United States have embraced it as they struggle to recover listeners who have been turned off by the homogenized sound on corporate-owned radio stations.

Jack stations typically have about 1,000 songs on their playlists.

In recent years, as the average amount of time people spend listening to the radio has shrunk, so have playlists. As a result, stations now play the same songs over and over each day — OK if you are tuned in for a few minutes at a time, but infuriating over longer stretches.

?This is a reaction to the perceived predictability of all music formats,? said Tom Taylor, editor of the Inside Radio trade publication.

At least 12 stations have flipped to Jack formats in the past year, usually with encouraging results. One Jackson, Miss., station that switched to Jack reports it now finishes first or second in the ratings, up from sixth place.

WRQX shifted to a Jack-style format March 21, when morning man Jack Diamond came on the air and criticized the station’s ?adult contemporary? playlist. He supposedly replaced the songs with music from his own IPod, first playing Jimmy Buffett, then AC/DC, the Bee Gees and the Beatles.

?On paper, it looks like a train wreck, but when you hear it, it sounds great,? said Kenny King, the station’s operations manager.

Since switching to the new sound, WRQX’s playlist has grown from 247 songs to several thousand, he said.

Most stations that switch to Jack do not have DJs, contests, news or traffic reports.

Besides the music, listeners hear commercials and the voice of an announcer, who gives the call letters and usually declares that the station now plays the music it wants.

Federal regulations require stations to identify on-air their call letters and the cities they are licensed in near the top of every hour.

When WQSR in Baltimore dropped its traditional oldies format and became a Jack station, it fired its disc jockeys, including Steve Rouse, who hosted the morning drive show for 17 years.

WRQX still uses nickname ‘Mix 107.3’ and has kept its on-air staff because the station wanted to only tweak its sound, not rattle listeners, Mr. King said. ‘We would say we play the most variety all day long, but the proof really wasn’t in the pudding,’ he said.

The Jack stations that don’t have DJs will eventually need to bring them back, said Robert Unmacht, an industry consultant in Nashville, Tenn., citing research that suggests listeners want to have a ‘relationship’ with the stations they select.

‘I’ve challenged everyone I’ve talked to to name a music station that has survived without personalities. They can’t. Radio is about entertainment, companionship and information. You need all three,’ he said.

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