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You Don't Know "Jack"

On Friday afternoon, WCBS-FM in New York, home of legendary DJ Cousin Brucie, fired all of its on-air talent and dumped the "oldies" format in favor of the latest flavor in radio programming, known as "Jack" radio (I've also seen and heard it around the country called Ben radio and Dave radio—whatever radio consultant cooked up the naming idea deserves a special place in hell).

The idea is to replicate your iPod on shuffle. The station expands the playlist from about 400-500 songs to 1,200, goes from one format to having elements of about 10 formats, cuts down the chatter—the new Jack-FM has no DJs—and hopes to fend off you turning off your car radio in favor of whatever podcast you just downloaded.

It's an interesting strategy, obviously meant to compete not only with iPod but also with satellite radio.

Infinity Broadcasting, owners of WCBS-FM, has lately been very progressive (for radio) in trying to keep itself relevant, but this move appears doomed to failure already. By alienating basically 100% of the old CBS Oldies audience, the new Jack-FM is starting from a platform of zero fans. Wouldn't it have made more sense to swap in the format on a station where the fan base would stay and it could be expanded? Of course, the argument about CBS-FM and change is that the station wasn't able to woo attractive advertisers seeking the young demographic. The siren song of youth crashes yet another ship against the rocks.

I listened to Jack for a couple of hours yesterday, and it was okay, but if I was supposed to be getting the feeling of listening to someone's iPod, it was probably the iPod of a friend with incredibly obvious, middle-of-the-road taste. It did inspire an idea, though (in addition to this post).

If commercial FM radio really wants to become relevant again, maybe it needs to take a page out of its past as well as a page from what AM did 20 years ago when it faced extinction because of FM. Personality. Rush Limbaugh and all the other talkers out there revived AM radio. Finding and cultivating a new generation of personality jocks, the next Cousin Brucie (and Don Imus, Wolfman Jack, Frankie Crocker, etc), and firing the program directors with their rigid playlists and letting the DJs play what they want, when they want, may be the only way to create a market that doesn't suffer when compared to listening just to what you like or that's rigidly formatted by genre.

Not celebrity DJs like XM and Sirius are hiring, but real people who love music, have eclectic taste and have the ability to find and break new bands and songs, the way DJs used to. DJing as a hobby and as a profession is more popular than ever. You see DJs at hip restaurants and lounges, not just dance clubs and bar mitzvahs. Why aren't those people on the radio becoming big stars? Radio is an intimate medium. That person talking to you can become a friend, a part of the family. Why replace that with a borg spinning Steve Miller CDs?

Maybe it's crazy, but I've met Jack (and Ben and Dave) and he's no wolfman. Time for radio execs to hit shuffle again.