Here Comes Jack

Imitation-iPod radio might be better than ordinary broadcasting-but is it better than an actual iPod?


Radio is nothing if not fashion-conscious, and the fashion of the hour is named Jack. Over a dozen stations have adopted the format in the last few months; the one in my backyard is Baltimore's WQSR-FM. Here's how the station describes its new sound:

Jack in Baltimore is a dramatic change from traditional radio formats. You told us that you are tired of stations that play the same 300 songs over…and over…and over.

102.7 Jack FM is playing what we want…the best songs from the '70s, '80s, '90s, right up through today no matter where you first heard them.

Join Jack as we blast away the traditional rules of radio with something different….

It's fun, it's fresh, it's what Baltimore has been looking for.

"Fun" and "fresh" are relative terms. I'm not sure if this is an early sign that FM radio is loosening up or a final gasp as it dies.

Jack stations do have a somewhat larger library than other commercial stations (the reference to "the same 300 songs" was not an exaggeration), and they're more willing to mix musical styles, albeit within fairly tight constraints. Jack stations frequently compare themselves to an iPod, bragging that listening to their broadcasts is like putting a playlist on shuffle. In practice, the outcome isn't really random; it's just carefully designed to sound that way. And while Jack's boosters boast that the format features "train wrecks" between songs of different genres, these won't impress anyone who's heard a really surprising segue. When I was a college DJ, I could shift from Beethoven to the delta blues; a friend once found a way to mix a Jimmy Swaggart record with "Old MacDonald." You don't have to be a freeform snob to think the format isn't as adventurous as advertised: BusinessWeek's Burt Helm reports that, as he listened to Denver's Jack outfit, "most often a vaguely familiar '80s pop song would collide with a sort-of-familiar '70s rock ballad. Somewhere, surely, a standard-format programming executive was going into a cataleptic fit. To my ears it was neither that jarring nor interesting." Indeed, "It often felt like I was listening to the soundtracks of several car commercials in a row."

I sympathize. I have extremely catholic tastes, but when I tune to WQSR I'm almost always bored. It reminds me of a station I sometimes heard in North Carolina as a teenager. Its TV commercials announced incessantly that it offered "Variety!"—then revealed that this meant playing both "Billy Joel and the Supremes." Any genre you like, as long as it's light pop.

What's refreshing about the Jack format isn't what it plays, but where it's taking its cues. By imitating the shuffle feature you'll find on an MP3 jukebox or an iPod, the Jacksters are essentially accepting that their competition isn't just other stations, but the many media that people have been turning to in preference to the radio. And if programmers are responding to a gust of competition from outside the federally protected AM-FM cartel, that means they're open to ideas in a way they weren't half a decade ago, when iPods didn't exist, netcasts were often inaccessible, and satellite radio had barely begun. For the first time since the last heyday of top 40 radio, in the '80s, there's a popular format that's willing to surprise people. (Top 40 playlists were infamously short, but they weren't afraid to include songs popular with different demographics.)

The most important economic fact about American broadcasting is that, aside from satellite radio and listener-sponsored community stations, radio is not in the business of selling programs to audiences; it's in the business of selling audiences to advertisers. The goal is to keep us tuned to their station long enough to reach the next commercial break. For the last two decades, the dominant philosophy has held that the best way to do that is to play the records that are least likely to make someone change the channel.

In other words, while satellite and listener-supported radio are oriented toward music fans, mainstream commercial radio is oriented toward people, and places, that simply want something playing in the background. (The same is frequently true of public radio, since its consultants and federal grant-givers measure a station's popularity with ratings designed to give information to advertisers.) So if you're a music fan with money to spend on CDs—or a file-sharing habit that makes money superfluous—you're better off building your own library instead, one tailored to your tastes rather than to a consultant's best guess as to what won't annoy you. In the past you might have turned on the radio to learn about music you hadn't heard before, but now you can do that online instead.

So now the consultants have designed a radio format that's supposed to imitate those libraries and the way people listen to them. That's new. But it's a pale imitation of an actual iPod. And that doesn't bode well if those iPods are your competition.

When TV came along, dumb radio stations kept playing sitcoms and serials. Smart ones figured out how to be something that television was not. The way to compete with a shuffling set of MP3s isn't to copy it. It's to do what an iPod or a jukebox can't do. You might, for example, hire some knowledgeable DJs who know how to mix familiar and unfamiliar music, to introduce people to records they don't know but might like, and to do all this in a show that's entertaining as a whole, not just a series of parts. (Indie 103.1 in Los Angeles has been doing exactly that, with critically and commercially successful results.) The point is to embrace radio's unique strengths as a medium—the ones the broadcast business has been burying for years.

The rise of Jack means that the industry understands it has to innovate. What's unclear is whether it comprehends just what sort of innovations are in order.