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bob don’t mean jack
the devolution of corporate radio continues
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)
6.27.05
music

Hello, it’s me. Talking about the condition of terrestrial radio again.

Why?

Because I’m an idiot.

There’s a new sensation sweeping the nation. New York. Dallas. Chicago. Los Angeles. Seattle. Des Moines. Its name is Jack. Or perhaps Bob. The goal is to make you feel warm, fuzzy and slightly sedated with the sounds of your past. It’s a new oldies format for the 35-44 set, and like the first name implies, it’s been personalized, just for you, with 2,000 songs selected by someone else.

Gone are the pop ditties like “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Love, Love Me Do” and “Summer Breeze.” The audience that liked those are too old to sell to now. Enter in the new era of oldies –- 70s, 80s 90s and some Santana featuring Michelle Branch. But hipper and better because hey! It’s like an iPod! The music repeats on shuffle, and doggone it, you just never know what you’ll hear next! Oh, the novelty!

Certainly, there’s an element of surprise to all this. At first. It’s one of the most attractive things about having massive amounts of music at your fingertips.

Psssst -– hey. Here’s a little secret, though.

Thousands of songs have been produced in the past 35 years. You just haven’t heard them since long-play, album-oriented radio was poisoned in its sleep 25 years ago because you know what?

“They” didn’t want you to.

So now, “they” finally open up the music vault. After 25 years of spoon-feeding us a record company-induced dreck rotation of 10 hits, 10 recurring hits, 20 subcurrent hits and 340 “favorites” (the selection of which was tightly controlled by deaf people held hostage in a hotel convention room focus group), “they’re” saying “Hey! We have 2,000 songs to play with now! Whoo-hoo! Party on your radio iPod! Go crazy!” We’ve wanted variety for all these years, and this is what “they” give us.

And ya wanna know another tiny secret? Come a little closer…a little closer…

It’s all the same crap!

Only the hits, baby! Only the chart-toppers! Never thought of “Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car” followed by “Freebird” then “Luka” next to “Tubthumping”? No problem! Jack or Bob will do it for you! You’ve heard these same songs over and over, but whoa! Not in this crazy, wacky, party pack!

Shuffle! Repeat!

And while shuffle is supposed to equal diversity, it’s really not. Since it’s still predominately hit-oriented, the format is most certainly a stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth white bread and mayo music mix. Almost everyone I know that owns an iPod has a broad musical palette, and relish sharing their philosophy as to why selections of Miles Davis, Rush, Rilo Kiley, Ivan Lins and They Might Be Giants taste great together.

Corporate wonks totally seared their taste buds on too many sour Diane Warren songs smothered in a burnt Limp Bizkit rock/rap sauce.

And who names a station Jack or Bob? Why not The Big L for lost, lazy losers? Speculation is that without the majority of the airstaff to talk up and back announce the music you already know, that “personal” feeling is missing. Hey! Here’s an idea! Let’s give the station a name, then the listeners will (gasp) think it’s someone’s personal music selection! Oh, the novelty! Whoo-hoo! Party on your radio iPod!

In Des Moines, the shuffle station is called The Bus. ‘Cause you know, when I think music, I think large, stinking urban transit vehicle. They have tacky promo drops toned by The Big-Voiced Promo Guy, belching statements like “Get on The Bus – We Play Everything” and “We’re Just Like an iPod on Your Radio” and the Honesty in Promotion Hall of Fame Winner: “You Were Going to Do Some Shopping Today Anyway – Why Not Do It With the Advertisers You Hear on The Bus.”

Lost, lazy losers.

The Big-Voiced Promo Guy draaaawls, like he mouthed a steeped mixture of Quaaludes and Cuervo Gold backstage at a Steely Dan concert back in ’74 but hasn’t swallowed. And so far, aside from commercials done by the sole personality/morning guy and the :10 tagalong secondary female promo voice, Promo Guy is the only voice I’ve heard on the station.

The format is high classic rock, with a few Matchbox Twenty and Roxette tunes thrown in to buzz the females. But The Bus is not without a few “surprises.”

A disclaimer: I suffer from Former Programmer Disease, which means I can isolate and identify formulaic rotation patterns and category music slotting even while unconscious, naked and tied to the top of a swaying palm tree. Thus, I am not, per se, the “average” listener, and I realize that. Nevertheless, this is the random background noise heard in 25 minutes the other day, in this order:

Peter Frampton – “Baby I Love Your Way” (acoustic version)
Berlin – “No More Words”
The Allman Brothers Band – “Whipping Post”
Stevie Wonder – “Superstition”
KC and the Sunshine Band – “Shake Your Booty”
Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Oh yes, they actually played KC next to, well, KC, with nary a station positioner in between to stem the flow of blood coming from your ears. The songs themselves? For hits, not a bad selection. But the flow? It’s known as “train wreck” in industry parlance and no self-respecting, sober music director would have allowed it to air.

But the computer! The computer is a free agent! Whoo-hoo! Party on your radio iPod! Format? We don’t need no stinkin’ format! Style and sound identity is relative, baby! We break all the rules!

What would have warranted firing five years ago is now radio de rigueur.

To listen to this format is how it must feel to go through the Star Trek transporter, with the molecules of the body reforming and mind traps everywhere. “I’m in legwarmers – no, I’m on my kindergarten nap rug – wait, I’m necking with Joe Bob in the swamp Jeep – no, I’m Aqua-netting my hair for the dance – hey, my first credit card bill!”

Jack, Bob, The Bus – they represent the devolution of corporate radio. In boardrooms across that land, the question was presented: How can we cut costs, increase ad revenue and get rid of those pesky A&R calls promoting new music every Tuesday?

1) Cut the airstaff by 75%!
2) Let the computer play nothing but oldies! Anything before, say, five years ago is just fine! Just load 'er up and let ‘er rip!

Shuffle. Repeat.

Recycling is good for bottles, cans, plastic and old tires. But we’re supposed to progress as a culture, and artistic expression is a symbol of that forward motion. The venues for current music continue to slip away, but instead of building off the promotion of new music, which was once the foundation of the medium, corporate radio is content to settle back in fuchsia condos in Miami and watch the world pass it by while complaining about financial lumbago and those whippersnappin’ downloaders.

I sound slightly disgruntled with the industry I left behind, don’t I? Can I help it if it's all stupid now?

So for all you 35-44 folks out there, let me say this.

Please, come a little closer…closer…just a little to the left…

HEY!

There's not a wee pig of cuteness reciting “BA RAM MU” at you! Just because they build it doesn’t mean you have to come! These are not the droids you’re looking for!

Turn off the radio. You don’t need to relive your past. You had bad hair, horrible acne and no sexual prowess. These days, you can choose your own music, thank you very much. So shuffle yourself off to the nearest listening station at your independent audio store, rub your eyes, take a good look around, then pick up any ole’ thing off the new release rack and pop in a machine. Sample. If you don’t like it, find something else. That's right - party on your iPod.

Shuffle. Repeat.


ABOUT TRACEY L. KELLEY

Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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COMMENTS

robert melos
6.27.05 @ 1:17a

NYC's CBS-FM became Jack radio over night. It sucks. Not so much the mish mash as much as I miss the deejays. I liked Bob Shannon, and Cousin Brucie. I liked the oldies. I'm not old enough to remember the 50s and 60s music as first time around, but I love it.

Also the way it was done -- the firing -- was ruthless. Very corporate America style. I'm not a corporate type person. Maybe I'm too independent for corporate life. I just think the all out greed of the 00's makes the greed of the 80s look friendly.

Thankfully I've discovered iTunes and burn my own cds. I can still be eclectic, and have discovered some interesting versions of favorites. Sure I pay .99 cents for downloading the songs, but I also have a bunch of cds with one or two songs I like, so now I upload them to my laptop, and then burn them on to a cd with a bunch of other songs I like. Now it really is "Bob" radio, as I'm the Bob and I choose what I hear. Oh, and no sponsors either. Just me and my cd player.

russ carr
6.27.05 @ 1:34a

Heh. You beat me to the punchline. My answer to iPod radio was... to buy an iPod. My car stereo is now left on AM radio for baseball. If I want music, I plug in the 'Pod, which is named for no one.

dave lentell
6.27.05 @ 8:38a

Well that explains this weekend's "What the Hell?" moment. Went with the wife and kid to help her run some errands and when she's in the car, we listen to the radio. With the seemingly random artist/era/genre coming out of the speakers... I thought I was in some wacky science fiction/horror movie where the radio changes channels of it's own accord. I was waiting for Carol Anne's voice to come on and say "They're HERE!"

Since I don't pay attention to radio (other than sports radio) in this town, it's nice to know you're watching out for me Tracey. Though for the record, there's nothing wrong with Roxette. But I'll admit, they're no Rilo Kiley.

sandra thompson
6.27.05 @ 8:41a

My musical tastes run to the real oldies from the 18th and 19th centuries, so my favourite radio station still does it right: NPR. We used to have an oldies FM station that played "classic rock" with a Zep tune at least once an hour, but they quit doing that, so I permanently moved over to the Puccini path, the Mozart mill, the Beethoven boogie. They throw Garrison Keilor in every morning at eleven with the Writers' Almanac and news on the hour. What more could an old woman ask for?

tracey kelley
6.27.05 @ 9:51a

Cousin Brucie can't complain too much, tho - Sirius snatched him up within 2-3 days of the flip. Shannon already has a syndicated gig, too.

Not that either one of those things softens the blow, but the agents for those guys weren't about to let them hang.

Now it really is "Bob" radio, I'm the Bob and I choose what I hear.

If I want music, I plug in the 'Pod, which is named for no one.

HA!

I have to admit to one guilty pleasure about the format though...

peeks around

I'm now starting to take cheap delight in determining just how bad the flow will be. Saturday night, I was rewarded with "I Wanna Be a Cowboy" by Boys Don't Cry smack up against "Let's Just Kiss and Say Goodbye" by the Manhattans.

sccrrrreeeech.



[edited]

juli mccarthy
6.27.05 @ 10:11a

I've been listening to Juli Radio for quite some time now - I've got roughly 342 hours of music loaded on my computer, and I turn it on and hit shuffle and I'm good. It is VERY likely that, on my playlist, Sammy Davis Jr. will play immediately after Adam Ant or Loretta Lynn. NO DJs, NO commercials, and it's a guarantee that every song that plays is one I like. The only problem I have with the iPod idea is that I detest wearing headphones.

I've got satellite radio in the car, but I've taken to listening to the old-time comedy shows or radio serials over music. For music in the car, I just burn CDs.

adam kraemer
6.27.05 @ 12:49p

Does this mean I have to name my iRiver something like "Steven"?

juli mccarthy
6.27.05 @ 12:54p

What's iRiver?

tracey kelley
6.27.05 @ 3:41p

It's like an iPod, only not.

Adam, surely you can come up with a better name for your toy.

What I find even more amusing is that these stations are saying, "hey - there's a better technology out there that people seem to like more than us, so maybe if we just pretend to be an iPod, people will like us again. Yeah!"

I guess iPod has become the Kleenex of the music world - it just applies to any old thing loosely associated with the action.

drew wright
6.27.05 @ 4:05p

I dont know about anyone else, but when I went to parties in NC, I would hear Pearl Jam followed by Conway Twitty, followed by Run DMC.

The shuffle button on CD players really changed the way some people listen to music. My wife loves Jack.FM, but she is of the "shuffle generation". Me, I cant stand the music period. So I'll just listen to my new audioslave album for the 100th time in a row and then maybe pop in Green Day for the 200th time.


heather millen
6.27.05 @ 5:34p

I hate to shuffle. I don't even shuffle MY music, because I find that the flow can be jarring. Yeah, I love me some Jovi and I can't resist a showtune and there's the occassion that I really need to hear some Eminem, but NEVER all together.

stephen cook
6.27.05 @ 9:47p

The trick is to shuffle music you actually like folks>>> if you have an ipod or such.

tim lockwood
6.27.05 @ 10:54p

I'm not a radio programmer, but I am in a car all day at work, so I too recognize the patterns. I may not be able to put lingo to what I hear, but I know it when I hear it.

What's really wrong with radio is that it has allowed itself to become niched, pigeonholed, and segmented to death. Now granted, a station ought to have some continuity to its playlist, but damn. When I hear a song at 3:30 that I just heard at 12:30, I can't hang. I suspect a lot of people can't, either.

The industry was just ripe for a Jack-style takeover. What you call a train wreck is the sort of listening flow I truly appreciate. The Jack-FM here actually plays some of the more obscure things (I just heard 99 Lüftballons in German today) that you don't get to hear too often.

What it reminds me of more than anything is a good 500 or 1000-watt college station, minus the DJ. On college radio, you might hear some unidentifiable death-metal followed up by a B-side Johnny Cash followed by Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" done in French. If the DJ (read: the communications major doing his studio service class) wants to, he can play the song again. He might even read the AP wire reports as he's required to do, and then offer his own snide commentary.

And that is what's missing from Jack. The mix is good and very listenable despite (or maybe even because of) the jarring juxtapositions and obscure music, but they've made it a point to eliminate the humans. And if Jack spreads to all the radio stations, it really will kill creativity in music, and Jack will ultimately fail in the long term. That's because Jack relies on other radio stations (even the heavily formulaic Clearchannel dreck-fests) and iPod/Napster types to put the new music coming out on the air. Oldies were new songs once upon a time, you know.

tracey kelley
6.28.05 @ 9:48p

People say they don't want air personalities interrupting.

And you know what? Truly? On an oldies station, it doesn't matter if anyone is telling you anything about the music.

But what is the service of radio? Can't we still learn about new albums by old artists or concerts or books or technology or current events? Most people dig NPR, sometimes regardless of the politics involved, and that's EXACTLY how they program. However, without new music to promote, there's no need for the true service of radio. No one wants to go back to reading obits on the air, but as NPR demonstrates, features of programming can very much still be an attraction to the listener.

But commerical radio has lost a lot of focus. One minute it's not the personality - next minute, there's a $35,000 billboard promoting the morning show. But if they keep building crappy morning shows, people won't listen, ratings fail and there you go. "No need for personalities after all! We were right!!"

But without personalities, it's really hard to sell remotes.

Which is why, as you said Tim, the Jack format, in its current incarnation, will fail. Because at some point, sales will dictate the need for personalities.

Not programming itself, but sales.

And you know what else? The playlists will be cut. Most certainly.

juli mccarthy
6.29.05 @ 12:07p

My sister used to do remotes for her station. I never understood the appeal. Come out to the car dealer and possibly win a station T-shirt? The weird thing is, they do seem to attract people, but I can't figure it.

There are still radio personalities I enjoy. WLUP was mainly talk radio with a classic rock playlist for awhile and that was a lot of fun - Kevin Mathews, Danny Bonaduce, Jonathan Brandmeier, Garry Meyers, then overnights with Ed Schwartz - but it disappeared, as the good stuff usually does. I think Infinity was behind that.

We still have Bob Stroud in Chicago, with the Rock & Roll Roots show. It's classic rock, so no new news there, but still appealing because you're listening to someone who knows and loves the music.

russ carr
6.29.05 @ 12:11p

I think all the jocks on WXRT in Chicago both know and love the music. And I used to listen to WLUP for quite awhile until my tastes changed a bit (and discovered XRT). But stations like that are the exception.

juli mccarthy
6.29.05 @ 12:51p

WXRT has some good jocks - Lin Braemer ad Teri Hemmert are both nearly Chicago institutions. But, XRT has a smaller niche audience than most Chicago radio, and they have more leeway because of it. I think their general philosophy is "well, no one's listening anyway, so why don't we play what we want?"

russ carr
6.29.05 @ 1:10p

Thankfully, enough people are listening to allow them to stick around and play what they want. But ideally, I think, that should be the tone that at least a certain percentage of stations in a market should have -- here's some music that our DJs really like; listen to it and see if you agree. As long as there are people, there will be a certain percentage therein who are audiosheep; they'll listen to whatever's on, and I have no problem with stations geared to passive listeners like them. All I ask is for one or two beacons of ingenuity playing stuff because the staff thinks it's worth being heard, not just because some suit is tweaking the demographic chart again.

sarah ficke
6.29.05 @ 1:32p

I spend most of my time here listening to a station that (I believe) is mostly computer-run, and while I enjoy the music selection, I do wish there was someone to tell me what I was listening to (they claim it's posted on their website, but when I'm in my car, that doesn't help a whole lot). But, if I flip over to the other station I may get someone to tell me what the music is, or I may just get a DJ making prank calls and interviewing a lot of callers to give away free beer. And that is the reason I dislike people talking on my radio.

russ carr
6.29.05 @ 3:42p

Apple just released the latest version (4.9) of its iTunes software, which includes native Podcasting support. Users can download podcasts for FREE from the iTunes music store, so if you're interested in a more radio-like experience without the radio kludge, you might d/l iTunes and check it out.

tracey kelley
7.2.05 @ 11:08a

I want to start an podcast, but I'm not certain if I could hold all the music files.

juli mccarthy
7.2.05 @ 2:14p

An interesting podcast one of my friends found: http://www.renaissancefestivalmusic.com/

RIGHT up my alley, of course. Now all I have to do is figure out how to work it.

jael mchenry
7.5.05 @ 3:38p

I haven't listened to radio in years. My office radio is permanently tuned to Sports 980, so when I turn it on once a year for March Madness, it's always on the right station.

My iPod is named McShuffle.



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