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Who is JACK? That's something New Yorkers were asking themselves when they tuned in to one of their favourite radio stations one morning last month and heard the Beastie Boys instead of the Beatles.

Gone was WCBS-FM 101.1, which played oldies from the 60s and 70s. In its place was JACK-FM, a station with a brash new programming concept that is dubbed the rebel of the predictable radio world.

Unlike most entertainment trends, this one first gained popularity in Canada. New York is the latest city in the United States to follow a trend that has seen stations called BOB and JACK conquer the airwaves in both countries.These stations are making their mark with larger than average play lists, giving many an instant lift in their ratings after they switch to the new format. They are a change from the "tight" play lists that the radio giants have favoured.

Infinity Broadcasting Corp., which owns the New York station, is a big backer of the format even in the face of reported criticism from the mayor himself. The New York-based company has so far switched nine of its stations in the United States to the JACK-FM format.

"My driving philosophical belief is that the best ideas win," says Rob Barnett, Infinity's president of programming. "This was a great one that now has spread to the lower sections of our wonderful continent, and given many programming directors the encouragement and inspiration to try new things and create new ways to entertain their audience."

These stations typically play hit songs from the 70s to today, a mix that one industry analyst dubs the next generation's oldies. Many also use a programming concept called train wreck editing, in which a station plays a mix of different musical styles back to back. For example, a Black Sabbath tune is followed by one from Prince, a random but deliberate combination that industry observers compare to iPods.

"It starts with playing the music of people's lives that they don't hear on the radio any more," says Sean Ross, vice-president of music and programming at Edison Media Research in New Jersey. Mr. Ross later said that "the success of both the JACKs and BOBs was what made U.S. programmers pay attention."

The origins of the classic hits/pop-rock/adult contemporary format go back to 1999, when Toronto-based CHUM Ltd. acquired a second station in Winnipeg. The company needed a new format for the property.

Around that time, CHUM's Winnipeg program director Howard Kroeger went to a party filled with people in their mid to late 30s, who were listening to what was essentially "the soundtrack of their teenage and college years," says CHUM's head of radio, Paul Ski. "The feeling was that radio was ignoring that kind of music."

Mr. Kroeger and radio consultant Mike Dorn refined the format to include a wide range of hits from that era. To market the station, CHUM took a name that had been used in the United States, but made it their own with a totally different format, summed up with the slogan "80s, 90s and Whatever."

BOB was launched to great success in Winnipeg in 2002, jumping to the peak of ratings. It has been marketed by CHUM, through a consulting partner, to a handful of stations in the United States, including Omaha, Neb., and Sacramento, Calif.

Meanwhile, Toronto-based Rogers Communications Inc. was also looking for a new format when it faced the challenge of turning around an adult contemporary station in Vancouver that was not doing well. The company decided to do something totally different and target a demographic (35 to 45 year olds) instead of a genre, according to Rael Merson, president of Rogers Broadcasting Limited.

"I always say necessity is the mother of invention," Mr. Merson says. "You have to find a situation like we found ourselves in, where we really had nothing to lose with a radio station, and said what the hell, let's give it a try."

Rogers developed a concept that Mr. Merson described as surprising and irreverent for the station in Vancouver, with Bohn & Associates Media as its consultants. It licensed the name JACK-FM and tagline "playing what we want" from Bob Perry, who had worked in the radio industry for years, and used them on his website in the U.S.

Some of JACK's biggest differences from BOB are a much larger play list, fewer disc jockeys, and different packaging.

JACK-FM was introduced in Vancouver in December, 2002, and was an instant hit. It surged to the top spot in the ratings from eighth place. With that success, Rogers took JACK-FM across Canada, rolling it out in Victoria, Calgary, Toronto, and Orillia, Ont. While Rogers has the exclusive rights for the name and slogan in Canada, a joint venture between Bohn & Associates and Wall Media called SparkNet Communications has the exclusive licence for those rights in the United States.

U.S. stations that have switched say it was a good move.

Don Wayne, program director at 94.7 JACK-FM in Jackson, Miss., said the format works because it is tailored to listeners rather than shareholders of the companies that own the stations.

"This format is what radio is all about -- satisfying the listener," Mr. Wayne explains. "The key is variety," he later adds. "I was listening to the station on my lunch break and we went from Nirvana to Lying Eyes by the Eagles."

A musical melting pot

Why is the JACK-FM format so attractive? A three-member panel of media buyers, assembled by CATHERINE McLEAN, listened to the Toronto station this week and gave their insights into its success.

Teresa Savile

Media Manager

OMD

Assessment:

There is a good variety of music that appeals to a broad audience, female and male, making it a great choice when buying advertising that targets the demographic groups of adults 18-49 and adults 25-54. While the station plays songs that evoke fond memories such as Another One Bites The Dust by Queen, there are also new tunes to draw in a younger audience. One drawback from an ad-buyer's perspective is that there are fewer disc jockeys -- a problem for companies who want them to talk about their products on air.

Kandy Walker

Media Supervisor

Cossette Media

Assessment:

No other format can cross classic rock, modern rock, adult contemporary and contemporary hit radio in a day, let alone an hour, and get away with it. That's the appeal of JACK-FM. I heard everything from Sinking Like A Sunset by Tom Cochrane to Come On Feel The Noise by Quiet Riot to Mr. Boombastic by Shaggy. Listeners never know what they're going to hear next, and there is also the nostalgia factor. The wide listener appeal is the reason it's so attractive for advertising as companies can cover off a fairly broad market reach by adding JACK-FM to their campaign. One issue is the control the stations have on advertising rates as they're essentially in a "take it or leave it" position in major markets. Advertisers are paying huge premiums to advertise on the stations who are delivering audiences.

David McDonald

Group Manager, Radio & Promotions

M2 Universal

Assessment:

It's a good on-air environment and delivers a strong audience for advertisers. The Jack, Bob, etc. "Classic Hits" style formats tend to go against the grain of the "other" formats with which they compete. They program a much wider playlist, including previous favourite tunes that have been pretty much eliminated from play on other stations, which suddenly makes them seem fresh again. When I tuned in, I heard songs from Blues Traveller, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen. But it may be a less attractive opportunity for advertisers who are looking to do more than just buy airtime, those who want to be seen as an equal promotional partner.

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