Love it or hate it, feel-good Star 100.7 FM is almost certainly the most popular FM radio station south of Orange County, California. This is a mega-market, with something like 2-million people of radio-listening age, many of whom spend significant chunks of their day trapped in cars during long commutes on clogged SoCal freeways. Star, to its credit, has had a good chunk of this audience nailed, with a high-personality approach to things, keynoted by the “Jeff & Jerr Radio Show” weekday mornings, which dominates that market with its easy-going approach to all things SoCal (a morning zoo it ain’t).
But as of yesterday Star 100.7 no longer exists. As strange as it might seem, despite being the dominant station in this radio mega-market, the station’s management just flipped the switch on a format change to what is called Jack-FM. It is, as a Deep Radio Voice says in incessant and irritatingly arch taped promos, a station that “Plays what we want”. They promise less chat and more music, with a mix of 1980s, 1990s, and current music.
I’m familiar with the format, having run into it in Vancouver almost a year ago, but as you might imagine, many San Diego listeners are surprised and pissed. Who’s Jack, they want to know. While that might not matter in most places, in SoCal it does as Star was an unusual radio station that encouraged an only-in-SoCal personal relationship to the station, to the point that callers and hosts tossed cheery “Hi Star!” and “Bye Star!” greetings at each other on-air. While that wouldn’t work in markets less ironic than discomfitingly unironic southern California, here it worked like magic, with people literally treating the station like a member of an extended family.
And it was a sound strategy. Because musical formats are mutable and divisible — I can play the same songs as you at the same time as you do, so there is little competitive edge, no matter how creative your musical program director. But radio personalities are, in economic terms, rivalrous: The presence of Personality X on my station means that, in the absence of AM-style syndication, they can’t be on yours at the same time. So, if you get people hooked on personalities it means that while those on-air folks gain power, your station gains listeners with an emotional attachment.
So, why would a dominant station with dominant personalities change formats? Blame the iPod. Many are calling the Jack-FM format the iPod-ification of radio, with more than a dozen stations in Canada and the U.S. having gone this way in recent years. They have embraced a studiedly eclectic mix of music that verges on being hostless, like listening to an uber-iPod on permanent shuffle.
Call it a response to people listening to iPods and the like (and, to a lesser degree, podcasting) rather than listening to radio. Also call it a response to satellite radio. But will it work? I’m not so sure. Some people only want music from their radio, and those people will be thrilled, but they are also fickle. They are demonstrably looking for music, and they will flip from station to station hunting for a “better” song — you aren’t going to keep them, whether you’re Jack, Jules, or Jim-FM.
But short of dicing the radio market into infinitesimally small demographic slices no wider than individuals, radio will alway frustrate compared to personally programmed music stored on a portable player. It just ain’t the same thing, and the Jack format, while admittedly better than the over-narrow playlist that makes up most of traditional radio, is still machine music with low switching costs.
Radio guy Chris Wilcox gets it right over on SD Radio:
“You know what I find funny about all these stations across the country that are switching formats to become stations named Jack and Dave and Fred, is that they all seem to assume that the way to win over listeners that they’re afraid of losing to other mediums like the I-Pod is to be an I-Pod themselves. I heard a sweeper yesterday on ‘Jack 100.7′ say “If we weren’t a radio station…we’d probably be an I-Pod”.
Well how ’bout them apples…so what? These stations are missing the point. First of all, on an I-Pod you have songs that YOU specifically loaded in. As a listener, why should it excite me if a radio station’s new slogan is “Now, we play what we want”? Great, good luck with that. If I wanted to hear “Hey Mickey” by Toni Basil in the same half hour as “Start Me Up” by the Stones (which I can’t in my wildest dreams imagine that I ever would…yet I did yesterday on Jack) I’d have that in my I-Pod and already be listening to it.
These radio stations, and radio stations in general, need to understand that you can’t ‘out I-Pod’ an I-Pod. If someone’s not listening to the radio because they’re listening to their I-Pod, you’ve already lost that battle. The real issue is that as a radio station, you’ve got to provide some sort of content that people CAN’T already get from their I-Pod…like compelling content of some sort from their airstaff or even some sort of compelling content musically…but not just putting the last 30 years of music in the system, hitting ‘random’ and then shutting the mic off…anybody can do that and if they’re so inclined, already ARE doing that on their own…but with the songs THEY want to hear.
This, by the way, isn’t specifically a knock on [Star 100.7], it’s a knock on many stations that seem to think this Jack thing, and others like it, is awesome. While I’ve never been a huge fan of [Star], I’ve always respected what I saw from a distance as a great amount of freedom and support their airstaff seemed to be given in order to entertain. Whether I’m a fan of the station or not, I hate to see that go away…not only at [Star], but all over the dial. Until some station figures out that the true road to success is to have Duncan and Mel on 24 hours a day…I guess we’ll all just keep searching for the right formula.”