You Don’t Know Jack (or, Radio Tries the Shuffle Button)

Here at the Big Picture, we have been a fierce critic of FM Radio’s foibles. Long before it was fashionable, we have observed that the ever shrinking playlists have driven listeners away in droves. Thanks in large part to Clearchannel Communications and The 1996 Telecommunications Act, terrestrial radio version of Hamburger Helper created a huge opening for any company that could satisfy music fans desire for a diverse source of digital music. 

Apple has been the innovator who stepped up to satisfy that demand.

In an odd bit of inversion, a new radio format is seeking to imitate Apple: Its called Jack, and its been called "that
rarest of breeds: a bold new idea
."

Hardly.

Jack is a format that seeks to imitate the iPod shuffle play. It expands the radio playlist from 200 songs to 1,000 songs, and does it sans DJs: 

From Seattle and San Diego to Baltimore and Buffalo, more than a dozen
big-city radio stations have converted to a format known as Jack-FM over the
past two months. On Friday, even legendary New York City oldies station WCBS-FM
dumped ’60s rock and joined the ‘Jack’ parade.

Boasting they’re "like an iPod on shuffle," the new stations typically dump
their disc jockeys in favor of huge song playlists that mimic a well-stocked
portable music player. The Jack format, which is already spawning
imitators, could be a key to FM’s survival as an alternative to satellite radio,
internet radio and MP3 players.

At stake is the future of an industry that, while far from being on the
ropes, is definitely a little punch drunk. Negative media coverage has turned radio monolith Clear Channel into a top
corporate villain, while satellite radio has snapped up
5.5 million subscribers, with more expected to follow Howard Stern to the Sirius
network next year. Talk radio sputtered
after the election and industry stock prices are limping along.

That’s right, what passes for a bold new idea in Radio is  imitating a button on an iPod.  Jerry Del Colliano  called it "a case of technology triumphing over creativity."

And doing it poorly at that! 1,000 songs is hardly competitive with most iPods.   

At San Diego’s Jack station, for example, a recent morning’s playlist
featured songs from a 35-year span, from 1969′s "Gimme Shelter" and 1982′s "It’s
Raining Men" to Madonna’s "Vogue" and a recent tune by Nickelback. This is an
unusual level of variety in radio: music stations almost always stick to a
narrowly defined niche like
classic rock, oldies, R&B or alternative rock. The (adult album
alternative
), known as the triple-A format, typically blends old and new
rock, but pop artists like Madonna, let alone disco standards, aren’t part of
its equation.

"The appeal is that it reminds you of music you might have forgotten
existed," said Scott McKenzie, editor in chief of Billboard Radio Monitor. "We all
have our libraries of music sitting in our iPods. You recognize a song and say,
‘I love that.’"

It might be an unusual level of mix — for radio — but for iPod or mp3 users, it is Jack. On my way home yesterday, ran a shuffle play:

The Association         Windy    
Frank Sinatra            Violet for Your Furs 
*Frank Sinatra           Street of Dreams          
Roman Candle           Baby’s Got it in the Genes
Gypsy Kings              Camino
JayZ and DJ Danger Mouse  Justify My Thug
Bad Company             All Right Now
Stevie Ray Vaughn     Wall of Denial
*Stevie Ray Vaughn    Taxman
Led Zeppelin              Ramble On
Bill  Hicks                  Chicago 1989
REM                          Radio Free Europe
Beck                         Nicotine and Gravy
Sum 41                     Rhythms
Mose Allison              What’s Your Movie
Julie London              Watermelon Man
BareNaked Ladies      What a Good boy
Chet Baker                Let’s Get Lost
Stephen Lynch           Special Olympics
OAR                          Missing Pieces
Fiona Apple               Oh Sailor

*Dunno why, but I get a lot of doubles on my shuffle play

That’s from a narrow library of 8,000 songs. The full library is 10s of 1000s more. How can a list of 1,000 compete with that?

Further, I have storng doubts about a recent survey that "found that people who listen to MP3 players, internet radio or satellite radio
still tune to terrestrial radio two hours and 33 minutes a day, compared to an
average of two hours and 48 minutes among all listeners age 12 and up."

Bluntly, those numbers don’t make much sense. Between work or
school, and an MP3 player, who is listening to radio 2 1/2 hours per
day? That simply doesn’t compute for me.

Bottom line:  Expanding playlists to 1,000 songs from 200 is a small step in the right direction. But lets not get too far ahead of ourselves. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery — but we shouldn’t confuse it for true innovation.
>

Source:
Radio Industry Hits Shuffle 
Randy Dotinga
Wired, 02:00 AM Jun. 06, 2005 PT
http://www.wired.com/news/digiwood/0,1412,67727,00.html
 

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