There’s nothing harder than following up a legend. Particularly if that legend is old and venerable and its demise is met with a firestorm of negative publicity.
Small wonder, then, that New York’s JACK FM isn’t launching with the same kind of audience fanfare that tends to greet its brethren around the country.
There is, as the saying goes, only one chance for a first impression. What lesson can we learn from the end of Oldies WCBS-FM and the birth of JACK FM in New York? And what should JACK do now?
These are the questions I put to Richard Laermer. Richard is head of RLM Public Relations, one of the country’s best PR firms, and if there’s anything a format to replace WCBS-FM needed before, during, and after launch it’s one of the country’s best PR firms.
Richard, it should be noted, has plenty of JACK-xperience since he has offices in New York and LA, and is a native New Yorker. In fact, after its debut he told me JACK LA was his new favorite station. Here’s his take on what went wrong and what needs to happen now:
Jack Has Spoken – And He’s Done a Piss-Poor Job by Richard Laermer Every day another company makes an announcement that falls flat on its face and it’s usually for lack of trying. As a PR pro whose job it is to stop bad behavior like this, I am like a Bobble Head doll with the amount of head-shaking I do. I want to talk about the lack of PR in an industry– namely, radio – now in serious turmoil. The competition in other media is much more creative in their product offerings and in their public dealings, it seems like terrestrial radio is like a family business that only wants customers it knows. The Jack FM situation in New York is the perfect example of how completely out of touch this business in, particularly as it relates to the public and the media at large. I grew up in New York and that 101 CBS-FM “Oldies” format was a constant to me. Cousin Brucie, Wolfman, Chuck Leonard Harry Harrison…and the top 100 songs of all time … were integral to my life since ago 0. It was shocking to read how one day it poof, went away. It was as if the CBS mucky-mucks had neglected that people would care when they made the decision to replace the admittedly tired format with a concept born in the iPod era. (“We play what we want” is the perfect metaphor for these arrogant times.) Jack as a format beats “In the Still of the Night” played every few hours alongside Elvis’ Greatest and a couple of Doo-Wops in rotation. But you can’t pull the plug without thought to consequences. Not in the city of New York. New Yorkers are big on loyalty; it’s our badge of honor. In a town when a change is made on subtle notions, much media is brought in way before and the public gets the news in an orderly and hint-filled fashion. That’s why G-d put people like me on earth. We know what it takes to slo-o-owly get everyone on board regarding “something new.” We’d never shove something down anyone’s throat. Uh-uh. CBS and Jack, uh, chucked the ages-old DJ’s (Chuck Leonard died before this) without a thought to a Bronx cheering population who would not stand by idly as one of its old standards bit the dust without real explanation or forethought. And what an opportunity lost by Jack. PR is simple, and when done creatively it can be a beautiful thing. You plan and you act strategically. Figure out what you need from the public and then find the media who can bring it to you. All the Jack-ers needed to do was SELL it in a focused manner. And be respectful! Why not create a loud street party honoring work of long-beloved DJ’s, programmers, even living artists…and, naturally, get the fans of CBS-FM to attend in droves. Hey, a Photo Opportunity for national media. Get the Mayor’s office involved – gee, Mike comes to anything with an invitation list. Do a 50’s block party and give out Bobbie socks and Hula-Hoops (promotionally-embroidered). And, voila!, inform everyone that now 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and even the current nameless decade, are going to be a part of the mix in a fabulous, much-hyped play list known as Jack. And the piece d’resistance: tell those city denizens that the most of the country is already onto something that’s been sadly missing in the greatest town on earth. Everyone will be apoplectic that they’re last! Their radios will be pre-tuned. How easy, huh? Along the way, new spokespeople who can “talk the Jack” will be trained to within an inch of their lives, hierarchically informing New York’s cultural, financial and (most urgently) local listings-and-happenings reporters over three states just what’s happening. They’ll do it months, then weeks, then hours, before Switch Day. By the time “CBS FM” is chimed for the last time at one minute before midnight, those crucial radio junkies– and New York know-it-alls –will already be in on it. People are angry even today, months after the event happened without notice. Morrow ran to satellite, but of course, and continues to publicly moan how poorly the CBS brass treated him. Still, as long as the arrogance of Jack FM continues to be what’s foremost to programmers, rather than offering a PR-tinged olive branch to listeners in a subtle yet strategic manner, Bruce and company are the winners. They got the job of underdog as soon as Jack was careless with their message. From experience I can tell you it’s possible that, with the right campaign and heartfelt outpouring from the execs at CBS, Jack could become a hit with the peeved people of the public airwaves. Jack can win them back if they put their heart in their hands and tribute the people they’ve wounded, including the fans, especially those angered folks who haven’t listened for years but are up in arms because they were ostensibly given zero choice. History can attest, however, that there is no way in the short run New York’s Jack FM can win listeners over by pretending that a venerable station whose format was Comfort Food, seamlessly became Jack of all songs. So the verdict is in. Drastic is not a PR strategy.
Richard Laermer runs RLM PR in LA and NY and is the author of the best-seller Full Frontal PR: Building Buzz about Your Business, Your Product or You. Reach Richard by email or at 310 207 9200 X 225.
P.S.: If you’re going to replace Howard Stern with somebody else in January, now would be a good time to call Richard.
P.P.S. “JACK of all songs.” Somebody should trademark that.