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JACK: The Inside View

[This article is reprinted from with permission]

JACK: The Inside View by Steve Rivers

Jack, Bob and Hank have punched their way towards the top of the ratings in American radio markets from coast to coast. The Jack format has generated more press than practically any other format in the past five years. It’s been the hot subject in radio trades (including MusicBiz) and mainstream media such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Most recently, it has received national television coverage on several networks. More than a few industry watchers are fairly baffled by its success. Two people who truly have the insight and behind-the-scenes knowledge of this phenomenon are Guy Zapoleon of Zapoleon Media Strategies and Kurt Johnson, PD of JACK Dallas and VP/Jack format for Infinity Broadcasting. Here are their perspectives on the latest rage in radio.

SR: Jack is the most talked-about new radio format in a long time. It is in big markets and generating amazing ratings with no jocks. Canada has been doing the format with mixed success in some markets for the past two years. In your opinion, what is the big deal?

Zapoleon: There are three good reasons Jack/Bob/etc. is successful: 1) A lot of angry, dissatisfied listeners are tired of the lack of variety and format diversity in radio today, so they eat up a unique mix where the only personality is a smart-ass “contemptious” voiceover talent saying “we play whatever we want”; 2) passionate music fans, sick of radio tight playlists, are getting a wide and deep playlist with “Oh wow” oldies mixed in with hits; and 3) you have a body of music from the ’70s and ’80s that is drawing big 35-44-year-old adult numbers because this is the new Oldies audience. I remain stunned that our industry does not want to sell 50+ numbers for the baby boomers, which is the biggest population group in history (it still boggles my mind).

Johnson: Listeners are hearing music assembled on the radio like they haven’t heard in maybe 25 years – with a fresh attitude. It is a great combination and it’s resonating loudly. The upper end of the demos remembers Top 40 music presented this way; the younger end likes the “no hype” delivery. Everybody loves the wide variety.

SR: Guy, while you have called Jack the new “Oldies” station for 35-44 year-old adults. some are calling it the “new” Hot A/C. Kurt, what is your take?

Johnson: Lots of listeners’ feedback their love for the songs we play that haven’t been heard on the airwaves in a long, long time. However, to call it “new Oldies” is not accurate. Listeners are also passionate about the newer songs we play. It is the whole package; the wide variety that turns them on.

SR: We’ve seen formats generate ratings with a limited life cycle like “Jammin’ Oldies” and “Rockin Hits”, a latter format that you, Kurt, successfully presented in Philadelphia. The question on everyone’s mind: How do you manage to keep the “Oh wow” factor alive since, in my opinion, Jack is a cume-driven format that’s successful based upon “what’s coming up next”? How long a life do you think Jack has?

Johnson: Jammin’ Oldies had maybe 250 significant songs and limited era span. Rockin’ Hits was better, broadening to 450 songs, but they were all Rock. Jack expands that concept to 1,200 songs of many genres, spanning 40 years. It trumps any other station’s claim of variety…and it’s all hits. This means that we are not burning songs out, and done right, the format can go indefinitely. The oldest Jack station has already outlived the lifespan of Jammin’ Oldies.

Zapoleon: No doubt, it’s going to have a shelf life in its current state without some sort of evolution, but that could last up to two years with the marketing, music systems, production values and personalities.

As my old mentor Mickey Franko used to tell me, “Always hold one or two cards back, because once you’ve played them, you can’t use them again.” So I would be creating groups of “Oh wow” songs to shuttle in and out of the system to keep things musically fresh. Plus, the ultimate all-request show is certainly a way to keep things fresh and sell the fact that you’re listener-driven.

Remember, if you are Jack, you have to keep all these elements fresh, because you are bragging that you provide the ultimate variety mix of music in radio.

SR: At what point do you introduce jocks and what kinds of jocks will you seek?

Johnson: Right now listeners have made it clear they recognize that there are no jocks and that is a plus. However, we may introduce creative content through a variety of vehicles, some might feature talent, and some might not.

SR: Production value is so important in the format. Working with Rogers Communications in Canada, who created the format and the overall sound, and consultant Gary Wall, how much effort is spent in “feeding the monster”?

Johnson: I spend several hours each day on music and imaging. The pace of the station’s activity is very much like a Top 40, with topical promotions and imaging. In addition, we’re constantly freshening the music. Jack is a work in progress and it is never finished.

Zapoleon: I’ve listened to Jack in Dallas and I have to compliment Kurt. He has done a fantastic job of writing and producing and programming Jack. It is a wonderfully compelling station. No wonder it has reached No. 1 25-54 Adults in Dallas. Honestly, I think it’s harder to introduce jocks if you don’t introduce them within a few months of the beginning of the stations. Whatever jocks are introduced, they need to have the same smart-ass attitude that the rest of the station has. Bottom line, I do think the format is going to have to offer more of a soul than it has now to survive in whatever form it takes in two years.

SR: My feeling is that we will continue to see new formats like Jack, since not every station in a cluster is an Arbitron winner. There has been talk of an Urban version called “Black Jack” being discussed. If you were across the street, how would you come up with a Jack killer?

Zapoleon: There are a ton of great niche formats on satellite radio. I don’t know why we couldn’t come up with the most compelling of them or even combine some compatible streams to create a new format that doesn’t exist on terrestrial radio. Jammin’ Oldies was a great format; it just didn’t meet radio’s unrealistic expectation that everything must be top five 25-54 adults. With share compression it will take smaller shares to reach top 10 25-54. With the old wall of the men/women theory, where you add up station shares to sell to an advertiser, if you have a 35-54 female niche-appeal station that reaches top 10, and you own four other stations to cover women 18-49, a station that garners big 35-54 females could be a great number to add together with a strong Country, A/C or Top 40 station that pulls numbers younger and older than that.

How does one defend against Jack? The classic marketing book “Marketing Warfare” says: “A defender must cover all useful attacks,” so when a Jack format comes in and attacks you on the variety front, you need to superserve the benefits they offer. When it comes to music, you have to think “scorched earth” – play all the music they play; open up the vaults to use an expanded playlist, “Whatever weekends,” and use the same “attitude” production they use. Also, consider doing no-repeat workdays. These features are key tactics to sell as you market variety on-air and off. Don’t let Jack out-market you. Remember you have the cume; they don’t. Create strategic benefits to offer better variety and market the hell out of this.

Johnson: If I were across the street, I would move. Seriously, it does not matter whether it is Jack or any other format that comes into your world; you need to be the best at what you’re doing. That does not change, Jack or not. If you have to drastically alter your station in the face of a Jack, you were not doing the right things to begin with.

SR: Radio people are somewhat hostile about Jack, since it uses no jocks and is a gold-based station. Any comments?

Johnson: I have not seen hostility in a broad sense. In fact, there has been much more of a positive reaction than negative, but the negative seems to get press. Any distaste for Jack probably comes from talent who are unfortunately out of work, and from record people who want new songs played. I understand that completely. However, our job is always to create compelling entertainment, and that is what we’re doing.

Zapoleon: I think the format is great for radio. It’s time broadcasters got back to addressing the needs of the listener, make programming/marketing a much bigger line item in the budget, and concentrate on brainstorming unique ways to make this medium exciting and innovative again. If we have any hope of attracting under-30 listeners who have fallen in love with their iPod and the Internet, we are going to need to “re-launch” radio and stock it full of more compelling content and talent, or we face a bleak future for the industry we all love.

SR: Any other thoughts on the format?

Johnson: One of the most interesting experiences of this past year has been all the conversations, discussions and arguments about programming and marketing radio stations – conversations that would not have happened if Jack didn’t exist. As programmers, we should always be driving the industry forward, trying new things, evolving. If Infinity jolted the business with Jack, I’m glad we did.

SR: Thank you both for your keen observations and comments. Kurt, in your new role as VP/Jack Format I wish you continued success, and Guy, I know you already have some ideas on the drawing board for combating Jack. It will be interesting to watch what happens next.

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