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The “long tail” shouldn’t wag the dog

One of the problems of constructing a worldview is that the view is usually blocked by the four walls of its own novel mental “box.”

So it is with the so-called “long tail,” a terrific notion with wide-ranging implications.

The idea is that no matter how few people any given item appeals to, it will appeal to somebody. And the Internet makes it feasible to have everything that appeals to almost nobody and still make a good living (please check out the formal description, which is a lot sharper than mine).

Wired editor Chris Anderson, who pioneered the worldview, writes that the JACK format seems to be a “nod” in the long tail direction because any given song appeals to fewer people than on the average station – but the vast variety of songs ends up appealing to more people (another oversimplification, but you get the point).

My objection is when Chris says “the jury is still out on the format.” This implies that the success of the format should be universal if it is to really reflect “long tail” thinking. In fact, the success of nothing is universal. For example, the idea that Country in Dallas is huge and in New York is nonexistent does not imply that Country is a format for which “the jury is still out.”

Every format fares differently everywhere. The “jury” does not judge all formats in tandem.

Further, the success of the JACK format has nothing to do with whether or not it represents the fabled “long tail.” Indeed, the more JACK represents the “long tail,” the worse its ratings are likely to be.

The “long tail” does not wag the dog of broadcasting. The dog wags the tail. The “tail” is about deep variety and narrow appeal. The “broad” in broadcasting implies just the opposite.

Chris declares that, at best, JACK will slow the decline of music radio, not reverse it.

Chris is right in this much: Music radio will indeed inexorably decline.

But JACK was never designed to be music radio’s salvation. So cut the format some slack, sit back, turn up the radio, and enjoy.

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