Monday, April 25, 2005

It Don't Mean Jack!

The former WXPT-FM replaces format with four decades of Top 40 favorites

There's a new radio format on the Twin Cities FM dial, and it goes by the name of Jack. At 9 a.m. Thursday, 104.1 WXPT-FM ditched its '80s music format for a larger, more eclectic play list. First song: Pink's "Get the Party Started." With marketing slogans like "Playing What We Want" or "Like Your iPod on Shuffle," the new 104.1 JACK-FM and similar radio formats around the country are capitalizing on the current iPod craze. The new format has a playlist of more than 1,000 songs from various genres with a focus on Top 40 alternative, classic rock and pop that spans the past four decades. "We describe it as a playlist that's 10 miles wide and an inch deep," said Mike Henry, CEO of Paragon Media Strategies and one of the masterminds behind the format. The Twin Cities is the ninth U.S. market to get a Jack station, and the number is expected to more than double by the end of the year, radio analysts say. The strategy is to provide listeners with a broad variety of familiar music. "I think it will have a considerable impact in the Twin Cities market," said Mark Ramsey, founder and president of Mercury Radio Research in San Diego. "You'll be looking at a potentially top-ranked station. It will be huge." Low ratings made 104.1 the most "hijackable" of the local FM stations, said radio consultant Steve Moravec of St. Paul, who's skeptical of the format's ability to change the market. "I think there are very few music stations that wouldn't benefit from a higher number of cuts in their rotations," he said. "But I think it's a little too early to be saying it's the greatest thing to happen in a generation." The idea of stations with common male names, playlists up to five times bigger than competitors and a lack of on-air talent began in Canada in 2002, where it quickly took hold. The concept has had success among a coveted demographic, said Henry, who calls the format's ability to attract both male and female 25- to 54-year-olds "unique" among commercial FM radio stations. In addition, clones of the format with names like Ted and Doug have popped up in more than 20 markets. There's also a country version called Hank. "Most music stations have 300 to 400 songs in rotation," said Mary Niemeyer, market manager of Infinity Broadcasting Minneapolis, which owns the station. "We have over 1,200 songs in the rotation." On Thursday afternoon, Twin Cities listeners tuning in to Jack 104.1 heard back-to-back songs by Phil Collins, Uncle Kracker, AC/DC, Head East, Tom Petty, INXS and Lenny Kravitz. In the radio world, a lineup like that — playing two unlikely songs together — is known as a "train wreck." But one station's train wreck has become another's happy accident. "Jack really flies in the face of radio's one commandment that it has lived by for the last 20 years," said Henry, "that every radio station should create an expectation and fulfill it 24/7 — one button for one type of music. The Jack format is a response to the universal complaints that people tend to have toward radio — that's there's not enough variety, and you hear the same songs over and over again." This is the second significant change on the Twin Cities FM dial this year. In January, Minnesota Public Radio launched the Current 89.3 KCMP-FM, another station that boasts large and eclectic playlists. Some local radio insiders say that Jack was brought in to compete against that station. But Henry said the non-commercial Current caters more to the music connoisseur, while Jack appeals to the music window shopper. Another difference is that the Current is DJ-driven; Jack currently has no DJs. Steve Nelson, program director of the Current, said he wishes the Jack folks well. "Anytime there are changes or something that is a little bit different on radio, that can be a good thing," he said.