Not long ago, any radio programmer who dared play Madonna next to the Beatles and Outkast would get tossed out on their ass before they could blend "Hey Jude" into "Hey Ya!"
Now, after nearly a decade of repetitive, hits-oriented radio, some of the nation's biggest radio conglomerates are encouraging programmers to hit the shuffle button and treat their stations like giant iPods. If you live in New York,
Chicago, Indianapolis, or Austin, Texas, you're already aware of the trend and you're probably listening to the results on a station that has some kind of human name, like "Jack," "Bob" or "Alice."
"In the past, radio has done everything in its power to avoid 'train wrecks' ... it was the worst thing you could do," said radio consultant Mike Henry, who helped develop the most popular shuffle format, known as Jack. A "train wreck" is radio lingo for programming two songs in a row that are not normally
heard on the same station. But Henry has helped make these audio pileups big business.
Jack was launched in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2002, and it has become the model for a rash of imitators from other radio syndicates. They're all looking for ways to
hold onto young radio listeners who have become used to programming their own train wrecks on iPods and who've been lured by the promise of more variety on satellite radio.
Before relaunching the Vancouver station, Henry said he'd been telling clients for years that there was more to life than playing the same 300 songs over and over, a programming philosophy that reached its peak in the mid- and late '90s. So in April 2004, Henry helped relaunch a Denver station as KJAC, the
first Jack format in the U.S. "This format encourages completely different types of music on the same radio station," he said. "We want Led Zeppelin next to Madonna, Cheap Trick and John Mayer. You might not like 'Like a Virgin,' but you've heard it and you don't mind hearing something you might not love as
long as the station will surprise you and you know you'll hear something down the line that you like."
To date, there are six Jack stations in Canada and eight in the U.S. in such cities as Kansas City, Missouri; Dallas; Jackson, Mississippi; Salt Lake City; and Vail, Colorado. All of them boast playlists in excess of 1,200 songs and some play up to 1,700 different tunes. The variety ensures that even the newest, biggest hits might not spin more than every two-and-a-half days. Most of the Jack stations don't follow the "hits" format, playing a mix of songs from the past 35
years, and they also have fewer DJs, commercials and local contests.
"A lot of people call it iPod on the radio," Henry said of the format, whose tagline is "Playing what we want." "But it's not a reaction to that, it's just one of those things where the stars aligned. It just happens that iPods and the whole random/shuffle thing has been worked into the vernacular since we launched this format." Henry said he wouldn't be surprised if there were 25 Jack stations by the end of this year.
One of the competing variations of Jack is called Bob (KBPA), which launched in Austin in September and whose call letters stand for "Bob plays anything." "It's classic top 40 along with current hits," said Jimmy Steal, vice president of programming at parent company Emmis Communications, which owns 25 stations in the U.S.
Steal said one of Bob's strengths is that it also plays new hits and, judging by its playlist, plenty of old ones. In a recent hour on Bob, listeners heard the following acts back-to-back: Mr. Mister, David Bowie, John Mayer, Sister Sledge, the Thompson Twins, R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, Bowling for Soup and Falco. Emmis has also launched a new country format in Indianapolis called Hank, which plays country from Johnny Cash to today's new stars.
One of the reasons so many of the new stations are adopting human alter egos, Steal said, is to get on board with the personalization trend in music. "When you're playing so many different kinds of music from so many eras, it does sound like someone's CD collection or what they have on their iPod," Steal said. Though Steal discounts the threat from satellite radio, he thinks the new formats, whatever name they go by, are good for listeners. "It's fresh, it's interesting and the ability to surprise people is good." Emmis doesn't have plans for any more Bob stations right now, but Steal said that could change.
"It's certainly the hottest trend in radio right now," said Cyndee Maxwell of radio industry trade magazine Radio & Records of the shuffle format. "And radio has learned from the concept of the iPod that people want more than
one genre of music, but I think the stations that will do best with these formats are the ones who have people thinking about the songs they're putting together. Like a throwback to the days of free-form radio where jocks knew the music and could put together great segues."
As a listener, though, Maxwell said she's not sure she'd stick around when the train goes off the tracks. "Personally, when I hear a song I don't really like, I'm gone," she said. "I don't care if they just played my favorite song."
An older, female-targeted format, Alice, has been around for more than six years and can be heard on such stations as KLLC in San Francisco and KALC in Denver.
Most of the stations haven't been around long enough to judge by their ratings if shuffle is the next big wave or just a passing fad, but Henry's not waiting to find out. Before the end of the year, he hopes to launch Jack Jr., a variation on the theme aimed at under-25 listeners that will likely play everything
from Linkin Park to Jay-Z.
Other programmers around the country aren't waiting for the numbers on Jack, either. New York's K-Rock (92.3 FM), soon to be ex-home of Howard Stern, recently got a preemptive facelift and has added a wider variety of hard rock from the past 25 years, and Chicago's alternative-rock station Q101 has relaunched itself with the tagline "now on shuffle ... everything alternative." The station's Web site has even adopted a signature look, with the station's call letters in an iPod-like device and a pair of white headphones snaking out and around the Sears Tower.
Whether it's Bob, Jack, Alice or Hank, Henry warns that it's going to take more than using the word "shuffle" to make the format work. "It's like somebody pulled their finger out of a dam and all the water comes exploding out," Henry said of the rush to add songs. "There's already an overreaction and we're
only a few months into it in the U.S."