Thursday, August 18, 2005

You Don't Know Jack!

On April 17, 1986 a new radio format came to New York City, as 105.1 reinvented itself as WNSR or "New York's Soft Rock." If you didn't know what "soft rock" was, no worries. The way too enthusiastic spokesmodels in their commercials would tell you over and over again. "Billy Joel AND The Beatles"; "Barbara Streisand AND Whitney Houston"; The Best Mix; The Best Mix; The Best Mix of The 60's, The 70's AND The 80's.

The exact same commercial (with only the call-letters changed) would air in Baltimore for their own "Best Mix of the yadda-yadda" station, WMIX--Mix 106. One day, a friend from Freshman year named Eric Von Borstel (NOTE: Hey Eric, if you happen to come upon this post by Googling yourself....drop me a line and let me know what's up) articulated what many of us had thought. Wouldn't it be great if these so-called mix stations played a REAL MIX! Barbara Streisand And Whitney Houston??? Try The Screaming Blue Messiahs And Whitney Houston. Now that's a mix! The next thing you know, we were all coming up with our own outrageous mix pairings....Leonard Bernstein AND Van Halen.........Depeche Mode AND Arlo Guthrie. The joke ended up taking on a life of its own......Olivia Newton-John AND Elton John..Jeffrey Osbourne AND Ozzy Osbourne...Europe AND Asia...Meatloaf AND Bread.....Prince AND Queen.....Queen AND King.....Gene Loves Jezebel AND Johnny Hates Jazz....(Call us misfits if you must, but there was never a dull moment)!

Well, maybe we should have been a little more careful as to what we wished for, because now we've got Jack. The format, which is supposed to be so revolutionary, basically plays everything, or as my old suite-mate recently commented "Camper Van Beethoven AND Beethoven!" (I one-upped him with "Camper Van Beethoven" AND "Rock Me Amadeus!"). Anyway, the whole thing is the "brainchild" of Bob Perry, a radio programmer who was working on an American Internet radio stream in 2000. Perry named his stations after a fictitious persona, "Cadillac Jack" Garrett, described as "a hard living radio cowboy." (And you thought I was a misfit??!) The first station to adopt the Jack format was Vancover's CKLG, which makes me want to call up my local Jack station and request "Blame Canada."

There's been a lot of hype lately over Jack, even though the whole idea is no more creative than a bunch of mix tapes. Still, I found the whole thing rather harmless...until this past June 3rd at 5 PM. When the once-legendary 101 WCBS-FM flipped, without warning, to Jack, a line had been crossed. For those of you outside New York, this may be a little difficult to understand but, you do not mess with 101, 101 A-aah...101, 101 A-aah...101 WCBS-FM. The best DJs of all time (Cousin Brucie, Ron Lundy, Harry Harrison, Norm N. Nite, etc.). The greatest hits of all time. The original Top 20 oldies Countdowns. The Lunchtime Brown Bags. The Love After Midnight Hour. If you were ever in a bad mood, all you had to was click on 101.1 for a few songs and all would be well. CBS-FM was the good friend that was always there and never let you down.

Calling CBS-FM an oldies stations is way too simplistic. In most cities, the oldies station plays the same 100-200 songs over and over again, rarely spanning more than a decade or two. CBS-FM was different. They played their share of Doo-Wop, but they weren't afraid to play recent "oldies" as well. By the early 90's they had already added a healthy share of 80's hits into their rotation including Madonna's "Dress You Up," Huey Lewis and The News' "Heart & Soul" and even Wang Chung's "Everybody Have Fun Tonight." And the station cut deep. Sure, they played all the classics and primarily stayed with Top-20 hits. But they weren't afraid to occasionally play an oldie that you'd never hear anywhere else. I was listening one night in the Fall of 1994, when they decided to play Lenny Welch's "Darling, Take Me Back," a tune that never cracked the Top-40 nationally, though it had fared well in The New York-area (It reached #7 on the WABC-AM countdown in June of 1965). I had to call CBS-FM the next day to find out the artist and they were only too happy to tell me. It took me another three years to locate the track on CD.

Finally, CBS-FM was special because it was loyally devoted to its own format, but it knew when to break the rules. One of those times was in the late morning of August 9th, 1995 as news began to spread of Jerry Garcia's death. The Grateful Dead was not a band that you would expect to hear on CBS-FM and most non-Classic Rock stations nationally probably mentioned Jerry's passing as a news item and moved on. But CBS-FM realized that he meant a lot to many of their listeners and for probably the first time ever on the station you heard "Here's a song that Jerry recorded with The Grateful Dead back in 1970 called 'Truckin."" This was especially impressive when you consider that CBS-FM could have taken the cop-out and played "Touch of Grey," the one song by The Dead that actually hit the Top 40 (#9 in 1987). But, CBS-FM knew better and figured that if one was going to break format to honor a legend, then one might as well honor him properly in the process.

Maybe there is a place for Jack on the dial, but not at the expense of well-thought out radio stations with trademarked programming, charismatic DJs and loyal listeners. The same way as musical revues on Broadway may be nice once in awhile, but not if they are forever replacing traditional theatrical performances. What happened on June 3rd was nothing short of an outrage. Still, all hope may not be lost. The latest Arbiton ratings (though preliminary) came out this week and showed 101.1 dropping heavily since adopting the Jack format (9-17 over the last six months). Will CBS-FM as we know it come back? It would take a lot of hard work (and money) to re-hire the DJs. After all Jack works on a programmed shuffle. But who knows, CBS-FM may be the station that proves that nothing can replace the human touch. It's been widely reported that the last song played by CBS-FM around 4:55 PM on June 3rd was Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind." The first song on the new WCBS-FM should be "Hit The Road Jack!"