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Note to Jack: Everything Old is New Again | blog.deanland.com

Note to Jack: Everything Old is New Again

Note to Jack: Everything Old is New Again

Maybe that headline should read, "Everything Oldies is New Again.  So long, Jack!"

Perhaps this is a confusing open.  Let me start again.

See Jack.  See Jack arrive.  See Jack function.  See Jack flounder.  See Jack Die.  Bye, Jack.  You just witnessed the past two years of of WCBS-FM, New York.

"Jack"  was the name of a programmng format being run on many of the CBS/Infinity group radio stations.  Two years ago when this was news - as many major market CBS stations abandoned legacy Oldies formats in favor of the Jack format (some chuckled and referred to it as New Jack City) - I wrote about it in this space. I said it then and I'll say it now: this is standard broadcast media fare repeating itself.  In the middle years of each decade certain sales and ratings phenomena occur, followed by a Management response.  Most often that response is to turn to Programmers to repair the problem.  "Give us some new ideas!" the corporate Veeps yell at the programmers.  "You're supposed to be creative, make the changes we need to stay on top!"

Then Management generally ignores their in-house people, many of whom have been promoting all sorts of good ideas.  Management yells, then the answers fall on deaf ears.  So Management then hires outsiders to either research the problem, solve the problem with some immediate solution (read: quickie format change), or to buy time while they figure out what their bosses will propose. I spent over a quarter of a century consulting radio stations and broadcast chains.  My firm conducted primary research, ratings analysis, audience perception studies, financial modeling and predictive studies, as well as basic and continuing program and marketing consultation for our clients.

In other words, we were the outsource professionals Management turned to in times such as this.  Hired guns.  Consultants.

One of the first things we'd do with new radio station clients was to is meet privately with the GM, the Sales Manager, and the Program Director.  The GMs would talk annual and quarterly billing, cost of operations, positioning, station value, things like that.  And in the more corporate broadcast groups, how their station(s) fit in and fared within the corporate whole.  Sales Managers would usually focus on more immediate sales issues, as well as category strengths and weaknesses ("why is it that we excel in car dealers but we can't get our soft drink numbers up to par?") and almost always complain that Programming wanted too much purity and how if they had their way there'd be more selling and more promotions and more commercials.  Usually the Sales Managers fell into two distinct categories:  (1) those who embraced and worked closely with programming and (2) those who saw programming as an obstacle that had little or nothing to do with  sales.  Oddly enough, the second category were usually the more successful salespeople, the ones easier to get along with, the ones with a narrow focus that allowed little to get in the way of whatever they had to sell.   Those second category ones usually remained in their market, switched from station to station, and had little or no interest in corporate growth or aspirations to higher management.

The first group would most often matriculate to upper management on the station level, then on the group level.  They saw the bigger picture.  But they were not usually the types who lead or "field command" a sales blitz, a hard run at a goal in a short time period.  They ended up as Sales Managers by attrition; they then managed to rise to a more appropriate larger management level, or remain as Sales Manager, succeeding only if they could martial the services of a second lieutenant sort of assistant Sales Manager.

In the initial private meetings with Program Directors I would have two important areas of inquiry.  First to get a sense of the person and whether or not they seemed to have what it took to effect change, lead their staff, learn (or delegate) the tech and ops techniques that I brought to all my clients, and determine that they were or were not team players.  Secondly, provided they seemed able to do the above, I would ask them a simple but hugely important question.  This question, more often than not, endeared me to most of them, but scared the hell out of a few others.

I'd ask them this: What is or are the obvious and necessary moves you've needed to make for the station?  You know, the stuff you bring up in meetings, that you suggest or ask for, that just always seems to get dismissed.  And I want you to tell me what you really think, and what it takes to improve on things and make this place better.  Then I'd point out that part of my job as consultant would be to help further their (the PD's) initiatives.  And I'd make it clear that we needed to be a team.  Yes, it is annoying that a hired gun has to come in and get accomplished what they'd been asking for.  But the good news is that this hired gun wants to hear what was dismissed, rejected, ignored, and see just which or what of those we could make happen, working together.

It also always gave me incredible insight into how this person saw their job and the larger issues associated with it, and if they had vision or were narrow in focus.

Getting back to Jack not going back to do it again, and CBS-FM.  Two years ago it apparently began to bother CBS/Infinity management that their oldies format stations were losing listenership in the younger demos (meaning 18-34, of most concern, the high end of 25-34) and this was having negative impact on sales.  Local and National sales were getting edged out of many buys due to the increasingly grayer audience.  Add to this some ratings slippage as Soft Rock or Lite stations chipped away at this demo.


WCBS-FM had been a ratings leader and a solid billing station for years.  As congolemeration hit Infinity the usual budget cuts came in.  The standard bigco imperative was invoked, even at a top performing property like CBS-FM.  Cut costs, reduce expenses, spend less on promotion.  Sell more!   Run lean! Yes, the typical "MBA-comes-in-wearing-a pink-tie-and-ruins-a-good-business" sort of imperative and tragedy that occurs when Wall Street types grab up businesses in whatever category has the current bloom.  They overpay for properties, run up huge additional costs in debt service, and send in Business School types who know less than nothing about the realities, nuance or real operations of the business.  They overpay because this means huge bonuses for cutting megadeals.

And after they destroy the business by firing or cutting back or putting systems into effect that look good on paper but make no sense in the day to day operations of running a business, they put on a new pink tie, head back to their deal making and buy properties in some new category, so they can impart their wisdom upon some new victim.

At CBS-FM they took the hits on buying out the contracts of  a number of  long term  on air talents.  The ad budget was slashed to smithereens.  Minimal TV ads, almost no print or outdoor.  And Jack conducted almost none of the audience involving, loyalty and brand building sort of on-air activities that were a hallmark of CBS-FM.  So running the Jack format, programmed mostly from afar by a consulting firm (I hate it when consultants mess up!) and trying to make a hit with a low-budget product, eventually failed.  The format didn't sound or feel like New York, it had minimal interaction with the audience.  It might as well have been radio for Topeka or Cedar Rapids.  This was not a New York radio station, not by a long shot.

In my opinion, this was the sort of programming one installs on a medium market FM with a limited budget, to protect a demographic flank, supporting  a larger  market cluster by shoring up some numbers in teens and Male 18-49, emphasis 25-34.  Not what one does in the New York market where each station in the cluster can stand alone.  This was the sort of decision that radio people don't make.  Pink ties and MBAs and efficiency experts who know nothing about media make these sort of calls.  It saddened me that the once mighty CBS Broadcast group had sunk to this level.

I'd worked with one of the original architects of CBS Radio.  My attorney for broadcast affairs had been Chief Legal Counsel for CBS Radio.  I had divisions of CBS as clients.  I had lots of friends in various aspects of the stations, networks, and rep divisions.  CBS had been pristine, a wonderful operation, a decent place full of good people. 

In the years since I'd been active in radio it became clear that the top brass at CBS was less and less the old crew, more and more the new people in radio, the conglomerists.  So Oldies went into the crapper and Jack became the format for the CBS Group Flagship FM in New York.

Well guess what?!  Jack was a dud.  Miserable ratings.  Sales results that follow those sort of ratings.  And no growth trends,with numbers never coming near the performance of the Oldies format that preceded it.  You know,  the format that was not good enough, the one that cost too much.  What's that phrase?  Oh yeah, this is it: nothing is more expensive than cheap.

CBS announced a few days ago that the trade press rumors were true.  Jack will be replaced by (you guessed it) an oldies format.  A little hipper and more contemporary oldies than the old CBS-FM, but oldies, just the same, will be back on the air in New York.  Some of the air talent is coming back, as well.  It will cost a little more, it will require some real promotion.  But properly spent, that money should pay off in ratings and sales.  And listeners embracing the return of a format for New Yorkers by New Yorkers.

Funny how it took a change at the helm of Infinity for this to happen.  Dan Mason, a radio guy from way back, has his hands full.  Fortunately for CBS/Infinity stations and employees, and for listeners in their markets, real radio might come back, replacing low budget, MBA-driven cut-rate radio.

Maybe one of those MBAs in charge was named Jack. 

Bye-bye, Jack.  Go away.  Take your pink tie.

Never come back.  Don't darken the door again.







Hat tip to my friend and neighbor Howard Greenstein, who may just be the first person to have blogged about the latest Jacktivity.