Non-Niche Radio Is Becoming the New Niche

By | April 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

New York – Radio’s playlist liberation movement hatched in late 2001 at a birthday party in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

A radio was blasting when Howard Kroeger, director of operations and programing for CHUM Broadcasting’s Winnipeg stations, arrived at his friend’s 40th-birthday bash. It was a competitor’s classic rock station, and Kroeger used the occasion to conduct an informal focus group among the partygoers, most in their mid- to late 30s.

Whenever Boston, the Cars, Meatloaf, Supertramp or some other ’70s staple came on, it got an overwhelming thumbs-up from the Molson-enhanced crowd. But there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm when Jimi Hendrix, the Animals, the Doors or other ’60s icons played.

While the crowd dug connecting with music from their high school years, Kroeger noticed the station wasn’t playing a lot of other acts his generation grew up with, like the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Soft Cell and Tears for Fears.

Returning home, he pulled one of Joel Whitburn’s Billboard chart reference books off the shelf and began feverishly compiling a list of songs from 1974 to the present that had a rock/adult contemporary (AC) flavor but were not getting much radio love. He ended up with a deep and wide potpourri.

With the help of Mike Dorn from Audience Research International, Kroeger made a format montage from the song list and had it tested during a CHUM strategic study. “It came back that the hole was absolutely huge,” Kroeger recalls.


Kroeger always liked the “Bob” moniker used by a Minneapolis country station in the early ’90s, so he adopted the handle in Winnipeg. “We wanted to present a personality for the radio station without having to go through all these names that have been used a gazillion times before, like the Hawk and the Bear,” he says.

And so, on March 4, 2002, North America’s first Bob FM was born on CFWM Winnipeg. In launching the station, Kroeger jump-started the latest hot radio format, which goes under various regular-guy names: Bob, Jack, Ben, Simon, Hank and others.

It encompasses a wide swath of music from the mid- to late ’70s up to the turn of the century.

Variety is the name of the game, seemingly mimicking the iPod Shuffle campaign in its quest for odd juxtapositions of style and genre. The one common denominator is that these songs were all hits.

Launching two weeks into Canada’s Bureau of Broadcast Measurement ratings survey, the fresh format debuted in Winnipeg at No. 1 among adults ages 25-54 and has remained there ever since – for nine consecutive ratings periods.

Inspired by the success in Winnipeg, Rogers Broadcasting launched Jack FM in Vancouver in December 2002, under program director Pat Cardinal. Today, there is a Bob, Jack, Joe or Dave in every major Canadian market except Montreal. Each of the country’s three radio titans – Rogers, Corus Radio and CHUM Broadcasting – program variations in multiple markets.

FIDGETING PROGRAMMERS Initially puzzled by a format that fractures some of radio’s time-honored programing tenets, U.S. broadcasters have since embraced the concept. “The first time you sit down with somebody to schedule what everybody calls ‘train wrecks,’ you might see a little fidgeting going on,” Joel Folger says amid bursts of devilish laughter. A former programer, Folger works with Kroeger advising U.S. stations on the format. He prides himself on helping program directors “unlearn many of the principles that (they), as a programer, have come to believe are set in stone. You can play songs from different (musical) formats on the same station.”

In one form or another, Bob, Jack and their offshoots have hit the air in markets including Los Angeles; Chicago; Philadelphia; Dallas; Detroit; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Salt Lake City; Austin; Sacramento, Calif.; Indianapolis; Des Moines, Iowa; Tucson, Ariz.; and Texarkana, Texas.

While the new approach is most evident as an adult top 40/classic hits hybrid, it is also being felt at formats as disparate as modern rock and country.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” into the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls?” No problem. Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” into Lipps, Inc.’s “Funkytown?” You bet. U2’s “Desire” into the Spinners’ “Rubberband Man?” Bring it on.

Though it waves the “We play anything” flag with pride, the format focuses on music that appeals to 35- to 44-year-olds while tossing maxims about fit and compatibility out the window. Classic alternative from the ’80s is abundant: Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, Talking Heads, Soft Cell, INXS. That meshes with the acts that first put MTV on the map, like Men at Work, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Duran Duran, and with that decade’s pop-rock crossovers from Bryan Adams, Toto, Prince and the J. Geils Band.

But there is also room for dance and funk from the Commodores, Kool & the Gang and Wild Cherry. Seventies classic rock is another cornerstone, with Foreigner and the Steve Miller Band taking prominent seats at Bob and Jack’s table. And don’t forget adult top 40 from the ’90s and today, encompassing Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, Avril Lavigne and Matchbox Twenty.

In short, it is the only place on the dial where Grand Funk Railroad, Norah Jones and the Georgia Satellites peacefully co-exist.

LOOKING BACK Spanning the youngest edge of the baby boom and the older end of Generation X, the 35-44 demo is nostalgic for the music it grew up on. In addition, Kroeger believes consumers tend to obsess on what was hot 20 years ago. In the ’70s, the ’50s-inspired “Happy Days” was a TV smash. In the ’80s, people looked back to the Vietnam War era of the ’60s through films like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket.” In the ’90s, TV’s “That ’70s Show” became popular, and there were movies about Studio 54.

Now, it is the ’80s’ turn. “As you approach your middle to late 30s, those pangs of nostalgia get louder and louder,” Kroeger says.

Meanwhile, the explosion of peer-to-peer file sharing and the popularity of mix tapes have conditioned consumers to expect – and demand – more variety, Kroeger reasons. “The last several years became a real awakening period for people’s musical taste buds,” he says. “Radio has been niche-formatted to death. Now variety has become a niche.”

Will the novelty wear off? Do Bob and Jack have legs? “Because of the breadth of the years encompassed and the sheer volume of songs, you’re not going to see the kind of burn factor that you saw with Jammin’ Oldies and ’70s stations,” Folger says. “The format is going to grow beyond belief in the next few years. In three years, you’ll have a station with a wide playlist of all different kinds of music in every market. It’s an exciting time for radio.”

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