Feature: Is JACK fm the future of radio?
Next month, the UK’s getting its fourth Jack FM station as Solent regional station The Coast 106 flips to a classic rock format and changes its name to match its Celador sister station in Bristol.
Radio Today Editor Stuart Clarkson tuned in and chatted some of the people behind JACK’s success in the UK to find out what all the fuss is about.
I’m hoping one day soon we’ll get one.
Dipping in to JACK FM Bristol for 45 minutes at drivetime yesterday (Tuesday) I heard ten songs. In full. With no early fades or jocking over the intros. I heard two news and sport bulletins with quality local audio. And two travel bulletins. And a local what’s on guide. And two breaks packed with local adverts.
No-one told me what the songs were, but they didn’t need to as they were all hits I recognised. No-one told me what time it was, but they didn’t need to as I had a watch on. No-one asked ‘How you doing tonight?’ or thanked me ‘for switching on’, but I didn’t really notice.
Is this the future for local commercial radio? I think it just might be.
Southampton will be the fourth JACK in the UK. Oxford came first in 2007 after Absolute Radio International (ARI) won one of the last analogue licences issued by Ofcom with the format. Then Original 106 in Bristol (under owners Tomahawk who’d bought it from Canwest) flipped to JACK after a staged on-air ‘hijacking’ in December 2009. And Hertbeat in Hertfordshire changed to JACK last May to make it three.
In the USA there are more than 40 JACKs, plus there are 5 in Canada, one in Austria and even a couple in Russia.
The Bristol station was sold to Celador in September with most assuming they’d drop JACK for a brand of their own. Until the RAJARs came out. As Original, the station had peaked at 27,000 listeners a week (a 5% reach). In Q2/10 it hit 6%, followed by 12%, 14% and then in Q1/11 a massive 17% which represents 102,000 weekly listeners. The audience size is up 500% in just 12 months, total listening hours are up 300% and market share is up from 0.9% just before the rebrand to 4.2% now. Most agree it’s the best performing radio station in the UK in the last year.
“Original was a station that had flatlined and you just know that to move it from there is almost an impossible task,” says Richard Johnson, Celador Radio’s new Group Creative Director and the man behind the Bristol re-brand as well as a member of the breakfast show team. He adds he’d always been a fan of the JACK stations in North America and had thought previously about bringing it to the UK even before the Oxford station won a licence.
“I always believed it would work but I think the speed it’s grown surprised us. This has not been done with TV marketing or 48-sheets or press or anything – this is a station that’s just grown through word of mouth,” says Richard.
Was it a ‘no-brainer’ to bring JACK to the Solent region after the success for in Bristol? “There’s been a lot of time and effort invested into The Coast and obviously, unlike JACK FM, it’s a name Celador owns,” Richard tells me. He admits there was also a lot of discussion before deciding to turn the Southampton station into JACK. “Inevitably some people will lose their gigs because it only has a breakfast show – that’s a tough decision but then you look at the numbers and if we can get a RAJAR performance that’s similar to Bristol, we’ll be delighted.”
The breakfast team will be fronted by former Kiss and Capital jock Bam Bam. “We felt we wanted to recruit someone who was a breakfast presenter,” Richard tells me. “Bam Bam is a hugely talented breakfast show presenter and the format will suit him. He’s very excited and so are we – July 4th will be an interesting day!”
The agreement to licence the JACK FM name, strapline, logo and ‘brand’ from its owners Sparknet doesn’t stipulate that the station should only have presenters at breakfast – or indeed whether there should be any presenters at all. But all four UK versions will have just a live breakfast show with the rest of the day populated by pre-recorded local information, live local news and topical production elements.
Do listeners notice that it’s kind of like a jukebox for the rest of the day? I asked Sue Carter, Programme Director of JACK FM Oxfordshire. She told me they don’t do anything to hide it and that actually many of the station’s listeners defend the idea when confronted by non-listeners about the lack of DJs on the station. “I’ve sat in focus groups where die-hard JACK fans have told others about the station and describe the topicality,” says Sue. “They say not having a DJ doesn’t mean it’s bland or boring. In our research before we put in the licence application, people actually told us that if we couldn’t give them a massive national radio personality they’d rather not have anyone but just great music instead.”
Which brings me nicely on to the music. The new Southampton-based JACK is going to be classic rock station. The other licences being run as JACK all have different formats to each other. So the music’s not part of the JACK brand then? “We all run very different music databases,” says Richard Johnson from Celador. “Hertfordshire is semi-CHR I think and Oxfordshire will play ABBA and the Bee Gees – which Bristol certainly wouldn’t.”
He continues: “With Heart as a brand, wherever you go you get the same music. With JACK, because of the different operators and formats, you don’t. With a brand like Heart or Capital – or McDonalds – you can advertise nationally so someone comes to Southampton or Portsmouth having been in Newcastle they get the same McDonalds burgers. You don’t get that with JACK. It’s odd because it is a brand, but it’s not a brand.”
Sue at JACK Oxfordshire is sure it is a brand. “It’s definitely a brand and it’s got brand values,” she says. “The nice thing about it though is that there are key pillars that make it different to other radio stations – but it’s not like KFC where you have to serve everything in the same boxes and wear the same uniforms. It is going to be different on air just by the station being in a different place and the brand allows for targeting a different demographic depending on where you are. One of the great things about JACK is that we kind of joke that there are no rules long as you keep the station within the values of what you know JACK is all about.”
JACK started in Canada as recently as 2002, and one of the things that appears to make it an instant hit wherever it appears is the fact it comes across as being a mate of the listener. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the brand is actually someone’s name. “I’ve been in radio 21 years and I’ve heard radio stations with jingles saying they’re your friend, but they’re not,” says Sue Carter. “But at JACK I’ve seen people in focus groups sit there and say ‘I feel like it’s my mate’. When people ring up and leave a message for traffic they literally say ‘Hi Jack, how you goin’ guys?’ Part of the point of the station is Jack has a personality – it might be sarcastic one minute, a bit cynical the next and really touching the next minute. All the elements of a human being’s personality are contained within the brand – and I think that’s one of the things that has got to people.”
One thing that surprises me, and I don’t really know why, is that the three existing JACKs in the UK are in regular contact with each other, even though they’re completely separate companies. The team at Oxford talk to the other stations a couple of times a week, with the voiceover sessions done centrally and imaging shared around the three stations, although each write their own topical or local lines. The Oxford news team also have an agreement to provide news bulletins for Hertfordshire at the weekends.
“We’re separate companies but we’re not competitive,” says Sue. “In Oxford we hold the rights to JACK across the UK so everything comes through us to start with and the relationship is already there from the beginning.”
And since they hold the UK rights, I’m told the team in Oxford have had a ‘lot’ of interest from other stations keen to find out about flipping to JACK. Understandably, that’s increased since the award nominations they were getting started being for things like features, social action and Station of the Year – not just for imaging.
And if you’ve heard about JACK’s imaging like I had, you’d be surprised how little of it there actually is. What’s there is topical, witty and well-produced – but in the 45 minutes I listened yesterday it wasn’t a case of trying to be funny between every song. Two laugh-out-loud moments in three quarters of an hour though makes it obvious why they win all the imaging awards.
‘E. Coli. Giving salad dodgers an excuse since last Tuesday.’
‘Premiership footballers… laying who they want. JACK FM… playing what we want.’
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