Radio and contemporary culture


A radio format called Jack emerged roughly four years ago. From obscure origins in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the format colonized big swathes of the radio world.

Jack features many more, and more diverse, songs on the play list, a less predictable set of choices, and most interesting, the collision of songs so strange and wonderful, Jack programmers call them “train wrecks.”

In an excellent treatment of the topic, Molahphy notes that “the invention of Jack in 2001–02 coincided perfectly with a far more influential invention, the iPod.”  Emerging in very different parts of the music industry,  the iPod and Jack gave us the chance to "shuffle."  And indeed, it does seem that Jack is particularly cherished for those "train wrecks." 

We now have several indicators (mash-ups, etc.) that suggests that we have not just loosed the bonds of genre but that we are now actually actively anti-generic. We want things that were not  meant to go together to be brought together.  We like to break things open and see what’s inside. We like to cross the currents and see what happens.  Everything else is fast becoming a little tedious. When confronted to the typical Hollywood film, something in us wants to scream, "Got it. Move on!"  (And I have no doubt that this is one of the reasons Hollywood now faces a downward trend at the box office.) 

This is not a novel argument, but I am not sure that we have admitted into evidence the TV remote control. When we are banging away at the remote, it is sometimes because we are searching for something better, or trying to monitor several programs at once.  But I think our motives are sometimes of the train wreck variety.  We are splicing together several feeds, perhaps, so to create a new, higher level of discourse. The structural properties of this level we haven’t yet began to explore. 

Please do read the Molahphy’s post.  It really is good.

References and acknowledgments

With a tip of the hat to Ennis at SepiaMutiny and Ishbadiddle.

5 thoughts on “Radio and contemporary culture

  1. Pingback: Radio Marketing Nexus

  2. LK

    grant, thanks for posting on this

    yes the “jack” format is a canadian invention. which in canada means that it must adhere to cancon rules. for those outside of the great white north cancon is short for canadian content. it’s cultural protectionism that states that broadcasters have to play a certain amount of canadian content in order to retain their license. i believe at canadian FM stations it’s been at 35% for a number of years. so listening to jack in canada is not exactly like listening to your wild college buddy’s mix tapes. it’s way too much honeymoon suite, max webster, glass tiger, saga, trooper, prism, mid 70s solo burton cummings, etc. for those of you outside of canada you probably haven’t heard of most of these people, and for a reason. they only got played on the radio in canada because broadcasters had to play them. forcing us to do so a second time and telling us that it brings back the ‘good old days’? grrrr. i do agree that the underlying philosophy of jack, a shuffle play of favourite party tunes, is very much related to the penetration of the iPod (i think yesterday’s ny times said that iPod sales were up 425% in 1 yr). my other gripe with the jack format is that they’re rewriting history. songs that people actually wanted to hear on the radio in the 80s, such as the cure, violent femmes, depeche mode, are now considered ‘classics’, whereas in their day they were considered untouchable. if radio had been in touch with what people were really listening to or wanted to listen to this revisionist history would not have been necessary. and my third (and hopefully final) point is that when the jack format enters a market they tend to have 2 to 3 really strong “books” (that’s ratings speak for strong performance in the BBMs, short for bureau of broadcast measurement). after a few books, it’s generally back to the same old listening patterns as previously. wait, one more point, satellite radio will hopefully completely shake things up so vigorously that our choice as listeners won’t be between a song by the cure “adventurously” played next to a song by bryan adams. it will be the choice of hundreds if not thousand of genres and personalities, live in real time, or downloadable. radio on demand. finally.

  3. Grant

    LK, thanks for these illuminating remarks and the reminder that in some countries the broadcast of Burton Cummings solos is required by law. Great points, all of them. Thanks, Grant

  4. Mark Jeffries

    Yes, the “Jack” format actually started as “Bob” in Winnipeg. One point that I think people miss when discussing this format’s origins goes back to another uniquely Canadian requirement. Its known as “Hit/Non-Hit”. Its a rule that only 50% of an FM station’s playlist can be “Hits”. Those would be songs that achieved top 40 status on a number of charts. Originally intended to protect a few AM “Oldies” stations, the rule, though well past it’s prime in intent, was ammended to only include songs pre-1980. The result is that a station could play Hit after Hit (plus 35% CanCon) if those songs all were released post 1980. In essence the ammendment paved the way for “Jack” stations to become the “New Oldies”. In Canada, you will not hear true “Oldies” on FM because of this rule. Timing is everything here as younger Boomers and Gen X-ers now have their own “Oldies” stations. Had this format come into being say in the mid 90’s, it’s possible it would have fallen flat as many other stations were playing much of that music as recurrents.

  5. LK


    great point re the hit/non-hit ratio and how until that rule was amended it couldn’t be hit-hit-hit on FM radio therefore making “bob”, “jack”, etc impossible.; you are obviously canadian and work/have worked in the industry. americans cannot fathom these bizarre rules of broadcasting in canada. steve portigal, we await your comments…

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