Are you ready for Jack, or Chill, or Red?
By MARC FISHER
Radio, losing a generation of listeners to music downloading and facing threats from satellite and Internet radio, is finally starting to fight back. The nation's biggest radio companies are responding to a grousing and mercurial audience by cutting the number of commercials per hour, expanding the range of music played on the air and experimenting with new formats.
This past year brought several new kinds of stations. They're still too new for meaningful ratings results, but all are catching on to one degree or another as radio programmers search for ways to regain their share of American ears.
All of them share a theme of eclecticism:
Jack (or Bob or Dave or, even more oddly, Nine) is a format that promises to relieve listener frustration over narrow playlists and break down some of the rigid categories that FM music stations have built up over the past quarter- century. Born in Vancouver and nurtured throughout Canada, Jack is a rock-pop hybrid, a broad format that uses a 3,000-song playlist ranging from '60s rock to current hits, including tunes that most programmers would segregate among classic rock, alternative, hard rock, contemporary hits or even country stations. Jack stations often sell themselves as "Songs You Can't Hear on the Radio," and they've revived a slew of late '70s and early '80s rock hits that are too new for classic-rock stations and too old for more hit-oriented formats.
On a typical hour of a Jack station, you might hear a series of segues that traditional radio programmers would consider one car wreck after another: the Beatles, LL Cool J, Talking Heads, Rage Against the Machine, Moody Blues, U2 and Madonna.
A quieter eclecticism is heard on the new breed of Chill stations. Most of these are former "smooth jazz" outlets that are looking for ways to appeal to a younger audience and finally get some of the electronica and trance sounds that have been around for years onto the radio. The sound was first tried full time in Santa Fe, N.M., and on Sirius Satellite Radio, and it won its first big-city venue in November, when New York City's smooth-jazz "CD 101.9" rechristened itself New York Chill. A typical hour on the station retains much of the old smooth-jazz vibe (George Benson, Boney James, the Doobie Brothers' "Minute by Minute") but devotes about a third of its time to down-tempo acid-jazz and electronic sounds (Frou Frou, Massive Attack, Praful, Bugge Wesseltoft). The more adventuresome version of the format, as played on Sirius' Chill channel, features electronica, rock and down-tempo hip-hop, with music by Dido, Dr. Dre, Moby, Groove Armada and Coldplay.
The other new music format is really an adaptation of programming that was a radio mainstay from the 1960s through the '80s. The old adult standards format was heavy on Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee but also featured plenty of elevator music. The new version, pioneered on "Red," WRDA-FM in St. Louis, retains enough of the Bennett, Ray Charles and Bobby Darin sound to feel classy but is also a showcase for younger performers whose melodic approach has a considerable audience but no steady presence on the radio: Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Queen Latifah (who just released an album of classic pop and soul tunes) and Brian Setzer.