For all the wailing surrounding KFMB Star 100.7-FM's decision to dump its format, you'd think flying monkeys had been spotted soaring over Mission Valley or morning show yucksters Jeff and Jer had announced that they enjoy secret lives as homosexual serial killers who roamed the hills of Montana with crossbows during their annual spring-break vacation.
On one level, there were squeals of outrage from Star fans who couldn't believe that the station would jettison their beloved format, San Diego's spiritual home to Kelly Clarkson and Mariah Carey, where the songs were always bright and danceable and the deejays relentlessly perky. But the bigger news for the industry was the new format, "Jack," a radical programming idea sweeping the country.
The idea, at its most primordial level, is to play-get this-hits not from just one decade, but many decades, which is what passes for wild, out-of-the-box thinking in modern radio. These days, playing an Eddie Money hit back to back with a John Mayer hit is considered revolutionary, the type of crazy shit that would've got your ass canned as program director in the old days-say, six months ago.
The basic concept goes against the very holy core of radio-programming theory, which has preached for years that the only way to make a buck was to program for narrow niches, using rigid playlists devised by measuring the reactions of rodents with electronic probes inserted in their rectums, or so the theory goes.
Even the names were strictly regulated to reflect the most homogenized image possible, creating a country full of stations with witty and catchy names like Eagle, Kiss, "The Q" and, well, Star. Any sign of uniqueness was feverishly scrubbed from the formats, assuring that nothing would offend or distract the traffic-bound listeners from their blissful enjoyment of 33 minutes of hit songs from the 1970s.
But now, like some mass Macarena craze, program directors are rushing to be the first in their market to proclaim a station "Jack" or "Bob," the new cool names. The idea, contrived by radio scientists, is to give stations something called "personality." This "personality" will then promote fondness among radio listeners. According to the researchers, using a name like Jack, Bob, Dave or Mike gives a station "personality." (And, apparently, names like Clara, Sydney and Raoul don't work as well.)
Even more wacko, the formats are liberated from the strict playlists, allowing programmers to play anything from 1960 to current times, as long as it was once a huge pop hit. So it's not like they're playing long riffs of Bulgarian chant music. But the idea of playing a broader selection of songs is the direct opposite of the prevailing logic of corporate radio programmers, who steadfastly ignored all the feedback that suggested listeners think radio sucks.
Jack program director Tracy Johnson admitted as much when he told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "For years, we've done research, and what people keep telling us is that radio has too much repetition, there isn't enough variety, and the disc jockeys talk too much.... After a while, we started thinking, "Hey, maybe listeners really do want more songs, more variety and less idle chatter.'"
Needless to say, the move has crushed many astute Star listeners, who now think the Jack in the Box guy has his own radio station. They moaned and sobbed, unsure about where to turn for the latest Maroon 5 hit. "Star was Great!!! It didn't need a change!!! Jack has ruined my mornings & afternoons!!!!!!!" one exclamation-point-loving Star listener wrote on the station's message board. From another, the obligatory, "You guys don't know jack #$@!"
But some noted that the loss of Star wasn't necessarily a deep blow to the community zeitgeist. "I think a lot of boring people won't listen anymore, but who cares?" one listener wrote. "I was getting tired of hearing Kelly Clarkson every time I turned around."
But there was no doubt Star's switch to Jack was extremely important news, evident by the fact that the U-T deigned to write about it. The story's fairly odd lead assured Star's legion of soccer-mom and sorority-girl fans that "programmer Tracy Johnson is sure it's the new station you want. You just don't know it yet." (The story was written by Karla Peterson, who is apparently breaking away from the reality-TV beat to cover local radio. A few days later she broke the news in a Page 1 story that the growing popularity of satellite radio and portable music devices is affecting radio listenership, scooping the Sioux City Herald, the only other paper in the country to have missed that story.)
And then the Reader followed up with the obligatory Ken Leighton exclusive, quoting two unnamed "insiders," who "think" Jeff and Jer are also leaving the station. (Intrepid fact hound Leighton didn't reveal exactly what his two sources were "inside"; readers were left to presume they worked inside the radio industry, although they could be "insiders" at Leighton's 7-Eleven, for all it mattered.)
So all of San Diego is now watching the new Jack, or at least it has the keen attention of the rapidly dwindling group of people who think Jeff and Jer are funny. For them, the good times continue, as they race to their radios every morning to clap with joy at the wackiness of a station willing to play Peter Frampton's "Show Me the Way" back to back with the Knack's "My Sharona." B
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.