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Variety Hits - History of the Format

Howard Kroeger, director of operations for CHUM Broadcasting's Winnipeg stations, held an impromptu, informal focus group at a friend's 40th birthday party in late 2001 in Winnipeg. Most of the people at the party were in their mid-to-late 30s, and Kroeger was curious about their musical tastes.

Kroeger played music from the 70s, such as Boston or The Cars, and the crowd gave its approval. But songs from the 60s, even from rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, received a tepid response at best.

Based on those results, Kroeger began pouring through one of Joel Whitburn's Billboard chart reference books and began compiling a list of songs from 1974 to present day that fit into the Rock/AC category but which weren't receiving a great deal of airplay. The result was a list with a very deep and varied mix of songs.

Kroeger met with Mike Dorn of Audience Research International, and the two collaborated to create a format montage out of the huge song list. From there, Kroeger took the Variety Hits format and tried it out in a strategic testing session. The study revealed that there was a major hole in Winnipeg for such a format, and Kroeger decided to give it a try on one of the CHUM-owned stations.

Interestingly, the use of the male first name was inspired by a then-defunct country station in Minneapolis, MN, "Bob 100.3" (WBOB-FM), which had a run from 1993-1997 before being bought and flipped to rock in one of the early moves in the post-1996 consolidation era of American radio. Kroeger liked the name, so he decided to go with it. All he needed then was a station to try it on.

CHUM Broadcasting acquired CFWM-FM (Magic 99.9) from Standard Broadcasting on February 1, 2002, and Kroeger had his station. On March 4, 2002, North America's first Bob-FM debuted on Winnipeg's 99.9 signal (which retained the CFWM-FM call letters). 99.9 Bob-FM streams online (as do several others) from their website.

The station was an immediate success. It debuted at #1 P25-54 (radio lingo for Persons, or Adults, 25-54, which is the #1 top buy for ad agencies) and has maintained that spot to this date, spanning nine consecutive ratings periods.

Based on the success of Bob-FM, Rogers Broadcasting launched Jack-FM in Vancouver in December 2002. Soon the format spread like crazy across Canada. The three major radio groups in Canada -- Rogers, Corus Radio and CHUM -- have a Variety Hits station in multiple markets in Canada. The only major market in Canada not to have a Variety Hits formatted station is Montreal, which is a unique market with its large percentage of French-speaking residents.

Along with Kroeger, another person can lay claim to the creation of the Variety Hits format. He is Bob Perry, aka Cadillac Jack, who in 2000 came up with the concept of a Variety Hits radio station, more in a longing for radio from years gone by than an intentional creation of a new format. Perry launched JACK-FM on the internet in 2001 at jack.fm (where you can listen to it streaming for free at 128 kbps quality). His company, Big Sticks Broadcasting Corporation, owns the service marks to "JACK-FM" and "Playing What We Want" in the United States.

Bob told me the following via e-mail about the development of JACK-FM: "While I was creating the format, I also created a back story for the site. Cadillac Jack Garrett is a veteran of a lot of 'big sticks' and for years bounced from station to station. One day (sometime in 2000 - no one seems to remember the date), ol' Jack got himself a station on the Internet and declared that he was going to 'play what we want' on it. As CJ's alter ego, I teamed up with Famous Amos (Russ DiBello) for the voice work with an attitude and general anti-corporate feelings."

In the United States, Jack-FM debuted on April 14, 2004, as 105.5 KKHI-FM Timnath, CO changed to "105-5 Jack-FM". The station is in reality a Ft. Collins station, rimshotting Denver from the north (check out this map from Radio-Locator to see what I mean), but it is succeeding despite its limited coverage in the Denver market. A study released in March 2005 by Bridge Ratings revealed that KJAC is converting over 50% of its weekly audience to favorite station status. The company says that conversion at that level is unique to the Variety Hits format.

Arbitron (radio's main ratings service) is protective of its ratings information, but the 12+ numbers (people age 12 and above) are made available through sites like AllAccess.com and RadioandRecords.com. And from the 12+ numbers on R&R, it's clear that Jack is having an impact in Denver. Jack-FM took the signal from 0.0 (no rating registered at all) in the book before its debut to a 2.4 in both the Summer and Fall 2004 ratings periods.

Jack's success in Denver has lead to a surge of new Variety Hits stations coming online across the country in the first portion of 2005, with more likely to hop on board as the year progresses. It's not just rimshot signals, either; major signal stations everywhere from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to Atlanta are now jumping on board. And as Joel Folger, an advisor to U.S. stations trying out the format, told Billboard Magazine in April 2005, "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... 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." Variety Hits in every market by April 2008? We'll see if Fogler's prediction comes true.

Copyright 2005-2009 Lou Pickney. All Rights Reserved.