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Daily Illini Comments

This is the e-mail that I sent to Martha Spalding of the Daily Illini in response to her questions concerning the Variety Hits format. Comments from this appeared in the August 24, 2005 edition of the paper.


Martha,

Thanks for writing. I'll do my best to answer your questions -- feel free to ask more if you want to know more based on my responses. Also, if you could mail me your article when it's printed, I'd very much appreciate it.

> What is your name/profession? How long have you been doing
> what you're doing?

My name is Lou Pickney. I work as a producer for the Bubba The Love Sponge radio show in Tampa, FL. I've been with the BTLS show for 2 1/2 years; prior to that, I worked as a TV news producer for 5 1/2 years. I graduated from the University of Evansville (in southwest Indiana) in 1999, and while there I spent four years working at WUEV (the student radio station) and worked at WEHT (the ABC affiliate in town). So I've been involved with TV/radio, in one capacity or another, for about ten years now, though certainly I've experienced a wide variety of jobs within the broadcasting field, particularly for my age (27, I turn 28 on 8/24).

As for the website, I created VarietyHits.com in late April because I have an interest in the format. I saw it growing as a viable format here in the United States, and since no one had a site devoted to it, I figured I'd start one. Within a month the site earned national exposure in an Associated Press article. I was amazed at the response and interest it has received. I created a site on the Hot Talk genre of radio (RadioHotTalk.com), which is what lead to me landing the job with Bubba.

> Why do you think variety stations, like Jack FM, have caught
> on across the US and Canada?
>
> What age group is Jack FM geared toward?

(I'll answer these two questions at once)

Radio is a business, and like any business, it's looking for the next big thing. Variety Hits is a format designed to appeal to a wide audience. P25-54 (Persons, or Adults, 25-54) is the target demographic, which also happens to be the most lucrative advertising demographic in radio. Of course, when you want to reach that wide of a group, you're talking about a challenging thing. A 25 year old man and a 54 year old woman aren't likely to have similar musical interests.

Why it works is simple: the broad range of musical genres, based on songs that were Top 40 hits from 1974-present, appeal to a wide mass of people. For an example, I can give you a very personal case-in-point. In Nashville, JACK-FM debuted in April. My brother Matt and my Mom both live there, and neither of them I thought would ever have a single radio station that would be in their top 3 favorites. Matt likes hard rock; my Mom likes oldies and AC (Adult Contemporary). But JACK-FM, amazingly enough, was something that my brother enjoyed, thanks to the huge playlists, the "oh wow" factor of surprising songs, and the overall wide selection of different yet familiar songs. My Mom enjoyed it because it played music that she enjoyed, but also it had enough variety in there that she wasn't hearing the same songs over and over. Matt listed the station as his second-favorite (behind modern rock 102.9 The Buzz), as did my Mom (behind AC Mix 92.9). I never, EVER thought that would happen.

On a more general basis, because so many genres are covered, more people are going to be inclined to put Variety Hits into their car radio as a pre-set. Looking at the results so far, the TSL (Time Spent Listening) tends to not be as high as in other formats, but the Cume (Cumulative number of listeners) tends to be high, since it appeals to such a broad base. It certainly plays to the strengths of the Arbitron ratings system, where people enter stations that they listen to (and may not accurately represent the total amount of time that they listen).

> Do you think variety hits stations will continue to remain
> successful years from now?

I think it will be in cases where it is executed properly. Not all of them will, because it's not an easy format to program. I used to think that AAA (Adult Album Alternative) was the toughest, but Variety Hits has surpassed that as the most difficult. Trying to find what unrelated songs will work together best in a given set, without too much 80s or new music or rock or pop in any one stretch of time... that is difficult.

> What do you think is most appealing about Jack FM?

The whole "you never know what you'll hear next factor" I think is the most appealing thing about JACK-FM. It's also very, very carefully researched, much moreso than I think most observers realize. Howard Cogan (the voiceover talent for the terrestrial JACK-FM stations) is also great in his role; since JACK-FM in the United States (with the exception of Jeff and Jer in San Diego and Howard Stern in Buffalo) is jock-free, the voiceover talent is an essential part of helping the audience connect with the station, and Cogan is outstanding in his work.

> Have you noticed mostly negative, or positive responses to the
> new automated format?

It depends who you ask. Listeners seem to love it. To call it an automated format is a bit of a misnomer, as there are Variety Hits stations (i.e. those owned by Bonneville) that have DJs (like The Peak in Phoenix). People who work as air talents in radio by and large mostly dislike it, as they see it as meaning fewer jobs for them. But in reality, with voice-tracking and companies already having jockless dayparts in large markets (i.e. Cox Broadcasting), it's not as if Variety Hits is something that is shaking things from the norm. The sad reality is that for DJs, the jobs that were there ten years ago aren't there anymore. You can thank the 1996 Telecommunications Act for that, which allowed for so much consolidation in media ownership in this country, but that's another topic for another time.

> Thank you so much for all of your help! Any questions that you
> can answer would really help me out.

I hope that what I wrote helped. One thing worth noting: of all the Variety Hits stations that have gone on the air, both in Canada and in the United States, only two have died off: Bob FM in Honolulu and Bob FM in Sacramento. In Honolulu, the station was poorly programmed, but what killed it was when it was sold to Salem Communications, which only programs a select few formats, one of which is not Variety Hits. Salem deep-sixed the format in August 2004. In Sacramento, First Broadcasting sold off one of its signals, and it decided to move the 80s "Flash" music format to the 92.1 rimshot signal that Bob FM had been on for only a few months, knocking off that incarnation of Bob FM on 8/1/2005 (just a few weeks ago). Infinity Broadcasting, which is responsible for putting JACK-FM on in many major markets in the United States, actually created a VP of Programming position for the format, which tells me that it is in this for the long haul.

Good luck with your story; one person I recommend that you talk with is Bob Perry, who created JACK-FM. His e-mail address is (removed from here to respect Bob's privacy).

Lou Pickney
Tampa, FL
LouPickney.com (and obviously VarietyHits.com)

Copyright 2005-2009 Lou Pickney. All Rights Reserved.