Jack Is the Decider

How a radio format is a lot like our president.

It’s been a year since fans of WCBS-FM, New York’s seemingly eternal oldies radio station, tuned in expecting to hear the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers and instead heard a smart-ass congratulating himself for daring to play the Scorpions and the Stray Cats. Infinity Broadcasting, the station’s corporate owner, had abruptly switched WCBS to Jack, a new format billed as oldies for 25-to-54-year-olds. The legendary DJ “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, the man who introduced the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965, had been replaced by “Jack” himself, a snarky 24-hour canned DJ created by Canadian voice-over king Howard Cogan. In lieu of a live human, most Jack stations employ “Jack,” who’s fond of lazily intoning the Jack motto: “Playing what we want.”

That same day, an Infinity-owned oldies station in Chicago also went Jack; the company had previously flipped stations in Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Seattle. In the two years since Jack made its U.S. debut in Denver, the format has also reached Dallas, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and at least 35 other markets, while Jack knockoffs with similar regular-dude names like “Mike” and “Hank”—and even a Spanish-language version, Jose (“Toca lo que quiere“)—have sprung up around the country. But the Jacking of WCBS—”The Day the Music Died,” as a Times headline put it—remains the real coup. New York’s mayor reportedly promised Cousin Brucie he’d never again “listen to that fucking WCBS radio.” “Hey, Mayor Bloomberg, I heard you took a shot at us in the Post,” Cogan/Jack shot back in a WCBS promo. “What’s with all the swearin’ like a sailor? Fleet Week is over. It’s just music.” Yeah, Jack you, old man!

The basic idea of the Jack format, developed by the Canadian media company Rogers Communications, is simple: Any hit song from roughly the last 40 years is a Jack contender. Jack is widely believed to be commercial radio’s response to the iPod. All those MP3 players out there set on permanent shuffle are a constant reminder of the mass ecumenical musical consensus that commercial radio routinely ignores. They prove the obvious fact that some people like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and some people like “Sir Duke,” so why not play them both on the radio?

The typical playlist of Jack stations is said to be about 1,200 songs—about three times the industry norm—but in practice, Jack isn’t that freewheelin’. A recent hour of WCBS programming featured, in rough descending order of awesome to abominable, songs by Prince (“Kiss”), Chic (“Good Times”), New Radicals ("You Get What You Give”), John Cougar ("Hurts So Good”), Stone Temple Pilots ("Plush”), Jet ("Are You Gonna Be My Girl”), Bruce Springsteen ("Pink Cadillac”), the Rembrandts ("Just the Way It Is, Baby”), Wings ("Live and Let Die”), .38 Special ("Rockin’ Into the Night”), Journey ("Lights”) and Whitesnake ("Here I Go Again”)—overall, a representative summation of Jack’s programming philosophy. From tenured classic rock to the one-hit wonders that seem to be the enduring legacy of ‘90s alt-rock, Jack is essentially a rock format, with occasional curveballs of pop, R&B, and dance music. They’ll even toss in some hip-hop, provided the song is part of the funky-cold-medina’d canon that gets the dance floor moving at white weddings.

Whatever its faults, Jack is at least an acknowledgment that the radio industry’s many rigid formats, however advantageous to advertisers, bear little resemblance to how people actually listen to music. Compared with most commercial stations, segueing from Whitesnake to Chic (a juxtaposition known as a “train wreck” in radio parlance) gives Jack an amateur status on par with college radio. But whatever Jack says about our music culture, it may say even more about our political culture.

The voice of the archetypical radio DJ has always been an amphetamine rush, a Wolfman Jack-type spewing slogans that flatter listeners by appearing to cater to their desires (“All the rock you crave!” “The hits of your life!”). Cogan’s “Jack,” by contrast, exists in a constant state of whatever—”unaffected by life,” is how Cogan describes him. When he delivers lines like “news about Jack is really spreading—oh, wait, those are my cold sores,” he sounds like a recent college grad who IMs his friends between songs to tell them about this hilarious temp job he scored reading lame radio copy. And this decidedly “non-Wolfman” Jack also makes no attempt to package the music as anything other than what he feels like playing. “People always ask us what our format is,” he often says. “What’s a ‘format’?”

On the surface, this tactic is a yellowed page from the Gen X anti-marketing handbook, the “you’re too smart for our corporate tricks, so we won’t even try” approach. The format’s name, Jack, springs from the same semi-ironic anti-corporate impulse that led United to spin off a budget airline called Ted. But Jack takes this to a whole new level by not even pretending to pretend. Who cares what “you” want? Jack’s slogan is “Playing what we want.” Ten years after the 1996 Telecommunications Act destroyed the quaint notion, enshrined by Congress when it created the FCC in 1934, that the airwaves are a public trust, we’ve arrived at the perfect slogan for the age of media deregulation—”Playing what we want” is a corollary of “Owning what we want.” Jack provides a phone number for listeners to call and leave messages to be played on the air—but don’t bother making requests, he sometimes says, because he ain’t playing them. The first time I heard that, I wondered why anyone would think that a station manned by a 24-hour Jack-bot would play requests. The only possible reason for Jack to state the obvious is that he wants to rub our noses in it.

Why does Jack brag about not listening to listeners? For the same reason that Andrew Card once proudly said that the president thinks of the United States as a nation of 10-year-olds and himself as the father. Jack sells radio the same way Bush sells politics. Jack is the Decider. Just let Jack take care of everything—really, it’ll be cool. Moreover, the way Jack successfully conflates what “we” (Infinity Broadcasting) want with what “you” (listeners) want requires the same attitude that has allowed Bush’s handlers to package his obstinacy as moral clarity. Jack/George programs/governs from his gut; he doesn’t care about requests/polls. You may question Jack’s decision to spin Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On”—considering he can play whatever he wants—but you’ve got to admire how he does so without apology.

Bush’s approval ratings suggest that this strategy has surpassed its sell date in the political arena, and Jack’s Arbitron ratings, which have varied across the country, have been consistently disastrous in New York. On the whole, the original listeners of WCBS are as charmed by the man who put a big “doughnut” in their Medicare coverage as they are by the country-club insouciance of the virtual jackass who replaced Cousin Brucie. Not that Jack cares. Sure, historians may one day conclude that nobody but Jack wanted to hear “The Heat Is On” (ever), and that anyone with common sense and sentient ears should have doubted any programming formula that suggested otherwise, but what difference will it make? By then we’ll all be dead.