Jammin Oldies(Jammin 105):

Why It Ultimately Failed

Posted by Allan Sniffen on March 16, 2002 at 18:45:27:

Jammin’ Oldies. A great idea when you think about it. Play oldies that thirty and forty something’s remember without playing older music they don’t remember. Then, on top of that, don’t play the slow boring stuff that many oldies stations are married to, and you should have a winner. Sounds good to me. So good that I was sure that then 105.1 owner Chancellor was going to bring the format to New York in 1998. Eventually they did.

At first it went perfectly. Jammin’ signed on December 4, 1998 at 6PM (see the link below). By summer of 1999 the station was hitting all the right demos and was scaring WCBS-FM into updating its positioning and music. The ratings were good, the airstaff was excited and the station had more buzz than it had when it called itself “The Buzz”. It seemed that the curse of 105.1 was finally broken. WTJM was an advertising demo success that was on its way to making big money.

Unfortunately, WTJM owner Chancellor (and then “AM/FM” and finally Clear Channel) had a goal to make “Jammin’ Oldies” a format concept that could be applied to any market. They seemed to believe there was a magic playlist that could be handed to any PD in any city that would be guaranteed to propel a radio station to the top of 25-54 by just following a recipe. Follow the master plan and the station will succeed. There was a problem with that. It hamstrung the local PD’s because they could not adapt and adjust the radio station to an individual market and still stay within the “format concept”.

The New York radio market in 1999 indeed had a hole as big as a truck for another oldies station. WCBS-FM was playing way too many fifties cuts and younger oldies listeners were looking for a change. Jammin’ initially succeeded because those listeners flipped from 101.1 to 105.1 in big numbers that first ratings book. In fact, Jammin’s legacy to New York radio will likely be that it was the wakeup call that finally got CBS-FM serious about addressing its aging demos problem. But CBS-FM was slow to respond and Jammin’ was hot. It should have been able to capitalize on its initial success. Why didn’t it?

In my opinion, the concept of Jammin’ Oldies killed the execution of it. New York, as an individual market in 1999 needed a newer oldies station more than it needed an oldies R&B station. Drawing on Musicradio WABC’s 70’s heritage was a winner. The problem was that “mainstream oldies” didn’t fit the concept of “Jammin oldies”. As a result, the station couldn’t do the obvious and program itself to that audience. Instead, it felt compelled to keep increasing the amount of lesser-known R&B music that didn’t appeal to mainstream oldies listeners. As a result, the mainstream oldies listeners deserted the station. WTJM squandered its initial success.

Of course, you could argue just the reverse in terms of music. You could say that Jammin’ should never have tried to be a mainstream oldies station and should have positioned itself as a “classic R&B” station right from the beginning. While I don’t think that would have worked as well, I would agree it would have been better than what Jammin’ actually did. At least it would have been defined and focused. But, the station didn’t do that either. Again, the concept of what the station was “supposed to be” prevented it from doing what any good program director knew it should be.

What we ended up with was a station that was trying to be everything to everyone. In an effort to keep the concept of “Jammin’ Oldies” consistent, the station played some mainstream oldies, some R&B oldies, some disco and even a borderline classic rock cut thrown in for good measure. The station didn’t adapt to New York as an individual market and, instead, stuck with a concept that was too rigid to allow for modification. It was no one’s favorite radio station. If you liked mainstream oldies, you listened to WCBS-FM. If you like R&B, you stuck with WRKS and WBLS. The fence straddling positioning of WTJM was a guaranteed loser in a market that is fractionalized and fragmented to the level of absurdity.

Eventually, Clear Channel figured that out. But it was too late. Joel Salkowitz fell on his sword and Frankie Blue was brought in to try and work some magic on a station that, at best, was everyone’s fifth preset. To his credit, he did try to focus the station over the last few months on a classic R&B format. It was a nice try, but at a bad time. September 11th changed everyone’s listening patterns and the pendulum is currently favoring newer R&B over older R&B. The rise of WBLS and the fall of WRKS is evidence of that. As WBLS has upped its rotation of currents, its ratings have increased. WRKS, which has been more focused on older music, has been slipping. Given that trend and given that those stations have been successful for so long, there was virtually no chance for Jammin’ to have success in 2002. Between its own mistakes and the ebb and flow of popular music, the window was closed.

But what about the original concept? Is it so wrong to think that 30 and 40 year olds want an oldies station that isn’t top heavy with ballads and late fifties/early sixties music? Of course not. The concept is a solid one. But, at the same time, CBS-FM has improved so that a competitor coming in now will have a harder time. The time was absolutely right in 1999 and Jammin proved it by getting its original ratings.

The real lesson from Jammin’ Oldies, in my opinion, is that its concept should not have destroyed its execution. No format can survive in a market as competitive as New York City without being able to constantly adapt and adjust. Not being able to leaves you with confusion and tepidness. Whatever format a radio station chooses, it should be done with a single-minded determination to make it the best it can be and to react and adjust constantly to what is going on around it. The stations that survive year after year that have direct competitors always have this characteristic. They aren’t locked into a specific set of rules. The concept of “Jammin’ Oldies” should not have been so rigid as to prevent it from becoming that newer mainstream oldies station that New York wanted three years ago. So what that it would not have been consistent with the original concept of Jammin’ Oldies.

Over the next few months, I don’t believe the struggle between “Power 105-1” and its competitors (WQHT, WRKS and WBLS) will be plagued by the same waffling that seemed to go on for three years at Jammin’ 105. There is no way that Clear Channel makes that mistake again. Steve Smith has already brought in Ed Lover and Dr. Dre and all indications are that the station not be hamstrung by some concept that someone has demanded be followed. The sad part is that “Jammin’ Oldies” could have worked here had it been offered those same set of ground rules from the start. And, sooner or later, I predict someone will try something similar again in New York. The demos are just too good for such a format for it to be ignored. As long as the lesson of Jammin’ Oldies is not forgotten, it will work better the next time.

Posted by S. McKay on March 16, 2002 at 23:54:37:

Well now, in my humble opinion I feel I can add a few thoughts to this discussion. As the former PD at Philly's Jammin' Gold, I have had the access to research, and listeners, and have my own educated thoughts about the Jammin' "failure." While I realize NY isn't Philly, I'd bet the problems were pretty identical.
First, and most importantly, when Jammin' first hit the air, a significant number of tunes we played had not been heard in years by the mainstream. There was a novelty factor that attracted many folks in the begining. The problem was that the total universe of music available was quite small. We looked at music that fit our sound and tried to keep our focus on top 10 songs in our target eras. That had to be expanded to top 15, 20, and even as low as top 25-30. Songs that peak at #29 are not exactly "hits." After finding all these tunes, we were barely able to find 600-700 songs for auditorium tests. Once we started testing these tunes we found a steady and rapid decline in the passion for the music. With each test, it became more and more difficult to put together a library that our audience would have any interest in. In other words, the novelty of this music was gone. So, what do you do now? Do you start adding "non-hits" just to keep the sound fresh? While many folks here would argue that the station could have gone deeper, I would argue that the mainstream audience just wants to hear their favorite songs, and has little or no patience for unfamiliar album cuts. You may agree or disagree, but there is too much research to back up that theory.
As far as personalities, Jay Thomas in the morning was a poor fit. Far be it for me to judge others, I just thought it was a poor fit. I thought Al Bandiero could have worked, if not mornings, then perhaps elsewhere. He had an attachment to the music and that wasn't exploited enough. I also wonder why Chuck Leonard was never brought on? He would have fit well, in my opinion.
In the end, Philly and NY had different options. In Philly, I always believed, and still do, that Jammin' should have evolved into an adult dance station targeting sburban housewives. Like NY, Philly has a rich history of dance tunes. We could have added current dance hits to the mix and the station would have still been around. In New York it was different. With KTU in the mix it would not have been smart to make the same move. I am not sure I have an answer to the NY situation, but I think the flip to Hip Hop was certainly a good move, and will finally help 105 achieve some success.

 Posted by Famous Amos! on March 17, 2002 at 19:26:38:

GOOD thought! It would work, IMHO. Only, I've been stumping for a format like that PLUS 80's.

The reason this would be preferable to an all-70's or all-'80's format is: to have a finely-tuned, heavily-researched library consisting of the skim of the cream of the top of the pops in only a TEN year span, is just too LIMITING! Eventually, you're stuck with a teeny library of non-currents, playing until Armageddon, and those 250-cut whiz-bang formats NEVER work ("last").

I find it astoundingly significant that according to the most recent quickie survey in AllAccess Net Talk, of radio stations (any format) who play currents, 70% of MD's and PD's claim that their most important criterion in adding music is their "gut"! THEIR GUT! 70%! Do ya catch the mind-blower, here? Where new music is unknown and therefore risky, most programmers are adding it if it feels good.

NOW... contrast THAT with your average Oldies format! Songs that were actually certifiable "hits" are not added by the same "gut"; THEY have to go through a kind of boot camp, before they can be heard, ever again.

Throwing a dart into the history of rock and soul: Stevie Wonder did a lot of goodies in the mis-to-late 60's (primetime, for standard Oldies stations). "Blowing In The Wind" hit #9 nationally; "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" hit #9 also. "We Can Work It Out" made it to #13.

All these tunes got about 100% penetration on the nation's Top 40 stations. People voting on these tunes alone with their record-buying money made it a lock that Stevie would never need to work again, if he didn't want to.

But THESE tunes are not usually a part of the average "Good Times and Great Oldies!" stations that proliferate like brain-dead cockroaches throughout the country. It's obvious why: when a bunch of mall rats were thrown (at great expense) into an auditorium, the research came back negative. Perhaps the research said that these hits were okay THEN but not now; perhaps they were simply not as warm and gooey with the ladies, as "My Cherie Amour". Perhaps, after years of not hearing them, half the sample found them "unfamiliar", and thus, the trap door opened, and they went straight to the dungeon.

You gotta ask yourself, what the heck kind of disconnect is there between a song being Top 10, and its not winning a final exam of sorts, 30 years later? Is it the song? Or is it the finals?

And why are Oldies stations so anal about a hit being "really, honestly, no I really mean it, this is for real" a hit... when a non-Oldies station, as we've seen, is 70% likely to toss a totally-unknown quantity on the air because it feels good???

Something's wrong in this business. If all "GTGO" stations were pulling 6 shares, I might understand. As it is... when it comes to music research, I think we're all being duped like plaid-jacketed rubes who fell off a vegetable truck.

Think about this: when the research indicated "trouble around the corner" at Jammin' Gold in Philly, they had exactly TWO options, about all that Top 30 music where the feelgood factor dropped off: they could IGNORE the research and do what felt creative and logical; or, they could do NOTHING and leave it alone, because the research said you can't.

The guys at Greater Media chose (I'm guessing by your first post) to leave it alone. That was a DECISION, doing nothing and not adding "questionable", "unsafe", "dangerous" cuts.

The RESULT was: station croaked. So I guess my question now is: who's to say that Option #1 would have been more dangerous? What's more dangerous than certifiable historical failure?

We have GOT to start taking chances (what CHANCES? I'll believe the airplay and record sales, before I'll believe a radio consultant!!), and losing all this rigid Radio Dogma. Just coming back later, in post-mortem, and saying, "The format was not viable" is misleading and disingenuous. They could have done it differently; they just used junk science to tell them they COULDN'T, and that "there was trouble ahead". Uh, indeed! :-)

Thanks to Allan Sniffen and his New York Radio Message Board

[John F. Porcaro's Radio History Pages]