Tuesday 27 Sep 2016

What's in a Name
Matt Seinberg

Back, in what I consider the golden age of Top 40 radio, the 1960s and 1970s, radio stations often used dial position and call letters as identifiers. Wow, that was some idea and it worked.

Every major market had a station that everyone knew by those two things, dial position and call letters, not some silly nickname. New York had "77 WABC" and in Chicago, it was WLS, "The Big 79." There was 56 WQAM-AM, in Miami, 68 WRKO-AM, in Boston, 56 WFIL-AM, Philadelphia. One of my all time favorites was 93 KHJ-AM, in Los Angeles.

In my head, I still hear the top-of-the-hour jingles, singing those call letters and city of license. Before anyone makes only jokes, those are the only things I occasionally hear in my head. Those classic Johnny Mann Singers, TM and PAMS jingles are unforgettable. There are many collectors, with huge stashes of jingles; they collect jingles the way I collect air checks.

The standard-bearer of jingles, today, is Jonathon Wolfert, of JAM Creative Productions, in Dallas, Texas. I always wondered why all the jingle companies were located in Dallas. Did the hot, dry air help the jingle singers sing better? Was the labour rate cheaper in Dallas?

Most likely, jingles, the way I remember jingles, began with Gordon McLendon. He revived radio, in the 1950s, with a top forty format and jingles, but mostly intelligence and hard work. McLendon headquartered in Dallas and maybe it simply became the traditional home of radio jingles for this reason.

JAM is more than just radio jingles, today. They produce television and radio commercials as well as music and production libraries from their state of the art digital studios in Dallas. Wolfert says, on the JAM website, "It's a lot of work, but it's better than having a real job." I couldn't have said it any better.

Now the fad it for radio stations to mix their dial position into some sort of nickname. The most popular, in no particular order are "The Wolf," used by many Country Music stations; "Mix" is used by Adult Contemporary (AC) or Urban formats; "Kiss," for Current Hit Radio (CHR) or Urban formats; "Fresh," which is used mostly by AC stations; "Lite" for soft AC; "Movin'" for the Dance Music format and "Hot" for some Urban formatted stations.

The flurry of nicknames is reminiscent of "Niles Crane," on "Fraser," trying to present as hip. Such nicknames lack authenticity, words often used out of context. Scanning local radio, in any market, confirms widespread use of these names and leads to one conclusion about the origin: a foolish, senseless person discovered the thesaurus built into word processing software.

The most hated and vilified nickname is "JACK." Originally started by the CHUM Group, in Canada, it migrated from the web to terrestrial radio, when related cost savings, as in non-DJs, were recognized. Along the way, JACK put many talented radio personalities on unemployment and convinced hoards of listeners to buy an iPod.

JACK was a mindless prank by vile dullards in Toronto. The format eliminated all personalities, relying, instead, on voice tracking. A key promotional strategy, intended to attract listeners, was "We Play the Music We Want."

I don't have to rehash the story of how Jack replaced WCBS-FM in New York City. We all know how the WCBS-FM move failed. Other markets still have JACK, or another sibling named "BOB" or "HANK."

I hate automated stations and all what each one refuses to stand for, that is, listener-focused personality radio. Automated radio stations are stupid, the stingy owners holding listeners in such disregard. All these owners can contend with is a computer and the sales people that try to sell the format in their market.

Some of the best stations used one letter from their call letters, along with their frequency to identify themselves. Some of the most famous are 99X New York (WXLO-FM), 96X Miami (WMJX-FM), B100 San Diego (KFMB-FM), 10Q Los Angeles (KTNQ-AM) and the legendary Q105 Tampa Bay (WRBQ-FM). There are many others, too, and the point is this is a good idea.

Program Directors (PD) always like to think they are original. Back in the good old days of radio, when a new PD was hired, everyone wondered what was going to happen at the station. Would this DJ or that lose their job? Might new DJs or other staff join the station? Would the format change? How might the format change? Would the calls letters change? It could be months before the implementation of changes.

Today, a corporate programmer, not a PD, decides and locals are out of the picture, completely. An evil vampire, also known as a consultant, might help, too. A format change happens now in hours, much less months. A station will often run 10,000 songs in a row with or without commercials before any DJs, if any exist, go on the air. Even then, not a full line-up may be in place, but the new format is running with, or without them.

I'm guessing that corporate radio always has a format held in reserve for their markets, along with wanted call letters, web addresses, logos, slogans and all the other stuff needed to create a "new" radio station. I put new in quotes because while it may be new to that market, that format is most likely already up and running somewhere else.

When CBS Radio flipped KSLX-FM from talk to CHR, the new identity became AMP Radio. The rumor was that format was coming to New York to replace rock on WXRK-FM. Well, it did, but the identity was different. New York got 92.3 NOW. How original is that name?

I keep saying it and I'll keep saying until I take my last breath. Study radio history and learn from the successes, and failures of past stations. Use those lessons to fashion a station people want to hear and enjoy. Originality will beat the copycat and unimaginative every time.

I guess that's why cats have nine lives.

Matt Seinberg lives on Long Island, a few minutes east of New York City. He looks at everything around him and notices much. Somewhat less cynical than dyed in the wool New Yorkers, Seinberg believes those who don't see what he does like reading about what he sees and what it means to him. Seinberg columns revel in the silly little things of life and laughter as well as much well-directed anger at inept, foolish public officials. Mostly, Seinberg writes for those who laugh easily at their own foibles as well as those of others.

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