Successful radio stations keep evolving their formats. The recent brand extension of JACK fm with a young sister called JACK fm 2 is a useful case study.
From Playing What We Want to Playing What You Want: the new JACK fm 2 begins where JACK fm ends. Meet Ian Walker, general manager for the UK, who shares how you can counter your competition with a multi-channel, attention-creating programming strategy that will make your listeners do all your marketing for you. “I want to keep challenging.”
“We can do things differently
and more creatively”
Roll out compatible brands
The JACK fm and JACK fm 2 formats are developed, owned and licensed by SparkNet Communications, a radio consultacy company from Vancouver which focuses on branded formats, programming and research. The JACK fm brand can be heard on both CBS Radio and Clear Channel Media + Entertainment stations in the US. Ian Walker’s role as general manager of Oxford-based SparkNet representative OXIS Media is to grow the footprint of the ‘iPod with attitude’ JACK fm and JACK fm 2 concepts across the UK, as well as other territories outside the US. He’s also a senior partner of Global Cause Solutions, founded by former radio executive Bob Lind who now develops non-profit and community-serving partnerships, also by using radio to support good causes.
106 JACK fm Oxfordshire was the brand’s first affiliate station outside the US, and was launched in 2007. Focus group sessions indicated that the JACK fm format had potential to fill a hole in the market – provided that it would be an anglicized version of the American original. That’s why the British editions do have a breakfast show. In Oxford it is named Morning Glory and presented by Trevor Marshall. Today, there are 5 JACK fm UK stations.
Localize international radio concepts
JACK fm is one of the most awardeded local stations in UK radio, because they managed to build a close relationship with the local community. In 2010, JACK fm was broadcasting live from Afghanistan where 30.000 UK soldiers were stationed. The mission was to tell their stories and connect them with their family in Oxfordshire (which is surrounded by military bases, and functions as an air hub for the British Army’s operations). JACK fm runs about “14.000 local community service announcements a year”, says Walker, who feels that they outperform BBC Radio Oxford, which has a four times larger staff. “We take local issues and we have a very big social conscience. Because we’re a local; small; independent company, we can do things differently and more creatively than some of our bigger rivals.”
“We didn’t use the traditional
auditorium music test”
Create spin-off radio stations
In September 2013, the JACK fm brand was licensed to 52 stations across the USA, Canada and Europe. The international success inspired SparkNet and OXIS to come up with a compatible format extension of the main brand. Ian Walker explains: “Where the original JACK fm plays what we want, we have made JACK fm 2 play what you want – it’s interactive and social media savvy”. The station is based on Listener Driven Radio (LDR), which allows the audience to control its playlist in real time through the website and mobile app. A funny detail is that both brands are broadcasting the same morning show. Trevor Marshall, awarded as the UK Radio Presenter of the Year in 2011 and 2012, is doing the breakfast show on the second channel as well.
What about the classic radio model of pre-scheduling music, in terms of artist separation and stuff like that?
“We’ll retain the basics and will protect artist separation. Music is scheduled every hour, but the listeners will be able to change the order of songs. More importantly, within the parameters we’ve set, we let listener votes determine what music is going to be played.”
Attract your competition’s audience
I assume this will also provide you with some useful data.
“That’s one of the other interesting things. We now have so much analytics that help us shape the format. To get JACK fm 2 on the air, we did a crowd-sourced music test. We didn’t use the traditional auditorium music test, but started to do it all through social media.” Walker explains that they did recruit respondents from both the own P1 listener database and from listeners of similar-formatted competitors, such as Heart and BBC Radio 2. “We took 1200 songs and each of those was tested over 200 times – enough data to really pinpoint the market opportunity.”
“Our strategy with JACK fm 2 is
to be completely mobile”
Reach main audience groups
“In the Oxford marketplace, the premise behind JACK fm 2 is to make our commercial competitor sound old and dated, haha. By operating two stations in one market with one brand strategy, we’re going to squeeze Heart into a place that I don’t think they want to be in”, Ian Walker says with a smile. He explains that while both JACK brands are focused on their own listenership, they have been designed to cover the entire 18-54 year-old demographic together.
JACK fm 2 is a young & female extension to the adult & male JACK fm:
Walker is convinced that the brand extension will have mass appeal, despite a narrow focus: “It will do very well in the 20-39 female demo”.
Catch young & mobile listeners
Speaking about young radio audiences: it’s evident that in many countries, their overall TSL declines. How do you see that in relation to the future of radio, in particular that of the young JACK fm 2?
“That’s a dilemma we face as an industry. How do we engage more with an under-30 audience? To them, radio is different to what it meant to us – as consumers of radio, we weren’t as interrupted as we currently are. Our strategy with JACK fm 2 is to be completely mobile”, OXIS Media’s general manager reveals, announcing the launch of a specifically designed app that integrates social media and radio, and lets listeners who request a song share this with their friends. He sees the application as part of a multi-layered approach. “We need to increase not only cume, but also Time Spent Listening.”
“We talk about a
digital entertainment company”
Create original station sound
Your station imaging has a distinctive tone of voice: a little sarcasm, a bit arrogance, and a lot British humor. How important is the on-air sound within the whole concept of the brand?
“That’s so important to us. In America, Howard Cogan is phenomenal for the brand. But our focus groups were unanimous that they didn’t want a US voiceover here, so we casted an English voice artist from 84 people. It took 3 days to get that down to a Top 10 and then a Top 3.” Eventually, British actor Paul Darrow became the station voice of JACK fm UK. Ian Walker knows it’s vital to find the right voice for your brand. He feels that their own characteristic sound is of the reasons that JACK fm has won several radio awards for the best station imaging in the UK.
Finding the voice of JACK fm 2 was a similar challenge. They were looking for a female V/O with a certain texture and delivery, combined with empathy and sympathy. The winner was a British actress named Alicia, who they thought would appeal to the target audience. In Walkers vision, JACK fm 2 should sound relevant, topical and local. Again, the goal was to reflect the character of the brand throughout the entire production package.
Use entertaining & engaging imaging
Your brand voices sound different from the average Voices of God, so to say, and you’re also not using jingles. Seems like you’re deliberately staying away from the most common station imaging.
“I’ve also been a fan of jingles, but radio has gone through many evolutions. You now have to be real and honest with your audience and entertain them. We have 5 really good writers for JACK fm, and managed to recruit 3 others to focus on JACK fm 2. I would rather make someone smile; make someone laugh; make someone think by delivering a funny; clever; witty; sarcastic line than playing a sung jingle. When we talk about radio today, we talk about a digital entertainment company – our job is to entertain and engage.”
“I have seen JACK fm listeners convince BBC listeners
that they have to change the station”
Highlight local events & teams
As a former program director, how do you feel about working with a format book, versus developing everything from scratch with a blank page?
“I worked in Australia, Austria, Ireland and the UK, so I’ve had quite a bit of international experience. One of the things that I’ve learned is that a radio format will only work if you make sense to the local audience; if it understands your proposition. Using the basis of JACK fm the brand book, we’ve customized it to the UK market. We did a lot of things here that the Americans didn’t do.” Ian Walker mentions live broadcasts of local soccer games during the weekend as an example. Despite the team playing in the fifth league from the top, they did it anyway to “convince the local market we were serious about being local. What’s a better way to do it than to support the biggest local sports club in the county?”
What are things that you cannot deviate from in the format book – other than obvious stuff such as using the brand logo and so on?
“One of the great things is that the playbook has evolved so much. From our experience, we’ve even helped the Americans with our views and concepts. We can basically do what we want, as long as it is creative. I’ve started in radio in 1983, and this is the most exciting radio format I’ve ever worked with.”
Convert fans to ambassadors
Walker witnessed that it’s really possible to turn your P1 audience into evangelists for your brand. “I sat in focus groups where I have seen JACK fm listeners convince BBC listeners that they have to change the station. They’re very passionate because we’re connecting with them on a local level. This is an interesting case study: we have basically spent no money on marketing – and we have over 90 percent of unaided recall. People just know us; it’s JACK. For a radio station that’s only 5 years old to have over 90 percent audience awareness is a testament to how much gravity the brand has in the marketplace.”
“It makes the station successful
in all these markets in the world”
Be open for improvements
Could you give an example of experience at JACK fm UK that has helped SparkNet to evolve the original playbook?
“One of the interesting things is that the voice of JACK fm UK is now on 96.9 JACK fm Vancouver, which was the first-ever ‘JACK’ station. They like him so much, that they’re now using him as part of the breakfast show. That’s the advantage of working with a dynamic, creative company that is open to try new things.”
But are there certain things you have to do on the air, as part of the JACK format? Like, are there rules about how to produce your station imaging?
Ian Walker mentions that they define the brand using a Character Diamond, based on a writing model that was developed by David Freeman (image) for his Beyond Structure screenwriting class. In this case, it is a guide for JACK fm’s copywriters.
Reflect emotions, position benchmarks
“Writers are briefed on how to capture different emotions”, Walker explains. Together, JACK fm promos and sweepers both reflect a variety of feelings and attitudes, and include all brand USPs. “Throughout the hour we have to mention Playing What We Want 6 times, and communicate that we don’t play requests.” He sees the JACK fm Character Diamond as a key part of the format book: “It is pretty much the ingredient that makes the station successful in all these markets in the world.”
“Being creative and taking a risk
is something that I will always do”
Let listeners promote you
What have you learned over the years regarding the JACK fm UK format, and what changes did you make as a result of that?
“When we first launched JACK fm in Oxfordshire, there were a lot of people who said that it would never work”, Ian Walker recalls. About a year later, Original 106.5 in Bristol asked them for help. The station had a weekly reach of 19.000 people, until it was rebranded to 106 JACK fm and jumped to 114.000 listeners within 2 years (RAJAR, June 2009 and 2011). “Again, with no above-the-line marketing spends.” The UK brand manager once worked in Sydney (“the most competitive radio market in the southern hemisphere”) and shares that radio in Australia, a country of 23 million people, makes more money than the entire radio industry in the UK – home of 63 million souls. “I was always taught that you need marketing dollars and then spend, spend, spend to create ratings and talkability. I’ve now learned that with the JACK fm brand, if you execute the format effectively, you don’t have to spend money.”
What’s causing the difference? Does the Australian radio industry get a larger share from the market’s total ad spending than the 3% in the UK? [According to Global Radio CEO Stephen Miron]
“It is. The reason is that commercial radio started in Australia in the 1920s. It really didn’t start in the UK until the 1980s. And in Australia, you don’t compete against the BBC.”
Keep re-inventing radio formats
How do you generate new ideas and promotions to keep evolving the JACK fm format in the UK? Where do you find your inspiration?
“I’m lucky to have amazing people to work with, and the ability to talk with my colleagues at SparkNet”, says Walker, who also finds ideas in other radio markets. “We’ve launched Two Strangers and a Wedding, which has been executed by a couple of stations. How do you get two people to the altar without having them meet each other? We’ve ended up with a Gold Sony Radio Academy Award, because it was fun! Being creative and taking a risk is something that I will always do. If you don’t try, you’ll never know. You need to have people who are willing to push the boundaries. I’m not interested in safe radio. I want to keep challenging.” [Read also the second part.]