iPods killed the radio star

I was driving down a Los Angeles freeway a few weeks back—which is another way of saying that I was parked in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Los Angeles freeway a few weeks back—when I noticed a billboard announcing a format change for one of the radio stations in this part of the world. Arrow 93— a classic rock station for as long as I can remember (my memory stretches back a decade or so, incidentally)—was now calling itself Jack FM. The change was more than nominal.

“They’ve expanded their playlist,” explained my wife, who knows all about these sorts of things. “So instead of just playing classic rock, they’ve got some pop music, some alternative, stuff from the ’90s. And they jump from one genre to another at random.”

“It sounds like an iPod on shuffle mode,” I said. And apparently, it’s supposed to.

The Los Angeles station is one of eight FM stations across the U.S. bearing the Jack moniker, according to this Chicago Tribune article. In Chicago, for example, the station formerly known as WKQK has bumped its playlist up by approximately 1,000 songs. Its Web site features a MP3 player device and the new slogan “Now on shuffle.”

And just in case those allusions to the iPod seem too veiled, consider what Mike Stern, vice president of programming for Emmis Radio Chicago, told the Tribune when explaining the rationale behind the format change.

“With an iPod in their hands, people are getting used to a huge variety.”

My keen journalist brain spots a trend.

Indeed, having spent a day listening to Jack FM’s Los Angeles version jump from Queen to the Sugar Beats to Jackson Browne to Midnight Oil, you can’t shake the impression that you’re not listening to a radio station stocked with cartridges and DJs and whatnot so much as you are plugged into some random stranger’s 20GB iPod. The radio station’s musical selections may not be as diverse as what’s in your iTunes Library. For example, a recent spate of songs on Jack FM included “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, “When Doves Cry” by Prince, “Silent Lucidity” by Queensryche, and “Roxanne” by The Police. While that’s certainly random, it doesn’t measure up to the pure aimlessness of the songs that have come up randomly from my iTunes player while I’ve been typing this blog entry (“Right Wing Pigeons” by The Dead Milkmen, “Werewolf” by Teisco Del Rey, “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You” by Dean Martin, “I’ll Take You There” by The Staples Singers, and, currently, “Johanna” from the original Broadway Cast Recording of Sweeney Todd , if you must know.) But the general principle is the same.

It’s not hard to look at what’s happening with the Jack stations across the country—or with the San Francisco radio station that plans to switch to an all-podcast format in a couple of weeks—and spot Apple’s influence moving over another part of the music industry. First, it was the iPod forcing consumer-electronics firms to adopt more iPod-like designs for the devices we use to listen to music. Then, it was the iTunes Music Store changing the way record labels sold albums and songs to us. Now, the experience of having a portable music player shuffling its way through a 1,000-song music library is driving radio stations to try different formats.

And if it increases the odds that I’ll turn on my car radio one day and hear a random Dead Milkmen song, I can’t think of any more welcome side-effect from Apple’s iPod and iTunes maneuverings.

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