Following up on Noel's oldies radio thread, there's been some oldies action here in Chicago too, but of a different kind. Our oldies station went down and got replaced by Jack FM, on of those new-format "iPod" stations. Their claim to fame, reinforced by an attitudinal spokesperson in the space between songs and commercials, is that you don't know what you're going to hear next. It could be Donna Summer of Linkin Park. They'll play anything! Crazy!

It's not a bad gimmick, but the longer you listen, the narrower the definition of "anything" grows. For one, oldies are out. Though the occasional Stones song gets grandfathered in, this is essentially a post-Nixon format. For another, don't expect to hear anything that wasn't a Top 40 hit at one time or another. You might hear "Glory Days" (in fact, our Jack has a real fondness for that song) but tracks from


Nebraska are pretty much out of the question. Rap's essentially that thing that introduces Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" and, maybe, "Fight For Your Right To Party." Essentially, the format is this: You can expect anything, so long as you only expect stuff that's been played at proms and wedding receptions within the last 30 years.

And that's okay, but only okay. Jack's pretty much the only station I listen to apart from NPR (yeah, I know) and the occasional trip to one of the hip-hop stations to hear if any of the five songs they play to death has been switched out yet (nope, it's still Ludacris and 50 Cent all day every day.) It's not "just like listening to my iPod" as one oft-aired Jack listener testimonial declares, but it is like listening to the iPod of someone with an ear for catchy tunes and no sense of adventure. There are worse things. What creeps me out is that the new face of variety is no face at all. Jack features no DJs and brags about taking no requests. It boasts of a radio breakthrough achieved by factoring out the human element and letting a series of digital dice determine what's next. (And for some reason that's often Tears For Fears.)

The weird thing is that, though it replaced our oldies station, it's just as much a nostalgia trip. That's not because it plays old music (although hits from the '80s pop up a lot more than, say, LFO). Really it's nostalgia for a shared musical culture that's been replaced, or at least diminished, by the fragmentation of radio and cable over the last few years. Sure, the weekly Top 40 and MTV are still forces, but there's really no single source for music that you, me, your dental hygienist, and her teenage daughter all know. Yeah, a lot of it was crap, but I kind of miss it and in its own way wasn't there something progressive about a format that–to choose a mid-'80s slice–played Anita Baker, Mr. Mister, Run DMC and Madonna back to back? That's really the opposite of an iPod, which are custom-fitted for the person hiding behind their earplugs. These iPod stations are, in their own way, safe havens too, places where everyone, or at least everyone of a certain age, knows all the words to all the songs. It's where pop music goes to die.