Virgin Radio 96 is losing another personality, but at least this time it’s not another poaching from The Beat. Tony Stark, the evening announcer who hosts Virgin Radio Takeover and Virgin Live on CJFM-FM from 7pm to midnight Monday to Thursday, as well as Sunday afternoons, is leaving to return to CJCH-FM (101.3 The Bounce) in Halifax, where he’s accepted a job as their afternoon drive host. Stark came to CJFM two years ago from CJCH, where he hosted the 10am to 2pm timeslot. Stark’s last day at Virgin hasn’t been decided yet. He’s currently substituting for the vacationing Andrea Collins as the afternoon drive host there. It’s “gonna be tough to leave a great city like Montreal,” Stark tells me, but an opportunity for a high-profile job in a market he’s familiar with (and has “a great vibe”) was just too good to pass up. CJCH-FM is owned by Bell Media, which is in the process of buying Astral Media and CJFM. Virgin has posted an opening for Stark’s position, with the same on-air times. Interested parties can apply to brand director Mark Bergman by Aug. 14. Bergman jokes: “In search for people with the names Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker!”
UPDATE (Aug. 12): Stark isn’t leaving after all. Bergman and Stark said this weekend that he’s actually sticking around, for unforeseen and unspecified “personal reasons.”
The press release says “Virgin Radio lets YOU takeover the airwaves!” – but don’t show up to Astral’s studios on Fort St. looking to get behind the microphone.
Instead, CJFM 95.9 is giving its listeners more say in what music ends up on the radio, at least for a few hours. Four nights a week starting Monday, June 11, Tony Stark hosts Virgin Radio Takeover, a show that allows listeners to suggest songs and up- or down-vote upcoming songs on its playlist to shape what makes it to air.
“This is real social radio,” program director Mark Bergman tells me, and is a big step toward the so-called So-Lo-Mo strategy of social, local and mobile.
In addition to influencing the playlist by voting up and down songs added to it, the system allows people to suggest songs to add to the playlist. But the system is set up according to parameters set by the program director, which means you won’t be able to suggest Mozart or death metal or other types of music that don’t fit on the station. (My attempts to add Weird Al tracks to the playlist failed, for example.)
Bergman said he didn’t know exactly how many songs are available to suggest, but that it was in the thousands, and represents a large part of the station’s music universe (meaning all of the songs played on the station). Naturally it includes a lot of pop hits from artists like Katy Perry, Usher, Black Eyed Peas, Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez and Maroon 5. But it also includes some older hits from Backstreet Boys, Bon Jovi, New Kids on the Block and NSYNC.
Changes to the playlist are shown in realtime, with animations showing songs changing position in the list.
I wondered if there was some veto power or other massaging of the playlist that could be done in case listeners’ choices start going too far toward one artist, for example. Bergman assures me it’s all out of his hands. “The only power I have is I can go on and vote for songs myself,” he says, and the choice of song is “literally left to chance” based on listeners’ votes.
What about Cancon? Is the system rigged to make sure that enough Canadian songs are played? Apparently not. But that’s okay, Bergman says. If the playlist that comes out is low on Canadian content, they can make up for that later.
Bergman says he’s anxious to see how the audience will react to this new format. Will it attract more listeners in the 18-34 demographic that they already have a strong lead in? Will it make them more engaged? We’ll see when the next ratings book comes out in the fall.
Virgin Takeover airs Mondays to Thursdays from 7pm to 9pm. Stark continues as the host in non-takeover mode until midnight.