Is Rock Radio Slowly Going Post-Modern?

Jan 28th, 2008 // 20 Comments

flipflop.jpgSince many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock, welcome to “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al Shipley (a.k.a. Idolator commenter GovernmentNames) examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of Billboard‘s rock charts. This time around he examines a recent spate of alt-rock radio stations flipping formats and what it might mean for the future of the tenuously defined Alternative and Active Rock split:

Abrupt format flips are one of the cruelest traditions of the radio business. You get in the car, tune into your favorite station, and discover that for some reason it’s playing Celine Dion. Or salsa. And at first you’re not sure if it’s just those wacky morning show guys playing a joke. And then it just keeps on like that, all day, and into the next day. Usually, it’s a rude awakening for the staff at the station, too; they show up to work, and are either out of a job with little or no advance warning, or are suddenly a lot less enthused about what they’re paid to play and listen to all day. You’ve seen Airheads. You know how it goes down.

Recently, Maura sent me a few news items about a couple of Alternative stations that had just flipped formats, and asked me if I wanted to write something about it right away. I said I’d wait a week and see if any more fell. I was joking, but I was also right: two days later, another report of a flipped station popped up. Granted, these were not all total format flips, with the station completely changing its playlist or throwing out music entirely; that only happened with 107.1 WLIR in New York, which lost its frequency to ESPN Radio. Meanwhile, 94.7 KHBZ in Oklahoma City and 99.7 WNNX in Atlanta both made the subtle but significant switch from an Alternative format to Active Rock.

As I’ve pointed out several times in this space, the line between Alternative and Active Rock formats has gotten blurrier than ever in the past few years. It used to be that there was a pretty clear dividing line between the stations that focused on Guns N Roses, Metallica, and the heavier grunge bands, and the stations that played the wide, weird variety of ska punk, white rappers, Brit rock, and all the other fads that made ’90s modern rock radio diverse, for better or worse. (Often worse.) Now, all that remains is pretty much straightforward guitar rock. Jack Johnson or Eddie Vedder might sneak an acoustic guitar in there now and then, and Linkin Park still throw drum machines and rapping into their tunes, but big, compressed power chords rule Alternative and Active stations alike. And if Billboard‘s Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock singles charts feature half of the same songs, as they frequently do these days, how long will it be until Billboard realizes they only need one chart, or radio brass realize they only need one kind of rock station.

My usual source for radio biz perspective–FMQB writer Joey Odorisio, who I grilled for a previous column–notes that in general these recent format changes weren’t unanticipated; apparently WLIR’s parent company had been flipping it back and forth with its sister stations in recent years, and WNNX had been plagued by bad ratings. And it’s quite common for these flips to happen at the beginning of the year, so it shouldn’t be a shock to hear about so many in the space of a week. But they’ve become increasingly common since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, that notorious little bit of legislation that deregulated media ownership, and directly resulted in the rise of monstrously big radio conglomerates like Clear Channel that buy up stations by the dozen, and frequently play musical chairs with formats in a given market (incidentally, Clear Channel owns KHBZ).

So I won’t go completely Chicken Little about the future of alt-rock radio in light of these most recent flips, since it looks like business as usual for the time being. But, as can be observed in the Arbitron chart for format trends that Joey previously pointed me toward, the Alternative format has lost a lot of market share in the past decade, while Active Rock has held steady since its rise back around 2001. And if radio ownership bigwigs all decide that they can gain more than they lose by going Active, and don’t get the same outrage and protests from listeners if they make a more dramatic flip to reggaeton or easy listening. It might take a few more quarterly reports to see whether these are continuing downward trends or just standard fluctuation, but I’ll be on the edge of my seat to see how they play out, if only to figure out how to calibrate my Modern Rock Death Watch clock.

  1. SomeSound-MostlyFury

    It was my understanding that WNNX had become more of a straight top-40 station. At least from what I’m hearing from it this last week – more pop, R&B, rap than had ever been on it before. Maybe that’s what Active Rock is though?

  2. Jon Can Dance

    How can you pluralize The Lone Ranger?

  3. semiserious

    I think the main problem with mainstream radio rock is that after 15
    years a picture of Kurt Cobaine is still the best way to illustrate it.

  4. Al Shipley

    @SomeSound-MostlyFury: Ooh, yeah, you’re right, that initial linked report said it was “flipping formats to a more Rock-leaning outlet,” but upon further inspection it looks like Cumulus gave their frequency to a top 40 station and made the modern rock station HD-only. Thanks for the catch.
    big lolz @ the visual you guys came up with for this post.

  5. Al Shipley

    BTW, this is my 2nd column in a row with a gratuitous reference to a hard rock soundtrack hit from a ’90s comedy. If anyone has any suggestions on how I can work the AC/DC joint from Last Action Hero into the next one, hit me with an e-mail.

  6. Anonymous

    There is no broadcast radio station that I’d want to listen to. Not one. Anywhere in the country. But if you must have someone else deciding what you get to hear, for dog’s sake at least go satellite.

  7. The Van Buren Boys

    A friend of mine had just started working at Y100 in Philadelphia about a month before they suddenly changed formats to Hip-Hop/R&B. I remember him saying that they didn’t tell him until the day before that he would be out of a job.

  8. Al Shipley

    @The Van Buren Boys: Yeah, my aforementioned radio biz friend worked at Y100 and I think he said they found out just the night before. Those guys really put up a fight, too, big protests and everything, and now at least kind of ended up merging with WXPN.

  9. Al Shipley

    Related breaking news: WNNX owner Cumulus is putting a rock station on the 100.5 frequency that was just vacated by the top 40 station that moved into 94.7:
    So it looks like they just swapped frequencies, but did essentially replace an Alternative station with an Active one after all.

  10. wakeupbomb

    A few months ago the alternative station, Drive 105, here in Minneapolis switched to the soft rock/cheesy love song station Love 105. It pissed off a lot of people who wanted to hear mainstream “alternative” acts. Our college station (Radio K), and our newer college-like station (89.3 The Current operated by Minnesota Public Radio) play some of that stuff sometimes, but generally if you wanted to hear some Nirvana, or some Beck you’d tune into Drive, now you’ve got nothing. Sometimes the metal station will play those things but usually you just hear shit like Nickelback, and Seether on that station.

  11. Chris Molanphy

    As much of a scourge as it is for hip-hop radio and its ilk, the new Arbitron people-meters could actually end of saving rock radio from oblivion. If the entire yardstick changes and it shows that the few modern-rock stations that remain are pulling a lot of secondary/casual listening, the format could make a minor comeback. (This is a theory I’ve heard bandied about since last summer.)

    I’m not sure how good of a thing that would be, because a big part of me thinks — as you imply here — that rather than being saved, the whole rock-radio format needs to have a come-to-god moment and rethink its entire existence. But in the meantime, maybe somebody will keep playing the White Stripes.

  12. MrStarhead

    For the record, Cumulus owns two stations in Atlanta: 99.7 and 100.5. 100.5 (Q100) was a Top-40 station, and they moved it over to 99.7 (because it has a stronger signal), then started up ROCK100.5 on the other frequency. And so far (only one day of material to judge), it’s a classic rock, not active rock station. They played a lot of GnR, AC/DC, Metallica, Van Halen, etc. Some Collective Soul, but you expect that in Atlanta. 99X lives on as an HD station and online only.

    And KHBZ in OKC is on its fourth flip in 10 years: it was a modern-rock station (95X), then a lite-rock station, then back to modern rock (94.7 the Buzz this time), now active rock.

  13. SomeSound-MostlyFury

    @Al Shipley: sweet, thanks for the heads up.

  14. Clevertrousers

    Why would anyone ever listen to anything besides WFMU? Commercial radio has been dead as a doornail since 1996. Satellite radio is cute, but still not great. WFMU is the only thing left listening to in this rotten hellhole of a country.

  15. DJorn

    @dr.randy: Relax, Dr. Dogma. There are still plenty of good college stations, and you can stream them from all over the country online. Try Drexel’s and Boston College’s for instance.

  16. Al Shipley

    @MrStarhead: This is really splitting hairs, but “GnR, AC/DC, Metallica, Van Halen, etc. Some Collective Soul” sounds more Active than Classic to me. Active stations play a ton of older stuff, but most proper Classic stations still cut off their chronology at maybe Synchronicity, or The Joshua Tree at the latest. If the newest song they play is Collective Soul’s “Shine,” though, maybe they’re some kind of Active/Classic hybrid.

  17. Anonymous

    I’m pretty relaxed already, but thanks for your concern. Streaming online is great (my favorite is Pandora), but it’s not much use in a car or anywhere else outside. But okay, I’ll admit there may be a dozen decent broadcast radio stations, scattered around the US. Some would consider KEXP to be one of them; I can get KEXP on FM but sat radio is still better.

  18. wakeupbomb

    @Al Shipley:

    The classic rock station in Minneapolis (KQRS)plays those bands, but also plays a lot of Zeppelin and Beatles. I was a little miffed when I first heard Collective Soul on there, mostly because that song sucks and if they’re going to start calling 90′s music “classic rock” then they could at least play something good like Nirvana or Soundgarden.

  19. teknohed

    I remember when both of Santa Barbara’s alternative stations turned into easy listening and rock en espanol back in the late 1990s while I was in college. It was exactly as you described, I thought it was a cruel joke…how could they have easy listening jazz in the middle of the dial I thought…that’s for NPR stations down between 89.1 and 91.0…but it was for real.

    That’s why I personally stopped listening to over the air radio long ago. In LA there are few OK stations, better than most other locations…but still I’d ahve to wade through a whole lot of total crap on Kroq indie 103.1 to hear a good song.

    I listen to internet radio now as I sure as HELL am not going to hear VNV Nation or even Depeche Mode or Siouxsie’s new stuff for more than the first week of release on the over air stations. with internet streams you can so easily find exactly the genre that you want why would you listen to anything else?

    And if you were to rip those streams or podcasted shows you can listen to those on your (bike) commute and laugh at the chuckle heads foreced to listen to an hour of creed, nickel back, and jack johnson.

  20. f1sh3r

    i know this is old, but 99x got canned because the owners were chasing off all the talnet, which lead to lower ratings (?) and then that godawful bert show on q100 got popular, so they wanted to give it the stronger signal. the people who listened to 99x most likely would not listen to the bert show, so instead of just moving the show, they moved the station. 99x was one of the last decent stations in atlanta, and rock 100.5 is just 96 rock reborn. 96 rock is now project 961 which is somewhat sorta like 99x was…sorta. basically in the words of the ataris “the radio still sucks”.

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