Is Rock Radio Slowly Going Post-Modern?

Al Shipley | January 28, 2008 2:15 am

Since 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.