Classic Rock: Good News From The “Demographic Cliff”

It is a term heard a lot in Classic Rock these days: “the demographic cliff.” Any discussion of the state of the format is informed by the percentage of the audience that is 45-to-54-years-old, and by the listeners who have already crossed the line to 55-plus. A few weeks ago, for the first time, a Classic Rock GM remarked that some people considered his to be a “dying format.” And while he was expressing the sentiments of others, he didn’t rush to add, “Personally, I think they’re crazy.”

Concern about “the demographic cliff” has manifested itself in the continued rollout of second-generation Classic Rockers like Clear Channel’s “Brew” stations. And in the continued march by many Classic Rock stations into the grunge era—the music that was one considered to be a shot across Classic Rock’s bow. One recent evolution took place at Cox’s WSRV (The River) Atlanta, which added Pearl Jam and Lenny Kravitz to a station that had launched with a softer, older version of Classic Hits less than a decade ago.

The correct answer to the “age of the audience” question is never the one that GMs find helpful. Having an audience at the height of its earning potential and disposable income ought to buy the format some respite from the demographic concerns, but never has. So should having the audience that grew up most influenced by radio, and remains most under its sway. But agencies don’t accept that either and so neither do managers.

It also doesn’t help that Classic Rock has been multiply crowded in many markets. The longstanding research appeal of the format has often encouraged stations to try to create a hole for the format even where none exists. The format has also been crowded by:

• The advent, a decade ago, of the Adult Hits format – essentially “next gen” Classic Rock with a few pop records;

• The product crisis at Active Rock, where a lack of current music that matters has seen many stations effectively segue to “Classic Rock That Really Rocks”;

• Mainstream AC’s use of Classic Hits music. Many ACs are ditching the ‘70s altogether. For those stations that are still willing to acknowledge the decade, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac are the last ‘70s titles to go;

• The resurgence of the Oldies/Greatest Hits format which, as it modernizes moves closer to Classic Rock (or at least Classic Hits) than ever.

That Oldies resurgence also exposes another of Classic Rock’s underlying issues. If your allegiance to the music on Classic Rock radio was formed before 1979, you grew up with it either on a top 40 station or with an Album Rock format that hadn’t yet cleared the decks of singer-songwriters and progressive R&B acts. The narrowly defined “kickass rock ‘n’ roll” era of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s was still setting expectations for rock radio as Classic Rock coalesced as a format a few years later, but it was really a 4-5 year period during the 45-year lifespan of the music that Classic Rock plays.

The net effect is that the reason to choose ‘70s Classic Rock on a Classic Rock station, rather than an Oldies station—never having to hear Bill Withers or “December 1963”—isn’t as compelling now. Across the dial, other formats based on the thirty-year-old architecture of “this, but not that” are equally at risk now. The Urban AC listener who never wanted any kind of rap, and the Rhythmic Top 40 listener who wanted today’s hit music without the pop/rock songs, might still be out there. But those listeners’ nieces and nephews think of music differently and don’t share that usage.

With all these challenges, there is still ample good news for the format:

In Edison’s most recent format finder studies, Classic Rock is still often a format with the kind of broad appeal that managers want. These studies only include 25-54 or 18-54, and Classic Rock still typically shows the kind of preference that is typically too big to be driven by one ten-year cell.

Similarly, there are still consistently successful Classic Rock stations that are often top five in their market, despite the fragmentation. KZOK Seattle was the 6-plus market leader in July. If you were putting together a new radio group, you’d also be excited about a portfolio that includes WAXQ (Q104.3) New York, WZLX Boston, WMGK Philadelphia, KSLX Phoenix, KQRS Minneapolis, KGB San Diego, WZBA (the Bay) Baltimore, KSEG (the Eagle) Sacramento, or Atlanta’s WSRV, which has gone 5.2 – 6.5 – 6.3 since its adjustments.

Then there’s the 18-24 audience for Classic Rock which, in both Arbitron measurements and our station research, has gone far beyond the anecdotal. The young-end appeal of the format won’t be fully tested until that demo has viable guitar rock of its own, but it’s no less significant than the adult interest in top 40—which has, in the past, been cyclical as well. If listeners are now interested in the best available music, not just the music of their high-school years, we can work with that.

There is also encouragement in the ongoing success of the Oldies/Greatest Hits format, which came far closer to extinction a decade ago than Classic Rock will likely ever get. Oldies openly antagonized its base in a conspicuously unsuccessful bid for better demos. It took the advent of PPM to prove the continued viability of the format, but it now happily plays 42-year-old records for an audience that includes 32-year-old listeners.

The Greatest Hits format also proves that there’s no one correct answer on the era of a successful Classic Rock radio station. Many of Clear Channel’s stations have rebranded themselves as “oldies” and play somewhat more ‘60s than similar stations. But there are also stations like WDRC-FM Hartford and KOLA Riverside/San Bernardino that have successfully pushed into the ‘90s. I still rankle at hearing “Listen To Your Heart” by Roxette staged as a good time oldie, but I got over that same sensation with “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” and I’m sure this will be no different.

Classic Rock is still a great format if you can figure out how to be the mass-appeal Classic Rock station. For starters, that means targeting both men and women. As other formats laid claim to the poppier side of Classic Rock, many stations helped nudge that audience away by not researching women, allowing the music to drift harder, and letting the overall environment become more male. The advent of Adult Hits, with its nearly even male/female split, should have demonstrated the value of “women who rock;” instead it sent many Classic Rock stations in the other direction. But we know of successful Classic Rock stations that continued to research both genders, even before the advent of PPM.

Being the mass-appeal Classic Rock station also means looking for the strongest music of the Classic Rock era in a way that transcends listeners’ individual music histories. Grunge may work for the 35-year-old listener, but it’s very much the music of a specific generation. For the 25-year-old moving into the demo, the evidence is that Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd may be better. (As it happens, many of the “Brew” stations have gotten older musically since launching.)

The same goes for depth in any era. Classic Rock stations responded to Adult Hits by expanding their libraries, something that needs to be done judiciously when any depth means excluding a number of listeners who just weren’t there to hear those songs.

Finally, there’s the issue of managing internal expectations—something which nearly wiped out Oldies/Greatest Hits a decade ago. Classic Rock is, according to Arbitron’s Radio Today, enjoying its best ratings ever, even though the older audience is no longer automatically earmarked for gold-based formats. We ought to be able to work with that as well.

3 replies
  1. Gregg Colamonico
    Gregg Colamonico says:

    Thanks for your examination of the Classic Rock format. Here’s the reason I think the format will last, even though it plays music that dates back to the 60s.

    Album Rock/Progressive Rock stations in the 70s, 80s and 90s always played older titles, more than other contemporary formats. Top 40, Urban and Country rarely went back more than 10 years for their libraries. And they only played those songs a few times per hour. Rock stations did the opposite. They played plenty of library material, going back for The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Moody Blues. So even if you were in your teens or 20s in the 70s, 80s or 90s, if you listened to a Rock station, your musical diet consisted of older material mixed in with current releases. You were well acquainted with The Beatles and The Stones even if you were too young to see them on Ed Sullivan.

    It is interesting to see WAXQ New York finishing in the top five for not just Men 25-54 but Men 18-49… and doing well even among Men 18-34, all of whom were born after most of WAXQ’s music was released. That may be, in part, because New York has no current-based Rock station. WAXQ does play a 90s title a few times each day, mainly Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day. But most of the time, the selections are from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

    (Also, thanks for calling the evolution of the Oldies format “Oldies/Greatest Hits.” The term “Classic Hits” in my mind refers to stations like WROR Boston and WBIG Washington, which sound like Classic Rock stations but confine their playlists to Rock songs that saw some exposure on the Top 40 charts. “Classic Hits” should not be the label for stations with jingles, DJs talking up intros, and playing ABBA, Madonna and Michael Jackson. It’s confusing when you see Tampa has two stations calling themselves “Classic Hits”: WXGL, true Classic Hits, and WRBQ, an Oldies station that added 80s titles.)

    Reply
  2. Jay Pruitt
    Jay Pruitt says:

    I was walking with my wife and a friend of hers and this person was criticizing the way I was handling my fourteen year old. My wife points out the music I listen to, such as Ozzy, AC/DC, Cheap Tick and The Stones. This person said that I never grew up even at 53 years of age. My reply was”I said I know it’s only rock ‘n roll but I like it”

    Reply

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