by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
The title of this article comes from a Smiths song, and if you’re an Alternative Rock program director whose introduction to the format was the Ramones in 1977, or the Smiths in 1987, it’s hard not to be excited about the sudden rush of adult-targeted, gold-based Modern Rock stations. Those PDs didn’t get into the format to play Trapt or Adema, or engage in a war of attrition with Active Rock, so it’s very tempting to view the recent success of KBZT (FM94.9) San Diego or the recent format flips and modifications at KNDD (the End) and KRQI (K-Rock) Seattle, KDLE Los Angeles, WFNX Boston and WNNX (99X) Atlanta as a return to form for what was once a 25-plus, library-based format.
If you’re a GM who’s seen that war of attrition fragment Rock radio into a handful of 3-share players, it’s hard not to take KBZT’s success seriously, Normally, a 2.8 share 12-plus doesn’t inspire a lot of imitation, but FM94.9 managed to whittle heritage Modern Rock rival XETRA-FM (91X) from the high 3s to a 2.5 share in the just released fall Arbitron book.
Like most Clear Channel Moderns, 91X was hardly a screaming nu-metal machine of the sort that should have been vulnerable on the upper-end. It was among the stations credited with taking neo-garage acts such as the Strokes and the White Stripes beyond the specialty shows. And it was being attacked with mid-‘90s gold titles that had not, by themselves, been a silver bullet for earlier stations, such as KMRR (Merge 93.3) Dallas. But those factors, added to anti-corporate positioning and the success of one of the first major-market Chillout shows, formed a potent enough package that by 2003’s end, 91X had become even more adult and, surprisingly, acknowledged KBZT’s attacks with a page on its Website.
Historically, the Tampa page of the Clear Channel/Jacor format playbook would have suggested that 91X should have let the Adult Modern position go, rather than going head-up against a station that had made inroads. But where Tampa’s WRBQ (Q105) could have ceded the teens to WFLZ and kept the more lucrative adults, it’s a much harder decision to let somebody walk away with your upper-end. AOR GMs weren’t willing to let Classic Rock do it in 1987. Most Top 40 GMs wouldn’t allow Hot AC stations to do it in 1992. The “Young Country” movement ended in 1994 with just a whisper of the possibility of an upper-demo flanker format. And more than a few stations walked away from heritage Hot AC formats and calls to pre-empt the all-‘80s format.
KBZT and the other Adult Modern rockers are coming along at a time when the exciting new music in the format is more compatible with the early ‘90s than the late ‘90s music. And at a time when other stations, including closely watched Infinity Moderns such as KITS San Francisco and WBCN Boston had also steered away from Active Rock. Alternative PDs who had spent a year dismissing neo-garage rock as “the new electronica” were emboldened by the success of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” the first neo-garage record that was an undisputed research hit.
So has Modern Rock returned to its roots? Was the format of Elvis Costello and 10,000 Maniacs always supposed to be a 25-plus format? Is it time for everybody to get the “New Rock Revolution” of 1993 on again?
The last four years of “Modern Rock That Really Rocks” weren’t without their high points.
Well, not everybody. KNDD (which, in the spirit of full disclosure, is an Edison Media Research client) had very specific reasons for doing what it did: It stood to lose too large a piece of the market to a new station; it was in a heavily fragmented rock market where no one piece was big enough to fragment; it had a market heritage that was compatible with a move to Adult Modern and it had the advantage of having Active Rock KISW next door. As with KBZT, that’s a combination of circumstances that won’t be repeated everywhere. But this being radio, KBZT and the subsequent Adult Modern outlets will undoubtedly inspire both stations that should change and those that should stay put.
For one thing, the last four years of “Modern Rock That Really Rocks” weren’t without their high points. During that period, Modern Rock cracked a four-share in the national Arbitron numbers for the first time in several years, sold millions of albums, kept Active Rock from gaining critical mass in many markets, and (in tandem with R&B/Hip-hop) wrested away any musical hipness from Mainstream Top 40. It wasn’t necessarily in keeping with the spirit of 1976, but neither was a lot of the music that propelled Modern Rock into the mainstream in 1992-93.
Even if PDs are ready to ankle the last five years of Modern Rock music, not every listener has gotten the memo yet. If they’ve lost their enthusiasm for some hard rock and nu-metal acts, the last four months have still seen too many legitimate hits from Nickelback, Trapt, Incubus, Staind, A Perfect Circle, Three Days Grace and three from Linkin Park, to dismiss mainstream and harder rock altogether. The mistake, since corrected, was that hard rock became the whole format for a while. As Top 40 programmers have finally learned after more than a decade of flux, not wanting to hear something exclusively is not the same as not wanting to hear it at all.
You can’t deny the galvanizing effect that the new gold-based Moderns have had on the industry. And not every station will have the time to research whether it’s listeners, or just the industry, that have been galvanized before facing its own format crossroads. It’s one way to energize the format, but it’s not the only way. Not so long ago, KROQ Los Angeles managed its best numbers in recent memory by carefully balancing music that was 180-degrees from its legacy with just enough quality rock to let people know that this was still K-Rock. While KBZT and KNDD have reminded listeners that “it’s about the music,” Modern was always about what was between the records as well. Long-term, it’s about both.
KBZT San Diego, 11:05 a.m., January 13, 2004
King Missile, “Detachable Penis”
Foo Fighters, “Times Like These”
Nada Surf, “Popular”
311, “All Mixed Up”
Nirvana, “About A Girl (Studio)”
Year of the Rabbit, “Say Goodbye”
Smiths, “Big Mouth Strikes Again”
Cake, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle”
Joe Strummer & Mescaleros, “Coma Girl”
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Soul to Squeeze”
KNDD Seattle, 8:45 a.m., January 13, 2004
Jet, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?”
Stone Temple Pilots, “Dead and Bloated”
Iggy Pop, “Lust For Life”
Social Distortion, “Ball and Chain”
Radiohead, “There There”
U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name”
Postal Service, “Such Great Heights”
Rage Against the Machine, “Guerilla Radio”
Ramones, “Rock and Roll High School”
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.