By: Sean Ross
When Clear Channel’s WRFF (Radio 104.5) Philadelphia launched six years ago, during much less encouraging times for the Alternative format, it did so with an ingenious construct. Similar to KBZT (FM 94/9) San Diego a few years earlier, WRFF’s calling card was its broad library, with an emphasis on ’90s Alternative, but the currents it played were sometimes adventurous and firmly in the “true.alt” camp at a time when Alternative and Active Rock were only starting to pull apart from each other.
That template gave Radio 104.5 the simultaneous ability to get credit for breaking new music, but limit its exposure. In 2007, with less tangible excitement about new Alternative music than there is today, many PDs felt like they didn’t have much new music to play. As with KBZT a few years earlier, however, what rippled throughout the Alternative format was the need to lock down the ’90s Alternative image before anybody else could.
So to monitor the Los Angeles Alternative battle between KROQ and WRFF’s sister station, KYSR, a few years ago was to hear a steady stream of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Weezer, Foo Fighters, and even Guns N’ Roses. At that time, acts who came to prominence during the ’90s format boom were also prominent purveyors of current product as well.
So while it might not seem momentous to hear the Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” into 30 Seconds To Mars’ “Up In The Air” as I did last week on KROQ, it was two currents in a row. That would have been unthinkable at Alternative not so long ago, and it was one of the key signs of Country’s resurgence when PDs had enough confidence in the currents to play them back-to-back. KROQ also upped its top spin on powers from 55 times a week to 80 for several weeks, although it’s now back in the mid-60s.
There’s a lot of talk these days about a rock “comeback.” That word surfaces almost every month when Arbitron PPM results are reported. You hear it on convention panels. I’ve already gotten at least one consumer press query about it. It’s something that many in the radio and music industries want to happen.
At least one recent headline tried to make the case by including Classic Rock as part of the rock comeback, which is as tenuous as linking the success of the Oldies/Greatest Hits format to today’s Top 40 as a vote for “pop.” Or like using the durability of Urban AC to camouflage the problems at R&B/Hip-Hop stations. And the now way-past-anecdotal interest of 18-year-olds in Classic Rock is, if anything, a confirmation that they can’t find any current rock to enjoy. So is the new product shortage at Active Rock which is, unlike Alternative, leaning more on library than ever.
At this moment, the “comeback” is far along enough that it should neither be confirmed nor rebutted. There is still a lot of ground to cover, beginning with the number of markets where current-based rock formats are marginal, or don’t exist. Only seven of the 48 PPM markets have any rock station other than a Classic Rock outlet in the top five. Only 21 have such a station in the top 10. Both those numbers include only subscribing stations and would be lower if all stations were included. Only twenty have a rock station—other than Classic Rock—with a four-share or greater. And even those numbers depend heavily on stations outside the top 15 markets. Philadelphia, with two successes, WMMR and WRFF, remains an outlier.
Because not every market has a significant Alternative station yet, a lot of the benefits of the current product boom are still going to Adult Top 40 stations. (Perhaps also to Top 40, but only a few “rock” records are being allowed between the rhythmic pop at any given time.) And as KROQ’s experimentation shows, Alternative PDs are still feeling their way on going more current.
Many of the May PPM successes were stations that never fell apart during the worst of the format doldrums. But there are two relatively recent launches that bear a mention here, both descended in some way from WRFF (and/or the success of Greater Media’s similarly minded WBOS Boston, as well).
Clear Channel’s WRDA (Radio 105.7) Atlanta launched in March, filling a hole that had existed for five years since WNNX (99X) dropped its longtime Alternative format; (99X later resurfaced on a series of translators, but went away altogether last fall). Like the final version of 99X, WRDA, for now, is heavily gold based: 17% current to WRFF’s 27%, according to Nielsen BDS. But it is hosted and most of what’s between-the-records is about the artists and about new music.
Radio 105.7 has gone 2.0 – 2.4 – 3.3 over the last three months. Here’s the station just before 3 p.m. on June 25:
Young The Giant, “My Body”
Grouplove, “Ways To Go”
Semisonic, “Closing Time”
Imagine Dragons, “It’s Time”
Jimmy Eat World, “The Sweetness”
Pearl Jam, “Even Flow”
Mumford & Sons, “Lover Of The Light”
Staind, “So Far Away”
Presidents of the United States of America, “Peaches”
Atlas Genius, “Trojans”
Neon Trees, “Animals”
Entercom’s KKDO (Radio 94.7) Sacramento, Calif., was a 2010 launch, but has been up 3.9 – 4.1 – 4.9 over the past three months. Like the other “Radio” stations, there’s still a considerable gold component, but KKDO has recently emerged as one of the format’s leaders in terms of developing new songs through significant rotations. Look at the BDS story on any emerging Alternative title and KKDO is likely to have the highest spin count.
Here’s Radio 94.7 just before 11 a.m. on June 25:
Two Door Cinema Club, “Something Good Can Work”
White Town, “Your Woman”
Mumford & Sons, “Babel
Panic! At The Disco, “Nine In The Afternoon”
Foo Fighters, “The Pretender”
Of Monsters & Men, “Lionheart”
Kings Of Leon, “Fans”
Daft Punk, “Get Lucky”
Stone Temple Pilots, “Vasoline”
Death Cab For Cutie, “I Will Possess Your Heart”
The Mowgli’s, “San Francisco”
Seeing success stories in Sacramento and Atlanta is particularly encouraging when you consider that both markets were bellwethers for the early ’90s Alternative breakthrough. The original 99X and KWOD Sacramento (now AC KBZC) were among the first Top 40-to-Alternative converts in the early ’90s, each of which helped set the Top 40 formatic underpinnings for what followed nationally a few years later.
The current optimism about rock is most comparable to the state of the format in the early ’90s, after 99X and KWOD had started to kick in, but before the full impact of the “New Rock Revolution.” The format is driven by acts with a few hits each and it’s hard to tell who will become Pearl Jam and who will be Spin Doctors. For a while, grunge forged a coalition between fans of harder rock and those of the poppier and singer-songwriter styles of Alternative’s first generation. Young listeners are less likely than their counterparts of the time to make such a distinction between genres, but radio has split them into the most discrete piles in years.
There’s one other piece of good news. When WRXP briefly returned the Alternative format to New York, there was some concern that the Alternative audience had further scattered during their time away, stemming from a larger belief that Alternative’s travails stemmed from having the audience that least needed to find current music on the radio. So there’s some left-field encouragement from the recent format breakouts in the 2013 Edison Research/Arbitron Infinite Dial study pertaining to Top 40.
On many indices of new media usage, the combined Mainstream/Rhythmic Top 40 audience had equaled or surpassed current-based Rock radio. That doesn’t guarantee an Alternative resurgence on FM radio, but it does prove that a format can still thrive on FM when its listeners have other choices, which in turn should inform the decisions of owners in the that half of the country where there’s not a significant current-based rock station.
Part of what will ensure today’s broadcasters’ success on all platforms is offering the audience as many choices as possible. Having only Top 40 and Country as the only two anchor stores for current music in recent years has almost certainly reinforced the need to find new music elsewhere. Without overstating the case, it is encouraging that many broadcasters feel that a more current Alternative format is again a possibility.