In Search Of Women Who Rock

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

As Hot AC sorts out its direction in 2006, program directors often find themselves asking, “What happened to the women who rock?”
Female listeners who had some preference for rock and roll have been the swing vote in most Rock radio boom periods since Rock radio itself crystallized in the early ’70s. They were there when Rock radio briefly replaced Top 40 as the mass-appeal format in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and their presence is being felt again in the rise of Bob-FM, Jack-FM and its brethren. They were there again during the “New Rock revolution” of 1993-95.

Women who rock were the core audience when most Hot AC stations became Modern AC stations in the late ’90s.

Most notably, women who rock were the core audience when most Hot AC stations became Modern AC stations in the late ’90s. Now, the same stations are looking at music tests led by “Hollaback Girl” and “Let’s Get It Started,” and they’re wondering if that constituency, in which they invested so heavily a few years ago, still exists. Some programmers believe that women have been more interested in rhythm than rock ever since the early ’90s–when Top 40 first leaned that way; that’s one of the key assertions behind Alan Burns’ “Movin” format and other attempts to deal with the rhythmic crossovers of that era.
But even through the ’90s, women who rock were present in large enough quantities to power those Modern Rock and Modern AC format booms. They gave “Kryptonite” and “In The End” long runs at Top 40 stations that never researched guys. And liking Rhythmic music has never been a stopper for women who rock, as evidenced by the mainstream AC tests where the same listeners are voting yes on “I Will Survive” and “Any Way You Want It.” The only thing that might have limited their interest in rhythm is that for a few years around 1980-82, there was little of it available on Top 40 radio
So what’s going on now?

    1) Certain types of music are missing: In the early ’70s, female interest in rock radio was helped by the singer-songwriters who were still part of the format. Some, such as Billy Joel and Elton John, retained some rock credibility. Some, like Carole King and Seals & Crofts, were eventually exile. A few like Jackson Browne are somewhere in the middle. In the early ’80s, even during Rock radio’s “Kickass” era, rock was hooky and melodic–Pat Benatar, Journey, Styx, REO. And in the mid-to-late ’90s, as Modern AC crystallized, both melodic rock (Alanis, Third-Eye Blind) and singer/songwriters (Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan) were abundant. And while there’s more hooky uptempo pop-rock becoming available, not all of it has reached the consumer, or been available in one place.
    2) Rock radio isn’t able to set the agenda: Current-based Rock radio is either marginalized or non-existent in many markets. Few Modern stations test or target women. Even those who are playing Death Cab for Cutie and Gorillaz are playing them in between Godsmack, Avenged Sevenfold and 10 Years. And if Rush and Yes represented a male/female dividing line 25 years ago, why wouldn’t today’s neo-progressive rock (with its nod to both those acts and Metallica) do the same.
    3) If Rock radio is losing some of its sway over guys, then spouses and girlfriends may be less likely to hear it as well, meaning it’s the kids’ music that is going to get exposed instead. So no wonder that the impetus is now to listen to Usher and Black Eyed Peas (or even Radio Disney music) to keep up with your kids.
    4) Even at the young-end, Jack-and Bob-FM are siphoning off women who rock: Hot AC PDs have all stared at those music tests where the ’80s titles look even better at the young end. But those songs are sometimes fresher and more interesting to a 25-to-30-year-old than the listeners who have heard them many more times.
    5) VH1 has changed: In the late ’90s, it was the showplace for Modern AC music. Now, its most played titles include as much Mary J. Blige and Beyonce as James Blunt and KT Tunstall. And music videos are not its calling card right now anyhow.
    6) Country is doing a better job: During its early ’90s boom, Country became a destination for women who couldn’t get pop/rock at Top 40 anymore. But five years ago, it had become a 35-plus format, offering younger listeners little beyond the Dixie Chicks and an occasional rockin’ novelty. Now, there’s a lot more music at Country that has tempo and texture without being aggressive from Keith Urban, Sugarland, Dierks Bentley, and, oh yeah, Bon Jovi. And females are responding even to the format’s edgier music. “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy),” never a consistent callout tester, is now a reliable front-page music test record, even when women are 60-70% of the sample.

Country’s current success with younger-demo women may be coming at the expense of Modern AC (and, for that matter, Top 40), but if nothing else, it still proves that the women who rock are still out there. Hot AC and Modern Rock can both work with that. They have in the past. In 1994, when the Country boom tapered off, pop/rock was finally ready with Melissa Etheridge, Hootie & the Blowfish, John Mellencamp’s “Wild Night” and other records and acts that met the same need.
Sometimes listeners found Melissa, Hootie, and the beginnings of the female singer-songwriter boom on Alternative. Shortly thereafter, they found them in the nascent Modern AC format. And that’s where the difference between “women who rock” and “women who like only rock” became apparent. Because after Top 40 started to resurface in most markets around 1997, some Modern ACs hung in there and remained strong until relatively recently, but other Modern ACs were never the same once there was a place to hear both “Sunny Came Home” and “I’ll Be Missing You.”
As was the case a decade ago, the “women who rock” contingent will likely come together in different places, depending on how well Country continues to provide tempo and texture, and how Bob- and Jack-FM perform long-term. It also depends on whether the available product is inspiring enough to end up on more than one station in a market. Right now, even Hot ACs that want to focus on pop/rock have the burden of creating those records from whole cloth in their market. But the difficulty in galvanizing the women who rock constituency doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

3 replies
  1. Claudia Perry
    Claudia Perry says:

    Interesting column.As a middle-aged woman who rocks, I am bored by the playlist of most classic rock stations and find the punk and rock-rap retreads of alternative rock tiresome. I would love a station that plays Metallica, Iggy Pop, Green Day, Skynyrd, Melissa Etheridge and the Pretenders. So far that’s not happening anywhere that I am aware of.

  2. Sun Bell
    Sun Bell says:

    As A woman/lesbian rocker over fifty I know that rock still thrives in my life and in my music. But the classic rock stations are mostly full of men rockers. There are a lot of women rockers who are under noticed and rarely played on radio. I’ve mention some on my web site that have influenced me. It seems to be that way on most radio, somewhere between 7 to 10 men’s songs to 1 or 2 women’s. If we’re lucky.

  3. Tom Oakes
    Tom Oakes says:

    Just wanted to drop a quick note to you letting you know how much I enjoy reading your articles on the Edison site. They are interesting and thought provoking, giving me additional angles to view various subjects.
    Your two most recent postings on Women Who Rock and Modern AC have been of the greatest interest as we have Modern AC KDBZ (102.1 The Buzz)among our stations.
    I have found a great deal of common ground between the Triple-A and Hot/Modern AC stations which we watch and compare music against, including WDOD, KQKQ, KENZ, KRVB, KZZO and KLLC. We registered a tie for #1 18-34 Women in the Fall 2005 ratings sweep.
    Keep up the great work. Hope to see you this summer at the Conclave!
    Tom Oakes
    General Manager/Operations Manager
    New Northwest Broadcasters, LLC
    Anchorage, AK 99515


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