Rock Radio Is Back . . . But As What?

Before PPM, younger targeted Rock Radio (which is to say anything younger than Classic Rock) found itself multiply challenged. Younger listeners were either listening less or just less measurably, while many of those who were still reachable seemed as interested in Classic Rock as today’s Rock.
Since PPM results were unveiled in Philadelphia and Houston, the format’s prospects are looking a lot better — as evidenced by a wave of station building in recent weeks. But that doesn’t mean the existential question about what Rock Radio means to listeners in 2007 is not still hanging over the format.
This article began as a look at two different takes on launching a rock station: CBS’ WXRK (K-Rock) New York and Clear Channel’s WRFF (Radio 104.5) Philadelphia. Then, a few days ago, WRFF and incumbent WMMR were joined by the return of music (outside mornings and afternoons) at heritage WYSP. For its part, WRFF is one of a number of launches somewhere on the Modern/Hot AC seam for Clear Channel over the last year, the most recent being WVMX (Radio 94.1) Cincinnati, which is going up against the not-so-different WSWD (the Sound), which covers that same territory slightly differently. (In the interest of disclosure, WMMR is an Edison client.)
If written two months ago, this article would have said that K-Rock and Radio 104.5 were polar opposites — at least presentationally. K-Rock, even with a properly tight sign-on list, felt very aggressive — perhaps because of its imaging. Radio 104.5, by comparison, was deliberately low-key, and poppier — very clearly cognizant of that female-friendly pop/alternative hole that WPLY (Y100) had once occupied in the market. Radio 104.5 had a lot of those “forgotten” mid-’90s songs that are not reliable testers.
Since that time, K-Rock is feeling more accessible, both in terms of music and production. Either new PD Tracy Cloherty has tweaked the station, or I’m getting used to it. And although K-Rock and Radio 104.5 hardly resemble each other, they do share a certain broadness. K-Rock plays Buckcherry’s “Crazy Bitch” but still plays Coldplay, Modest Mouse, and the new Silverchair. Radio 104.5 plays oldies by Garbage and the Police, but also plays Chevelle’s “Send the Pain Below.”
What’s interesting in all of this is that WMMR had already staked out the “Everything That Rocks” handle and is certainly capable of playing Puddle of Mudd, Black Sabbath, and the Raconteurs in the same hour. And WYSP, which left the music business as an Active Rock station, has returned with a decidedly centrist position, too, as evidenced by its first segue below — from Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” to Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.”
Clearly, the decline of Rock radio convinced broadcasters that nobody really needed three stations to control the spectrum and lock down every conceivable position, lest somebody else find a wedge. But it’s interesting to see the new broadness taking hold even in markets where you might make a case for staking out something more definable. New York’s K-Rock did just fine for many years as an Alternative reporter that also played Ozzy and Van Halen just to prove it could. So why would the new one pigeonhole itself any more? But it’s intriguing that Philly now has three broad rockers and two that are on relatively similar turf so far.
To some extent, the new broadness has been made possible by the recent disturbance in the time-space continuum. When the 16-year-old Classic Rock fans started showing up a few years ago, there was no reason for Active Rock to continue to purge Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC. Besides, one of the lessons of the Modern Rock revolution of 1995 was that you could get away with some very retro-sounding music as long as the artist was new. So if both stylistic and artist image prohibitions are gone, why not play everything?
That said, the last several years of “broad is beautiful” thinking has also shown that it’s still very possible to stretch a little too far — particularly when you’re broad in terms of genres and deep within those genres. “(You’ve Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” and “Sweet Emotion” may very well be fine for certain people. “Time to Get Ill” into “Back in the Saddle” is taking it one step further. One of the interesting lessons of WWDC (DC101) Washington, D.C., a few years ago–one of the clear inspirations for Clear Channel’s newly broad rockers–is that it’s easier to be broad when you’re also very recurrent driven.
Rock radio has another issue moving forward. Even if PPM proves that radio didn’t lose its viability as a delivery system for music, it still seems to have surrendered its sense of community to the Web. Rock radio still has to create a sense of being plugged in to the action — and it has to convince listeners again that there’s action to be plugged in to. K-Rock had an upcoming Foo Fighters event and has had artists as guest DJs for a shift. WRFF gets good mileage out of its local music feature. But it’s going to take some heavy lifting to convince listeners that this is again the format “Where Rock Lives.”
Here’s WXRK at Noon on Sept. 14
Green Day, “When I Come Around”
Incubus, “Dig”
Tool, “Sober”
Smashing Pumpkins, “Tarantula”
Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”
Gorillaz, “Feel Good Inc.”
P.O.D., “Alive”
Foo Fighters, “The Pretender”
Sublime, “Badfish”
Guns ‘N’ Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
Flyleaf, “All Around”
Here’s WYSP at 10:30 – 11:15 a.m., Sept. 17
Weezer, “Beverly Hills”
Pink Floyd, “Hey You”
Foo Fighters, “The Pretender”
Nirvana, “Polly”
Led Zeppelin, “Over the Hills and Far Away”
Live, “All Over You”
Beastie Boys, “Time to Get Ill”
Aerosmith, “Back In the Saddle”
White Stripes, “The Hardest Button to Button”
Wolfmother, “Woman”
Sublime, “Smoke Two Joints”
And here’s WRFF at 11:15-Noon, Sept. 17
Clash, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”
Modern Mouse, “Dashboard”
Pearl Jam, “Corduroy”
Garbage, “Only Happy When It Rains”
Police, “Canary In A Coal Mine” (Web Only)
Jane’s Addiction, “Been Caught Stealing”
Nine Inch Nails, “Capital G”
Hoobastank, “The Reason”
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dani California”
Fall Out Boy, “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race”
Weezer, “Buddy Holly”
Papa Roach, “Last Resort”
Smashing Pumpkins, “Drown”

7 replies
  1. John Kuliak
    John Kuliak says:

    Meet the new “Classic Rock” format!
    These new stations NEED to shoot broadly. Given the way the rock formats splintered over the last decade-and-a-half, there are very few consensus rock hits anymore.
    But there are a lot of seemingly (at the time) divergent songs that truly are familiar to most rock fans of the under-35 generation. So now there is a “format” that finally, belatedly, unites those songs on one single radio station.
    Trouble is, if terrestrial radio continues to leave breaking new music to the Internet and satellite radio…this new wave of “classic rock” may well be the sound of rock radio in its death throes.
    John Kuliak Suburban Noize Records

  2. Dave Lange
    Dave Lange says:

    Great observations – yes rock radio is much broader than it was in the 90s when it seemed to be so limited. But remember a time when rock radio played Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and also broke the Eagles, Billy Joel, Elton John, Joni Mitchell? The genesis of the AOR format in the 70s played that range and many stations had double digit shares. If CHR can take on the most brazen of hip-hop and even some metal songs and turn around and play the soft pop and teen ballads why can Rock have some range also? That’s what we are seeing and maybe it’s helping rock radio shares improve.

  3. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    Most of the music on the playlists and referenced in the writing won’t be of interest in the next 5 years. Without interest they won’t/can’t be classics.
    Go ahead and play lots of different styles. But if you don’t get back into the center lane, however you define it, after a one song visit to either left or right listeners will pass you by.
    As odd as it may sound, and the first is especially for Sean, read Harry Beckwith “What Clients Love,” Seth Godin “Purple Cow,” and Laura Ries “Origin of Brands” blogs. You might rethink how you create your brand, transform the image, make a connection…and write so people get it.
    Greg Gillispie, Ripe Blue Tomato

  4. Vinny Marino
    Vinny Marino says:

    “New York’s K-Rock did just fine for many years as an Alternative reporter that also played Ozzy and Van Halen just to prove it could.”
    Whatever “success” K-Rock had then was all because of Howard Stern’s AM and leaking-into- midday numbers. Once Howard got off the air, so did the K-Rock listeners.

  5. mizerock
    mizerock says:

    Last 10 songs on DC101 / WWDC (Washington DC) – new unannounced format change, to Hair Metal? No DJs this afternoon, either.
    Armageddon It
    Def Leppard
    Way Cool Jr.
    Wind of Change
    Love Song
    Unskinny Bop
    The Ballad Of Jayne
    L.A. Guns
    Blind In Texas
    Blow My Fuse
    Everybody Wants You
    Billy Squier
    I Saw Red

  6. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    Where’s SUPERSTARS? – Greg, Lee could come back again. This is what we doing in circa 1980! – Everything from Police and Genesis to Van Halen and Ted Nuggent – But we played album cuts. Perhaps the new venture of rock radio shold look at CD cuts from big artists instead of playing singles or one song.

  7. Lou Pickney
    Lou Pickney says:

    The idea of playing Buckcherry and Coldplay on the same station seems strange to me, though I’ve heard it done before. The blurring of the distinction between active rock and modern rock could happen to the peril of a station losing its identity by trying to cover all bases.
    Unfortunately for album cut fans, the PPM will make it all the more likely for stations to stay true to the axiom of “Play the hits.” Mix in too much unfamiliar material, and do so at your own peril.


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