Modern Rock’s Product Is Better, Why Aren’t The Numbers?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

During any format’s doldrums, programmers’ first instinct is to blame the available product. Good PDs will find their own hits, of course, but you can only invent so many useable records and, looking back now, it’s easy to remember when the Spin Doctors were the only thing that Top 40 had to play in early 1993, or when the Dixie Chicks were the only thing worthwhile on Country in fall 2000. From a few years’ distance, the available product seems like a pretty plausible culprit after all.

Modern Rock needs to see its Entertainment Weekly-friendly acts turn in to People Magazine-friendly acts.

So how do you explain what’s going on with Modern Rock radio? For two years, there’s been general consensus within the industry that the format’s available music is getting better. And yet Modern Rock hasn’t been able to parlay the White Stripes, Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, “Garden State” Soundtrack, or, for that matter, a triple-platinum Green Day album into improved ratings, or even a reason for stations like WPLY (Y100) Philadelphia or WHFS Washington, D.C., to hang around.

There’s more to it than the much-bandied explanation that Modern Rock suddenly got too hip for the room, but there’s certainly truth there as well. The inroads made by KBZT (FM94.9) San Diego were enough to trigger a sea change throughout the format. Suddenly, the same PDs who weren’t sure five years ago if they could even still play U2 were standing at a buffet table with old Morrissey and new Morrissey, old Social Distortion and new Social Distortion. After all those years of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, it was hard to expect them not to gorge on the sort of music that made them wanted to be in Alternative radio in the first place.

Clearly, not every listener’s tastes evolved quite that fast. Maybe the best indication of that came a few weeks ago when Entertainment Weekly issued a withering dismissal of the new 3 Doors Down album “Seventeen Days.” “Rock keeps evolving, so why do 3 Doors Down stubbornly stick to the genre’s dull old ‘Days’?” asked one headline. The review itself declared, “Albums like ‘Seventeen Days’ make it easier to understand why so many have begun gravitating to friskier, more idiosyncratic newbies like the Killers or Franz Ferdinand.”

Well, maybe not so many listeners have made the switch. “Seventeen Days” debuted at No. 1; (a few weeks later, it’s now No. 12). The album’s first week was enough to give the opening single “Let Me Go” some extra juice at Top 40, where many programmers needed a nudge as well, but not enough to keep the song from peaking at No. 14 at Alternative. Interesting to note: the record’s best numbers now are on its home turf in the south where “Modern AC” isn’t quite as reviled a concept.

Back at Active Rock, the format that Modern finally diverged from after several years of moving in relative lockstep, things aren’t looking a lot better. The two most universal testers of recent months have been Green Day, who have finally become naturalized citizens after 11 years as Modern’s core act, and Motley Crue, who reclaimed the 3 Doors Down/Nickelback power ballad slot with “If I Die Tomorrow.” And by multiple accounts, the music that now excites 18-year-olds is harder Classic Rock, not today’s new Active-only artists.

What has become apparent over the last year is that while it’s nice, in theory, to see Alternative and Active Rock becoming separate formats, those stations are no longer helping records reach critical mass. While it may pain readers to see Kid Rock and Linkin Park mentioned in the same breath with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, both those eras represented a time when multiple Rock constituencies were willing to listen to the same music for a while, although the novelty of Rap/Rock clearly wore off sooner for many Modern listeners. And it’s no accident that the Country boom of 1990 also represented a moment when multiple groups of listeners came together.

Country, by the way, is particularly relevant here. Looking at the number of exciting new acts that haven’t translated into ratings, one is reminded of the late ‘80s when the Kenny Rogers MOR mush that had typified the format for years gave way to Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Desert Rose Band, Steve Earle, Foster & Lloyd, and the Kentucky Headhunters. It was much better music, but it didn’t move the needle ratings-wise. That job fell to Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks & Dunn, Travis Tritt, and other acts who represented a more commercial distillation of the class of ’87. Even Modern Rock had parallel developments as the first acts to incorporate hard rock, such as the Cult, gave way to Jane’s Addiction, then Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

So Modern Rock doesn’t necessarily need to bail on the indie rock sound, but it does need to see its Entertainment Weekly-friendly acts turn in to People Magazine-friendly acts. For a format that’s well known for making a big deal of its own acts, it doesn’t seem to have built much of a cult of personality around the new bands of the last few years. Or have gotten much mileage out of Green Day. Or manage to turn “Garden State” into its own “Saturday Night Fever.” The soundtrack’s biggest crossover, “New Slang” by the Shins, peaked around No. 66 at Modern Rock.

It would also be helpful to see more of Modern’s current product ratified by Top 40. If the Killers’ “Hot Fuss” has developed sales legs that the Strokes, White Stripes, and Hives didn’t, multiple-format airplay probably has something to do with it. A few years ago, the handful of Top 40 PDs who tried to play, or even test, the White Stripes, Strokes, and Hives found that music hadn’t extended any tentacles into the pop world. Now that barrier is down and both the rock and pop sides should be taking advantage of it.

When Modern Rock radio experienced its mid-‘90s growth spurt, PDs were careful to stake their claim on any new rock music, even if it didn’t really fit. That’s how a roots/rock act like Hootie & the Blowfish, which really fit better on the Heritage Rock side, ended up as an Alternative act, at least for a few years. The downside of that approach is that by the time Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit came around, Alternative didn’t feel like its old self at all. The upside is that Active Rock was kept from ever having its own music.

It may be time for Rock radio to think along those lines again, and for stations to become more “Middle of the Rock,” with the best of all styles. Stations like WIYY (98 Rock) Baltimore in the late ‘80s or WWDC (DC101) Washington in the late ‘90s were just a little broader than typical programming wisdom would have dictated, and in doing so managed to control multiple rock franchises. With many owners now realizing that you can control the “wall of rock” in most markets with one fewer stations, the opportunity to be broader may very well exist again. That doesn’t mean that Rock radio shouldn’t keep bringing the new music that makes PDs passionate to their audiences. It just means that, as with 3 Doors Down, that they shouldn’t tell the listeners what they’re allowed to like.

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 Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or

Read other articles by Sean Ross

8 replies
  1. Jay Frank
    Jay Frank says:

    Hey Sean,

    Always great to read your articles and insight. One thing I think you missed in this week’s article is the rise of Emo amongst 13-17 as their primary rock sub-genre, not the hipness of Franz, et al. Acts such as Taking Back Sunday and Bright Eyes debut in the Top 10 with sales, yet radio only tiptoes into airplay. Acts such as The Used and My Chemical Romance go gold, yet fail to get into the Top 10 of the format. Meanwhile, a lot of the so-called hipper acts don’t even come close to approaching those sales levels.

    I certainly understand why this is happening (the acts skew young, the station is targeting older audiences), but shouldn’t rock stations always want to activate their younger audiences to build up the older cume? Isn’t this how KROQ has built itself into the powerhouse it is? Doesn’t it make the “too hip for the room” acts seem somewhat more palatable?

    Curious to your thoughts on emo’s rise and radio’s passive attitude towards the genre.


  2. Jay Deacon
    Jay Deacon says:

    Great article. I can verify from a Mainstream Rock standpoint, that there’s nothing a PD feels passionately about. U2, VR, and Audioslave are the only things that we have that are hip, and Modern Rock can claim all three as staples.

    Country is on a stomp right now, because you have “People Magazine Friendly” acts like: Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain, etc. How can you not succeed to Whitestream America when you play nothing but smashes?

    It’ be like a station in 1994 playing

    Pearl Jam
    Smashing Pumpkins
    Alice in Chains

    The bands in Modern Rock you speak of could start the “every decade or so” revolution. Modern Rock radio just has to let them, and make the audience come up to Modern’s Hipness Level.

    A revolution has to come soon…

    Keep up the great work!

    Jay Deacon
    Program Director
    1077 WRKR FM

  3. Steve Wyrostok
    Steve Wyrostok says:

    Sean, yet *another* great piece.
    Jay Frank’s comment brings to mind two observations I’ve had in the past few years:
    (1) a ‘new truth’ (which could be embraced by programmers of many formats) is that there are myriad new subgenres of music to understand, each with their own hits. This has been spawned by both the internet and iTunes et al. Programmers should take the time to look deeper than the surface to understand some of the key subgenres that surround their formats, and discover the significance of the hits within them.
    (2) People (especially teens and 20’s) have a completely different musical taste matrix they operate off of than the relatively linear ones we used to observe. They do not start at a certain style and branch out from there. Quite the opposite in many cases. This also needs to be understood and observed in order to unflatten (broaden) the appeal of radio programming. Not advocating widespread format breaking, rather working in the widened sonic color palette people have in their non-radio listening habits.
    Again, Sean, thanks for the always, always great work.
    – Wyro

  4. Clark Peters
    Clark Peters says:

    The best alternative station I have found is KRBZ in Kansas City. They are finding mass appeal with classic alt and new stuff that nobody else will touch. Plus they don’t sound sleepy and boring like many “neo” stations.

  5. Charles Ross
    Charles Ross says:

    Hello Sean,
    I’m an eighteen year old male currently enrolled in Salt LAke Community College, and in my attempts to find an article for my upcoming essay on the death of rock and roll i came across your article. What interested me was the line pertaining to the fact that harder classic rock is what exicites modern 18 olds rather than the crap that is currently being pumped between our ears. What caused you to feel this way, and what have you seen or experienced to make you feel this to be a plausible concept? Is there knowledge in the mainstream music world of the fact that there hasn’t been anything but consistent shit for the past fifteen to twenty five years? Do they realize that by taking the shortcuts that they have in attempts to find presentable artists that will make them bundles of loot, that they have manipulated modern generations to a point in which they could have forgotten their roots and been tricked into thinking that two turntables and a DJ is better than a coulpe of guitars, a flamboyent front man and a stack of amplifiers? There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel. If you compare the modern political fiasco with the turmoil of the sixties there is an ungodly amount of parallels, with the only major relation missing being the driving, soul sonic sound of rock and roll. If you have any opinions, either way, please send them to me. I have been trying to find an answer to why we let something so great wither up and die.
    Lost in the sounds of shit,
    Charles Ross

  6. Michael Robichaux
    Michael Robichaux says:

    This is about how I feel personally on the matter Thanks for a good report. But however I am finding that the 18 year olds like Hard Rock rather it be the harder classics like ac/dc and others as well as new rock that sounds like it’s a progression of the classic hard rockers, not the Entertainment weekly group of the week. I find most people in the Modern format will like the song on airplay but won’t buy the cd cause the rest of the CD sucks. One 18 YO told me ” If it has a The in the name of the band, I stay away from them, cause usually it’s that S***ty music they are calling rock now”.
    I’m finding Rock is getting a rebirth due to the fact that what drove people away from new rock in the 90s (the grunge sound) is now being accepted more and more and is bridging the gap that needed to be bridged between classic rock and new rock.
    It was said, people like familiarity.. People like familiarity but also they like a progressive evolution of the music from what I have observed and personally feel, which I beleive groups like Seether and Shinedown are to rock today.. a progression of rock compared to the rock from 20-30 years ago like Bad Company or Black Sabbath. The newer groups Like “the Stokes” are progressive for people who like the difference such as people who would go for Classic Alternative.
    It has been said (I beleive there was an article about it in the USA Today weekend newspaper sent to small/medium sized markets as a insert paper like Parade Magazine) that with all the strife and issues in today’s world, youth are turning back to rock and roll as their outlet of choice now compared to say Rap music (that has stagnated as of late except for the push of Reggaeton to mainstream radio by “daddy Yankee”).
    I think rock radio can go back to the AOR format sort of like the days of ole but has to decide on a main focus of the station (more middle of the road rock like say Styx and Matchbox 20 rock, or Harder rock from groups like Bad Co and Seether)
    But Thanks again

  7. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I think the modern rock stations aren’t modern enough. Every weeknight, they play old Metallica which is 20 years old. Then there is the constant playing of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Red Hot Chiii Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, and many more older bands. I don’t even hear bands such as The White Stripes, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Muse, The Mars Volta, Avenged Sevenfold, Raconteurs, Coheed & Cambria, and Kings of Leon except the 4 months after their singles are released. Instead, they play the same old Post-Grunge, Nu-Metal, Pop Punk.
    One band I never understood that didn’t become popular on Modern Rock stations is Los Lonely Boys. Their second album was #2 at debut, and their single “Diamonds” didn’t even get airplay from what I heard. The only station I hear them on is a local college Rock station.
    I started listening to Modern Rock around 2003, and it was all new to me then. Now when I tune it in, it seems all the same, except when they play the occasional “new tune”.


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