November 21, 2003
The future of demographically appropriate radio stations

I found this article in last week's San Antonio Current to be pretty interesting. Hard to believe that there are four distinct rock stations in San Antone, not counting oldies and mix formats. This bit got me thinking:

Early response to K-ROCK, at least based on the station's message-board postings, has been mixed at best. One recent posting reads: "If K-ROCK had switched to an alternative/college format, then not only would they be getting listeners from KISS (hard rock), KZEP (classic rock), and KMFR (Mighty Fine Rock, whatever that means), they would also get listeners from Mix 96.1 and Magic (the oldies station). I think there are are more listeners looking for something completely different than there are looking for some of the same old repackaged music."

Even a more optimistic listener urges station programmers to drop its flirtation with classic rock: "If you want to listen to '70s and '80s rock, go back to KZEP. Bring the format up to date."

So how exactly do you bring the classic rock format up to date? What is the future of a genre that's so closely tied to a generation's youthful listening habits?

I first heard the term "classic rock" in the late 1980s, when KXZL in San Antonio became KZEP. KZFX in Houston, which has since changed its format, was very similar. They focused on music from the 60s and 70s. Over time, the standard format has shifted somewhat - KZFX's successor in Houston, KKRW ("the Arrow") mostly touts the 70s and 80s now. Most of the 60s music that you used to hear on these stations, as well as many of the artists (CCR, Janis Joplin, Cream, Traffic) have slowly but surely migrated to the "oldies" stations, which in turn have gradually moved from playing 50s and 60s music to 60s and 70s music.

I believe this shift is due to the inevitable aging of the classic rock audience. Despite its pretentious name, classic rock is nothing but an oldies format. It came into being at the end of a decade where the prevailing style of rock music had morphed from artsy progressive rock into a more pop-influenced sound. Like the transition from the Mesozoic to Cenozoic eras, most of the dominant life forms disappeared from the landscape, leaving behind a lot of nostalgic yet loyal fans. Classic rock filled the void, giving these aficionados the comfort of familiar music without any of that Elvis-and-Motown stuff their parents were listening to.

The classic rock audience is bigger than that, though. There's a group of people like me who are at least ten years too young to have actually grown up with that music but who nonetheless got a healthy exposure to it as teenagers and college students, thanks in large part to 60s and 70s era rockers who broke through the stylistic transformation with hit records. Albums like Yes' 90125, Springsteen's Born to Run, the Police's Synchronicity, and ZZ Top's Eliminator, which got played incessantly on both contemporary rock and Top 40 stations, gave an entry point to an exploration of a sizable back catalog by people who were more inclined to like where these artists came from than what was hot at the time. I think this helps explain the format shifts on classic rock and oldies stations - both types of station are now catering to a newer crowd.

So what will happen in another ten years? I don't know. To a certain extent, I think the classic rock format can continue to creep forward and annex more recent music - indeed, some Guns 'n' Roses can be heard on KKRW these days, and I figure it's just a matter of time before they start playing Nirvana and the rest of the grungemeisters. I don't think there's any new audience being grown for this format, though. There's just not a whole lot of artists with 10- to 20-year careers getting airplay on the contemporary stations now like there were in the early to mid 80s, so the entry points aren't there any more.

Moreover, the classic rock stations aren't helping themselves, either. A lot of dinosaur rockers are still putting out new releases (off the top of my head, there's Springsteen, ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac, and Van Halen in the recent past or near future), but you'll never hear any of that new stuff on the classic rock stations. Their playlists are pretty much preserved in amber, and I can't help but think that this portends an inevitable death for them, even as they suck in some more recent artists. There's only so many times you can hear "Start Me Up" or "La Grange" or (God help me) anything by Bad Company before you find yourself vowing to never ever listen to commercial radio again.

The new kid on the block of era-specific radio formats is the Eighties Station, such as Houston's KHPT ("the Point"). It's basically a mix format, with the music confined to a roughly ten-year span (they admit to playing stuff from the "late 70s and early 90s"). They take advantage of the same rock/pop crossover that led to the birth of classic rock stations - their playlist is a melange of dinosaur rockers who had at least one reasonably well-played album after 1980 and artists who were genuinely representative of that era, like Madonna, the Pet Shop Boys, and Depeche Mode. I don't know how they'll distinguish themselves from the rest of the "mix" stations over time, so I think this format is unlikely to last as long as the classic rockers have.

What I really don't know is whether anything as successful as the classic rock format will spring up to take advantage of nostalgia for the music that's been produced in the last ten years or so. For one thing, I have no idea if there will be any such nostalgia. I don't follow modern pop music, so I'm speaking out of deep ignorance here, but I don't get the impression that there are all that many long-lived acts these days who get consistent airplay. On the other hand, modern performers have a lot more opportunities for exposure on TV and in movies, so maybe in another few years there will be a demographically attractive group of people out there saying to themselves "You know, I really miss hearing Pink and the Backstreet Boys. If only there were a radio station that played the stuff I grew up with..."

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 21, 2003 to Music | TrackBack

"There's only so many times you can hear "Start Me Up" or "La Grange" or (God help me) anything by Bad Company before you find yourself vowing to never ever listen to commercial radio again."

You forgot "Freebird" ;)

Listen, at least there are stations in Texas that play classic rock. In New York, things are so bad that I use my radio only to listen to AM stations for news and sports.

"Despite its pretentious name, classic rock is nothing but an oldies format."

In a generic sense, perhaps, but WCBS-FM in New York is still a true "oldies" station. I see "oldies" as more of a 50's and 60's pop music sound.

"You know, I really miss hearing Pink and the Backstreet Boys. If only there were a radio station that played the stuff I grew up with...""

The day Pink, the Backstreet Boys, and/or N'Sync enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the day I ask Reveerend Jim for more Kool-Aid.

Posted by: William Hughes on November 21, 2003 3:38 PM

Personally, I think this segmentation is bad, bad, bad. Sure, it allows people to say, I feel like hard roock, let's see what's on 97.1.

But I loved those stations that played a mix, old and new, as well as different formats. (I came at the tale end of the AM heyday, but I remember those stations being very mixed.)

This mixing is counter to radio common wisdom, but I think it can work. It's been 10 years, but Chicago's WXRT was played an assortment of styles and songs.

It's a shame that classic rock is limited to the "hits" because really, the 70s music was about the album. I remember stations playing the second side of Abbey Road. Or the first side of Led Zeppelin III. (Anyone remember stations that played War of the Worlds? :) If they are truly trying to capture that generation's attention, they need to remember the listening habits.

If they won't do that, they could at least play alternate cuts that still made those albums great.

A station would have me if it played even one song from Court of the Crimson King, Lark's Tongue in Aspic, some Little Feat, or Foxtrot. Heck, there are good, decent, and excellent (let's forget the junk) CD anthologies coming out. Why not play cuts from those?

Do I hear a cut from Let It Be Naked from the classic rock stations? No. From a freakin' AM sports station.

Finally, as I step off my soapbox, there was a time (whether it was genuine or not) that the DJ's actually introduced music. I remember the first FM station that I could pick up in East Texas in '73, and a female DJ talked about an album that she had personally liked . . . so she played it. It was Tres Hombres.

There are some good new bands out there that I think our generation would enjoy, or even older ones, like Uncle Tupelo.

Posted by: Tx Bubba on November 21, 2003 4:55 PM

Classic Rock is simply comfort music for the post-Boomer generation.
I rarely listen to the rock stations here in San Antonio prefering to listen either to news on NPR or my own CD collection. As my record collection has expanded over the years, the need for classic rock stations diminishes. I can make my own classic rock mix tapes with my CD burner and not have to put up with the commercials.

But sometimes I miss hearing what the latest hot tunes of the day are. I used to get that from watching MTV back before they stopped doing music videos. Now I have to tune in one of these modern pop stations and wade through all the junk looking for something that appeals to me. But I quickly get tired of the hunt and retreat back to my CD collection.

Oddly enough, as I've grown older my musical tastes have gone further and further back in time. I was right with my demographic in Jr. High and High School - (late 70s and early 80s) But when I went to college I started collecting music from the 60s and early 70s like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Doors, and so on. After college I discovered jazz and swing era music. Today I like to listen to early Bing Crosby, Bix Biederbecke, Louie Armstrong and Sidney Bechet.
I no longer fit any radio station's demographic, I guess.

Posted by: Mike Thomas on November 21, 2003 5:06 PM

WXRT was a great station; I haven't heard it since I moved south.

I don't listen to the local 80s station because their playlist is largely the same as classic rock in the sense that "I've heard this seven thousand times and don't need to hear it again". Occasionally, they'll play something more rare or interesting during the lunch request show.

Posted by: Greg Morrow on November 24, 2003 9:22 AM

A couple of months ago I was listening to KKRW during their "all request hour" from noon to one, and some yokel called in to request "Freebird". I recall screaming at the radio "What? They don't play frigging 'Freebird' often enough for you?" plus perhaps a few choice words about the caller's ancestry.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on November 24, 2003 12:26 PM

I don't listen to the radio anymore unless I'm in my car.
oldies radio has been pumping out the same old motown tunes for years as "Classic Rock" has been playing the same old "Stairway to Heaven" and other tunes that saturated the airways for decades.

the best thing one can do is locate any local college station because the noncommercial one's are the best way to get expose to something that you don't hear all the time.

Posted by: Jeff Larson on January 18, 2004 11:33 PM