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."
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