The State of Rock Radio – Part One

| August 19, 2012

 A multi-part RadioInfo series

By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief

 Part 1:  Rock Your World

LOS ANGELES — Whether valid or not, among the yardsticks by which a particular radio format’s prowess tends to be measured include its presence – and effectiveness – in major markets, as well as its ability to sustain direct, head-to-head battles.

With that in mind, consider this: In the seven largest Arbitron radio markets, no active rock station appears anywhere in the top 20 (6+, July 2012 PPM).  Philadelphia (#8) is the first metro where there is a competitive active rock outlet, with Greater Media’s WMMR ranking seventh (5.4).

Furthermore, Atlanta and Phoenix can claim the only active rock battlegrounds in the top 25 markets; however, there is no market dominant (6+) player in either situation.  To be more specific, in Atlanta, Clear Channel’s WKLS (3.1, #15, 6+, July 2012 PPM) has more than a two-to-one edge over Cumulus-owned WNNX (1.5, #19), while in Phoenix, Sandusky siblings KDKB and KUPD typically alternate for format honors.  Results from July 2012’s PPM contest show KDKB notching a 3.0 (#14, 6+) and KUPD checking in with a 2.5 (#20).

Format’s degree of difficulty

Consultant extraordinaire Fred Jacobs observes that active rock is in “a really weird” place.  “There are points on the curve where active rock and alternative are very much in sync with each other,” the Jacobs Media president comments.  “Programmers will tell you there have been points in the past where you look at the current list for both formats and they are really not very different, but that has not been the case in some time.”

Not only are most programmers on the alternative side exceptionally pleased with the quality of new music they have at their disposal, they also enjoy the fact it is distinctive, especially from what is going on in active rock.  “There isn’t much to play in active rock and there hasn’t been much to play in a long time,” laments Jacobs.  “Every time stations do music tests, they do everything they can to get music from the 2000s to come through. Time and time again, though, not a whole lot of it does.”

Older titles seem to be working but the format is in a state of turmoil with currents.  That, of course, is challenging programmers who still, understandably, want to have a meaningful new music component.  “More and more, the personality aspect of the format has had to make up for the music erosion,” Jacobs states.  “The energy, currency, and all the other things we used to count on the music helping to bring us now all falls on the personality side of the ledger.”

You would be hard-pressed to find a successful active rock station that does not have at least one day-part with dynamic personalities and as Jacobs comments, “More often than not, you are looking at stations that have two or more day-parts with very outstanding personalities.  To a great degree, that has been forced on programmers to re-craft their stations in that way or be prepared for more erosion.”

To borrow jargon from the just-concluded Thirtieth Olympiad, it does speak to the “degree of difficulty” of the active rock format.

Signing-on an active rock station in a competitive market without having a strong personality could be a daunting situation. “If Howard Stern were available, there may have been more of an openness 10 years ago to start-out an active rock station in a top 25 market,” Jacobs theorizes.  “You could at least go to that well and say this guy is going to put us on the map.  You could fan out the station from there, but it is a bit more problematic to start an active rock station today, particularly in a major market unless you have some cultural, local, connection that can do more for you than playing the new Shinedown. That is just a fact of life.”

Classic rock Nirvana

Fragmented – and with many different sub-flavors – classic rock is a completely different story as the power of the music continues to be sustainable.  “There is still a lot of energy for it and classic rock stars are still very visible,” Jacobs remarks.

They remain prominent by appearing at such marquee events as the Super Bowl and the Olympics.  “In a strange sort of way, they are much better brands and clearly have more of that Mount Rushmore quality, whereas newer rock artists have a tremendous amount of challenges,” Jacobs remarks.  “Many of those challenges cannot be overcome.”

By and large, classic rock outlets are fighting some of the same battles waged by their counterparts in the oldies format.  A significant part of the audience is aging out of the prime demo and with numerous classic rock variations, more of these facilities are sneaking in Nirvana songs.   “In many markets, they not only get away with it but they really broaden the definition of classic rock,” Jacobs states.  “Nirvana is 20 years old as a group so you can see that, in certain circumstances, you can make it work on the right brand.”

Nostalgia is very powerful.  Countless classic rock stations continue witnessing that those 40+ are still passionately loyal about the music, however many in younger demo cells enjoy it as well.

Sitting through a classic rock research study can be a curious experience because, as Jacobs points out, expected age cells perform as predicted but, “You will suddenly see bizarre 18-24 and 25-34 pops.  You cannot necessarily count on that or take it to the bank but it is indicative that, just as the country is diversifying, peoples’ musical tastes are spreading out.”

People these days are listening to a variety of different stations and music.  “It is not like the old days when there were rock guys; some who were into dance; and others who liked country music,” Jacobs remarks.  “You are now dealing with many permutations of musical tastes.”

Notwithstanding that some of his colleagues might debate him on the subject, but Jacobs is steadfast in believing Arbitron’s electronics ratings measurement, Portable People Meter (PPM), has not made much of a negative difference in the rock world.  “Even if PPM did not happen and we were still living in a diary environment, the same things would essentially be happening,” he maintains.  “Rock’s fate has much more to do with the music and the way it is discovered, marketed, and exposed.  To a great degree in the 1990s, Metallica, in particular, may have actually masked just how arid the environment was.  When Metallica got in trouble, it opened up awareness that there were not many surefire music brands here.”

Rock does not have pop acts such as Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, nor does it have the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.  Instead, it has, what Jacobs explains are, “a bunch of artists who were heavily-played/heavily-supported” in the late-1990s and well into the 2000s.  “When you actually look at the metrics for how much of that performs though, it is very disappointing.  Ultimately – it is not PPM. We have to play the best songs that we can.  If that means they are going to be older or more ‘this’ or more of ‘that,’ that is what radio stations are going to do.  There is a point where you cannot support playing music that is not going to work for whatever reason.”

Research rebounds

Radio’s reliance on research has actually come back in the past couple of years but Jacobs recalls, “When the economy cratered, everything stopped.  Research dried up and things were not pleasant for people like me. It was just a really, difficult time.”

Across the spectrum, research dollars have returned to a great degree, he states, and the last 18-24 months have been healthy for the good research companies.

Likening things to the automobile market, Detroit-based Jacobs reasons, “Many people could not afford to buy a new car, so they kept what they had.  All of a sudden, you start to feel better about things and go out and buy a new car.  That is sort of the research environment.  Many radio companies and brands did not do anything for quite a long time.  In the past year or two however, they are deciding to do perceptual studies or realizing they need to get a benchmark for where they are and are doing music tests.  It is not for lack of research resources.  If anything, stations probably have more today than they did at any time since 2008-2009.”

The “play anything” type of adult hits stations such as “Jack” tend to be in their own separate world.  Pop-flavored ones could be interpreted as a form of classic rock or classic hits, simply in a different package.  “Ironically, some of this was born from consolidation,” states Jacobs.

Many clusters were configured where the same company could own the active rock and classic rock station or the alternative and classic rock station.  In many of those situations, stations are modified to best suit the cluster arrangement.  “You look across the street to see what the other guy is doing with their one or two rock-flavored stations,” Jacobs comments.  “Those stations may not sound like those with similar formats 100 miles away because they have been custom-built for their competitive situations.  That may not wind up being a listener benefit but it has created rock-type stations that are unique to particular marketplaces.”

Forward march

Approximately 14 Saga Communications-owned stations do some type of rock programming.  In three of its markets – Milwaukee, Norfolk, and Springfield, Massachusetts – the company has a classic rock station and a mainstream/active rock station, prompting executive vice president/program director Steve Goldstein to remark, “We are fairly used to that scenario.  Classic rock has been a wonderful format although it is aging.  Every year as the population gets older, the average age of the radio station changes.  Mainstream rock has gone through many more fundamental, changes.  On most classic rock stations, females are in the 30% to 40% neighborhood. Active/mainstream rock certainly skews a lot more toward males.”

Finding current/recent music – and having enough of it – remains the primary challenge, which is why some stations in the rock genre have gone to a gold-based approach.  “Mainstream rock is less dependent on current/recurrent music and more dependent on library but the library is different,” Goldstein cautions.  “The library in mainstream rock is based in 1990+. Believe it or not, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder were on AOR stations when it was a much more earth-tone format.  It has migrated over time, as all formats do.  Metallica’s first hit was in 1981 – that shows you how far the format has moved.  Classic rock stations still are pretty much 1976-1978, although that is starting to move forward a bit just as what happened in the 1960s-based oldies format, which became 1970s-based.  We are seeing more integration of 1980s rock on classic rock stations.  It is all marching forward.”

 With 28 years in the format, Saga-owned Milwaukee classic rocker WKLH is essentially playing the same music as it did when it debuted. “It is really more about developing other attributes on the radio station beyond the music,” Goldstein explains.  “I think we have done a nice job there.”

The same can be said, in Goldstein’s opinion, about Greater Media’s WMGK in Philadelphia and WCSX in Detroit; CBS Radio’s WZLX in Boston; the Cox stations in Atlanta (Classic Hits WSRV) and Tampa (WHPT); and Clear Channel’s WAXQ in New York City.

Classic difference

 In addition to classic rock stations, Saga owns classic hits stations, and Goldstein stresses there is a fundamental difference regarding the essence of those formats.  “Classic Rock is based in artists such as The Who and AC/DC; classic hits frequently has a more pop, Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, core sound to it,” he declares.  “Classic hits is a euphemism for ‘oldies,’ but what WCBS-FM in New York City plays is very different from what a classic hits station typically plays.  It is important to be careful when using those handles.”

Several Saga properties fall under the Adult Album Alternative banner and Goldstein especially enjoys that particular genre – otherwise known as Triple A or Adult Alternative.  “It used to be very gold-based but is a format on the move,” he proclaims.  “Over the last few years, the library has migrated as the median age has changed.  The median age on those stations tends to be 35-40.  Consequently, the music has changed along with it.”

It is safe to say that all Adult Alternative outlets have grown up under diverse situations, with facilities like Cumulus’ KFOG in San Francisco and Clear Channel’s KBCO in Denver possessing different heritages.  “WMVY is a wonderful station on Martha’s Vineyard but it is nothing like KFOG and KBCO sonically,” Goldstein states of the Aritaur Communications property.

Triple A stations Saga runs in Charlottesville, Virginia – WWWV – and Asheville, North Carolina – WOXL-HD2 – are completely different from WCLZ, its Portland, Maine station.  “Much of that has to do with history and heritage,” Goldstein explains.  “Triple A stations that do the best reflect the musical center of the community. That is why they are different organically.”

There is an older community and median age at WCLZ, compared to Charlottesville, where there are 30,000+ University of Virginia students.  “The reason many Triple A stations have perished is because niche formats have largely perished in PPM,” Goldstein declares.  “It is harder to levitate them in larger markets unless they have a background – like [CBS Radio-owned] WXRT in Chicago and [Alpha Broadcasting’s] KINK in Portland [Oregon].  There is no doubt that PPM is friendly to classic rock. As far as mainstream rock is concerned, there is definitely a bias depending on the geographical region of the country.”

Researching its classic rock and mainstream rock stations, Saga however does less of it on the more niche Adult Alternative format. According to Goldstein, who advises these are rough numbers, approximately 33% of Adult Alternative music is from the 2010s; 20% from the 1990s; 20% from the 1980s; 17% from the 2000s; and 10% from the 1970s.  “No two Triple A stations are alike,” he stresses, “but the average year across seven stations in that format is 1997.”

Tomorrow: RadioInfo’s “The State of Rock Radio” presents an in-depth, major market profile

Mike Kinosisan is the managing editor and West Coast bureau chief of RadioInfo.  He can be e-mailed at or phoned at 818-985-0244.



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Category: Features