A hot new radio format – "classic alternative" – has hit the FM dial. Stations in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle have started to replace the rage rock of the past few years with early-Nineties nostalgia. Limp Bizkit, Korn and Godsmack are out; Nirvana, the Pixies and Pearl Jam are in. There's new music, too: "The mix is sixty percent new, forty percent classic," says' Keith Dakin, assistant music director at Boston's WFNX, which made the switch last March. Bands gaining airtime tend to have a retro sound. The Strokes, Death Cab for Cutie and Jet are favorites. "[It's] music that Gen X can relate to," says Garett Michaels, program director at San Diego's KBZT. "It just ain't Puddle of Mudd."
KBZT is credited with starting the trend. On November 11th, 2002, the station converted from an Eighties format to old and new alternative rock. By spring, its ratings had topped San Diego's veteran modern-rock station, 91X (XTRA).
Other stations took notice. Programmers at 99X (WNNX), in Atlanta, Seattle's the End (KNDD), Live 105 (KITS), in San Francisco, and Los Angeles' Indie 103.1 (KDLD) say that they were inspired in part by KBZT. They also say that they're responding to audience demand for less Nineties hard rock and more variety.
But that's only half the story. Part of classic alternative's appeal is economic. In September, the beer industry – which spent $18.3 million in 2002 on radio ads – declared it would buy time only on stations with an audience that's seventy percent age twenty-one or older. "That's the money demographic," says Sean Demery, program director of Live 105. "All we do is sell twenty-five to thirty-four."
Interestingly, the country's biggest radio broadcaster, Clear Channel Radio, lacks a classic-alternative station, and it has no plans for one at present. To some, the new format is nothing more than a place holder. Says Chris Williams, program director at 99X in Atlanta, "When rock is this year's hip-hop, I don't think we'll need it anymore."
This story is from the February 19th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.