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Rock Radio Confronts Tough Times

With big stations closing, it's getting hard to hear new rock

August 18, 2011

If you want to hear the latest Red Hot Chili Peppers or Mumford & Sons singles on the radio in New York or Chicago, your options just shrank: In July, two major alternative stations – Q101 in Chicago and WRXP in New York – announced they would abandon the rock format. Q101 had been influential for two decades, helping make stars of Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins and many others. WRXP's departure, meanwhile, means that there's only one major rock station left in New York: the classic-rock station Q104.3.

The changes are the latest setbacks for rock radio, which has been declining in influence for most of the past decade. According to Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, a Number One rock hit now reaches 13 million listeners – a fraction of the 138 million who hear a Top 40 chart-topper. That's bad news for rock artists looking to build careers, and for veteran acts trying to stay afloat. "It lessens a manager's ability to sell records and concert tickets," says Daniel Field, Weezer's manager. "As the radio has less and less rock music, it hurts the entire business – and less and less kids grow up appreciating the music I love."

The most successful rock stations often don't play new music. Classic rock is the most popular rock format, climbing from 4.7 to 4.9 percent of the overall listening audience from 2006 to 2010, according to Arbitron. Seeing those numbers, many alternative-rock and hard-rock stations are shifting their emphasis to older tunes. "Much of the research that rock-radio stations are doing is driving them toward catalog product and away from newer stuff," says Fred Jacobs, a Detroit radio consultant. As a result, new singles in the rock format tend to drop quickly off the charts, compared to the pop and R&B hits that can hang around for months at a time. "Especially for rock bands, it's hard to have any chance to cross over," says Bob McLynn, manager of Fall Out Boy, Hole and Train.

Another reason that rock stations in major markets may be growing more conservative is the Portable People Meter – a pagerlike gadget introduced a few years ago that has shaken up the way ratings are determined. In the past, sample listeners had to remember which stations they heard and record the information in written diaries. Now the PPM, affixed to those listeners' clothing, automatically detects every radio station they hear – even in public places like restaurants and grocery stores. Some radio professionals say the PPM's super-accurate data has had the effect of pushing programmers away from taking chances on new or unfamiliar songs. "Everybody's over-researching the radio stations, especially with the PPM," says Tim Virgin, who was Q101's music director until recently. "The minute people hear things they don't know, they're gone. So stations are surrounding themselves with familiar hits."

Some radio insiders say rock's recent struggles have been exaggerated, citing successful rock stations like Philadelphia's WMMR, Seattle's KISW and Los Angeles' KLOS. While the total number of rock stations has not increased in recent years, it's true that, overall, rock listeners have increased from 11.6 percent of the adult market in 2006 to 12.3 percent late last year, according to Arbitron. "Rock's pretty darn healthy, all things considered," says Bill Rose, the media-research firm's senior marketing vice president. Although reps from large radio chains Clear Channel and CBS wouldn't comment on the record, a CBS spokesperson complained, "This move [of Q101 and WRXP] shouldn't spell the demise of the entire format. Clearly we have several stations thriving in the format."

And while Q101 and WRXP are gone, some are optimistic that new alt-rock stations could ultimately take their place on the airwaves in Chicago and New York. "We're sad, we're disappointed," says Daniel Glass, New York-based owner of Glassnote Records, whose acts Mumford & Sons and Phoenix got heavy airplay on WRXP. "But some radio-chain owner is going to get smart. I do see a well-run, hip, cool, rock-leaning station starting here. If I was CBS Radio, I would do it in a minute. I see it coming."

This story is from the August 18th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.


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