Heavy bands such as Godsmack, Nickelback, Linkin Park and Trapt have had a stranglehold on modern-rock radio for years. But another punk revolution may be in the works, as stations around the country are squeezing songs by bands such as the Darkness and Modest Mouse into playlists alongside harder stuff.
Years after R.E.M., Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots invented alt-rock radio, could the sound be coming back? At many influential big-city stations, such as Los Angeles' trendsetting KROQ and New York's K-Rock, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes and Modest Mouse have all hit the Top Ten.
"What it seems like is a search to find out whatever's next," says Rob Cross, operations manager for K-Rock. "Modern rock is in kind of a lull. There's been nothing that's come up since the whole Korn/Limp Bizkit thing."
Jim McGuinn, program director for WPLY in Philadelphia, adds, "We're all rooting for Franz Ferdinand to take over the world." (The Scottish dance-rock band recently signed a reported $2 million deal with Sony.)
Still, aside from the White Stripes and the Strokes, who dragged punkish music back to the radio two years ago, programmers' enthusiasm has yet to translate into hits. Closest are the Yeahs, with their fuzz-guitar ballad "Maps," which hit Number Sixteen on Billboard's modern-rock radio chart. Also up there are "Reptilia," by the Strokes, "Big Brat," by Phantom Planet, and "Float On," by Modest Mouse, whose new album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, sold nearly 70,000 copies in its first week.
The loosening of modern-rock-radio playlists means opportunities for many newer bands, such as the Postal Service, who have sold 224,000 copies of their CD thanks in part to nationwide airplay. Susan Busch, who works in radio promotions for the band's label, Sub Pop Records, says hosts with eclectic tastes at many modern-rock stations have recently risen to influential management positions. "There's a change in the guard," she says. "And maybe people don't want to hear Staind all the time."
But so far these bands have caught on primarily in large cities. In smaller markets, such as Boise, Idaho, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, Nickelback and Linkin Park still rule. "What flies in San Francisco and Los Angeles may not mean much in Oklahoma City," says Bill Burrs, vice president of rock music for RCA Music Group, which represents the Strokes. "You look at the Top Twenty records right now -- it's Hoobastank, Lostprophets, Linkin Park, A Perfect Circle. Those aren't necessarily left-of-center artists.
"The radio stations, the program directors are hungry for something new," he adds. "But playlists are tighter than they've ever been, and some stations are more conservative than they've ever been. It's tough."