Rock Radio No Longer Rolling

Stations dump rock format as audience declines

Pearl Jam
Barry Brecheisen/WireImage
Pearl Jam
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Just before midnight on February 24th, Y100, the last modern-rock station in Philadelphia, played the final notes of Pearl Jam's 1992 breakthrough hit "Alive" and faded to silence. When the music resumed a few minutes later, Y100 had become the Beat – Philly's newest hip-hop station.

In the past six months, three other major-market rock stations have folded – Washington, D.C.'s WHFS, Miami's WZBT and Houston's KLOL. And more closings are coining: At press time, New York's K-Rock is reportedly considering a format flip after morning-show DJ Howard Stern leaves for satellite radio in 2006. Ratings for rock radio have been in decline for at least six years, with audiences shrinking by nearly twenty percent. With urban and Hispanic formats increasing nationwide, rock is getting squeezed out.

In Y100's twelve years on the air, it helped break artists such as Beck, Weezer and Good Charlotte. When the station switched formats, Interpol's scheduled interview to promote a Philadelphia gig was canceled. "It's a huge blow for fans and for bands that Y100 closed and that other stations are closing," says Interpol manager Brandon Schmidt, a Philadelphia native. "To think that the sixth-largest radio market in the country has no place to play new bands is kind of hard to believe."

Mainstream rock has been hit the hardest: Album-oriented rock stations that rely on staples like Three Doors Down have seen listenership fall seventy percent since 1998. Meanwhile, stations that play harder bands like Godsmack and Alter Bridge haven't developed a larger audience. The poor numbers have left programmers complaining about the quality of recent music. "Some good new bands are getting airplay," says Dave Wellington, program director at Boston's WBCN, a station that plays a mix of modern and classic rock. "But nothing has really emerged as the new grunge, a single style that creates a massive radio movement."

Rock radio's larger struggle may have more to do with America's shifting demographics. Baby boomers, who fueled FM radio's rise in the 1970s, are aging beyond the twenty-four-to-fifty-five-year-old demographic that advertisers pay premium rates to reach. Rock listenership has fallen close to twenty percent in that demographic since 1998, according to Arbitron, which measures radio play.

Meanwhile, the Hispanic population became the county's largest minority population in 2003, and a February Arbitron report says Hispanic buying power is increasing at twice the rate of other demographics. Spanish-language radio ratings are up thirty percent since 1998. In September, Clear Channel – which owns more than 1,200 radio stations – announced plans to convert up to twenty-five stations to Spanish language by mid-2006. "The number-one TV station in most Hispanic markets is the Hispanic station," says Phil Quartararo, president of music marketing at EMI. "Radio broadcasters are applying the same theory. It's 'I've got three rock stations slicing up a ten percent market share, while forty-five percent of the population is Hispanic.'"

Finally, hip-hop and R&B have a stronghold on teens and young adults. Only six percent of teenagers are listening to rock at any given time, compared with nearly twenty percent listening to urban radio and forty percent listening to Top Forty radio stations, which are dominated by hip-hop and R&B.

Concert-biz and record-label executives worry that they're losing a key promotion avenue for rock. Electric Factory Concerts in Philadelphia, a frequent Y100 advertiser, promoted recent shows by Franz Ferdinand and My Chemical Romance on the station. "Y100 really tapped into a community feeling," says Electric Factory's Jim Sutcliffe. Adds RCA vice president Richard Sanders, "A Top Twenty market that doesn't have a modern-rock station hurts us. There's nothing like getting thirty or forty spins on a radio station to sell records."

Rock radio stations might be changing formats just as the music is beginning a renaissance. A new wave of bands including the Killers, Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand are gaining play on stations across the country. "Five years ago, I stopped listening to radio completely," says Franz Ferdinand bassist Bob Hardy. "Now there's dozens of new bands I'm keen to hear. It's all just part of the natural cycle of music."

Rock fans are fighting for their stations. In Houston and D.C., listeners raised such a ruckus that the stations returned to the air, albeit with weaker signals elsewhere on the dial. Now Philadelphia's rock fans are mounting their own battle online at Y100rocks.com, teaming with former station employees to stream alternative rock twenty-four hours a day. One listener, seventeen-year-old Ben Kennerly, set up an online message board, which was flooded with 40,000 posts in its first week. "I've been listening to the station since I was twelve," says Kennerly. "It's worth fighting for." Another listener, thirty-nine-year-old Richard Cardona, donated nearly $3,000 worth of Web-site development. "I'm hoping we can get a station with lower ratings to flip their format and play what Y100 is playing online now," says Cardona. "People ought to be able to hear rock on the radio."

This story is from the March 24th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 970: March 24, 2005