What Happened to Rock Radio?
In 1967 the best rock was coming out of California. Unfortunately, I was stuck at a Job Corps center in Ogden, Utah, where the only R and B my transistor could pick up were the top forty hits broadcast out of Salt Lake City. The ones -- along with all the Beatles, Stones and Motown songs -- spun by every D.J. across the country: "Windy" (the Association), "I'm A Believer" (The Monkees), "Something Stupid" (Nancy and Frank Sinatra), "Kind Of A Drag" (The Buckinghams), "Ode To Billie Joe" (Bobby Gentry), "To Sir With Love" (Lulu).But one night, on a drive back from the Wasatch Mountains, I discovered something different on my car radio. Rock and Roll like I'd never heard before: a tapestry of blues, jazz and flamenco -- a masterpiece of out-of-this- universe organ and guitar arpeggios that as far as I was concerned, could have rolled on forever.When I got back to Ohio University two months later, Athens had been transformed. Local bands like Thee Moss and The St. James Doorknob had chucked their old standards -- "Little Black Egg," "In The Midnight Hour," "Good Lovin'," "The Land of a Thousand Dances," "Gloria," "Louie Louie," "Hang On Sloopy" -- and were leading off brand new sets with tunes like "Purple Haze," "Mr. Fantasy," and "Light My Fire" -- the song I'd first heard that one night in the mountains two-thousand miles ago. The old stuff was dead, and The Dead were in, and any guitarist who wanted to play in a band had to go back to the drawing board and learn to play like Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, or Eric Clapton.For the next couple of years -- right up until Woodstock -- a whole new sound seemed to sneak up on the country. Warm-up bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin routinely stole the show before main acts like Jose Feliciano or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels could even set up. And by the time the Jimi Hendrix Experience opened before a stunned audience of Kansas City teeny boppers who'd come to hear The Monkees, it was clear that rock and roll had been turned upside down. Even the Beatles and the Stones jumped on the bandwagon with their albums Magical Mystery Tour and Her Satanic Majesty's Request.By the late sixties and early seventies a few gutsy D.J.'s had kicked off a new trend called Underground Radio on select FM stations. In my hometown, a couple of Cleveland disc jockeys started inviting listeners to "Sit back and light up whatever it is you wanna light up" and turned thousands of guys like me onto bands and artists like Traffic, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Velvet Underground, Joni Mitchell, Donovan, The Byrds, The Moody Blues, Ravi Shankar, Frank Zappa, and, of course, Dylan, Hendrix, Zeppelin, David Bowie, and a zillion other great musicians. In just a couple of years, FM radio had become the forum for all the great new rock coming from both sides of the Atlantic.Three decades later a handful of songs from a select group of sixties bands is still featured on FM radio stations across the country. Year after year, over and over again. And with the exception of a few new additions from the seventies, eighties and nineties -- Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Bad Company, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Yes, Aersomith, John Mellencamp, Boston, Lynard Skynard, Peter Frampton, Van Halen, U2, Pearl Jam, Nirvana -- very little new music gets a shot on mainstream rock stations. And just like they do with the music from the sixties, most stations don't venture beyond standards like "Maggie Mae," "Born In The U.S.A.," "More Than A Feeling," "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Stairway To Heaven" when it comes to bands from the latter decades. It's as if each of those groups, out of all their albums, had recorded only one or two decent songs.From Los Angeles to New York and from Dallas to Dayton, it seems that most rock stations are playing too many of the same old songs by the same old bands in the same old formats. In terms of programming, spontaneity and creativity have disappeared. And these days any innovative local band looking for a break has almost no chance of getting the kind of radio exposure -- the kind, for example, The Doors got on the Underground back in 1967 -- that just might kick off the next new wave of music. So what's happened to the music?Rock and Roll was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1951 when a disc jockey by the name of Alan Freed took a chance and cued up "My Baby Rocks Me With a Steady Roll." That song changed everything, and four decades later the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Musuem opened its doors in that same town on the edge of Lake Erie. A fitting tribute, but according to David Hintz, radio coordinator for the Hall of Fame, there aren't too many risk-takers in rock radio these days -- in Cleveland or anywhere else in the country."It's not what it was back in Freed's day," Hintz said. "Things have totally changed. It's at the point now where it's not easy for a program director at a radio station, who's under a lot of pressure to perform in ratings points, to play a song that he or she isn't sure is going to be a hit. Because for every song that a listener doesn't like, the programer sees that listener turning the dial and going to another station."The big conglomerates have bought into radio, and it takes a lot of money to run a station nowadays. And in order to get the return on the investment, radio stations need ratings. That's why you hear songs like The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and Pink Floyd's "Money" because music tests show that the majority of listeners still want to hear them."Hintz said he that he often hears people complain about the redundant programming on rock radio stations. However, he added that when radio stations call people up and play quick snippets of songs and ask those listeners which ones they like and don't like, the same music consistenly comes out on top."Sometimes it seems that if I hear one more Pink Floyd song on the radio -- if I hear "Money" one more time -- I'm gonna explode. But repeatedly, everytime a radio station like WTUE in Dayton goes out and tests that song, it tests so high that they continue to play it because that's what people say they want to hear. So the programming reflects that, and WTUE is the number one rated rock station in Dayton."Another reason, according to Hintz, why so many of the same old songs keep getting aired year after year has to do with generational differences."To someone like me, in my 30s, it seems like I've heard "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Money" for the last twenty plus years. But look at a station like WTUE that does very well with listeners 18 to 34. Well, for the 18 year olds those are new songs, music that's been passed down to them from older siblings. Even parents nowadays pass their rock and roll onto their kids."Mary Fleenor, Market Operations Manager for Jaycor Dayton, which owns and operates eight radio stations in the Dayton area including WTUE, said that WTUE has strived to be Dayton's leading rock station for 22 years."The key issue in [WTUE's programming] is to play the best music possible," Fleenor said. "We do that in a variety of ways. And while we don't have a hard and fast rule about a certain percentage of oldies or a certain percentage of new music or a certain percentage of recurrence, the idea again is to find the best possible music that's out there, and we do that through a lot of different kinds of research."Fleenor said that in addition to telephone surveys, WTUE conducts periodic auditorium tests that focus on specific age and gender groups -- for example, men age 25 to 54 -- that the station is targeting."We have those guys come into a room and listen to the "hooks" from songs -- those five-second pieces of music that are the essence of the song -- and they rank them," Fleenor said. "They tell you if they like the music, if they're sick of the music, if they've heard it too much or not enough, or if they're even familiar with it. And we take all those scores and compile them to rank the music and figure out which songs are the most powerful, which songs are the ones that speak loudest to that audience, and which ones are the songs they want to hear the most."Fleenor, like Hintz, said that she's aware of the criticism that rock radio has gotten bogged down in a repetitive groove. And as a recent random sampling of songs aired by Dayton's three major rock stations (page ?) illustrates, whether the station features new, old, classic, or alternative rock, overall, WTUE, WXEG and WING play a pretty short list of songs."The funny this is, we get tired of the music way before our audience does," Fleenor said. "Obviously, playing it every day and listening to it many more hours than most listeners do, we get sick of stuff quickly. So that's why we have to depend on the listeners rather than just our gut feelings because we don't listen to radio like a typical person does. For us, this is our livelihood, this is what we do. We listen to it a lot more closely and a lot more critically than our listeners do so it's important for us to get their feedback to find out which are the best songs to play."With all that in mind, Fleenor said that WTUE still sets high standards when it comes to selecting its playlist of songs -- especially new music."WTUE is always going to play the best rock -- whether it's old, fairly new or brand new," she said. "But it's got to be an awfully good song for us to get it on. When there's not a lot of new stuff out there that's particularly good, we don't just put music on because it's new...[And] lately, especially in the past seven or eight months, it's been a pretty baren landscape in the rock world. There just hasn't been a lot of good, new product out there. So it's really difficult to find those new songs to play."Mick Montgomery is a musician who has owned and operated the Canal Street Tavern in Dayton since 1980. Over the past two decades his club has become one of Dayton's -- and perhaps one of the Midwest's -- most important venues for small concerts that cover the gambit of musical genres: Celtic, folk, bluegrass, country, jazz, classical, and rock. One of Canal Street's biggest draws is the annual Dayton Band Playoffs which showcases the best rock musicians in the city.Like most baby boomers, Montgomery grew up on fifties and sixties rock and roll radio. But over the last ten years he's pretty much given up on listening to stations like WTUE, WING and WXEG"There was a time when the people who made programming decisions as to which songs should play were actually music oriented individuals," Montgomery said. "But that hasn't been going on for many, many years. These days, it's so rare to find [a programmer] who actually cares about music -- and who isn't taking orders from headquarters -- to do anything creative. It's getting to be that national conglomerates are just gobbling everything up. And right now it's gotten down to where in typical markets like Dayton, two companies -- Cox and Jaycor -- own everything."Vick Mickunas is the Music Director at WYSO in Yellow Springs and the host of "Afternoon Excursions," an eclectic program that features music from around the world including rock and roll. He said that major consolidations -- especially since the music industry was recently deregulated -- have accelerated the demise of quality programming across the country."There are very few stations out there that have the gumption to program with any kind of integrity," Mickunas said. "I think they're a vanishing breed. You can still find them in some markets, but as you scan your dial you'll find that it's basically a wasteland."Mickunas reiterated Montgomery's point that conglomerates are buying up radio stations. "You've got markets where the Jaycors of the world, or whoever the big media group is, will literally come in and buy every type of radio station in the market so they can have a country western station, a rock station, an oldies station. They feature every type of format, and these stations are typically programmed by consultants in places like L.A. and New York, so that you literally have hundreds of stations -- particularly commercial stations -- being programmed by some consultant sitting in his ivory tower."And Hintz believes that pattern of consolidation will probably continue. "My professional opinion is that by the turn of the century or 2003 you're going to see maybe two major networks owning all the radio stations in the U.S." he said. "And what these ownership groups try to do, especially with rock radio, is to have in one market an alternative radio station, an active or newer rock station, a classic rock station, and a classic hits station. What they're trying to do is get active listeners from 12 to 64 and get them all across the board. So when it comes to advertising revenue, they just rule."Basically, what you're finding is that rock and roll isn't just rock and roll radio anymore; it's very niche formatted. They're trying to hit the female rock listeners who like the lighter, softer rock and roll, and they're trying to hit the males with the hard, guitar oriented rock."The net effect of all this consolidation is that the millions of people who are tuned into the approximately 2,000 rock radio stations across the country every day are often listening to the same songs by the same bands at the same time. Regional differences and tastes aside, it would seem almost inconceiveable that millions of people in every state -- each with different tastes in clothes, movies, TV shows -- would still prefer to hear daily doses of "Highway to Hell" as opposed to another cut on the album or even one they'd never heard before. But for the most part, that's what people get, and Mickunas attributes that kind of programming to a handful of radio consultants."Basically, they're a very small group of men in major media centers in L.A. and New York who have been in the business, and they're getting rich by telling people what to play. And their success is self-perpetuating. They get paid money for creating these formats, and there's lots of money in the formats. And whether those formats are doing well or poorly has nothing to do with it. Whether or not the music is palatable has nothing to do with it. The money keeps rolling into these radio stations and they keep rewarding the consultants and the consultants keep going out and advising more stations.Montgomery said that the net effect of the corporate Shanghaing of rock music is that radio has lost the cultural influence it once had thirty years ago. "MTV has taken the place of radio to tell the kids what latest fifteen- minutes-of-fame-group they should be paying attention to this week," he said. "It's a total flavor of the month type of situation."And frankly, when I say that, it's not to put down the bands that actually get their fifteen minutes. It's not to say those bands are bad. It's basically to say that it's all one flavor. It's like when it gets to the point where it's mainstream enough -- where there's no more creativity, no more imagination -- that's when it gets to the radio. That's what music is when it gets to the radio."When I was living in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late sixties, there were actually programmers who were free to play whole LPs. They would act like they were tripping on the air.I remember listening to KSAN in San Francisco and hearing Waylin' Jennings right after Jimi Hendrix and then Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. They were playing a real diversity of music."Mickunas said that for the most part, rock radio has gotten mired down in mediocrity."What's happened is the music that people are listening to today is the same music that people were discovering twenty-five years ago on album-oriented rock stations that had creative formats. It was music that was discovered by adventurous programers who didn't have consultants telling them what to play. And there's a tremendous irony in that now consultants are jamming this same regurgitated stuff down people's throats 25 years later."But Fleenor said that part of the reason why so much of the old sixties and seventies rock is still being played is because those years added up to a unique musical era."It's much like what happened in the late fifties and early sixties with what we now call nostalgia," she said. "It was big bands artists and artists like Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, who were at their heyday then."Well, the very same thing happened in rock when we had this huge influx of people. It was fairly early in the development of the format -- or the development of that particular kind of music -- as it started to break away from just popular music because that's what it all used to be. And then it all splintered out into these individual formats."But those [sixties and seventies rockers] just put out such great music that it's going to be with us forever. Those are our standards. It's the very same thing that Frank Sinatra did for popular music, and that's really what everything's based on. If you talk to any current rock artist they're going to tell you that those are some of the people who influenced them. Those are the people that they grew up on. Those are the people that really made them want to do this, and obviously you're going to reflect some of that in the music. And we're going to hear that in rock and roll forever."Despite that, Mickunas feels that there is a lot of great new rock and roll coming out now that deserves a shot on the radio."If anything, there's more of it," he said. "But for some reason there seems to be a comfort factor to programming the same old stuff."Overall I'd say there's a lack of creativity going on. The beauty of programming at WYSO is there's nobody telling us what to play. We play what we want to play. We can create musical sets that are compelling, intelligent unique."Whereas with mainstream rock radio it's a constant repetition of the same stuff whether it's classic rock or whatever it is that they're playing. There's no imagination. It doesn't challenge the listener. It's pablum. There's nothing new going on. It's boredom, a circle. Basically, what it comes down to is this: It's all about ratings and advertising. It's all about money. And money is what's ruining radio."So, is there any chance that one of Dayton's mainstream radio stations would give a good local band some air time?"One way is for people to empower themselves," Hintz said. "If there are fans in the city where a band is struggling to make it, those fans need to support the shows and then flood the radio stations with requests for that band. If the phones are ringing off the hook for a certain song from a local band, you better believe that the program director will go ahead and put that song on the air."But those programmers really need some numbers behind it, some proof that more people than not want to hear that song before they start to test it. And if an up-and-coming band is selling a lot of records in their hometown or in their region, that's when major record labels like Columbia and Atlantic will take notice. But until a band does that, the record companies won't move on the band. There really needs to be a buzz."Hintz saidthat college radio is another good avenue for new rock bands. "There are many college stations that are starting to format themselves and become more like commercial radio. Their DJs are trained to do a good job, and that's a great place for a local band that's trying to get signed to highlight what they do."In Cleveland, I know that the college radio stations are more than happy when a local band comes in and plays live on the air. And they're more than happy to support their music."Generally what happens is that commercial radio -- and the major labels as well -- will see what the buzz is in the community for a certain band. And if the buzz is big enough, then the band will draw attention. But it takes a lot of hard work and some great music in order to get to that point."But even if there is a local or regional buzz, Fleenor said it's very difficult for new artists of any kind -- no matter where they come from -- to really get radio exposure because, simply put, it's a business."Record companies and promoters are looking for the safe bet," she said. "They're looking for something they can put on and that they can present to radio as the next huge thing. And if the music is good enough, if the band is good enough -- and believe me, a lot of luck comes into it -- they've got an opportunity. But it is going to be really hard. It's just like starting out in any new business. It's very difficult, and this business is one of the most competetive there is. So for any new band, and especially a local band, just getting that exposure on a national basis in order to get a record company's attention is very difficult.Mickunas also offered sobering advice for any local band trying to find a break on the radio."They need to hope and pray there's a radio station in their area that's willing to take a chance and play their music," he said. "But it's not an optimistic scene out there. At WYSO we'll listen to a local musician or band, and if we like what we hear we'll play it. And nobody tells us to play it. But stations like ours are a slim minority."Mickunas said that one obstactle to a band getting air play is the sheer volume of competition."These days, everybody and his brother can put out a CD," Mickunas said. "Every week, my mail is flooded with CDs, some of which are incredibly mediocre. But on the other hand, one out of ten are excellent, and it's some band nobody's ever going to hear of."But Mickunas said that the worst obstactle had virtually nothing to do with music."Essentially, what you've got are accountants -- pencil pushers -- making creative decisions about which music should or should not be played."