The uncertain future of alt rock

For those about to rock: enjoy it while it lasts. In this post, an overview of the past, present, and uncertain future of alternative rock radio, beginning with KROQ in Los Angeles, continuing with many more stations across the U.S., and ending with its possible demise, thanks to format changes and the exit of Howard Stern.

Where it all began

First, an introduction to the format. In the 1970s, more styles of music began to emerge, such as punk and new wave. By later in the decade, many of these styles were being grouped together with the title of “alternative”. However, at the time, there was no outlet on the radio for these newer, experimental genres.

The station most often credited with launching the alternative rock format is KROQ in Los Angeles. Don Snowden, author of the book The Early L.A. Punk Scene, says that the radio industry mostly ignored alternative rock until KROQ popularized the format. He explains, “About the only crack in the wall of industrial indifference was the presence of KROQ on your radio dial.”

As KROQ gained attention and popularity in the early 1980s, bands like The B-52’s, The Clash, Devo, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, and The Cars, finally had an outlet to call their own. A growing fan base for this type of music led many other stations across the country to pick up a similar “alternative” format.

Local interest

One of those radio stations was just north of Cincinnati, Ohio: the independently owned 97X (WOXY), based in Oxford. According to their General Manager Bryan Jay Miller’s article, The History of WOXY, 97X launched their alternative format in 1983, with the intent to emulate the style of KROQ at the time and also focus on local alternative music.

However, 97X would not be the only alternative format station in the Cincinnati area. In the early to mid-1990s, as bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Green Day dominated the music scene, there was an increasing demand for a higher-powered alternative station to serve all of Cincinnati.

Jacor Communications, now Clear Channel, surprisingly answered this call and created Channel Z at 107.1 FM. According to CityBeat’s Todd McFarland, Channel Z offered an “exciting lineup of real music and real music information – but it didn’t last long.” In 1998, the format was switched to pop and it became KISS FM.

Infinity Broadcasting picked up where Jacor left off in March of 2000 by reintroducing Channel Z at 97.3 FM, where it would later be known as New Rock 97.3. One of the initial criticisms of New Rock 97.3 is that it focused too much on mainstream rock bands of the time that were already being played on WEBN, such as Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, and Staind, instead of the more experimental artists that the “alternative” format should be known for. This criticism was addressed by Infinity in 2004, as more experimental bands such as Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, and The Killers reached high rotation.

Also last year, WOXY went off the radio waves to become an Internet-only station, leaving those of us in Cincinnati with only one choice for alternative music on the radio, New Rock 97.3. This makes Infinity’s decision to expand the format at 97.3 happen at the right time, and the station remains a fairly respectable mix of new rock and alternative music today.

Rock is dead… maybe

That brings us up to the present… but what about the future? The alternative format hasn’t exactly experienced a smooth ride in the past, and now, the future seems to be even more uncertain.

As you know, Howard Stern’s show powers 97.3 and many other alternative stations across the country every morning, fitting in with the stations’ “edgy” style and bringing in strong ratings. However, Howard Stern’s contract expires at the end of this year, leaving many who follow radio to believe that companies that own alternative stations will use that opportunity to change the format of their stations to something else.

Some stations have already made the switch recently. In a New York Times article from earlier this year, “New Rock Is Passé on Radio”, writer Jeff Leeds explains that alternative stations in New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Seattle, Baltimore, and Washington DC have all switched to other formats this year alone.

For the alternative stations that remain, Howard Stern and the ratings he brings in may be the only thing keeping the format on the air. Paul Heine, writer for Billboard Radio Monitor, explains in an article this week that “Infinity will likely flip more stations from alternative to another format to coincide with Howard Stern’s January 2006 exit.”

Also according to Billboard Radio Monitor, radio executives believe that attracting an older listening base with other formats may increase their ratings and profits, as people of younger generations, who typically make up the most alternative music listeners, have already begun to depend less on radio or even abandon it entirely, thanks to other sources of listening to music, such as MP3 players and the Internet.

Summary

Though there’s much more to the story, that’s a quick overview of alt rock radio, from its beginning in Los Angeles to its uncertain future. Those of us who enjoy listening to alternative music on the radio will be looking out to see what happens to the format in the coming years.

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