What Happened to Rock Music on FM Radio?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 15 2011 11:14 AM

We Won’t Rock You

The sad, unwarranted decline of rock music on FM radio.

Christine Pawlak.
The author as a DJ for Q101 in Chicago

Photograph courtesy Christine Pawlak.

I was 24 when I first lost my job as a radio DJ. I was 30 when it happened again. In both cases, my employers changed the stations’ formats, abandoning “alternative rock” for gospel (at Philadelphia’s Y100) and news (at Q101 in Chicago). Just this year, another Philadelphia station, WYSP, as well as New York’s WRXP and WVRX in Washington, D.C., have shifted from rock music to talk radio formats. This is just the most recent round of deaths—over the last few years, major rock stations like New York’s K-Rock, Indie 103.1 in Los Angeles, and WBCN in Boston have gone silent. These stations haven’t been disappearing because the format’s a money loser. It’s because a handful of executives have decided that rock radio doesn’t belong on the FM dial.

In February of 2004, I moved to Philadelphia to host the night show at Y100. I was incredibly excited about being on the air in such a big city. During each five-hour show, I wrote “Weekend Update”-esque zingers about music and entertainment news and counted down the day’s most-requested songs. I had just fallen in love with the band Muse, and watching them at a private show for our listeners was one of my favorite Y100 moments. But about a year after I arrived, I walked into our weekly DJ meeting and found the station in chaos. We were told that Y100 was going off the air immediately, and our services would no longer be needed. I thought I’d never get such a cool opportunity again.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Emmis Communications owned Chicago’s Q101 when I started my new gig as a midday host in 2005. At the time, the station had responded to the iPod’s popularity by using the phrase “on shuffle”—you never knew which random musical gem might pop up after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or Foo Fighters. We supported local bands and those with local roots, like Rise Against, Fall Out Boy, Chevelle, and Smashing Pumpkins. And to the chagrin of many “alternative” fans, we played Metallica.

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I’m actually not a fan of the alternative label. It’s limiting because it’s subjective: One listener’s alternative is another’s mainstream. I just knew that Q101 played music that I loved when I was growing up, and that made it fun to go to work. I’d walk into the studio excited to play a request or crack a joke that made someone’s workday a little better. My enthusiasm caught the eye of Chicago Magazine, which named me Best Radio DJ in 2008, praising my “playful riffs on topics breathtaking for their sheer randomness.” I loved my job, and my listeners—eventually—grew to love me.

Behind the scenes, though, the station’s parent company was facing financial struggles. Emmis, a publicly traded company boasting more than 30 media properties, limped through the recession and a failed attempt to take the company private. With more than $300 million in long-term debt and its stock valued at around $1 per share, CEO Jeff Smulyan decided to sell off three of Emmis’ radio stations: WRXP in New York, and The Loop and Q101 in Chicago. A few hours after the sale went through, we learned that both Q101 and WRXP would be shifting to all-news formats.

The man who decided that alternative rock radio was over in Chicago was Randy Michaels. Michaels, who resigned from his executive position at the Chicago Tribune after revelations of inappropriate and loutish behavior in 2010, made his triumphant return to media moguldom by buying my station. “My favorite format has always been spoken radio,” Michaels said in the July 31 press release announcing the launch of Chicago’s FM News 101.1. “I’ve long had a nostalgic love affair with the big AM stations known for the format, and today—as music moves to the iPod—it’s time for spoken word to move to FM.”

This isn’t the first time that one man’s actions have dealt a blow to rock radio. Howard Stern’s hugely popular morning show debuted on New York’s K-Rock in 1985 and was ultimately syndicated on dozens of rock stations. When Stern took his talents to satellite radio in 2006, K-Rock changed to an all-talk format called Free FM, with disastrous results. Most critics blamed the plunging ratings on Stern’s departure, but I’m convinced that the sudden, drastic format change sealed the station’s demise. I wonder what might have happened if K-Rock’s programmers, or those at WBCN and Indie 103.1, had been patient and given rock music a chance. (Consider that multimedia giant Clear Channel, which owns 850 American radio stations, launched a successful alternative rock station in Philadelphia two years after the death of Y100.)

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