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.

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.)

Though the rise of satellite radio was supposed to prophesy the death of AM and FM, that’s not anywhere close to happening. Even so, Sirius/XM is unquestionably prying ears away from terrestrial radio. So are iPods; music-sharing services like Pandora and Spotify, which appeal to fans with instant access to millions of songs; social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter that provide constant streams of personalized content; and all the other entertainment options in this era of 1,000 cable channels and 24/7 connectivity.

An FM radio station, by comparison, lacks customization and can’t be heard “on demand.” But I don’t think music is ready to vacate the airwaves, or that someone who acknowledges a bias toward another format should be the arbiter of that decision.

FM radio doesn’t have the buzz of more recently minted technology, but that doesn’t mean it lacks listeners. The Chicagoland area is the country’s third-largest media market and has an audience of more than 7 million people. According to Arbitron, the research firm responsible for radio ratings, Q101 had roughly 1.2 million different listeners during its final weeks on the air. They weren’t all listening at once, and they wouldn’t all say that Q101 was their favorite radio station. They did, however, all make a choice to tune in. It’s too early to know if FM News 101.1 will match the size of that audience: Michaels’ Merlin Media LLC is conjuring new stations from scratch, unlike other radio conglomerates that have decided to simulcast established AM stations on crisper FM frequencies. Currently, Arbitron is reporting that 1 million fewer people are tuning their dials to 101.1 than when I was on the air. When I look at those numbers, I wonder how many of those missing million listeners remember their old friend Q101 when they turn on their iPods.

Curiosity can make a listener tune in to a radio station. Loyalty will make him stay, and loyalty must be earned. Making that kind of connection isn’t easy, and it takes patience. It helped that I worked for a company that trusted me to host a request hour and didn’t require me to pre-record shows for the weekend or for stations in other cities. Recording a show to sound live or local when it’s neither makes a DJ sound like the great and powerful Oz—a disembodied voice behind a curtain, not to be trusted. That practice, known as voice-tracking, is a way to cut costs by consolidating stations into regional clusters with a minimal number of employees. The industry started moving in that direction in the late 1990s at the behest of Clear Channel, specifically the head of Clear Channel’s radio division ... Randy Michaels.

It would be easy for me to resent Michaels, but radio is a business. He wanted to maximize his company’s profits in a volatile, vulnerable industry, and he met that goal. Consolidation made financial sense, even if it sacrificed the medium’s humanity.

Michaels’ faith in FM news is more subjective. CD sales have fallen sharply with the rise of digital downloads, and there are few alternative rock artists topping the iTunes charts. It’s tempting to conclude that tech-savvy consumers don’t care about hearing new rock music on the radio. If so, the absence of oldies, classic rock, and Latin music on those iTunes charts would imply that those formats aren’t financially successful on FM radio either ... but they are.

What I know from my years as a DJ is that listeners know what they like when they hear it. Q101 fans reached out en masse during our last days, sharing their memories of the station’s almost 20-year run. Chicago natives who’d moved away for jobs, school, or military service listened via Q101.com and sent us heartfelt emails and texts. Even now, I get choked up reading the hundreds of comments on my old Facebook page: “I feel like I've lost my best friend.” “You have no idea how much we'll all miss you guys.” “A big piece of my generation's life just died.” Then, there’s this: “Sure, the iPod can play music, but nothing can replace the personality that you brought to the station.”

Once we knew that the end was near, Q101's programming department let the DJs pick their own music. I "dusted off" songs I hadn't played in years, like "Little Black Backpack" by Stroke 9, The Cure's "Lullaby," and "Song for the Dumped" by Ben Folds Five. I played newer artists I've grown to love: Mumford and Sons, Foster the People, and naturally, Muse. I allowed myself to be nostalgic, emotional, and honest.

Those last shows were the best of my career. Passion isn’t quantifiable like ratings or revenue, but I’m proud that Q101 inspired it in our listeners, no matter how many we had. Technology will change; the need to connect with each other through stories and songs won't. When it comes to rock radio, I don’t think the preferences of a few should affect the interests of so many.

Christine Pawlak is a writer in Chicago. You can email her and follow her on Twitter.