In Defense of Rock Radio, a Force in Popular Culture

Have you heard of the Charm City Devils? My guess is that unless you live in the Baltimore, Maryland/Washington D.C. area — or you happen to still own a Taproot T-shirt — you have no idea who I’m talking about. In fact, even I wouldn’t have came across them and their latest record, Sins, if I didn’t hold my day job during which, among other things, I review local CDs in the aforementioned metropolitan area. 

The band sounds like … well, the band sounds exactly like you think a band named the Charm City Devils would sound. “Audioslave-sounding hard rock that clearly takes its cues from late ’80s hair metal suggesting it would fit perfectly on DC 101 or 97.5 HFS”, I wrote in my review. “… The reality is that the Charm City Devils and Sins could have thrived in a different time and a different era. Bands like Fuel, Taproot, Velvet Revolver or Staind have had their day in the sun and the truth is that this type of music has been shunned to the point of near-extinction for years now”.

I’m not really breaking any ground there, right? It’s not a secret that the world is divided into two types of people: The People Who Love Nickelback and The People Who Hate Nickelback. The latter outweighs the former when considering what is commonly perceived as “good taste”, while the former outweighs the latter when considering what is commonly perceived as “selling records”. The Charm City Devils aren’t nearly as bland as Nickelback can be, but seeing that I used the word “Audioslave” in such a description is probably more than you need to know to correctly begin to formulate exactly what they sound like in your head. Besides, like I said: What would you really expect a band called the “Charm City Devils” to sound like, anyways? John Mayer?

While listening to the record for review, however, it was hard not to be reminded of one thing in particular that has since been almost entirely disregarded over the course of the last ten years: Alternative Rock Radio. Or, well, maybe I should rephrase that: Alternative Rock on Terrestrial Radio. 

Remember that? Back in the days when Bill Clinton was the President of the United States of America and massive rock radio festivals were all the rage, alternative radio stations used to be the coolest thing since cassette bootlegs of live concerts. Nickelback was just another Canadian rock band that hadn’t yet explained how anyone reminds anyone of anyone else, Stone Temple Pilots decided they wanted to sound like the Beatles for approximately 52 seconds (a la their Tiny Music era), Creed packed arenas and amphitheaters around the globe and Everclear still had credibility. 

My, how things have changed. 

But have they changed for the better? Sure, we can all agree that the world didn’t and doesn’t need nearly as many lead singers who love posing while stepping onto a floor monitor, but regardless of how much a lot of the bands that dominated that era are currently either despised or laughed at (or both), that particular moment in musical time also featured some of the final days rock stardom was allowed to exist. Artists weren’t nearly as accessible or available as they are, now.

The mystique of being in a band radiated off these types of groups like the sun does off a car’s windshield. It was an event to hear an in-studio acoustic performance of the latest Foo Fighters song, and those festivals I mentioned a few paragraphs before? Those drew tens of thousands of people at their peak. Stadiums were packed with dudes who liked to spend their afternoons pushing other dudes in mosh pits and women who loved watching dudes push other dudes in mosh pits. And these weren’t club-sized crowds, either. These gatherings sometimes even eclipsed a six-figure population. 

These days, such is impossible to occur. Why? Well, for a plethora of reasons, really. The Internet has clearly brought the terrestrial radio world to a near paralytic state. Whether it’s Pandora or Spotify or satellite radio, the art of switching your car’s dial for a string of coveted-to-hear songs is now as ancient and ignored as print media or daytime game shows. And, of course, the invention of MP3 players — anything from an iPod to, well, whatever a knockoff iPod is — has allowed listeners to have thousands of songs they know they’ll more than likely always want to hear at their fingertips, for use whenever they please. Giving the consumer complete control over whatever it is they want to hear, without having to sit through the third time you’ve heard Alice In Chains’ “Man In A Box” over the course of two days, is unarguably the preferable option when considering music consumption. 

Me? I tend to point my finger to the often-ignored element: Fear. 

Mainstream alternative rock radio stations are scared to help create new artists. Think about it — how many times do you turn on your local rock radio station, only to hear a Pearl Jam single from 1995 or one of the few hits such forgotten bands as Filter or Fuel managed to squeeze out more than a decade ago? The answer is a lot, and these days the willingness to help promote both new and old artists’ latest recordings is diminishing by the second. In fact, with the exception of Fun, or Gotye, how many new artists are you exposed to within a five hour span of listening to modern rock radio?

A quick look at Billboard‘s rock chart reveals that of the top ten songs on rock radio today, two of them are from the two artists I just mentioned, four are from established groups that radio stations will continue to play no matter what (Foo Fighters, Linkin Park, Shinedown and Soundgarden), one is from the Black Keys (which is admittedly the one exception to this argument, anyways, with their massive success in recent years), and a mere three are from acts that might actually fit into what rock/alternative radio should be trying to promote while looking forward with an expansive eye (M83, Grouplove and Of Monsters And Men). That’s 30 percent of the ten most played rock songs in America. 

The problem resonates much further than selling records and establishing new artists, too. Just last week, WFNX 101.7 FM laid off the bulk of its employees after being one of the most influential rock stations in the Boston area (they were one of the first East Coast stations to catch on to Green Day, 6,000 years ago). It was yet another casualty of the Clear Channel monster that has yet to indicate what type of format the station will take on.

“This is the disappearance of the last independently owned major commercial station in the heart of the Boston market”, NorthEast Radio Watch’s editor, Scott Fybush, told the Boston Globe. “What gets lost is a separate voice — a voice for college kids, a voice for independent music”. (“Sale, layoffs rock alternative radio station”, by Sarah Rodman and D.C. Denison, 16 May 2012)

Such a misfortune isn’t even close to being new, either. As Slate‘s Christine Pawlak wrote in November of last year, the art of rock radio has been in trouble for years, now. 

“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)”, she wrote in a first-hand account of what it was like to be an alternative radio DJ. “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.

“… 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”, she continued. “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”. (“We Won’t Rock You”, 15 November 2011)

Precisely. “Given rock music a chance” is the operative phrase. My fear is that the combination of radio stations’ insistence upon refusing to break new artists with a slew of programmers who have proven to be abnormally willing to sell their stations (thus, all but forcing a change in format) will ultimately deem the medium extinct. In short, the people who decide what music goes on the air — and when it goes on the air — will essentially slowly but surely bleed out an industry that has spent the last few years doing its best to be forgotten, anyways.

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time around the band Eve 6, a group who was able to capitalize on the glory days of alternative rock terrestrial radio with such hits as “Inside Out” and “Here’s To The Night”. Jon Siebels, the band’s guitar player, summed up the problems of modern day rock radio best when I asked him how well his band’s latest effort, Speak In Code, did during its first week on stores’ shelves.

“It’s doing great”, he told me. “We did about 10,000 in the first week”.

Wait. What? 10,000 in a week is “great” by today’s standards?!

Actually, it is. We all know that artists don’t sell records like they used to anymore, and being able to come out of the gate after nearly a decade away from the industry, selling 10,000 records in its first week is respectable. Actually, it’s a bit impressive, if you consider how much stations refuse to play the band’s latest single off the new record, “Victoria”, while opting for the more popular “Inside Out” with a quick follow up stating that “the guys have a new record out”.

Perhaps what’s more telling, though, is what Siebels told me when I asked him about the Summerland tour set to take place within the coming months. The trek is set to feature Everclear, Sugar Ray, Lit, Gin Blossoms and Marcy Playground and so far, it’s slated to reach mid-sized venues across America, without any indication that bigger rooms or other countries are on the tour’s agenda. “We were asked to do that”, he told me. “But we decided not to. We just want to be out here, playing new music. We don’t really want to be part of some nostalgia package”.

His words struck me if only because of how poignant they felt. The Summerland tour is almost entirely indicative of why modern day alternative rock radio is currently in shambles. Everyone — including the artists themselves — are so easy to submit to the notion that they might never have a hit as successful as the one (or ones) they had years ago. They simply just go where the money goes. They go for what they think fans want to see and hear.

The same narrative applies to today’s terrestrial radio. Programmers think we want to hear “Everlong” six times a day, and even though we can all admit that’s one of the great Foo Fighters songs ever created, such is not a healthy practice for an industry in the midst of what might be a slow and certain death, should nobody stand up and begin thinking outside of the box, giving other, newer acts a try, and even mixing in some of the other, newer singles from the bands most rock radio stations continue to play, anyways.

Listening to the Charm City Devils’ Sins was the single most abrupt illustration of exactly how far terrestrial radio has fallen. Ten years ago, those guys would have fit in perfectly alongside Sevendust or Velvet Revolver. These days, they don’t even have a chance at getting a song played on the same type of radio stations that once would have salivated at such a sound from a brand new act. Sure, that type of sound might not be completely fashionable anymore, and yes, I admit that these are the exact type of bands that are the butt of almost any musical joke uttered today directed at what’s good and what’s not.

But hate it or love it, one thing is certain: These types of artists need to exist in order for the ebb and flow of popular music to maintain itself. And maybe even more importantly, these type of artists deserve to have rock radio backing them in every way possible, considering how tough it is to sell records these days. Spending too much time celebrating the past will almost always result in a fairly dim future and if the people behind some of the last terrestrial alternative radio stations standing don’t figure that out soon, I shudder to think of how quickly the medium may disappear.