Editorial: Active Hits That Really Rock, And the Alternative

Sean Ross webBy: Sean Ross
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Twitter: @RossOnRadio

If you’ve been watching the monitors of Active Rock stations, it’s no secret that they have grown more gold-based over the years. And, that the nature of the gold has evolved as well. It started with playing a little more AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. Then PDs decided that Jimi Hendrix was timeless. Then they decided that maybe Van Halen was still relevant. Now, a lot more mainstream Classic Rock is fair game—“We Will Rock You,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” even “More Than A Feeling.”

Active Rock was digging into Classic Rock by necessity. In the early 2000s, the current rock world was essentially one guitar-driven entity with two different charts. As Alternative radio moved back to the indie side, the existing harder currents that lived primarily at Active Rock no longer had the same sort of lateral support. Even the biggest Volbeat and Avenged Sevenfold current titles rarely survived to become long-term library titles. Disturbed’s high-concept cover of “The Sounds of Silence,” currently the format’s No. 1 song, will probably continue to test, thanks to its familiar hook, but it’s not a solution for the format, it’s a stunt (albeit an appealing one).

Existing Active Rock stations have had to try and finesse all these disparate pieces. Alternative stations famously found themselves unable to go “from Tool to Jewel” in the mid-‘90s, something that drove Active and Alternative Rock together. Now, Active rock stations have to figure out how to go from Hendrix to Halestorm.

The last few years have seen a handful of launches of library-based hard(ish)-rocking stations that don’t sweat the issue of recent music. They play harder classic rock, but they’re not just “Classic Rock that Really Rocks” because they play grunge, they can play Linkin Park, and they can play the handful of alternative ‘00s titles with guitars (e.g., “Seven Nation Army”). The iHeart Media “Man Up” stations, often translator-driven flanker stations, of recent years worked this territory.

Then, there was KFMB-FM San Diego, which launched early this year. The new “KFM-BFM” ticks all of the above boxes, and, because it’s San Diego, a heritage Alternative market. And, there’s no traditional Adult Hits station, they also play Soft Cell and Stray Cats. And, they played “Hate To Say I Told You So” by the Hives four times last week. Although KFM-BFM actually dropped the “Jack-FM” handle, think of the current format as “Active Jack That Really Rocks.”

Since I profiled it earlier this year, KFMB-FM has gotten fast traction, up 2.9 – 3.4 – 3.8 in its first two PPM monthlies. A few weeks ago, Seattle got a similar station, KVRQ (Rock 98.9). The new station doesn’t have San Diego’s pop/new wave component, but it does span the Doors through Linkin Park. In doing so, they’ve parked between heritage rocker KISW and Classic Rock KZOK.

I’m also a fan of KZTI (Z105.3) Reno, Nev., launched last September with its own version of harder classic rock. KZTI covers a similar era span, but it goes a little deeper into earlier generations of metal. I’ve always loved UFO’s “Too Hot to Handle,” but I’ve never heard it on the radio until Z105.3. And that song is from 1977.

Here’s a recent hour of KZTI from the station’s Website:

Rainbow, “Street of Dreams”
Ozzy Osbourne, “Shot in the Dark”
Sammy Hagar, “I’ll Fall In Love Again”
Skid Row, “I Remember You”
Foghat, “Fool for the City”
Soundgarden, “Spoonman”
Def Leppard, “Animal”
Creed, “Torn”
Judas Priest, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”
Smashing Pumpkins, “Cherub Rock”
Black Sabbath, “Fairies Wear Boots”
Warrant, “Cherry Pie”
AC/DC, “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”
Whitesnake, “Still of the Night”
Staind, “Mudshovel”

San Diego and Seattle will almost certainly not be the last launches of this type. And the impact of a gold-based format will probably be felt on those Active Rock stations that still play currents. A few Active Rock PDs might see this as an opportunity to stop worrying about Bad Company and embrace “Bat Country.” More likely, PDs are already shoring up their gold libraries as a pre-emptive strike. And if you need to be told that “Bat Country” was Avenged Sevenfold’s breakthrough song, well, that’s why.

If there’s another way forward for Active Rock, it seems to lie in what made the format successful a little more than a decade ago. Until the White Stripes, Strokes, and Killers set Alternative off on a path of its own, the two formats were both guitar-based and differed largely in reporting status. Active Rock played early grunge before many markets even had a significant Alternative station. Now a lot of the harder grunge is defaulting to Active Rock. But even “Loser” by Beck has been a playable record for Active Rock for a while.

In other words, Active Rock’s franchise could be as the continuation of guitar-based Alternative. That was the successful formula for stations like KTBZ (the Buzz) Houston in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, but the Buzz has experienced a ratings resurgence over the last year by rocking harder again. It’s still an Alternative reporter. The Lumineers, and Coldplay are still heard. But so are recent songs from Shinedown, Deftones, and Disturbed. Similarly, Cumulus’ Active Rock stations are taking more music from Alternative these days—Cold War Kids and Twenty One Pilots’ “Ride” most notably.

The late ‘90s paradigm in which most current-based stations were playing Active Rock, but reporting to the Alternative Rock chart (with its greater prestige) wasn’t entirely satisfying for listeners or PDs on either side. Alternative PDs got into the format to play the Smiths, not Trapt, and when the two formats diverged, both sides tended to default to the music that set them as far apart from each other as possible. And yet, when the two formats were more closely synched, the lateral exposure helped keep rock music more entrenched in the mainstream.

The ideal situation this time would be just enough overlap for two successful formats to exist, and for multi-format hits to emerge. There’s not a ton of music for Active to take from Alternative now, but we have certainly seen bands like Black Keys or Cage the Elephant, rooted in traditional rock but worked to Alternative first. AWOLNATION’s “Sail” initially seemed like a stretch to some Active Rock stations. But by the time they came to grips with it, Active Rock bands were already making songs that sounded like “Sail.”

I’ve really enjoyed the new handful of harder-rocking Classic Rock stations, particularly KZTI with its extra “oh-wow” factor. But it’s not where I want to see today’s rock radio end. In the late ‘80s, the rise of Classic Rock left existing “Album Rock” stations unsure how to react. Some became Classic Rock stations. Some found a path forward, once they were nudged.

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