Music: Sealing the Tomb on Classic Rock

by Rick Rockwell

It’s not every day that a major rock station dies. So this response is warranted.

But it’s also not news to anyone that the Classic Rock radio format is dead. The death of WTBG-FM (broadcasting to the Washington, D.C. metro area), which billed itself as Classic Rock 94.7, just confirms this sad state of affairs.

There are many reasons why WTBG died. But the most obvious culprits are the big bosses who run corporate media. WTBG is owned by CBS, one of the corporate media behemoths. Corporate radio created the classic rock format in the 1980s as a way to market and control the underground and independent sounds that flourished on FM radio in the 1960s and 1970s. After a generation, the slow strangulation of creativity has finally reached its ultimate end. Many observers predicted this would happen long ago (as the former programmer of an independent FM rock station in the 1970s, this author included).

The death of WTBG is actually the final chapter in the death of WHFS, another rock station that changed formats in 2005. (WHFS became a Latin music station, and WTBG will now be called 94.7 Fresh FM playing pop; basically a Top 40 station.) WHFS was one of the legendary FM stations on the east coast. Not as important to underground FM as WXRT in Chicago or KSHE in St. Louis, but certainly of note. The suits at CBS moved some of the disc jockey refugees from WHFS to WTBG after that format change. But since 2005, WTBG has had three different classic rock formats and three different names (it was the Arrow, which became the Globe, which became Classic Rock 94.7).

Again, this is an example of the worst of corporate radio: if it doesn’t work, slap a new label on it.

This also confronts the fact that audiences hate change. Corporate bosses constantly try quick change fixes but such approaches rarely succeed in the long run. WTBG's audience was never sure in the past four years what it was going to get.

For a short time (less than a year) the station billed as the Globe tried a format mixing classic rock with alternative sounds from the 1980s and 1990s, plus some newer material. During that spell, the station was more creative than ever, and actually had a chance at reviving what little there is on the local airwaves that can really be called FM rock. But the audience did not respond quickly enough to the changes and the format shifted back to the stultifying sounds of the classic rock format.

Here is what is wrong with that format: it assumes that only songs that focus groups approve should be played. In essence, if the song was sung after the 1980s, it rarely has a chance on the classic rock format. And the same playlist gets used from Washington, D.C. to Seattle, Washington. This eliminates regional favorites. This eliminates new songs by the very artists the format supposedly celebrates. (For instance, the Rolling Stones are a staple of this format, but does any of their material from after 1990 get played?) This is not a new complaint. But if you aren’t playing new material (and creatively mixing it with older material) then by definition the format is hermetically sealed and stale to boot.

This year, Neil Young (a staple of classic rock too) and Bob Dylan (also a classic rock icon) will both release new records. They both have great new singles out now. This author challenges anyone to see if any classic rock station in America is playing those new songs.

If they are, then maybe there’s hope. But likely not.

Why then have people turned to satellite radio, or iPods, or podcasts to get the best rock? The obvious answer is radio stopped giving the music we need a long time ago.

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Rick Rockwell said...

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