Everything You Wanted to Know About Radio Formats but Were Afraid to Ask
One way to differentiate all the various radio formats is by examining their listener demographics and musical accessibility. If you plot the different formats on a graph, they’d fall into one of four quadrants. These are just generalizations for the entire U.S.; in Nashville, for instance, country music would be considered very mainstream.
|Adult/Mainstream||Adult contemporary, adult R&B, adult top 40|
|Adult/Alternative||Contemporary jazz, country, triple-A rock|
|Young/Mainstream||Mainstream rock, mainstream top 40|
|Young/Alternative||Dance, modern rock, rhythmic top 40, R&B/hip-hop|
Another way to compare radio formats is by checking what musical genres they will and will not accept.
|Mainstream top 40||Yes||Yes||Limited||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Rhythmic top 40||Limited||Yes||Limited||No||Yes||No||No|
|Adult top 40||Yes||No||No||Yes||Limited||No||No|
What is acceptable at a particular radio format changes over time. During the 1960s and ’70s, top 40 radio played equal parts pop, R&B, and rock, adding country and jazz periodically. Modern rock radio was much more inclusive in the 1980s than it is today. There is one type of music that’s not reflected on official playlists: dance tracks get on the air through the back door. Although dance music has not recovered--and may never recover--from the backlash in the early 1980s, weekly and daily mix shows have become a staple at top 40 radio and other formats since the late 1990s.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a list of artists may be the simplest way to illustrate a radio format. Below are definitions of typical radio formats by use of examples from last year. Note that some radio stations’ playlists don’t fit neatly into one specific format. Other stations come up with a hybrid of two or more genres. And some music programmers would steer clear of songs deemed “inappropriate” for their markets.
AC is adult contemporary; CHR stands for contemporary hit radio, a less common term that basically means top 40. Mainstream rock is divided into active rock and heritage rock, the latter playing heritage artists such as The Rolling Stones. Triple-A is adult alternative album. Latin pop encompasses top 40, adult contemporary, rock—in essence a hits-oriented format that’s not primarily tropical or regional Mexican.
Radio Formats (Non-Oldies and Non-Classical) Format (Alternate Name) Airplay/Sales Core Artists*
All-genre airplay Justin Bieber, Twenty One Pilots, Drake, Adele, Rihanna, The Chainsmokers, Shawn Mendes, The Weeknd, Justin Timberlake, Selena Gomez, Mike Posner, Ariana Grande, DNCE, Daya, Sia, Alessia Cara, Lukas Graham, Meghan Trainor, Pink, Calvin Harris All-genre sales Justin Bieber, Drake, Twenty One Pilots, Adele, The Chainsmokers, Prince, Meghan Trainor, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Flo Rida, Justin Timberlake, Lukas Graham, The Weeknd, Shawn Mendes, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Charlie Puth, Daya, Florida Georgia Line, DNCE All-genre streaming Drake, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Twenty One Pilots, Desiigner, The Chainsmokers, The Weeknd, Bryson Tiller, Future, Adele, Ariana Grande, Fetty Wap, Kevin Gates, Shawn Mendes, Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, Lukas Graham, Mike Posner, Zayn, Meghan Trainor Mainstream top 40 (CHR/pop) airplay Justin Bieber, Twenty One Pilots, The Chainsmokers, Selena Gomez, Adele, Drake, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, Daya, Alessia Cara Rhythmic top 40 (CHR/rhythm) airplay Drake, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Tory Lanez, The Chainsmokers, Fetty Wap, DJ Khaled, Jeremih, Ariana Grande Adult top 40 (hot AC) airplay Adele, Twenty One Pilots, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Justin Timberlake, Pink, X Ambassadors, Charlie Puth, Lukas Graham, Ellie Goulding Dance airplay** The Chainsmokers, Justin Bieber, Calvin Harris, Twenty One Pilots, Major Lazer, Drake, Rihanna, Mike Posner, Selena Gomez, Adele Teen pop airplay Taylor Swift, Fifth Harmony, Sabrina Carpenter, Nick Jonas, R5, Meghan Trainor, One Direction, Fall out Boy, Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes  R&B/hip-hop (urban) airplay [mainstream + adult] --- Mainstream R&B/hip-hop (urban) airplay Drake, Rihanna, Bryson Tiller, Tory Lanez, Beyoncé, Chris Brown, Future, Jeremih, The Weeknd, DJ Khaled Adult R&B (urban AC) airplay Maxwell, Lalah Hathaway, Tyrese, Ro James, Guordan Banks, Anthony Hamilton, Janet Jackson, Jill Scott, Keith Sweat, After 7 Country airplay Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Thomas Rhett, Tim McGraw, Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Cole Swindell, Kelsea Ballerini Bluegrass albums sales Dwight Yoakam, Bradley Walker, Sarah Jarosz, Punch Brothers, The Steeldrivers Rock airplay [mainstream + alternative + triple-A] Twenty One Pilots, Cage the Elephant, The Lumineers, Cold War Kids, Kaleo, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay, Blink-182, X Ambassadors, The Strumbellas Mainstream rock airplay [active + heritage] Disturbed, Shinedown, Five Finger Death Punch, Pop Evil, Volbeat, Ghost, 3 Doors Down, Red Sun Rising, Bring Me the Horizon, Red Hot Chili Peppers Active rock airplay --- Heritage rock airplay --- Modern rock (alternative) airplay Twenty One Pilots, Cage the Elephant, The Lumineers, Kaleo, X Ambassadors, Blink-182, The Strumbellas, Coldplay, Cold War Kids, Nothing but Thieves Triple-A rock airplay The Lumineers, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Adele, Cage the Elephant, Coldplay, The Record Company, Leon Bridges, The Head and The Heart, The Revivalists, Red Hot Chili Peppers Adult contemporary airplay Adele, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Charlie Puth, Elle King, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Platten, Pink, Meghan Trainor Dance club play Rihanna, Adele, Coldplay, Justin Bieber, Disclosure, Calvin Harris, The Chainsmokers, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Dave Aude, Stonebridge, Jonas Blue, Nervo, Pet Shop Boys, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Troye Sivan, Empire of the Sun, Tori Kelly, Sia Electronic albums sales Lindsey Stirling, The Chainsmokers, Flume, Alina Baraz & Galimatias, Kygo, Major Lazer, Disclosure, James Blake, Bassnectar, Kaytranada Latin (Spanish) airplay [pop + rhythm + regional Mexican + tropical] Nicky Jam, J Balvin, Yandel, Banda Sinaloense MS de Sergio Lizarraga, Prince Royce, Maluma, La Arrolladora Banda el Limon de Rene Camacho, Farruko, Enrique Iglesias, Zion & Lennox Latin pop (Spanish contemporary) airplay Nicky Jam, J Balvin, Prince Royce, Maluma, Yandel, Daddy Yankee, Farruko, Enrique Iglesias, Zion & Lennox, Wisin Latin rhythm (Spanish urban) airplay Tito el Bambino, Daddy Yankee, Plan B, Farruko, Nicky Jam, Zion & Lennox, Yandel, Cosculluela, J. Alvarez, De la Ghetto  Regional Mexican airplay Banda Sinaloense MS de Sergio Lizarraga, La Arrolladora Banda el Limon de Rene Camacho, Gerardo Ortiz, Calibre 50, Banda los Recoditos, La Septima Banda, Remmy Valenzuela, La Adictiva Banda San Jose de Mesillas, Regulo Caro, Banda el Recodo de Cruz Lizarraga Tropical airplay Prince Royce, Nicky Jam, J Balvin, Daddy Yankee, Yandel, Tito "El Bambino" el Patron, Gente de Zona, Farruko, Maluma, Victor Manuelle Latin rock (Spanish rock) airplay --- Christian airplay [adult contemporary + top 40 + rock + inspirational] For King & Country, Jeremy Camp, Lauren Daigle, Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin, Matthew West, Jordan Feliz, Danny Gokey, Big Daddy Weave, Jonny Diaz Christian adult contemporary airplay --- Christian top 40 (Christian CHR) airplay --- Christian rock airplay --- Christian inspirational airplay --- Gospel airplay Kirk Franklin, Travis Greene, Anthony Brown & Group Therapy, Tasha Cobbs, Hezekiah Walker, Jekalyn Carr, Todd Dulaney, Marvin Sapp, Brian Courtney Wilson, Casey J Contemporary jazz (smooth jazz) airplay Lindsey Webster, Fourplay, Chris Standring, Jeff Lorber, Nick Colionne, 3rd Force, Euge Groove, BWB, Vincent Ingala, Julian Vaughn Jazz albums sales Frank Sinatra, Norah Jones, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Joey Alexander, Willie Nelson, Kamasi Washington, Gregory Porter, Kristin Chenoweth, Esperanza Spalding Folk albums sales Chris Stapleton, The Lumineers, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, James Bay, Sturgill Simpson, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, The Avett Brothers, Hozier New age albums sales Enya, The Piano Guys, Mannheim Steamroller, Armik, Yanni, Jim Brickman, Paul Cardall, Asian Meditation Music Collective, Brady Bills, Vangelis World music albums sales Celtic Thunder, Celtic Woman, Mumford & Sons, Babymetal, BTS, Got7, The Silk Road Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma, Baaba Maal, We Banjo 3 Reggae albums sales Rebelution, Stick Figure, Ziggy Marley, Stephen Marley, Joss Stone, Jah Cure, Iration, J Boog, The Frightnrs, Vybz Kartel Blues albums sales Joe Bonamassa, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons, Melissa Etheridge, Buddy Guy, Harper and Midwest Kind, The Rides
* Based on U.S. radio airplay and record sales rankings from Billboard and Mediabase.
** Since Billboard expanded its dance radio panel in November 2011, you should visit our Dance Radio Post for a more accurate survey of dance airplay.
Even the casual observer would notice two anomalies regarding today’s radio formats: 1) the mainstream rock and modern rock playlists are virtually identical and 2) the rhythmic top 40 format is actually closer to R&B/hip-hop than mainstream top 40. So why does the radio industry bother to differentiate modern rock or alternative from mainstream rock? And shouldn’t rhythmic top 40 radio stations be part of the R&B/hip-hop panel? The answer to both questions is history.
When the modern rock format--or its new wave predecessor--began in the 1980s, its playlist was almost completely different from mainstream rock (that was its raison d’etre originally). But since the early 1990s, both formats have showcased the same harder-rocking artists (see The Death of Modern Rock below). There was a bit of divergence in 2012, which may turn out to be a temporary exception.
Partly for survival reasons and partly as a response to changing demographics, the top 40 format went through a period of fragmentation in the 1990s (more like segregation). “Alternative” top 40 stations made room for more R&B or dance-oriented tracks than mainstream top 40 stations at the time. Today’s rhythmic top 40 playlist favors hip-hop because it is the most popular musical genre among teens.
Health of a Format
The radio industry likes to examine the state of a format by checking its ratings. For example, are more people listening to mainstream top 40 radio today than a year ago? We’re interested in the health of a format in a different way. What does a playlist’s turnover rate say about the format? Record companies prefer that radio stations play a song long enough before phasing it out. Listeners often complain that stations play the same records over and over and are slow to add new music. Conventional wisdom suggests that if a playlist is loaded with songs that have been around for months, it doesn’t bode well for the format.
A look at the top 20 positions on each Billboard airplay chart for the week of June 24, 2006, reveals no real surprises (see table). Adult contemporary, long sounding like a gold-oriented format, is indeed quite static. A song in AC’s top 20 has been around for an average of 24 weeks (that’s close to half a year!). Country and other adult-leaning formats such as adult top 40 and adult R&B are almost as slow moving. Unlike more established formats, dance has a very small panel (only nine stations) and relatively small chart size, two factors that lead to a more dynamic format on paper.
Radio Airplay Pulse Check Format Avg. Weeks on for a Song in Top 20 Panel Size Dance 9.80 9 Triple-A rock 11.45 22 R&B/hip-hop 11.80 85 Rhythmic top 40 12.90 64 Mainstream top 40 13.00 119 Modern rock 13.90 75 Active rock 14.55 60 Heritage rock 18.00 38 Adult R&B 18.00 65 Adult top 40 18.25 76 Contemporary jazz 19.40 27 Country 19.70 131 Christian AC 20.20 50 Adult contemporary 23.95 82 Gospel 25.85 38
An extremely low turnover of songs on the radio is probably mixed blessings to record companies. While popular hits remain on the air for a long time, it doesn’t leave much room for new music. And with the exception of country radio, stations in general don’t consistently move on to an artist’s next single.
Is it possible that AC’s playlist is so static because the supply of new AC music is limited? Supply may be an issue for a niche genre like the blues or bluegrass. But we doubt it’s a problem for any of the more mainstream formats. There’s no shortage of country artists, and yet country’s turnover is almost as low as AC’s.
So if you find your radio station lacking a pulse these days, you’re not imagining it.
The Death of Modern Rock: The Birth of Modern Pop?
This obituary is at least seven years late. Still, it’s worth writing because no one has pointed out that the emperor has no clothes. The modern rock format has been dead since the mid-1990s. It’s a travesty to call something modern or alternative when it’s neither. Some people might be quick to place the blame on Kurt Cobain (more on that later).
To understand the genesis of modern rock, you have to go back to the radio landscape of the early 1980s. Top 40 was still going strong after 25 years; the album-oriented rock format was settling into a new decade. Punk rock had taken Britain by storm in the mid-1970s with the Sex Pistols and fellow U.K. bands (though American Lou Reed would later be called the godfather of punk rock). The punk movement was largely ignored by U.S. radio. The most popular rock artists of 1981 were The Who, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, AC/DC, Journey, The Moody Blues, Billy Squier, Rush, The Rolling Stones, Styx, Pat Benatar, and Foreigner.
In 1982, KROQ Los Angeles envisioned an alternative to mainstream rock stations and developed a format that was a reaction to the rock status quo, a protest against “stadium rock.” Whether by design or not, what KROQ had conceived served a niche between top 40 and rock radio; modern rock (it was simply called “rock of the ’80s” at first) became the home to artists who were too different and edgy for top 40 but not conventional and head-banging enough for rock. The biggest modern rock acts of the 1980s—Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths, and New Order—fit that space perfectly. And 1970s punk bands became instant modern rock heritage artists (for example, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Damned, The Police, Adam & The Ants, Boomtown Rats, Generation X/Billy Idol, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Ramones, and The Cars).
Most people associate early modern rock radio with the new wave music fueled by the British synth-pop invasion. While it’s true modern rock stations welcomed acts such as Soft Cell, The Human League, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, and Yaz, they also played Prince, Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel, Grace Jones, The English Beat, Stray Cats, R.E.M., Violent Femmes, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, and Talking Heads. The modern rock format was as diverse and open as top 40 was in its hey day. It even had a dance beat, an amazing feat considering the disco backlash of the early 1980s. Straight-ahead rock bands like U2, The Replacements, The Smithereens, and Wire Train became staples as well.
Modern rock’s core listeners were people who had outgrown top 40 and were a little tired of traditional rock radio’s monotony. There was very little overlap between modern rock and mainstream rock markets; people who listened to mainstream rock stations didn’t care much for modern rock radio and vice versa.
Things began to change when Nirvana’s major-label debut album hit No. 1 in 1992. Naturally, Kurt Cobain’s band broke first at modern rock. Then grunge rock became the flavor of the month, and it was the type of music mainstream rock radio could rally behind. Yet there was a big difference between Nirvana’s sound and all the other groups that were lumped into the same genre: You could hear the punk rock sensibilities on Nirvana records but not on others. Indeed, as Cobain wrote in a journal published posthumously in 2002, Nirvana played “heavy rock with punk overtones.”
Modern rock’s first mistake was embracing all the grunge bands whose sound was the very thing the format revolted against 10 years earlier. Modern rock stations would later add nu-metal to their playlists (nu-metal is still heavy metal), something no self-respecting modern rock programmer would have done in the 1980s. As modern rock radio started to abandon its original mission and favor harder-rocking records to the exclusion of everything else, it became almost too easy for mainstream rock stations to modify their playlists slightly and call themselves modern rock—that’s exactly what they did during the mid-1990s. The table below shows how the two rock formats converged over the years.
Mainstream Rock/Modern Rock Playlist Comparison Snapshots Time Line Estimated No. of Identical Tracks* Milestones March 1981 N/A Billboard publishes Rock Top Tracks chart March 1982 5/30 or 17 % The Go-Go’s “Beauty and the Beat” hits No. 1
(KROQ becomes first modern rock station in 1982)
April 1987 6/30 or 20 % U2’s “The Joshua Tree” hits No. 1 September 1988 2/30 or 7 % Billboard publishes Modern Rock Tracks chart May 1991 1/30 or 3 % R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” hits No. 1 January 1992 2/30 or 7 % Nirvana’s “Nevermind” hits No. 1 November 1993 4/30 or 13 % Pearl Jam’s “Vs.” hits No. 1 December 1994 12/40 or 30 % Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy” hits No. 1 December 1996 21/40 or 53 % No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” hits No. 1 November 2000 24/40 or 60 % Limp Bizkit’s “Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water” hits No. 1 April 2003 26/40 or 65 % Linkin Park’s “Meteora” hits No. 1
* Based in part on Billboard’s weekly charts.
As you can see from the above table, traditional and modern rock playlists rarely had more than 20 percent in common until 1994. Soon the two formats became practically identical—consistently sharing over 50 percent of the playlists. By April 2003, that number had reached at least 65 percent.
The fact that it took Madison Avenue to introduce Dirty Vegas and Telepopmusik to the U.S. is a sad comment on radio in general and modern rock radio in particular. During the 1980s, modern rock stations would have broken these acts first. Despite the boost from the Mitsubishi commercials, they received virtually no support from modern rock stations in 2002. (Mitsubishi revived The Wiseguys’ “Start the Commotion” in 2001.)
So what if modern rock radio had never strayed and become essentially indistinguishable from mainstream rock? What would a true modern rock station have sounded like in 2002? Let’s imagine a new format called modern pop and proceed with this game of what-if. Using the actual modern rock format’s 2002 playlist as a baseline, we first remove artists who are more at home at mainstream rock radio. Obvious rejects include metal acts (nu-metal or rap metal) like Godsmack and Linkin Park and traditional rock bands like Nickelback and 3 Doors Down. Here’s an easy litmus test: Does a song sound more like AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses than the Sex Pistols and Nirvana? If so, it should probably go.
Some listeners may recall modern rock radio playing semi-metal acts like Nine Inch Nails and Faith No More in the past. It was fine to play them when that was all the metal music you heard on modern rock. With metal music dominating the mainstream rock format (where it has always been popular), modern rock would be wise to avoid it today. Why destroy your format’s identity by sounding so much like another?
2002 Modern Pop Playlist (Part 1) Triage Artists Artists to keep Alien Ant Farm, The All-American Rejects, Bad Religion, Basement Jaxx, Blink-182, Bowling for Soup, Box Car Racer, Coldplay, Crazy Town, Custom, Dashboard Confessional, The Donnas, Eminem, Filter, Foo Fighters, Good Charlotte, Gorillaz, The Hives, Jimmy Eat World, Jack Johnson, Lifehouse, Dave Matthews Band, Moby, N*E*R*D, New Found Glory, Nirvana, The Offspring, Ok Go, Puddle of Mudd, Quarashi, Queens of the Stone Age, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Remy Zero, Gavin Rossdale, SR-71, The Strokes, Sugarcult, Sum 41, 311, Trik Turner, Unwritten Law, U2, The Vines, Weezer, The White Stripes, The X-Ecutioners, Pete Yorn, Zwan Artists to skip Adema, Audioslave, Audiovent, Chevelle, Course of Nature, Creed, Default, Disturbed, Earshot, The Exies, Godsmack, Incubus, KoRn, Chad Kroeger, Linkin Park, Lit, Marilyn Manson, Nickelback, Our Lady Peace, Pearl Jam, P.O.D., Saliva, Seether, Staind, Stone Sour, System of a Down, Tantric, Taproot, 3 Doors Down, Tool, TRUSTcompany, The Used, Rob Zombie
Now that we’ve cleaned house, we can add artists who truly fit the niche between top 40 and mainstream rock, including genre-bending acts like Morcheeba and Thievery Corporation and such nu-electro artists as Ladytron, Miss Kittin, and Fischerspooner. We can also incorporate modern rock heritage artists like Elvis Costello, New Order, and Beck. You’d never know it from listening to modern rock radio, but these veteran acts all released records in 2002. A diligent modern rock programmer should have been able to find at least one radio hit from each of these albums.
Interestingly, you can hear the latest records from some 1980s modern rock acts on adult top 40 and triple-A stations these days. While modern rock radio ignores its 1980s roots, adult top 40 stations have begun to play 1980s hits by the likes of Depeche Mode, New Order, and Violent Femmes. Adult top 40 positioned itself between adult contemporary and top 40 initially; it might end up where modern rock used to be—midway between top 40 and mainstream rock.
2002 Modern Pop Playlist (Part 2) Adds Artists New and developing artists Abandoned Pool, Dot Allison, Aphrodite, The Avalanches, Badly Drawn Boy, Daniel Bedingfield, Sophie Ellis Bextor, Casero, Cassius, Cirrus, Conjure One, Ferry Corsten, Craig David, Dax Riders, DB Boulevard, Dido, John Digweed, Dirty Vegas, DJ Shadow, Echoboy, FC Kahuna, Felix da Housecat, Fischerspooner, Five for Fighting, Freestylers, Frou Frou, Golden Boy With Miss Kittin, GusGus, iio, Interpol, Kosheen, Ladytron, Lasgo, Layo & Bushwacka!, Lo Fidelity Allstars, Timo Maas, Mars, M-Factor, Miguel Migs, Miss Kitten & The Hacker, Morcheeba, Morel, Mystre & Dyloot, Narcotic Thrust, Thomas Newman, Nightmares on Wax, Oakenfold, Sean Paul, Playgroup, PPK, Elvis Presley vs. JXL, Project Medusa, Puretone, Rjd2, Royksopp, Sasha, Schiller, Static Revenger, The Streets, Supreme Beings of Leisure, Swayzak, Tall Paul, Telepopmusik, Tenacious D, T.H.E.M. (Thee Human Ego Maniacs), Travis, Jurgen Vries, Who da Funk, X-Press 2, Zero 7 Established artists Tori Amos, Daniel Ash, Richard Ashcroft, Beck, Belle and Sebastian, Berlin, Bjork, David Bowie, The Chemical Brothers, Elvis Costello, Cracker, Daft Punk, Deep Forest, Delerium, Depeche Mode, Enya, Marianne Faithfull, Faithless, Fatboy Slim/Mighty Dub Katz, Bryan Ferry, Neil Finn & Friends, Peter Gabriel, Garbage, Groove Armada, Chris Isaak, Jam & Spoon, Jamiroquai, Jars of Clay, Wyclef Jean, Mark Knopfler, Los Lobos, Midnight Oil, The Mission U.K., Alanis Morissette, Alison Moyet, New Order, No Doubt, NOFX, Oasis, OutKast, Pixies, The Pretenders, Primal Scream, Prodigy, Public Enemy, Pulp, Smash Mouth, Patti Smith, Sneaker Pimps, Soft Cell, Stereophonics, Sting, Teenage Fanclub, The The, Thievery Corporation, Tonic, Underworld, Wilco
To compile this hypothetical playlist, we have tried to remain true to the spirit and modus operandi of the original modern rock format. Regrettably, there’s no telling how many artists have fallen through the cracks because of the absence of true alternative rock stations in the U.S. If it wasn’t for modern rock radio in the 1980s, artists such as Echo & The Bunnymen, The The, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Beat Farmers, and Fishbone might never have received much airplay on commercial U.S. stations.
We applaud the few modern rock stations that played Johnny Cash’s remake of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in 2003. This song would have been an easy add in the 1980s; it only makes us yearn for the good old days of modern rock radio. In any other industry, the loss of brand identity would be cause for great concern. Yet modern rock stations seem content to maintain the status quo and reunite with mainstream rock. It’s time for another radio revolution.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that modern rock would suffer the same fate as top 40: Both formats became one-dimensional and rigid, a far cry from the original concept. Country observers would argue the same thing has happened to country radio. In modern rock’s case, its name might have contributed to its demise. The mainstream rock stations that switched to modern rock during the 1990s conveniently used a very narrow definition of the term “rock” in their playbooks. So if and when the original modern rock format is reborn, be careful what you call it.
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