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|
|Adult top 40||Yes||No||No||Yes||Limited||No||No|
|Rhythmic top 40||Limited||Yes||Limited||No||Yes||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.
|Format (Alternate Name) Airplay/Sales||Core Artists*|
|All-genre airplay||Post Malone, Adriana Grande, Khalid, Panic! at the Disco, Halsey, Jonas Brothers, Shawn Mendes, Dan + Shay, Lizzo, Cardi B, Luke Combs, Ed Sheeran, Normani, Sam Smith, Billie Eilish, 5 Seconds of Summer, Travis Scott, Maroon 5, Ava Max, Marshmello|
|All-genre streaming||Post Malone, Adriana Grande, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, Travis Scott, Drake, Khalid, Halsey, DaBaby, Juice WRLD, Cardi B, J. Cole, Pinkfong, Lil Baby, Swae Lee, Lizzo, Lil Tecca, Taylor Swift, XXXTentacion, Billy Ray Cyrus|
|All-genre sales||Post Malone, Lil Nas X, Adriana Grande, Halsey, Lizzo, Lady Gaga, Luke Combs, Taylor Swift, Jonas Brothers, Billie Eilish, Khalid, Panic! at the Disco, Ed Sheeran, Dan + Shay, Lauren Daigle, Queen, Blake Shelton, Bradley Cooper, Billy Ray Cyrus, Shawn Mendes|
|Mainstream top 40 (CHR/pop) airplay||Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Khalid, Jonas Brothers, Halsey, Panic! at the Disco, Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Ed Sheeran|
|Adult top 40 (hot AC) airplay||Panic! at the Disco, Jonas Brothers, Halsey, Pink, Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Dan + Shay, Dean Lewis, Lewis Capaldi, Ed Sheeran|
|Adult contemporary airplay||Maroon 5, Pink, Lauren Daigle, Taylor Swift, Lauv, Dean Lewis, Ed Sheeran, Panic! at the Disco, Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga|
|Dance airplay**||Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Khalid, Jonas Brothers, Lizzo, Halsey, Panic! at the Disco, Shawn Mendes, Marshmello, Sam Smith|
|Teen pop airplay||Jonas Brothers, The Chainsmokers, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran, 5 Seconds of Summer, Illenium, Meg Donnelly, BTS, Marshmello, Lauv|
|R&B/hip-hop (urban) airplay [mainstream + adult]||---|
|Mainstream R&B/hip-hop (urban) airplay||Cardi B, Drake, Ella Mai, DaBaby, Chris Brown, Lil Baby, Meek Mill, Travis Scott, Khalid, Megan Thee Stallion|
|Adult R&B (urban AC) airplay||Ella Mai, H.E.R., India.Arie, Queen Naija, The Bonfyre, Tank, Khalid, Kirk Franklin, Raheem DeVaughn, Monica|
|Rhythmic top 40 (CHR/rhythm) airplay||Post Malone, Khalid, Travis Scott, Drake, Cardi B, Ariana Grande, Chris Brown, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Lizzo, Lil Nas X|
|Country airplay||Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Kane Brown, Morgan Wallen, Blake Shelton, Thomas Rhett, Maren Morris, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean|
|Bluegrass albums sales||Mandolin Orange, Dailey & Vincent, Steven Curtis Chapman, Billy Strings, Old Crow Medicine Show|
|Rock airplay [mainstream + alternative + triple-A]||Panic! at the Disco, Cage the Elephant, SHAED, The Black Keys, Twenty One Pilots, Billie Eilish, Imagine Dragons, Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Lana Del Rey|
|Mainstream rock airplay [active + heritage]||Disturbed, The Glorious Sons, Godsmack, Shinedown, Papa Roach, Bad Wolves, Five Finger Death Punch, Ghost, Badflower, Greta Van Fleet|
|Active rock airplay||---|
|Heritage rock airplay||---|
|Modern rock (alternative) airplay||Panic! at the Disco, Billie Eilish, Twenty One Pilots, SHAED, Cage the Elephant, lovelytheband, The Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, Matt Maeson, Bastille|
|Triple-A rock airplay||Hozier, Vampire Weekend, The Black Keys, Cage the Elephant, Mumford & Sons, The Head and the Heart, The Lumineers, Maggie Roggers, Dermot Kennedy, The Revivalists|
|Dance club play||Ariana Grande, Pink, Fisher, Mark Ronson, Madonna, Ava Max, David Guetta, Bleona, Calvin Harris, Kendra Erika, Gryffin, Sabrina Carpenter, Jonas Blue, Dido, Roberto Surace, DJs From Mars, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, Todd Edwards|
|Electronic albums sales||The Chainsmokers, Marshmello, Lady Gaga, Odesza, Avicii, Illenium, Calvin Harris, Alan Walker, Clean Bandit, DJ Snake|
|Latin (Spanish) airplay [pop + rhythm + regional Mexican + tropical]||Ozuna, J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Maluma, Daddy Yankee, Anuel AA, Christian Nodal, Romeo Santos, Nicky Jam, Farruko|
|Latin pop (Spanish contemporary) airplay||J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Ozuna, Maluma, Daddy Yankee, Manuel Turizo, Anuel AA, Farruko, Natti Natasha, Nicky Jam|
|Latin rhythm (Spanish urban) airplay||Ozuna, Maluma, J Balvin, Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, Wisin, Zion & Lennox, Reik, Bad Bunny, Becky G|
|Regional Mexican airplay||Christian Nodal, Banda Sinaloense MS de Sergio Lizarraga, Calibre 50, Banda Los Sebastianes de Mazatlan, Sinaloa., La Adictiva Banda San Jose de Mesillas, El Fantasma, Banda Los Recoditos, La Arrolladora Banda el Limon de Rene Camacho, Banda Carnaval, Raymix|
|Tropical airplay||Romeo Santos, Marc Anthony, Aventura, Raymix, Silvestre Dangond, Juan Luis Guerra 440, Wisin & Yandel, Maluma, Prince Royce, Carlos Vives|
|Latin rock (Spanish rock) airplay||---|
|Christian airplay [adult contemporary + top 40 + rock + inspirational]||for King & Country, Lauren Daigle, Tauren Wells, Casting Crowns, Elevation Worship, We Are Messengers, MercyMe, Danny Gokey, Zach Williams, Unspoken|
|Christian adult contemporary airplay||Lauren Daigle, for King & Country, Tauren Wells, Casting Crowns, Elevation Worship, We Are Messengers, MercyMe, Danny Gokey, Unspoken, Zach Williams|
|Christian top 40 (Christian CHR) airplay||Lauren Daigle, tobyMac, for King & Country, Tauren Wells, We Are Messengers, Blanca, Crowder, GAWVI, Switchfoot, Switch|
|Christian rock airplay||---|
|Christian inspirational airplay||---|
|Gospel airplay||Zacardi Cortez, Jekalyn Carr, Tasha Cobbs Leonard, Kirk Franklin, Fresh Start Worship, Joshua Rogers, Koryn Hawthorne, The Tri-City Singers, Jonathan McReynolds, Maranda Curtis|
|Contemporary jazz (smooth jazz) airplay||Walter Beasley, Gerald Albright, Ragan Whiteside, Bob James, Norman Brown, Cindy Bradley, Jazz Holdouts, Adam Hawley, Vincent Ingala, Chris Standring|
|Contemporary jazz albums sales||Paul Simon, Kamasi Washington, Mel Holder, Norman Brown, Snarky Puppy, Keiko Matsui, Esperanza Spalding, Herb Alpert, The Rippingtons Featuring Russ Freeman, Miles Davis|
|Americana/folk albums sales||Chris Stapleton, The Lumineers, Hozier, Mumford & Sons, Kacey Musgraves, Simon & Garfunkel, Jack Johnson, Tyler Childers, John Mayer, James Taylor|
|New age albums sales||The Piano Guys, Paul Cardall, Ryan Judd, Barry Goldstein, Daniel G. Amen, MD, Vangelis, George Winston, Bryan Wisda, Dr. Joe Dispenza, Hammock|
|World music albums sales||BTS, SuperM, Santana, NCT 127, Rammstein, Babymetal, EXO, Celtic Woman, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Blackpink|
|Reggae albums sales||Stick Figure, Pepper, Rebelution, The Movement, Collie Buddz, Koffee, Slightly Stoopid, Shaggy, Steel Pulse, Iration|
|Blues albums sales||Tedeschi Trucks Band, Joe Bonamassa, Peter Frampton, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Billy Gibbons, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, Buddy Guy, Keb' Mo', The Marcus King Band, Beth Hart|
* 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.
|Format||Avg. Weeks on for a Song in Top 20||Panel Size|
|Rhythmic top 40||12.90||64|
|Mainstream top 40||13.00||119|
|Adult top 40||18.25||76|
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.
|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?
|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.
|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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