The Songs Remain the Same

Rejecting young talent in favor of dinosaurs with proven track records, classic rock radio rakes in the ratings and the cash A along with a severe case of geezer burn

"But back then" A and with classic rock programmers, the buts are inevitable A "we could get away with that because nobody was listening. Now radio is a business. You've got 300,000 listeners, and they want to hear stuff they know, songs they can tap their toes to. The average person, once they get past 25, has house payments and kids to worry about. They stop buying new music and revert to the music they listened to growing up. Classic rock is an ideal niche to capture advertising for that 25-to-54 baby boomer demographic."

Mirsky pauses. "God, I can't believe how honest I'm being."
Honest, yes. But a tad simplistic. To understand the genesis of classic rock requires a more thorough account of the social and economic forces that, in two short decades, have warped FM into a rapidly conglomerating industry.

When people like Mirsky first began broadcasting rock and roll, most radios didn't have an FM band. The medium was an electronic soapbox, and FM programmers positioned themselves, quite consciously, in opposition to AM's lucrative Top 40 formats. "The feeling was, 'Let the hippies do what they want. Nobody's listening, anyway,'" Mirsky recalls.

But as the Sixties wore on and rock drifted into the mainstream, the FM band, by virtue of its footloose format and superior sound quality, rocketed past AM, and it didn't take long for men in three-piece suits to converge. By the mid-Seventies they had converted FM into a well-oiled profit machine. The aptly dubbed "superstars" format broadcast established acts A Styx, Pink Floyd, Journey A almost exclusively, and sprinkled more and more commercials into the mix.

As the sounds of punk and new wave squalled across the music industry's transom, the aging baby boom generation A and their hefty checkbooks A tuned out. "Our research showed that the newer music was falling on deaf ears," notes Fred Jacobs, the man credited with pioneering classic rock. He sat down one summer day in his living room, amid the dusty vinyl of his own album collection, and carved a new format. "Classic absolutely exploded out of the box," Jacobs recalls. Most insiders felt the strategy would fade within a year. After all, the premise appeared to rest on the novelty of hearing classics. "But we became the vampire that wouldn't go away," gloats Jacobs, president of a consulting firm based in Southfield, outside Detroit. Within three years, classic rock had oozed into virtually every major U.S. city.

Jacobs had several factors on his side. First, as Neil Mirsky points out, boomers' listening habits had changed. Settled into lives of comfy consumerism, the peaceniks and flower children no longer preached and protested. They were, however, happy to bask in Sixties nostalgia. If they couldn't make revolution, at least they could crank up the Beatles' "Revolution" as background music at the office.

The corporate profligacy of the Eighties, along with Reagan-era deregulation, likewise were crucial to solidifying classic rock's quick stranglehold. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) lifted its requirement that owners demonstrate their commitment to radio by operating a station for at least three years. "Basically, broadcasters stopped buying stations," Jacobs notes. "You had this Michael Milken philosophy. Real estate speculators began snapping up stations and flipping them a year later for a huge profit. These people didn't understand Elvis Costello or the Police. They needed a proven moneymaker."

The stakes soared. Owners grew more conservative about the music they aired. Jacobs and other consultants were called in, along with droves of market researchers. Industry trade sheets sprang up. And daring new music -- the sort that had originally fueled FM -- disappeared from playlists. The library that Jacobs had casually culled from his record collection became a canon. As recycled music became radio's growth industry, oldies stations specializing in music from the Fifties and Sixties (the progenitor of classic rock) prospered. Stations hoping to woo an older, wealthier demographic began airing "soft" classics. DJs, whose musical tastes had been superseded by consultants and computers, were now forced to play the classic hits they once chose.

"What I didn't understand ten years ago was how much the ad people wanted that 25-to-54 demographic," observes Jacobs, who now consults for more than a dozen classic rock stations. "The classic format forced everyone, even the mainstream rock stations, to go older. Just look at how many old rockers they've taken out of mothballs."

Today, as much as 75 percent of the music played on the nation's 200 album oriented rock (AOR) stations A such as Davie's WSHE (103.5 FM) A is classic. So much of the "new" music trotted out emanates from rock fossils like Billy Squier that critics commonly refer to AOR as "another old rocker." And Jacobs's vampire shows no signs of bedding down: in the past two years the format has added some 70 stations; more than 200 FM stations nationwide now play nothing but classic rock.

Predictably, this proliferation has come most often at the expense of AOR operations. In South Florida the list of failed rock stations has spawned an alphabet soup of mutating call letters:

* WBUS: The legendary Magic Bus, Dade's first FM underground outlet. Now soft jazz outlet LOVE 94 (WLVE-FM 93.9)

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