A Completely Subjective Discussion Of The Classic Rock Radio Format As Recollected By A Radio Nerd Who Did Some Online Research And Got Unnecessarily Nostalgic.
As a kid, my parents listened to what has come to be referred to as, “Classic Rock” in the radio world. Little did I know that, as I was growing up, this was a relatively new format on radio. I had no knowledge of the history of formats at the time, and couldn’t tell you the difference between AM and FM back then. All I knew was that my parents liked The Who and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and stuff like that, and where we lived, the place to hear that kind of music all day, everyday, was on KZEL-FM, which you could hear just about everywhere in rural Oregon between 1980 and 2000, when I moved out of range of the station.
Not that I listened all the time. I started to loose interest around 1992, when I discovered music that was outside of my parents influence. To me, KZEL was the soundtrack to my childhood. My mom would record her favorite songs off of KZEL broadcasts, and it was the station our cars were always tuned to. Every time there was music on in the yard, or the stereo was blasting and wasn’t playing an LP, the sounds we heard were always KZEL. No other station would do. In fact, my mom won a listener contest when I was in High School, and she got to host a show with some of their DJs as part of the contest. (This led to her interest in, and eventual minor career in radio.) KZEL was where I learned to love listening radio, to ignore the songs and to listen for the DJs and the commercials and other produced bits. It was, through osmosis, my first radio station.
But it played music that, while clearly my parents music, did not speak to me personally. “Classic Rock” is an interesting format, because it was developed around the time that the “Oldies” format came to be (that is, Rock and Roll music from the early ’50s through the early ’60’s). “Classic Rock” itself mostly defined itself as being of music from the late ’60’s through to the early ’80’s, and even then, focused on big acts, well known songs, and music that fell into a particular “70’s Rock” vein. (I used to call it, “Music you can’t drive 55 to,” or, “Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock And Roll”.) “Classic Rock,” by definition, was trying to plant a flag in the ground, staking out the territory for a generation of radio listeners who felt that a very narrow range of sounds and styles spoke to their lifestyle and their interests, and by labeling it “classic” on the radio was stating – for the record – that these songs and bands would last for generations, and would define rock music for the future.
But none of this music really spoke to me as a kid who was 10 in 1985. While I came to know and even appreciate some of the music I heard, it always sounded as if it was out of place, out of time, and of someone else’s childhood. I didn’t understand the excesses of the ’70’s, and in my own childhood, with ’80’s pop culture and my TRS-80 feeding my brain, I didn’t understand the bong-rattling importance of Grand Funk Railroad. I never got to hear much current “popular” music in my house growing up, aside from my mom’s interest in ’80s hair metal and the occasional “new” B.B. King / Eric Clapton release. (And even those are extensions of “classic rock” motifs, that of partying and rocking and finding a good woman that will treat you right, etc.) We grew up with Classic Rock in our heads. Songs like “Smoke On The Water” accidentally became associated with my childhood, in spite of the fact that I was at least 20 years too young to have any idea what that song was about, why it was important, or who the band even was.
Let’s Get Some Of The History Out Of The Way.
The first Classic Rock station was, of course, born out of Cleveland in 1980. Radio had long since been dominant in Cleveland, and many big name DJs had made names for themselves there in the ’50’s and ’60’s, cementing on-air style and patter that was copied by other DJs across the nation. But the fork in the road really happened in the early 1960s, when FM Radio hit the airwaves, leaving the monophonic and “tinny” AM Radio sounding like some archaic dinosaur from the Antique Radio era being tuned in on a crystal set. Stations that had made their name on the AM found themselves competing with the improved fidelity and superior quality of FM, and many stations bought FM signals so they could simulcast their programs and stay competitive.
The FCC eventually mandated that FM stations couldn’t just re-air the same stuff that their AM counterparts were playing, to the distaste and frustration of radio station owners and programmers. This left American with a huge swath of FM stations that had 24 hours a day to fill with new shows and DJs, and being locked out of their tired old AM formats, they had to innovate, fast. In a rush to get programming on the air, DJs were given the chance to have “freeform” and “progressive” formats, something unheard of before 1964. A DJ could play anything, even songs that were not hits, if you can imagine it. The cut that takes up all of side b could finally be played on the radio, where old programming rules would forbid something that wasn’t a nice a peppy four minutes. Freeform and Progressive radio of the mid ’60’s was a place where DJs could really cut loose, and with the improved sound of FM, listeners could really appreciate the music on these records that DJs were playing. FM stations all over the country switched to this new format so they could keep on Rockin’ in the Freeform world.
Of course, station managers hated these changes in the cultural climate. Radio was a very good way to make money in the old days, and the way stations made money was to sell ads against a show that listeners loved. Station managers knew listeners loved the shows because of a consistent format, where the same set of personalities delivered the news at the same times, where hit songs were played in a more or less random order, and where every minute of every hour – including the ad that was being played – was micro-managed. Sure, certain DJs would attract more listeners than others as they became engaging personalities, but that was largely because the DJ was well known over time, or their time-slot was ideal (like, drive-time, or early evening commute.) Using the old way, station managers could guarantee that a show would be successful merely by packing their playlists with hits and guaranteed programming the sponsors could count on. Sooner or later, the advertisers would start calling if they wanted to be associated with a hit show.
The switch to FM and Freeform radio was the first huge fragmentation of the way money was made in the music industry, a kind of disruption that is on par with home cassette recording, or the iPod. Allowing DJs to do whatever they wanted made it difficult for stations for sell advertising they way they were used to it, and old-fashioned radio listeners found the new music that was popular on progressive radio stations to be too “wild” and “strange” for their tastes. (FM comes on the air in the early ’60’s, just in time for the British Invasion and the Garage Rock / psychedelic explosion that followed in its wake, of which DJs loved.) Genre was largely out the window on Freeform stations, yet another difficulty when trying to sell the station to advertisers. While this led to a host of non-commercial, listener-supported stations that enjoyed being contrary to conventional radio standards, Freeform became an f-word in the radio world, especially when it came to money, and when the naiveté of the ’60’s developed into the cynicism of the ’70’s, something had to change again.
First, radio stations lost money. A lot. Most of them cut expenses by laying off staff, reducing the size of their studios, and selling off late-night or early morning broadcasts to run syndicated programs, not as popular or well loved, but at least consistent enough to generate a little dependable revenue. When that wasn’t enough, stations switched to “Album-oriented rock” – or AOR, as it was known at the time. It was clear that rock music was changing yet again, now that singles were no longer the dominant form of music and bands were getting louder, heavier, and raunchier. As new technologies like computers began to take over marketing, Station managers and programmers became enamored with research-based approaches to what they would play on the air.
Taking cues from listener requests and the kinds of information they could gather in each region, stations began to make an effort to find out what music and artists were hits with their own specific listeners, and in some cases ignoring Top 40 trends. Stations began to create playlists and structure their broadcasts around albums that were getting the most traction with their regional audience, which could now be tracked in ways it had never been in the past. Whole albums were now allowed on station playlists, hence, the AOR name, and this generated a whole new generation of stations that each created a unique identity in the minds of listeners. Some stations played lots of Beatles. Some played a lot of Stones. No two stations curated the same kinds of playlists, and station rivalries in competitive regions were common, the way sports rivalries developed between fans.
Of course, a side effect of all these white station managers and white DJs polling their white audiences about the white artists that they loved the most created a huge backlash against the AOR format – now referred to by opponents as MOR: Middle Of the Road. As hard rock and psychedelic trends began to mellow out, you encountered a much “softer” kind of radio in the mid-’70’s, dominated by The Eagles & Fleetwood Mac clones, changing radio from the exciting and “loud” place it once was – hosting Summer of Love concerts and outdoor festivals – to a mellow, relaxing place where listeners could put it on in the afternoon and would barely notice the radio on. It became clear, as black artists were being excluded from any of this, that other kinds of formats were just around the corner.
R&B has always had a rocky relationship with radio before the ’60’s came around, and while Motown and Stax helped improve the image of black music in white America, rarely would a black artist break on the white charts. While some DJs would play black artists – often against station policies – smaller stations near large black populations where the places that played this kind of music, and sometimes, only in very large cities with diverse radio markets. But as Funk music crept into the national consciousness in the ’70’s, it became clear that there was a world of popular music that was largely being ignored by commercial radio, and culture clashes between the old-fashioned radio racism and the changing formats found black artists as pawns in the chess game of radio programming. Stations that were willing to incorporate “acceptable” funk acts that complemented their current sounds were often considered “edgy,” and gained younger audiences.
The ’80’s saw two big artists enter the popular culture that required radio to change. When Michael Jackson and Prince made it clear that the kind of institutional racism radio had been guilty of could no longer be tolerated, radio formats were revolutionized. AOR stations began to die off, as advertisers found the selections to be boring, and generated little business for them. R&B stations were loud and bombastic and fun, began to fill the musical and advertising void that radio had been lacking during the “mellow” years. What few stations were left that needed something new switched to either a talk or country format. (Both talk and country had existed before, of course, but in the ’80’s radio had fractured so much that these became viable format that could actually compete on a scale as big as anything else at the time.)
In the old days, radio had largely been created at the station level, and perhaps some stations would package one of their popular shows as syndicated content, that they could send that to other stations if they wanted to expand their own programming (in those days, the show was a scripted and recorded program). Networks eventually popped up, and these independent stations became associated with a larger network. For many stations, the network was just a different way to get syndicated content; they still created a number of local shows, but they ran some of the big-ticket shows from their parent company (either NBC, ABC, CBS, etc).
The ’80’s saw radio going national in a very big way, and other companies wanted to get into the act, too. New businesses would buy up as many stations as they could, and would generate new syndicated content on a huge scale, making radio sound uniform across the country, but through music formats rather than through specific syndicated shows. A company that excelled in one kind of music – soft rock, for example – would create a cookie cutter playlist format that they could teach to any station, and transfer this to the stations they bought up.
College Radio Stations took the country by storm in the ’80’s, clinging to the freeform idea in spite of the fact it had virtually disappeared nearly everywhere else. And with punk rock and DIY music beginning to build a network of their own, the college stations became the backbone for keeping that music alive in the public’s mind. NPR took of in a huge way in the ’80’s after getting improved funding and more national attention. When all was said and done, it seemed as if the old fashioned rock and roll radio that had been derailed by AOR might come to an end in the ’80’s, and for a while, “Old Time Rock And Roll” seemed out of place in the modern era.
Bringing It All Back.
WWWM 105.7 in the Cleveland was the first station that decided it was time to bring back “Classic Rock” music in early 1980, and that is the year that ’70’s nostalgia officially began. (Sorry Dick Vaughn.) Classic Rock as a format was fairly straightforward: use the lessons of Top 40 and research-based radio, but narrow the focus to albums and artists that encompass music that would appeal to people who had been in High School during the last years of the ’70’s, to some, when “the best” rock music was being made. At the times, this usually included music from the mid to late ’60’s through to the late ’70s, and pretty much nothing else. The emphasis on Rock and Roll of that era served a two-fold function: teenagers who lived through this music were now adults making radio-listening decisions, and this music spoke to nostalgia and adolescent desires that wasn’t being tapped into elsewhere. Secondly, the Classic Rock format was intentionally exclusive; there were no black artists included in this original incarnation of the format. There was no country. There was no talk. There was none of this modern college radio bullshit or that lame jazz crap you hear in cities, just loud guitars and a healthy disrespect for authority. Yes, Classic Rock comes from Cleveland, but it wasn’t that many years later that the format swept the country.
In the ’80s, for the most part, you could tune into a Classic Rock station almost anywhere in the US, and while you would think that the years Classic Rock covered could uncover a huge number of songs to play, usually listeners would hear the same 50 songs being rotated through all day, every day. This was, in many ways, the McDonald’s-ification of radio, where you could go anywhere and hear the same things you were used to hearing back home. This was great for people who traveled a lot, like truck drivers, but left little to the imagination if you wanted to hear a cut from side two, or a song that wasn’t necessarily a classic “hit” in your area. (For example: try finding a single Classic Rock station that will play anything from Led Zeppelin III. Unless that station is doing a “Zeppelin Weekend”, you will never hear any of those songs on the air.)
Need I drive the point home any more, Classic Rock was a coded form of racism on radio in an era that was supposed to be post-racism. It was a way for people who grew up in a sheltered white childhood to pretend that black artists and country music was not part of their musical landscape, and even the lack of news, sports or weather – save for occasional, 15 second updates near the top of the hour – makes a Classic Rock station a perfect way to isolate their listeners in a world that is not difficult or complicated. Here’s another rock song, another twofer-tuesday, another chance for the production manager to edit “I Love Rock And Roll” or “We Built This City” into their station ID. When you listen to Classic Rock, the passage of time is irrelevant.
Now, Let’s Tune In to 96.1 FM in Eugene, OR
This brings us around to the Classic Rock station in question – and the one of which I have the most first-hand knowledge – KZEL. The station that became KZEL was first known as KWFS, which went on the air by the end of the ’40’s. (There had been plenty of radio stations in Oregon going back to the ’20s, but there was a huge surge of new stations in the Eugene area just after WWII.) KWFS continued until the ’60’s, when an FM signal was launched at 96.1. (KWFS almost immediately abandoned AM in favor of the 96.1 signal.) However, the owners of KWFS found managing a station to be too much work, and sold the station in 1967. The new owners changed the call letters to KZEL, and the KWFS call letters were adopted by a new station in Wichita Falls, TX.
KZEL – in its new form – first hit the air that same year, but again, was a bit much to handle as the freeform format wars began to change the landscape of radio. The big competition in those days was Wolfman Jack, which you could hear almost anywhere in the US, and unless local stations got hip, kids would flip over to him at night. By 1971 KZEL changed hands (and formats) again, where the new owners were happy to adopt a progressive format to stay competitive with Wolfman. But the ’70s and early ’80s made it difficult for any station to turn a profit, and many advertisers pointed to the progressive format as part of the problem. (“We like some of the music you guys play, but not all the time.”) In danger of changing hands yet again, in the early ’80’s the station managers at KZEL began to take notice of the Classic Rock sounds coming out of Cleveland. Most of the KZEL staff already loved that kind of music anyway, so almost overnight, KZEL switched to “Oregon’s Classic Rock.”
By the time I was growing up and listening to the station with my parents in the ’80s, they were just like any other station you could hear anywhere that played “Classic Rock”: the same 50 songs, every day, every week, keeping listeners suspended in their High School and College days, just the way the late-Baby Boomers liked it. Of course, I had no understanding of this history, or how the radio I was listening to got to be the way it was. I was just some kid being raised by hippies, and this was the music we listened to in our house.
I received a cassette deck / radio with a built in microphone for my 10th Birthday in 1985, and using that I began recording my favorite songs from the radio onto tapes. Pretty soon I found myself more interested in the commercials, and I began editing together my own voice overs (impersonating my favorite DJs) with my own songs and commercials recorded from KZEL. There were nights when I would have the radio on, quietly in my room, letting the sounds wash over my childhood mind. I would surf stations often too, and listen for a while, but I would always return to 96.1, just like everyone else in my family.
As a regular listener, I started to get familiar with when the hosts would take calls and requests, and once I broke through that barrier, I became a regular on the air. Usually in the afternoon and evenings, and soon I was pretty proud of the fact that I could get my name on a show almost any time I wanted. (I would regularly ask the DJs to give birthday shoutouts to my friends and family, and if nothing else was going on, make a request for my song de jour that day.) Of course, radio stations are notorious for contests, and I was consistently able to win new tapes from these giveaways because I was quick on the phone, and knew their habits well. This is how I discovered Tesla (the band), .38 Special, both of the Use Your Illusion Guns ‘n’ Roses albums, and got my very own Led Zeppelin tapes. But I didn’t listen to the tapes as much as I thought I would, and why not? I could just turn on the radio.
I remember vividly the first time my mom drove me to the station, to pick up an album I had won. There was a well-known commercial for KZEL on TV, where the DJ was running through a maze of LPs to get the next record to the booth in time for the next song, and I absolutely believed that the station must be like that. My mom has thousands of LPs, so it made sense that they would have even more. But arriving at the front counter was a very disappointing experience. All these voices I was familiar with, reduced to flesh-and-blood bodies that were just like everyone else I knew, looking at this gawky kid, they sort of rolled their eyes. A cheap cardboard box was produced, and inside were a ton of cassettes, some mangled from typical radio station neglect. Even though I had specifically won the live Tesla album, the girl at the counter said, “Just take any one you want. There’s plenty in the back.” The fun and mystery of listening at home ruined by the bland reality of fluorescent lights and the work-a-day lives of these people who were just punching a clock. It was a revelation, in a way.
As the years wore on my relationship to this station changed. When I got to High School I started meeting people who listened to modern music, stuff I’d never heard on KZEL, ever, and this music was absolutely fascinating. But this was the early ’90’s, and I wasn’t the only one going through this identity crisis. I remember listening to KZEL one night when one of the DJs mentioned a band that everyone was talking about – Nirvana. The DJ was convinced the song couldn’t be as good as the hype, but decided to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” anyway. I remember being non-plussed at the time, until I heard the song again, and later, saw the video. By the fourth time I’d heard it, I was hooked, and suddenly anything else KZEL played seemed tame and boring.
I won Nevermind on KZEL in a listener contest, but even when I showed up to get the album, I could tell that my time as a KZEL fan was limited. The girl at the counter laughed when I asked for it, and I could tell they didn’t like the album as much as I did. They would dabble a bit in new music in that year, but the Classic Rock format always dominated in the end. Sooner or later, they would return to a block of The Who songs, and back to their old format. And by then, friends had hooked me up with Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, and my interest in Classic Rock and KZEL was on the way out. I pretty much stopped turning on the radio at all by the time High School was over, and I never heard the station once in the six years I lived there.
In 1997 the Cumulus Media group was formed, and made an effort to buy up as many stations as they could, KZEL being one of them. By this time, I was living on my own, and hadn’t tuned in for years. The Cumulus Group began to popularize the AAA format (adult album alternative), a new iteration of Classic Rock that included all the old “heavy” albums, with “new rock” hits from the “alternative” era. (A lot of stations call this format “New Rock.”) This made sense; as demographic groups age out of listening to their father’s rock and roll radio, the younger groups have different tastes that need accommodation, too. And let’s face it, “alternative” music is absolutely the Classic Rock of Generation X. Essentially, the same kinds of people are listening to KZEL now than they did then, just with a slightly different 50 song playlist and a bigger chance of having a Soundgarden tattoo.
And why not? Radio has often been for the middle class, and there is a who swath of bros who are looking for something to get pumped up for as they try to remain comfortable with being in their 40s. They want the music that spoke to them in High School to insulate them in a place where they understand what “cool” and “hip” is. New music is scary and hard to find, and it is much easier to ignore the culture and the world around you when it doesn’t make sense to you. Coded in two levels removed from the racism it once was, Gex X Gym Rats can listen to very while music in their small towns and never have to question the way they fell about it, ever.
It isn’t that The Cumulus Media Group is trying to be horrible. They’re trying to make money, and that is largely the motivation behind any tired old ineffectual dinosaur clinging to the radio dial like some monster from a bygone age. But even the remotest scent of that kind of radio turns me off, instantly, and these days I’m looking to the generation after mine to hopefully clue me into something that doesn’t feel old fashioned and too “white.” But even I fall into this trap; I listen to music with guitars and live drums and it is hard to think of Black Flag or Bad Brains as anything other than “quaint” when you think of the brutal music that kids like these days, or the electronic harsh noise that is also available. And I’m still trying to break the color barrier in my own collection, as I have noticed an abundance of while men among my 12 Inches.
But at least I’m aware of the problems inherent in my playlists.
When I was a kid, I never thought that the music I was immersed in was boring. It was the music I was immersed in. It WAS music. But now that I can see it from outside, and see it for what it is, I’m glad I moved on.
I’m just wondering how much longer the vestiges of Classic Rock Radio will need before they move on, too.