Another rock radio station bites the dust.
Boston’s 29-year-old WFNX, a left-of-the-dial station out of place in the middle at 101.7, plays its last song, probably a Smiths or Cure number, tonight. The sound of a venerable rock station signing off is by now a familiar one. New York’s K-Rock, Baltimore-Washington’s WHFS, Chicago’s Q101, and Los Angeles’ Indie 103 are a few of the more celebrated stations silenced in recent years.
One format’s loss is another’s gain: Spanish-language, FM talk, top-40, and all-sports are among the beneficiaries of rock radio’s decline. And that decline has as much to do with rock as with radio.
The labels “alternative” and “indie” prefixing “rock” suggest a too-cool-for-school art form shunning mainstream acceptance. Prior to this year’s monster hits “We Are Young” by fun. and “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, no song that could conceivably be labeled “rock” had claimed the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 since 2008. Larger-than-life lion-maned madmen in tassels once commanded everyone’s attention. Now anonymous shoe-gazers shy away from the spotlight. “Rock star” has become a contradiction in terms.
If “alternative rock” works as a redundancy, it also works as an oxymoron, too. Corporate entities playing stale songs on heavy rotation by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, and Pearl Jam — rock brands as much as rock bands at this point — as though they are the latest pop acts is enough to make anyone with a pulse turn the dial. And it’s not very alternative, is it?
So stale has rock music become that back catalogue has overtaken recent releases in sales and a Beatles compilation became the bestselling album of the last decade.
If rock has made it hard for radio, radio has reciprocated.
Corporate behemoths that swallow up stations impose one-size-fits-all philosophies that ignore what works locally. DJ-by-market-research leads to oft-repeated playlists and pink slips for live-and-local talent to make way for piped-in hosts. It’s impersonal, distant, and sounds like everything else. Like Starbucks, Walmart, and Applebee’s, homogenization makes your town like every other town. Homogenization not only operates under the assumption that Chicago is Sacramento is Detroit is Savannah, but it brings that assumption closer to reality.
Diversity and distinction yield to conformity and blah.
When gray-haired guys in grayer suits effectively become the DJ, they effectively force listeners into do-it-yourself-DJ mode. Pandora, iTunes, and YouTube have democratized listening. But this isn’t all for the good. The disc jockey, who presumably gained his position by superior musical knowledge, is an authoritarian whose overthrow has hurt his subjects.
King Radio is now computer algorithms and opinion research. It’s hard enough for the listener to connect to an automaton pretending to be a DJ. The listener certainly can’t connect to a voiceless computer program determining tracks. The playlist is to radio what “press 7 for…” is to customer service.
When corporations kill local radio, they occasionally remind listeners how they’re killing an entire industry. WFNX on its death-bed has proved unpredictable, lively, free-form—everything that corporate radio isn’t. Untethered from parental controls, on-air-talent said and played what they wanted to say and play. Listeners became DJs and the ghosts of DJs past haunted the airwaves again. Everything from Frank Turner’s rollicking new “I Still Believe” to LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk Is Playing in My House” to Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” could be heard. DJ T.J. Connelly says of his last broadcast, “All I can promise is no repeats and no Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
If only rock radio always delivered on that promise.
“We have an audience who never grew up on great radio,” music industry insider Bob Lefsetz of the Lefsetz Letter observes. “We all remember great radio. All across America there were great FM stations. Kids today under 20 never grew up with that…. They’re not building for a future, they’re not sure there is a future.”
There was a moment in the 1950s when Dragnet, Gunsmoke, and other popular radio series began appearing on television too. Listeners may not have realized that radio storytelling was in its death throes, but it was. Rock radio is already dead. But in a world of seven-second delays, it’s taking some time for reality to set in.