On the FM Dial, Rock Is Sliding Away

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 27, 2005

FM radio, which catapulted to success in the 1970s as the rebellious alternative to the bubble-gum pop on the AM band, is turning away from rock.

Howard Stern's departure from FM next month to join pay satellite radio has accelerated the trend, as several of the rock stations that carried his morning talkfest will now switch entirely to talk.

The format changes, coming on the heels of moves over the past 18 months to change formats at rock stations in Washington, Houston and Miami, show that radio executives are increasingly ceding the rock audience to iPods and satellite radio.

Record companies predict that the format changes in radio will have a serious impact on sales of rock records, especially in New York. Once K-Rock, Stern's longtime home base, goes all-talk in January, the nation's largest market will be without a radio station that plays current rock hits.

Rock's share of overall music sales has remained steady at about 20 percent of the market, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But on the radio, rock's numbers -- both in audience share and in number of stations -- are on the decline, in part because rock fans are moving to the Internet and satellite radio for their music and in part because the rock audience doesn't spend nearly as much time listening to radio as do audiences for black and Hispanic music.

In Washington, last year's format change by WHFS has proved to be a happy one for its owner, Infinity Broadcasting. The new station, El Zol (WLZL 99.1), has doubled WHFS's ratings with Spanish-language programming featuring dance-oriented Hispanic pop. Even more impressive is the amount of time El Zol listeners devote to the station. From summer 2004 to summer 2005, women in the 18-34 age bracket went from spending about 2 1/2 hours a day with WHFS to eight hours a day with El Zol. For radio companies, that measure, known as Time Spent Listening, is a powerful tool for winning business from advertisers.

Washington rock fans can still hear their music on hard rocker DC101 (WWDC) and classic rock 94.7 the Arrow (WARW), but while DC101 picked up some additional listeners after the demise of WHFS, the classic rocker's ratings have remained flat.

Satellite providers XM and Sirius's 13 and 18 channels of rock, respectively, and the infinite playlist of the Internet combine to make rock a less compelling choice for FM programmers. Adam Carolla, the TV comedian who will be one of Stern's replacements on some Infinity-owned FM talk stations, told Rolling Stone magazine that the music inevitably will vanish from free radio. "I don't know what year folks are living in," he said. "If you want to hear music, get an iPod. If you want to hear talk, get a radio."

Yahoo's chief music executive recently seconded that sentiment, predicting that broadcast radio will shift quickly to talk, leaving Internet-based technologies to deliver music. Obviously, Yahoo has an interest in arguing the inevitability of that shift. For now, that reading of the media landscape appears to be too simplistic.

In Washington, as in many markets, the top-rated stations are still playing music, but not rock. Four of the six top-rated stations here -- and all of the top three -- play hip-hop and R&B, and by and large draw black listeners, who tend to listen for twice as many hours each day as do listeners to most other stations, according to Arbitron ratings figures for the Washington market.

The other music stations that draw decent ratings are variations on what radio executives refer to as pop and hot adult contemporary music, which includes some rock, but blended with some dance numbers, usually aimed at a more heavily female audience than traditional rock stations. Hot 99.5 (WIHT) classifies itself as Pop Contemporary Hit Music, playing the likes of Kanye West, Nelly and Kelly Clarkson.

Mix 107.3 (WRQX) and Z-104 (WWZZ) call themselves Hot Adult Contemporary. Like rocker DC101 (WWDC), they play Green Day and the Killers, but Mix 107.3 blends in the Bee Gees, Madonna and Elton John while Z104 tosses in Liz Phair and Sheryl Crow.

Aside from the continuing rise of Hispanic-oriented hits, the trend in music programming on broadcast radio is toward a narrower range of formats. As jazz, classical, bluegrass and other minority music interests are vanishing from public radio, so too are oldies and rock starting to fade from commercial stations in many cities.

The major radio companies seem to be ceding musical variety to downloading, the Internet and satellite, acknowledging that technologies offering broad choices will win the musically adventuresome audience, leaving broadcasters to formats aimed at the broadest possible tastes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company