Rock Radio Survival Guide

Navigating rock radio can be a confusing prospect.

Black Keys: Image provided by Allmusic

Some might wonder why anyone should even care about traditional radio anymore. People find music in many different ways now. Internet radio and streaming are becoming more and more important.

But for many people, traditional radio remains a primary venue for music discovery. While the ease of digital release has democratized music sales to some extent, it’s hasn’t yet been a complete revolution. It can actually be a detriment; with so many choices, acts that don’t have some kind of platform to catch a listener’s attention have difficulty breaking through the clutter.

What gets played on rock radio has a strong influence on what music gets made, distributed and publicized. While some fans are committed to the indie/DIY world and are willing to scour the web for new music, most fans don’t have that kind of time. The music industry has been clinging to the old model. It may be weakening and its long-term prognosis isn’t good, but it’s not going away in the near future.

With that in mind, what is the state of contemporary rock radio?

In some ways, it’s difficult to look at “rock radio” as a monolith. Like anything else, radio formats evolve over time. Rock radio in 2016 is quite different from what a listener would have experience in 1996 or 1986. Where it will be ten years from now is anyone’s guess.

As it currently stands, rock radio breaks down into four general formats: Mainstream Rock, Alternative, Heritage Rock and Adult Alternative. Some stations don’t necessarily fit neatly into only one of these slots. And some take an expansive view of their format.

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Image provided by Allmusic/WMG

Mainstream Rock and Alternative are, by far, the largest rock radio formats. Alternative grew out of Mainstream Rock in the ’80s, gaining recognition by Billboard as a distinct format by decade’s end. In those early years the two formats could be quite different, though even then there was a certain amount of cross-over (acts like U2, R.E.M. and The Pretenders seemed to do well at both). Over the course of the ’90s and especially into the early ’00s, the two formats converged. Their playlists were highly correlated, a state that would persist for some time. It’s only been in the past half-dozen or so years that the two diverged again.

In its current incarnation, Mainstream Rock tends to focus on heavier material. A driving, at times blistering, guitar-and-drums template is standard. Sound trumps lyrical content and a heavy feel is more important than melody. Hard rock, the numerous variants of metal, post-grunge and rap rock make up the core of Mainstream Rock. The format also incorporates a healthy amount of older hits, especially those whose sound paved the way for current Mainstream Rock acts.

Alternative doesn’t shy away from a driving rhythm or guitars and drums. Songs on Alternative definitely can include elements of hard rock. But Alternative stations tend to put a higher premium on melody and actual singing over “shouting with tone.” In recent years, Alternative has gone back to its roots and re-embraced both folk/Americana-derived rock and electronic music.

In an odd sense, Alternative is probably the rock radio format that’s more in touch with the musical mainstream, while Mainstream Rock has become more of a niche format. Your average music fan would be more likely to recognize the names on Alternative playlists these days. And Alternative has re-embraced its tastemaker role, feeding new acts to a variety of Pop formats.

Of Monsters and Men: Image provided by Allmusic

After a long stretch of alignment with Mainstream Rock, Alternative has, in recent years, moved much closer to the Adult Alternative format. Adult Alternative is by far the smallest rock radio format, comprising only a few dozen stations. But in recent years, the format has exerted an influence far in excess of its size. Adult Alternative has become a key launch pad for new artists, many of whom have parlayed initial success at the format into big hits at Alternative and Pop formats.

Adult Alternative is probably the most diverse rock radio format. It embraces traditional rock sounds, but also Alternative-leaning Pop, folk, Americana, blues, soul, electronica/EDM and alt-country. Stations at the format often enjoy a lot more independence than Mainstream Rock or Alternative outlets, which tend to be part of larger media groups with significant corporate control over playlists. Adult Alternative programmers tend to have more freedom, which allows them to embrace indie and small label acts and get them to a bigger stage. At the same time, the format continues to provide a home for veteran acts whose new music isn’t in step with trends at Mainstream Rock and Alternative. Fans of the format prize that “go anywhere” spirit.

Heritage Rock can be the most difficult of the rock radio formats to pin down. Size-wise, it falls somewhere between Adult Alternative and the two larger formats. There are a few variants, but Heritage Rock stations are usually billed as “Classic Rock.” Their playlists are heavily tilted toward older rock radio hits. Traditionally Heritage Rock focused on artists from the late ’60s and ’70s, but in recent years have added in hits from the ’80s, ’90s and even early ’00s. Some stations play a decent bit of new music from veteran acts whose oldies make up the core of their playlists, as well as music from simpatico newer acts.

Information about Heritage Rock playlists can be difficult to find. It’s the only rock radio format whose chart doesn’t appear on Billboard’s public web site, though it occasionally turns up in printed issues. Only a limited number of Heritage Rock outlets play enough new music to qualify for Billboard’s Heritage Rock chart (Billboard requires a station to devote a certain minimum percentage of its playlist to new music to be included in a current hits radio panel). That means that new music played on a station considered to be primarily an “oldies” outlet doesn’t factor into the Heritage Rock chart.

In practice, few rock radio stations practice stylistic purity. There is a significant degree of overlap among the formats, some more than others. As audience tastes and industry trends change, stations evolve. Some move up and down the format spectrum. Well-known rock radio stations of the past have disappeared, while new channels have popped up and other existing outlets have re-defined their approaches. What might a listener hear at the various formats?

Skillet: Image provided by Allmusic/Reid Rolls

Mainstream Rock remains the home for heavier-leaning music. Shinedown has been one of the format’s most successful acts, working a variety of traditional sounds with driving rhythms. Forceful hard rock outfits like Halestorm and Disturbed have done quite well. Seether, a somewhat traditional album rock/hard rock combo, has been a staple. But the format has also embraced Christian Rock acts (like Skillet and Flyleaf) with a heavy enough sound. And even country stars Zac Brown Band topped the Mainstream Rock chart with an effort that injected some driving electric guitar into the band’s crunchy Southern rock.

Alternative has been striking more of a balance between rhythm and melody, favoring modern productions with populist appeal. Recent acts that have done really well include Twenty-One Pilots, Elle King, Cold War Kids, Florence + the Machine, Vance Joy, Lorde, X Ambassadors and Of Monsters and Men. Many of the core ‘90s/early ’00s Alternative acts continue to find a home at Alternative. Folk and electronic music has also done rather well, with acts like Tove Lo, Avicii, Gotye and Passenger scoring big hits there in recent years.

Adult Alternative has embraced some of those same acts. But it also has room for a farther ranging group of artists that includes Adele, Ryan Adams, Leon Bridges and Matt Nathanson. Singers considered more “Pop,” like Sam Smith, Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles, have found a firm base at the format. Norah Jones found a home there after ditching “brunch pop” for something more offbeat.

To the extent that Heritage Rock plays new music, it would be the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Heart or Ozzy Osbourne. More recent acts like 3 Doors Down or Kid Rock could get some play there, too.

There are plenty of rock radio artists popping up at different formats. Alternative and Adult Alternative have become more closely aligned in recent years. But Alternative and Mainstream Rock retain a healthy crossover as well, especially with the biggest stars from the late ‘90s/early ‘00s.

Chris Cornell: Image provided by Allmusic

Adult Alternative and Mainstream Rock are equally likely to play a random ’70s hit from the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or The Who, songs likely in heavy rotation at Heritage Rock but which would never pop up on Alternative. Classic U2 and R.E.M. smashes can likely be found at all four rock radio formats. But only Adult Alternative gave significant play to the singles from those bands’ most recent albums. Or to recent solo material from Robert Palmer or songs from Mick Jagger’s side project Super Heavy. When Scott Weiland died, all four formats played old Stone Temple Pilots hits.

Over the past five years, 14 acts have managed significant contemporaneous airplay for new material at Mainstream Rock, Alternative and Adult Alternative.

Many of them are veteran acts from the glory days of ’90s rock radio. Those highly successful artists who dominated both Alternative and Mainstream Rock playlists for several years and get attention from both formats for new music. But Adult Alternative finds a place for them, too. Often the new material isn’t quite as driving as the older hits. That makes them melodious enough for Adult Alternative, while constituting a change of pace for Mainstream Rock.

Foo Fighters have done well with the singles from their most recent album, scoring #1 and Top 5 hits at Mainstream Rock and Alternative, while scraping up some respectable Adult Alternative play. Green Day went Top 5 at all three formats with “Oh Love” and Pearl Jam managed Top 6 placements at all three with “Sirens.” Red Hot Chili Peppers topped Adult Alternative and Alternative and went to #2 on Mainstream Rock with “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” and did fairly well at all three with follow-up single “Look Around.”

Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell went Top 5 at Adult Alternative and Mainstream Rock with “Almost Forgot My Broken Heart,” also just sneaking into the Alternative Top 20. Former White Stripes star Jack White scored an Alternative Top 10 with “Lazaretto,” scraping up some respectable play at the other two formats.

Florence + The Machine: Image provided by Allmusic

Among newer bands, The Black Keys are the undisputed rock radio cross-format champs over the past few years. They’ve had no fewer than six singles score significant attention at Adult Alternative, Alternative and Mainstream Rock. Most successful was “Lonely Boy,” which hit the Top 5 at all three, while follow-up “Gold on the Ceiling” was a Top 10 for each. The band’s mix of a classic rock base, with modern production, strong melody and potent rhythm section have provided enough for each format to latch onto.

Kings of Leon were actually one of the acts that sparked Alternative’s divergence from Mainstream Rock. Their modernist take on Southern Rock endeared them to Adult Alternative, too. Eventually their success became too much for Mainstream Rock to ignore, making songs “Temple,” “Wait for Me” and “Supersoaker” hits at all three formats.

Similarly, Cage the Elephant has landed three hits at all three formats recently. Cage is known for its stylistic restlessness, providing enough elements that work at the three formats. Most successful was “Come A Little Closer,” which topped Adult Alternative and Alternative and landed in the Mainstream Rock Top 10.

Oddball act Kongos took the tribal stomp of “Come With Me Now” to #2 on Adult Alternative and #1 on Alternative, while landing in the Mainstream Rock Top 20. Imagine Dragons quickly established themselves as a staple act on Adult Alternative and Alternative. Mainstream Rock mostly ignored their singles, but the darker, heavier “Radioactive,” which topped the Alternative chart and went to #4 on the Adult Alternative list, scored big on Mainstream Rock, just missing the Top 10.

Nathaniel Rateliff: Image provided by Allmusic/Malia James

Arctic Monkeys similarly scored a long-running #1 hit at Alternative with “Do I Wanna Know” that hit #11 at Adult Alternative and #12 at Mainstream Rock. Mumford & Sons had established themselves as core Adult Alternative and Alternative artists with a string of big hits. Mainstream Rock wasn’t interested in the band’s acoustic approach to rhythmic rock. But when Mumford plugged in for their third album, “The Wolf” carried enough muscle to scrape into the Mainstream Rock Top 20, while going Top 10 at the other two formats.

The most recent act to pull off the rock radio cross-format hit is Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats. “S.O.B.” is a bracing piece of swamp gospel, with a gritty vocal, a sturdy rhythm and a rollicking, road house chorus. The song topped Adult Alternative, then went on to a Top 3 placement on Alternative, before working its way into the Mainstream Rock Top 20.

Rock radio isn’t dead. And it’s not as hermetically sealed as some might think. Big changes loom in the years to come. But for now, there’s enough interesting stuff happening at rock radio to give fans a reason not to write it off yet.

Originally published at on January 4, 2016.

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