A Good Read for Radio Freaks: The Evolution of of Alt-Rock Radio in America

For the longest time–decades, in fact–there were just a handful of commercial radio stations across North America who embraced alternative/New Wave/indie/punk as their format with the leaders being KROQ/Los Angeles and CFNY/Toronto.  It was tough going, too. Ratings were are to come by and owners were always threatening to change the stations’ format to something more profitable–like country.  Now, though, there are plenty of alt-rock stations across the dial. Here’s how things evolved,

When the punk revolution first happened, American radio wasn’t interested. Trouser Press founder Ira Robbins recounts the story of how the punks, new wavers and early indie kids stormed the airwaves, and who was there to help.

Rock and roll was born to give offense, and radio has long served as the music industry’s primary gatekeeper. AM, FM, free-form, Top 40, AOR, left of the dial (was there ever a right of the dial?) – the programmers who pick which songs get on the air (whether based on gut feeling, label entreaties, payola, peer pressure, or audience testing) live and die by the records they choose. These firing-line calls can seem bizarre in retrospect: radio, and its audiences, has often latched on to (or flatly rejected) the most unpredictable songs. Even bands headed for the cultural pantheon have struck radio as ones to avoid. The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Stooges, Patti Smith – all of them are in the pantheon, but none of them had more than a song or two (if that) in serious rotation.

Punk and New Wave was never embraced as a genre by American radio, so the hits that broke through in the late ’70 and early ’80s now seem entirely arbitrary, novelty records more than exemplars of a musical movement. There’s no correlation between “Turning Japanese,” “I Ran,” “She Blinded Me With Science,” the wrong Romantics song (“Talking In Your Sleep” rather than the enduring “What I Like About You”), or “White Wedding,” and any critic’s list of the 10 Most Important Punk and New Wave Artists.

Until MTV came along in the ‘80s and became (more or less) a national music channel, radio – thousands of individual stations, each with its own playlist – was the primary medium responsible for driving records toward popularity. The evidence of MTV’s successes with post-punk and New Wave acts (Duran Duran, Billy Idol, the Police, Culture Club, Cars, Go-Go’s, Thompson Twins, Tears for Fears, etc.) is enshrined in Billboard’s Top 40 chart books, but that still leaves a huge realm of important and beloved songs that never received adequate (or any) airplay. Those who grew up on music from outside the mainstream never heard it on commercial radio. The real wild ones – bands like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols, the Germs, the Damned, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Black Flag, and hundreds more like them – might as well have been quarantined from the airwaves.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37911 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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