Friday, October 26, 2018

Nirvana vs. Hendrix: Radio's Battle to Win GenX

At 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 25, 2018, my local classic rock radio station played a Nirvana song.

Pay attention, Dave. This is significant.

I'd been wondering if classic rock radio would ever get around to acknowledging grunge.

I listen to Dallas FM station KZPS (currently known as Lone Star 92.5) every day. Because silence frightens me, but that's another story. I've been listening since (gulp) 1988. Back then, the format was  "Classic Hits" by day and "Enerjazz" by night. Really. My then-boyfriend liked jazz, so I listened to a lot of goddamn smooth jazz during our evenings together. The things we do for love.

By 1990, 92.5 had morphed into full-on classic rock. At the time, it was a fairly new format; before that, we just called it "rock." But the Baby Boomers, whose first wave had just entered their 40s, were turning nostalgia into gold and former underground FM stations into the corporate radio landscape we know and, um, love today.

If you've listened to a classic rock station for more than an afternoon, you know the playlist, I'm sure: A Led Zeppelin song, a Boston song, a Rolling Stones song, "Baker Street." Rinse, repeat.

Scott Parkin, a Los Angeles-based voice-over actor and coach, was a disc jockey at KZPS during this period. He told me: "I was not fond of the classic rock format...In fact, one of the reasons I was fired from KZPS was that I would say things like 'Here's Layla...again.'"

Despite (or because of) its reputation as the place where great music goes to die, the format has evolved over the years. The window defining "classic" has slid forward to include newer old music. Somewhere along the line, Dire Straits became classic rock. Ditto The Police. Ditto Talking Heads and Billy Idol and Guns N Roses. Yeah, it's a bit disconcerting to realize that songs I first listened to in college are now "oldies." Scratch that - it's a freaking jarring reminder of my mortality that I didn't want, don't need and didn't ask for, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Shit.

But I digress.

I get that when I tune into a classic rock station, I'm going to be presented with a thoroughly market-researched subset of music history, carefully curated for my demographic group

Also: Jeebus, I hate the term "curated." Museum collections should be curated. Rock music and overpriced meal kits should not be "curated."

Let's continue to discuss the evolution of the classic rock format. WARNING: Math ahead.

When KZPS started calling itself "classic rock" in 1990, the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's album - an iconic release of the genre if ever there was one - was 23 years old. Nirvana's Nevermind came out in 1991. By the logic of the format, it became "classic rock" in 2013. Yet "Smells Like Teen Spirit" somehow failed to be placed in rotation by KZPS or other classic rock stations. That's when I began to realize that the evolution of the format seemingly had ground to a halt when grunge came on the scene.

To be fair, I did search the playlists of the top 10 "classic rock" stations in the US. A few have indeed incorporated Nirvana and Pearl Jam into their playlists, albeit as outliers among heavy airplay of Ozzy and The Doors.

That raises the question: Does grunge belong in the classic rock pantheon?

According to radio veteran Parkin, "It's difficult to say that grunge belongs with classic rock....I wish they wouldn't pigeonhole things and would allow different things." Note: KZPS personnel didn't respond to requests for comment.

Me, too. And in fact, Dallas is fortunate to be the home of KXT, a public radio station that plays songs from multiple decades and genres. I listen to it frequently, and appreciate its diversity of musical influences.

Still, I'm a rock and roll girl. And Dallas is a tough market for GenX lovers of rock that includes everything from the Beatles to the Struts.

I guess that's why we have Spotify. But damn, I'm old enough to appreciate the power of radio to play my favorites AND introduce me to tracks that might become my favorites.

Anyway, congrats to KZPS for playing "Come As You Are." Personally, I found it a welcome respite from Zeppelin's ode to nerdism "Ramble On" for the thousandth time. I suppose only time and market research will tell if you actually play Pearl Jam or Screaming Trees next.

3 comments:

  1. Nevermind came out when I was twenty and I remember that it made me feel old. Bring up The Police, Billy Idol, even Guns'N'Roses and you're (say it like Max Headroom) t-t-talkin' 'bout my generation. I only learned about Nirvana when Weird Al parodied them and I knew thatI was no longer with it and what "it" was had become strange and frightening. I could turn on WKDF, which, just a few years earlier, had been my station, and not recognize most of the songs.
    Having said that I also welcome Grunge to the oldies club. There's less difference between those in their forties and those in their fifties than there is between those who are seventeen and those who are twenty.

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  2. I listen to 92.5, 97.1, 98.7, and 100.3 in the Dallas area. I grew up listening to KLIF, yes, that's right -- AM radio and then switched to KZEW and Q102 when I got old enough to have my own stereo. Yes, you heard that right -- stereo! However I also listen to 91.7 and there's another one -- ah yes, 88.5. Also, I love Sirius radio because I can find just about anything I want! Why limit oneself when it comes to music? I just don't understand that or why it's got to be a competition! I want Hendrix but I also want Nirvana!

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  3. Probably my most vivid memory was KZPS announcing Eric Clapton's death as my brother's band was having practice. We were stunned and I swear it felt almost immediate that they retracted that and announced Clapton was alive but Stevie Ray Vaughan had in fact been aboard the helicopter and maybe it's just being Texans and all but, oh my Vishnu, did that ever feel WORSE.
    Grunge was... I was so stuck with my head up my punk that still refuse to acknowledge it. I remember when someone proclaimed Pearl Jam was my generations Led Zeppelin and I was like, no one equals Led Zeppelin! Course I totally see it now.

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