Rock Radio: Let the Airwaves Flow

This month’s guest post from Calgarian, Montreal Canadiens nut, and rock music fan Geoff Moore explores the storied history and dubious future of modern rock radio …


A pub lunch last week, a particularly insipid commercial FM radio station playing over the sound system, a woman’s voice sounding like a smile promising all the hits from yesterday and today (not to be confused with the Capitol Beatles release YESTERDAY & TODAY).And then Michel Pagliaro’s gleaming 1971 gem, ‘Lovin’ You Ain’t Easy,’ chimes through the noisy clutter of ad jingles, wretched ABBA retreads and sundry vapid and perky station breaks.

For a moment though, Chilliwack, A Foot in Coldwater, Andy Kim, Badfinger, Eddie Kendricks, Stevie Wonder, B.W. Stevenson, Creedence Clearwater Revival and all that was glorious about a transistor radio crackling out an AM broadcast back in the early seventies swamps diners in the tired joint like a wave. It wasn’t all great by any means. Payola aside, sometimes there’s no accounting for what hits the charts and sticks.

Memo to Henry Gross: Your dog Shannon is still dead. Goodbye, Terry Jacks. You had your time in the sun. It’s hard to die, but take your best shot. And you, Michael, with the nickel? Ram it.

Top 40 radio was training for the big show, FM – a strange, new world of stereo, of songs exceeding three minutes in length and a whole other slate of recording artists. “No static at all,” reiterated Becker and Fagen. Graduating to FM radio was some kind of rock ‘n’ roll bar mitzvah: “Today, I am a… serious music fan.” ‘Us and Them’ and soft drugs. But that was then. AM broadcasts in stereo now and FM has become what it was never meant to be: Top 40.

Another pub lunch last week, the day after the last one and the same particularly insipid commercial FM radio station is playing over the sound system. And Pag’s ‘Lovin’ You Ain’t Easy’ re-bops through the the bookshelf speakers mounted on the ceiling, about three minutes later than the day before. Heavy rotation for a 38-year-old A side. This same station plays either the Guess Who or a Burton Cummings solo track between 12:20 and 12:40 – guaranteed as the station has been newly renamed after a computer spreadsheet program (or maybe a t-shirt size?).

If memory serves, when this particular station was first launched in Calgary it was called The Breeze (definitely not a Lynyrd Skynyrd reference) and promised the Starbucks set the “softer sides of Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and Sting.” Zzz. The B.B.M. ratings measured something next to nothing.

The local “classic rock,” okay, middle-aged white guys’ station’s music library seems comprised exclusively of greatest hits compilations. Mysteriously, these collections apparently consist of just three songs, so ‘Forty Licks’ is actually ‘Three Licks.’ The Beatles’ double ‘blue’ album is actually an EP. The contemporary rock station, still known by its call letters (rare these days), is unlistenable, mired in the post-grunge sludge of Staind and Puddle of Mudd and other bands who can’t spell too gud.

Criticizing commercial rock radio is as easy as shooting KISS in a barrel. And, yes, these are the cranky complaints of a Methuselah in dog years, but you cannot imagine an artist like Van Morrison, a man seemingly mystically obsessed with the medium (‘Wavelength‘ and countless coda callouts – “Turn it up! A little bit higher…”), being inspired by a single one of your local commercial FM stations these days.

Nor even, God bless us all, a one hit wonder like Autograph (‘Turn Up the Radio’). And songs of praise to disc jockeys like the jubilant ‘Saint Jake’ by the Del-Lords or the Kinks’ concerned ‘Around the Dial’ speak to another time, one when Lou Reed could write: “Then one fine mornin’ she puts on a New York station/She don’t believe what she heard at all/She started dancin’ to that fine fine music/You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.”

Something happened to rock radio sometime between the disintegration of Led Zeppelin and the advent of Nickelback and it sure as hell wasn’t punk (two Clash songs and that Green Day ballad used in the Seinfeld finale to programmers). Corporate chain ownership, the rise and fall of A.O.R. into even more rigid and fragmented formats, staff cuts, boss jocks more concerned with their wacky on-air personae patter rather than the platters that matter? All of the above and whatever else besides.

All traditional media are hurting in this digital age which provides consumers a myriad of narrowcast, almost individually tailored, alternatives. Yet FM radio remains a proven and economical buy for advertisers (its raison d’etre after all). Improving its content by simply literally and figuratively turning the record over, as in the old days, might a good way to re-engage music fans and maybe, just maybe, create some new ones.


Geoff Moore is a writer and advertising guy who lives in Calgary. He can’t appreciate ABBA, even ironically…