“In a time of streaming, hip-hop dominance and not-so-much rocking,” alternative radio today appears to be focused on throwback favorites, a la Green Day, Weezer and Sublime, “that could pass as classic rock for old millennials and young Gen-X-ers,” plus newer, often synth- or electronic-based and pop-crossover folk from acts like Of Monsters and Men, Smith & Thell and Matt Maeson, whose song “Cringe” recently spent four weeks at the top of Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart.
That’s the take of The New York Times in a feature story titled “What Does Alternative Rock Radio Sound Like in the Age of Spotify?”
Here’s an unexpected quote: “We don’t even say the word ‘rock’ on the radio station — we’re New York’s new alternative,” Mike Kaplan, PD of Entercom “Alt 92.3” WNYL New York and the company’s Format Captain for the format tells the Times. “I don’t think there’s a big win in using the word ‘rock’ today. The raw, guitar-rock sound is really — I don’t want to say it’s done, but …” He trails off. “It’s present, but it’s morphed and mixed with other instrumentation. Does anyone really go to Guitar Center anymore and pick up the guitar?”
Reporter Joe Coscarelli then points out in the story, “The overlapping quagmires currently facing alternative rock radio — how much new music should it play, what should it sound like and who is it for? — are particularly tricky in New York, which has long been led and defined by its rap, Latin and pop stations.” The genre originally grew out of breakout bands like R.E.M., Pixies and the Cure to the Nirvana explosion of the early 1990s. “In the aftermath, through the rap-rock of the new millennium and the dance-pop and top 40 dominance of the mid-2000s, rock stations that didn’t rely on oldies have been the subject of much hand-wringing regarding their sonic allegiances and commercial prospects,” he writes.
Susan Larkin, Entercom’s regional President and Market Manager for New York describes “Alt 92.3’s” ideal listener as early 30s, “in an acquisition stage of their lives, just really starting to get brand loyalty and they have decent jobs. Who better to talk to, as an advertiser?”
Alt 92.3 is one of 13 alternative stations from Entercom, and it has built a steady audience in its second year since flipping to the format, averaging cume audience of about 1.7 million a week, according to Nielsen — on par with the company’s “World Famous” KROQ-FM (106.7) Los Angeles, although the latter has a direct format competitor. The Times explains that Alt has also focused on building local community with such live events as exclusive performances by Vampire Weekend and Twenty One Pilots in its studios, and the first “Not So Silent Night” holiday arena concert, which will continue this year.
Kaplan admits that finding a market for rock in New York “has been difficult,” pointing to “the ethnicity of New York, the makeup — the majority of our listeners are Caucasian,” he said. His philosophy for reaching a target demographic of 25-34 is “playing hits — the familiar music. People say they want new — and they do, and we do give it to them in the right dose.” But the station can’t “push too much to try to make something that’s not there there.”
On the other hand, Steve Blatter, the head of music programming at Sirius XM, said that while alternative has seen a decline over the last five-plus years now, the satellite broadcaster’s three flagship channels dedicated to contemporary rock — Alt Nation for alternative, Octane for hard rock and XMU for indie rock akin to college radio — have maintained a large, consistent audience by dedicating themselves to discovery, playing new music up to 75% of the time.
“Compare that to an alternative rock channel in FM, and you probably in most cases will see the reverse,” he said. The distinction, of course, overlooks the different business models of broadcast and satellite radio.
Back at “Alt 92.3,” Kaplan says that his playlist’s newer acts also include some pop artists that fit the bill, like Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey. “Songs cross over all the time from here to pop, and I like that,” he says, noting that heavier, darker sounds have shifted in favor of “the poppier elements.” We’re redefining what the word alternative means, especially for New York City. But we need to find what’s next, and have men and women both agree.”