Classic Rock Radio at 30: The Songs Change, So Does the Vibe Remain the Same?

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page performing with British heavy rock group Led Zeppelin, at Earl's Court, London, May 1975. The band were initially booked to play three nights at the venue, from 23rd to 25th May, but due to public demand, two more concerts were later added, for 17th and 18th May. 

On December 7, the rock world rumbled with Rush drummer Neil Peart's revelation that he planned to back away from touring. Three days later, Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media and generally regarded as the creator of the classic rock radio format, wrote a blog post asking if other acts should follow Peart's lead and quit before they risk "damaging their legacies."

The question was perhaps a timely one for the classic rock format itself, which Jacobs first brought to the FM band in 1985 at WMMQ in Lansing, Michigan, before popularizing the new approach nationwide a year later. At 30 years old (or young) -- far older than now-staples such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy were when the format began -- classic rock continues to evolve to keep up with the inexorable progress of demographics. Indeed, the concept's many early doubters -- "Classic rock is a nice place to visit, but I don't know that people want to live in a museum," sniffed one programming director to Billboard almost three decades ago -- might be confounded to learn that classic rock hasn't burned out or faded away.

Jacobs first recalls noticing a faultline within the rock radio audience in the early '80s, when he was first director of FM radio research at ABC and program director at Detroit album-oriented rock (AOR) station WRIF. (The AOR format grew out of the freeform and progressive stations of the '60s, allowing DJs to play deep cuts from albums, but with a narrower focus on rock as opposed to other genres. The founders of that freeform approach were recently interviewed during a live-recorded episode of Marc Maron's WTF podcast.) At the time, younger listeners were resisting older records by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Who, while older listeners weren't especially enamored of, say, Def Leppard. "I started thinking, 'What if there was a way to fragment AOR by focusing on just the older part, the early golden age of rock?'" Jacobs tells Billboard.

Other stations had flirted with the "classic rock" phrase and concept before, such as Philadelphia's WYSP and Chicago's WMET. But the idea really took off following low-power station WMMQ's switch to the format thanks to the faith of programming director Jeff Crowe and station owner Bob Ottaway. Within a year, the format had spread to Washington, D.C. and Kansas City, and label executives were openly worrying to Billboard about the format's effect on sales of new music.

The Big Chill soundtrack and the rise of the CD had a hand in the early success of classic rock radio, Jacobs says, by reminding audiences of the music from their youth and offering a then-fashionable new way to purchase it. Jacobs recalls that CD players were a popular promotional giveaway for classic rock radio stations, likening the devices to Apple's iPod in the '00s. Meanwhile, the return of "classic" Coca-Cola after the New Coke debacle, also in 1985, affirmed the potency of the chosen term. But mostly, at the dawn of the MTV era, classic rock radio was filling a market need.

Classic rock embodies a "very white, male, baby boomer image" that relates to many of the debates about rock music and its place in culture, notes Devon Powers, associate professor of communication at Drexel University and author of Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism. "It's almost like a museum-ification," she says. "Classic rock now is classic, in all of both the negative and positive connotations of that word."

"MTV was the big thing, and of course its focus was all on new, new, new," Jacobs says. "Hot Hits was the big radio format at that time -- that was all about Michael Jackson and Madonna and all those artists." A radio format focusing on music almost wholly ignored by those outlets, then, "just totally took off."

As it stands now the classic rock radio format has seen many of its original listeners age out of its target demographic (25- to 54-year-olds), but remains relevant by posted gains among a new generation.

Among 18- to 34-year-olds, classic rock's share of audience in November was up 13 percent from a year earlier, according to Nielsen's Portable People Meter (PPM) survey, which measures radio listening in the top 48 U.S. markets. Jon Miller, vp of Audience Insights for Nielsen, says, "Those are pretty significant gains for a format." Overall, among people age 6 and older, classic rock ranked No. 8 among radio formats in November, with a 5.1 percent audience share, according to Nielsen's PPM survey. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, it's No. 9 with a 4.4 percent share, and among 25- to 54-year-olds, it's No. 7 with a 5.5 percent share.

In other words: Three decades later, classic rock remains a top 10 hit.

Classic rock's ongoing success owes partly to younger artists' continual rediscovery of legends like Creedence Clearwater Revival. "The format has benefited from a more-than-anecdotal number of 18-year-olds discovering Led Zeppelin," says Sean Ross, vp of music and programming for Edison Research and author of the Ross on Radio newsletter (Ross is a Billboard contributor).

Another factor is the waning prevalence of the guitar in current alternative music. "If you are 18 years old and don't consider Walk the Moon rock'n'roll, that leaves classic rock," says Ross.

Plus, as anyone who has dialed up a local classic-rock station recently knows, what constitutes "classic rock" has changed as programmers try for a younger demographic. Nirvana, Metallica, Pearl Jam and other bands that would, for obvious reasons, never gotten on classic rock radio a decade ago now receive their fair share of spins. "That's a small part of why you see that younger appeal," Nielsen's Miller says. ('Lo and behold: Even Def Leppard has found its place on classic rock stations.)

The fact that Nirvana and other bands, once hailed as alternatives to mainstream rock, now air on classic rock radio is significant, according to Eric Weisbard, associate professor of American studies at the University of Alabama and author of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music. He says that rock "represented cultural progress" during the 20 years before classic rock radio. After '86, however, Weisbard argues that rock "became the most calcified style of all." He says the genre has "struggled" to develop new artists and new approaches since classic rock radio proved it could attract more, higher-income male listeners than formats open to newer sounds in rock.

Jacobs challenges that assertion, however. "I think maybe a higher bar was set by classic rock, and it has been difficult for subsequent generations of artists to crack through," he says.

This notion -- that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other bands that Jacob once dubbed "Mount Rushmore" acts will prove uniquely everlasting -- has driven the format since its inception. That's contradicted somewhat by the ongoing refreshing of classic rock playlists with newer oldies. If true, it's unclear whether enough fresh classics will be produced to guarantee the format a viable long-term future.

"The rock that came out of the '60s and '70s was just all-time," Nielsen's Miller says, more than a little rhetorically. "Can you say the same about today's modern rock? Nobody knows the answer to this question."

In recent years, newer formats have arisen such as classic alternative, which mixes bands like The White Stripes and the Strokes with '90s bands for Generation X'ers, and classic hip-hop, which concentrates on '90s rap and R&B. Neither ranks in the top 10 formats tracked by Nielsen, either overall or for the 18-34 and 25-54 demographics -- at least, not yet -- but both approaches similarly aim to deliver the music of people's youth, outside the classic-rock framework.

Edison Research's Ross sees a bigger threat to the classic rock format from the "classic hits" format, which encompasses a broader range of styles from the '60s to the '90s, sometimes including pop, soul, disco and Motown as well as rock. For instance, WCBS in New York might throw in some Bill Withers alongside classic rock staple Journey. Perhaps unsurprisingly an an increasingly genre-agnostic age, classic hits ranked just ahead of classic rock among all listeners 6 and older in November, with a 5.4 percent audience share, according to Nielsen. In the 18­-34 and 25­-54 demographics, however, classic rock still leads.

Audience share isn't the only indicator of classic rock's ongoing relevance. As a website launched by Jacobs to mark the 30th anniversary notes, Rolling Stones and AC/DC T-shirts are available at Target, and 2015's more than $1.1 billion-grossing Minions movie has a soundtrack packed with classic-rock favorites. Meanwhile, The Voice's Jordan Smith is currently inhabiting a Queen cover all the way toward the top of the charts. In the indie realm, Philadelphia guitar guru Kurt Vile's 2015 album b'lieve i'm goin down… might one day fit into some hypothetical classic rock playlist as seamlessly as its grunge-era predecessors.

Ross points out that in the streaming era, all music is equally available regardless of age. "More than any other time in history, timeless records are timeless," he says. "There's no dishonor in listening to your parents' music, and it's not your parents' music anyway. It's a blind playlist that your buddy sent you."

Live concerts, too, helped separate classic rock from the oldies format. "So many classic rockers have really been some of the best touring acts over the past 20 years," Jacobs says.

As Rush drummer Peart's decision to put down his sticks underscores, though, classic-rock bands may eventually have to consider leaving the road. Jacobs points to some groups finding ways to make it work, such as the Moody Blues, who hired a second drummer, Gordon Marshall, to support original member Graeme Edge. "Fortunately I think most of these bands will continue to tour, and when you see somebody like Paul McCartney in concert, it's amazing," Jacobs says.

Weisbard, the Alabama professor, agrees that newer variants of the classic rock format will be weaker due to their lack of a strong connection to touring. "Classic rock radio didn't break new artists," he says, "but it's long set attendance records, and big box office is forever young."

Based on classic rock's track record so far, the debates over what it is, how long it will last and what impact it has had on the broader culture will still be there, ready to be picked up again 10 years from now -- as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.