Who is shaping the future of rock? Rising stars, certainly, such as Cold War Kids, The Strumbellas and The Lumineers, each a current top 10 act on Billboard’s Rock Airplay chart. But the programmers at alternative, adult alternative and active/mainstream radio outlets choose the songs that propel artists like these up the airplay charts. The 25 rock programmers here, at 20 different outlets, are identified by label executives surveyed by Billboard as among the most influential in getting exposure for new rock repertoire. They are ranked by the size of their markets and their industry impact.
And they share one common goal, stated simply by alternative-radio leader Kevin Weatherly of KROQ Los Angeles: “We’re always looking for hits.”
Ask record executives to name the most influential rock programmers at satellite radio service SiriusXM and they won’t give you a single answer — they’ll give you three. Jess Besack, adult alternative programmer at The Spectrum; Jeff Regan, host of alternative channel Alt Nation; and Vincent Usuriello, choosing new hard-rock acts at Octane, together have contributed to the growth of SiriusXM’s national subscriber base of more than 30 million. “We’re encouraged to move fast and take chances,” says Besack, a Park Slope, Brooklyn, resident, who has given The Spectrum’s support to The Record Company and Barns Courtney, among other acts. Regan, a father of two boys under 6, got behind Twenty One Pilots‘ “Ride” before its release as a single, helping the track’s rise to No. 1 on the Alternative airplay chart. And Brooklyn-born Usuriello has seen his support for the band From Ashes to New propel its album Day One to No. 2 on Hard Rock Albums. “Our audience is so engaged,” says Usuriello, “we can see a song go from 100 downloads a week to over 1,000 just from our airplay alone.”
To stay on music’s cutting edge, Bob Boilen attended some 500 concerts in 2015. “That was down from 660 the year before,” he says with a laugh, “only because I was writing a book [Your Song Changed My Life, HarperCollins]. The Washington, D.C., resident spent 18 years directing NPR’s All Things Considered until 2000, when he created All Songs Considered and, subsequently, Tiny Desk Concerts, which has featured up to 100 performances every year. Both programs are in-demand showcases for acts across the adult alternative format and beyond. Artists “trust NPR as a place [with] integrity,” he says. An estimated 20 million-plus fans flock to NPR Music. “We play what we have a passion for and make decisions from the heart.”
Los Angeles’ alternative mainstay KROQ (106.7 KROQ) regained its market-leading status at No. 1 among men 18-to-49 (up from No. 3 in 2015), according to Nielsen Audio, playing breakout acts like Lukas Graham, Cold War Kids and Elle King. Kevin Weatherly, who credits seeing U2 at age 19 for his career path, holds multiple senior roles at CBS Radio and collaborates with Lisa Worden-Faulk, a self-described Cure fanatic and mother of 6-month-old twins, to program KROQ. “For the long-term health of the music business, not just our format,” says Weatherly, “we need artists who can sell not just singles but concert tickets, and who can have a long career.”
For 22 years, Rita Houston has guided noncommercial adult alternative WFUV (90.7 FM) from the Bronx campus of Fordham University (the station’s licensee). As commercial New York outlets abandoned new rock formats, she has become a leading on-air champion for rising artists, such as Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett, both 2016 Grammy Award nominees. WFUV also has gained a high profile because Houston appears at events like the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival. “It’s not enough to be a DJ anymore and play records,” says the Nyack, N.Y., resident of her job’s evolution. “You’ve got to be a great writer. You’ve got to know how to present yourself on social media. You’ve got to be able to communicate about music and connect with listeners.”
In the nation’s third-largest media market, alternative WKQX (101 WKQX) benefits from the programming partnership of Walt Flakus, a working musician off the air, and Hanson, a native of St. Paul, Minn., who also helps guide rock playlists for the Cumulus Media chain. The station ranks No. 2 among men 18-to-24, its strongest audience segment, according to Nielsen. But Troy Hanson says his “secret sauce” of mixing guitar-driven rock with more melodic fare “can bring females along” and, for WKQX’s business goals, “that pays off big.” Flakus picks songs that will build careers. “We don’t need disposable artists,” he says.
“We’re in the center lane of pop alternative,” says Mike Kaplan, a North Hollywood resident, aptly choosing a highway metaphor to describe Los Angeles’ KYSR (ALT 98.7), whose music mix ranks it No. 2 among women 18-to-34, according to Nielsen. Kaplan adds: “Alternative is always at its greatest when it’s agnostic to gender — never too heavy or too light.” Andy Harms, who joined KYSR in 2015, concurs. “We cater to 50 percent male, 50 percent female, and our playlist absolutely reflects that,” he says. I’m proud that our station doesn’t treat female artists or listeners as a niche.”
“You’ll typically find that KCSN [88.9 FM] is one of the first five stations in the country to play the hits on the adult alternative charts,” says Sky Daniels (real name: Daniel Rudolf), an Ohio native who joined this rising noncommercial Los Angeles outlet in 2011 after a career path through esteemed rock outlets including KFOG San Francisco, WLUP Chicago and KISW Seattle. Guiding his station’s mix of new and veteran artists (singer-songwriter Lissie to Counting Crows in a recent morning segue), Daniels says KCSN’s greatest achievement this past year was the launch of a high-profile performance stage and remote studio at the upscale Village at Westfield Topanga mall in Canoga Park, exposing the KCSN brand to some 100,000 visitors weekly.
While spinning new tunes in its active rock format from such legacy acts as Cheap Trick or Tom Petty‘s Mudcrutch, WMMR (93.3) under Bill Weston also sticks its neck out for alternative-leaning songs from the likes of British quintet Foals and Iceland’s Kaleo. “It’s great if a song rocks in a new way,” says the western New York native and father of two grown children, who has consistently led WMMR to a No. 1 ranking in Philadelphia among men 18-to-49, according to Nielsen. “We have the autonomy to select music based on our market knowledge.”
When British rockers The Struts hit No. 12 on Alternative Albums with Everybody Wants in March, the act could thank James Howard, who learned of the group from its manager, Ben Berkman, and then “sent their music to everyone I could possibly think of in the iHeartMedia team.” The Miami-raised programmer, who lives in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, guides alternative WWDC (DC101), classic rock WBIG (BIG 100.3) and DJ Elliot Segal’s syndicated morning show. Choosing music and balancing the interests of listeners, advertisers and record labels, “it’s hard to manage and find success,” he says. “But when it happens, it’s pretty sweet.”
How can local radio compete with global streaming services? “Personalities, events and interaction with our community,” says John Allers, a long-distance runner who plays a national alternative music role with iHeartMedia but emphasizes the Philadelphia presence of WRFF (Radio 104.5). The station is No. 1 among men 18-to-24, according to Nielsen, and Allers witnessed local listener loyalty when fans snapped up 25,000 tickets for a Twenty One Pilots concert on June 11 that will celebrate WRFF’s ninth birthday. “We have events here in Philadelphia that support the new music we play.”
In a city whose rock history boasts acts from Jimi Hendrix to Nirvana, Castle at KISW (99.9 The Rock) has embraced radio’s future. “We’re a multiplatform media outlet,” says Ryan Castle, a Washington state native who lives in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. He notes that KISW, like many stations, now reaches listeners “online, through social media, on our website and through texts and mobile apps,” all valuable tools “for the right artists.” On air, KISW has led its market among men 18-to-49 for more than a year, according to Nielsen. “My job,” quips Castle, “is to not mess that up.”
Bruce Warren wields his influence locally and nationally, overseeing broadcast and digital content for WXPN (88.5 XPN), one of the industry’s most respected noncommercial adult alternative stations, and as executive producer of World Cafe, syndicated by NPR and hosted by David Dye. A Temple University graduate (who once planned to be an elementary school teacher), Warren has guided WXPN’s “Artists to Watch” campaigns for such rising performers as George Ezra, Leon Bridges, The Record Company and Margo Price, while World Cafe Next has given early national exposure to acts like roots-rock band Quiet Life and country singer Aubrie Sellers. “I love getting people excited about music and ideas,” says Warren, the father of two teenage boys. “That’s a big part of my role.”
“We’ve taken some chances to redefine [the tastes] for rock for this market, which got a little too narrow,” says Derek Madden, who has been taking risks since college. While at the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations, he did a shift on the college radio station and hasn’t looked back. For KXXR (93X), he’s looking ahead, past “a very hard-rock-aligned” audience, to expose more alternative acts like Cage the Elephant and Awolnation. The result? KXXR ranks No. 1 in Minneapolis among men 18-to-34, according to Nielsen. “It’s just looking at rock and how it needs to move forward.”
“The policy here is, we listen to everything,” says Nerf (real name: Jeb Gudas Freedman) at KTCL (Channel 93.3), who picked up his nickname at California’s Whittier College, where he studied philosophy. “Everything” means local bands, unsigned bands and indie bands — which is how KTCL launched Denver’s Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats onto iHeartMedia’s national On the Verge showcase program. As a “very pop-leaning alternative station,” KTCL ranks No. 1 among women 18-to-49, according to Nielsen. Nerf, the father of three children under 8, recently was named vp events and strategic partnerships for all 26 iHeartMedia stations in the Denver region.
Mark Hamilton, who grew up in southwest London, credits British TV’s Top of the Pops and the late John Peel, BBC Radio 1’s DJ, for inspiring his rock radio career. At KNRK (94/7 fm), he helped launch the weekly New Music Heaven show — which gave some of the first major-market radio exposure in the United States to such acts as Mumford & Sons, Fun and Neon Trees. KNRK ranks No. 2 in men 18-to-24 in Portland, up from No. 7 a year ago, according to Nielsen. What’s ahead for alternative stations? “We’re going to see a return to hard-edged rock bands,” he predicts.
Austin has a “famously voracious musical appetite,” says Haley Jones at KGSR (93.3 KGSR) and the adult alternative station mixes veteran acts like U2 and Tom Petty with such newcomers as Lukas Graham and Leon Bridges. Under Jones (whose husband, Bryan Shock, is program director of KFOG/KSAN San Francisco), KGSR leads the Austin market among men 18-to-24; it was tied in eighth place in that audience segment in 2015, according to Nielsen. Live broadcasts from the Austin City Limits and South by Southwest music festivals, and the Blues on the Green concert series, help expose artists. “When we find something we love, we’re not afraid to play it,” she says, “whether a label is working it to our format or not.”
“Rock can be very broadly defined, so we are always looking for new textures with KKDO [Radio 94.7],” says Jim Fox, whose oversight of the Sacramento alternative station led it to No. 1 among men 18-to-24, up from second place in that audience segment in 2015, according to Nielsen. Fox, a Las Vegas native and father of two, says KKDO has “taken risks” with its music mix but cautions that listeners will tune out too much novelty. “New music is now 10 percent of the playlist,” he says. “I can play new songs all day long, but the audience just doesn’t want it.”
KRBZ (96.5 The Buzz) leverages live shows by artists in and around Kansas City to drive demand among its listeners for new music, says Lazlo (real name: Scott Geiger), who recalls that his first concert, at age 13, was a Violent Femmes show. “We work with record labels to bring bands to town and hopefully sell concert tickets [to] break new music in the city,” says the Detroit native and father of two, whose alternative station ranks No. 1 among men 18-to-34, according to Nielsen. “That’s an important part of what alternative radio is,” adds Lazlo. Among the features of KRBZ’s website is an online playlist that allows quick access to the concert listings for artists featured on its airwaves. The combination of music and events, he says, is key “to get people engaged.”
In the capital of country music, WRLT (Lightning 100) champions local rock’n’roll. “That’s a big part of our mission,” says Gary Kraen, a Montana native who lives in Nashville’s hip 12 South neighborhood. “Close to 40 percent of our programming at Lightning 100 is local music,” he adds. While WRLT is not a subscriber to Nielsen Audio ratings and does not publish its financial results, Kraen says its revenue has quadrupled in the past five years. His station’s adult alternative format allows a broad definition of rock, he says, citing WRLT’s support for singer-songwriter Andra Day, “one of those artists who’s going to be a cross-genre success.”
At KILO (94.3 KILO), Ross Ford carries on the legacy of the late Richard Hawk, whose 27 years programming the station made it a nationally recognized pioneer in the active rock format. (Hawk retired in 2006 and died in 2013.) Ford, a Denver native, finds new acts for KILO’s playlist with help from a “pure rock panel” driven by online listener input. That’s how acts like Volbeat and Sick Puppies aired on KILO. “Our job,” he says, “is to find songs that KILO’s audience will love and become ‘power gold’ for the rest of time.”
* Declined to reveal age
CONTRIBUTORS: Rich Appel, Gary Graff, Melinda Newman, Cathy Applefeld Olson, Mitchell Peters, Craig Rosen, Kevin Rutherford, Chuck Taylor
NOTE: Audience rankings from Nielsen Audio are based on the Metro Portable People Meter data for Monday to Sunday, 6 a.m. to midnight, for March 15 and 16, and represent the strongest audience segment for each station during that period, as reported by Nielsen.
This article first appeared in the May 14 issue of Billboard.