The alternative radio format is built upon the promise of what’s coming next, so it’s no surprise that the music played by alternative stations has experienced multiple changes during the last 25 years. Some of those changes, though, have as much to do with the radio landscape as musical trends.
In 1988, after a short-lived format boom in the early MTV era, alternative radio was again attracting the attention of major-market group broadcasters. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the core acts of alternative were still very much the Smiths, Depeche Mode and the Cure — in fact, British groups take up seven of the top 10 positions on the first Alternative chart, dated Sept. 10, 1988, with an eighth going to Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers. But 10,000 Maniacs also have a place in that first top 10, and there’s a significant female singer/songwriter presence, with Edie Brickell, Tracy Chapman, Patti Smith and Joan Armatrading all charting.
Even on that first Alternative chart (called “Modern Rock,” the survey’s name until 2009), however, there were already bursts of the guitar rock that most would have claimed was antithetical to “modern rock.” The format was all about not playing Led Zeppelin, but it had room for acts like the Cult (which rose to fame retooling the stomp of Zeppelin and AC/DC for a new generation) and the Mission U.K. (which gave Zeppelin a goth makeover).
One could think of this as a sign of things to come, but the grunge revolution that followed in the early ’90s was the convergence of several factors: the implosion of mainstream top 40, a subsequent influx of top 40 programmers to alternative who created the most mass-appeal distillation of the format to date and, most significantly, a wealth of guitar rock that combined a Generation X attitude with classic sounds.
Seattle acts like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains had strong connections to their classic rock forebears, and though Nirvana may have been less clearly classic, that didn’t stop Kurt Cobain from calling the group “the ’90s version of Cheap Trick.” California bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Offspring and Green Day all drew on different threads of ’70s punk, but all still had enough guitar crunch to make them ’90s frat-boy-friendly. Suddenly, the format had a growing coalition of listeners who didn’t have much in common otherwise.
The poppier core acts didn’t disappear from the format immediately. Some went for a harder sound. But by the mid- to late ’90s, the philosophy floating around the format was summed up by this maxim: “Play Nirvana and Pearl Jam and win, or play Depeche Mode and the Smiths and get a 2 share.”
In the late ’90s, the hardening of the format was hastened even further by the rise of the modern AC format. Once poppier acts and singer/songwriters had their own home, it was easier for alternative to move on. For a decade from that first chart in 1988, one of alternative’s strengths had been its embrace of what came to be called “women who rock.” Now, alternative stations stopped including women in their research. And, in many cases, on their playlists.
What was left was almost entirely hard rock, including the burgeoning rap/rock scene. Some alternative fans had rankled a little at grunge. For that listener, there was little left to enjoy among Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Korn and Linkin Park. Only more cerebral hard rock acts like System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine managed to span the constituencies.
By the early ’00s, playing hard rock became a way of reaching the largest available audience. There was constant discussion about how closely the Alternative and Active Rock charts resembled each other. Acts like Guns N’ Roses that had once defined “the other” to alternative fans found a home in some alternative radio libraries, while Metallica became a band promoted to both formats for a while. “True alternative” was considered a self-indulgence that garnered the same modest ratings as the format in its pre-grunge days.
What allowed a format based on new music to reset itself was, ironically, oldies. KBZT (FM 94.9) San Diego created a much-copied template with its mix of library titles and a few strategically chosen newer songs. On those stations, there was room for current tracks that weren’t hard rock, including some from the core acts of 1988 as Smiths leader Morrissey and the Cure both returned to the charts.
Then there was “Seven Nation Army,” the impact of which was like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in reverse. In 1991, Nirvana had made guitar rock more acceptable amid the synths and singer/songwriters. In 2003, the White Stripes snuck progressive instrumentation back into the guitar racket. During the next five years, it would be bands with just enough traditional guitar rock DNA — Silversun Pickups, Muse, Kings of Leon — that helped change the balance of the format.
SiriusXM’s Alt.Nation channel was also an influence. Los Angeles’ much-loved mid-’00s KDLE (Indie 103.1) couldn’t sustain a place on the FM dial. Alt.Nation didn’t have the same pressures and, given satellite radio’s multiple rock choices, it had a mandate not to sound like active rock. A second wave of successful stations along the lines of KBZT, especially WRFF (Radio 104.5) Philadelphia, were similarly influential.
For the last few years, there’s been an unmistakable “Spirit of ’88” sound on the Alternative chart, including progressive dance acts (Daft Punk, Avicii) and female singer/songwriter Lorde at No. 1. The triple A format, inchoate in 1988, is as close to alternative today as active rock was a decade ago. Meanwhile, active rock has little viable current product, and even some of the hardest-rocking Alternative chart reporters have made their way back to a less guitar-driven sound. Instead, the influence of dubstep gives the format its power-chord “bro appeal” today.
That said, it is one of those songs driven by dubstep power chords, Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” that has become alternative’s biggest crossover in recent memory. “Radioactive” isn’t so different from a Linkin Park record, and shows what can happen when an alternative hit works for multiple constituencies. At a time when music is less partitioned anyway, it seems inevitable that some act will capture the teen spirit of 1991 and spur alternative to even greater growth. Then, as is the challenge for all formats, the issue will be maintaining a balance.