The sad demise of “Radio 104,” a McClear Channel modern rock station up the street from me in Hartford, exemplifies the pathetic state of rock radio and rock music these days. A year and a half ago, there were three rock stations in the area: WMRQ (aka “Radio 104”), WHCN, a hard classic rock station (also owned by Clear Channel), and WCCC, an “active rock” station owned by Marlin, a small radio chain. Now all that’s left is CCC.
I remember how delighted I was when Radio 104 burst on the scene in late 1994. I was actually lying around one night listening to its soft rock predecessor when suddenly Tori Amos’s acoustic version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on, followed by Nirvana’s; and then we were off, into the land of Pearl Jam and the Butthole Surfers and Portishead. At first the station swept away everything in its path, its billboards springing up everywhere and proclaiming “a modern rock revolution!” The area, a classic rock redoubt, had long been starved for such a station, and 104 enjoyed sky-high ratings.
But almost immediately, the station lapsed into a cookie-cutter format, and within a few years, its main competitor, WCCC, had landed Howard Stern, brought in a program manager with a long history in the area, and blown past 104 in the ratings. The station tried all sorts of tactics in response, most notably hiring Dee Snider of Twisted Sister to compete against Stern in the mornings and settling into a hard alternative, nu metal format. In a final act of desperation, it fired Snyder (who actually had respectable ratings), brought in Bubba the Love Sponge, a syndicated buffoon from Florida, and leaned emo. Ratings continued to disintegrate, and in September, 2003, Clear Channel finally put Radio 104 out of its misery, replacing it with hip hop.
Apart from serving as yet another illustration of how stupid Clear Channel is, Radio 104’s demise demonstrates that rock radio really is in terminal decline. There are only so many of the 18-25 year old males these stations covet, while young women have fled to other formats. Probably metro areas like Hartford can support only one active or alternative station, along with a classic rocker. The kids may be alright, but they prefer rap.
I bristle when people say rock is dead, and I try to tell them about Thursday and Lacuna Coil and Queens of the Stone Age. But the airwaves, like the Billboard charts, tell a different story.