Progressive rock (radio format)
Progressive rock is a radio station programming format that prospered in the late 1960s and 1970s,1 in which the disc jockeys are given wide latitude in what they may play, similar to the freeform format but with the proviso that some kind of rock music is almost always what is played.2 The name for the format came from around 1968, when serious disc jockeys were playing "progressive 'music for the head'" and discussing social issues in between records.3
When FM broadcasting licenses were first issued by the FCC, broadcasters were slow to take advantage of the new airwaves available to them because their advertising revenues were generated primarily from existing AM broadcasting stations and because there were few FM radio receivers owned by the general public. This void created an opportunity for the disenchanted youth counterculture of the 1960s to express itself by playing music that was largely ignored by mainstream outlets. In this sense, progressive rock radio was more of a social response than a product marketed to fill a need.
This change coincided with the greater emphasis on albums as opposed to singles in the rock market. Hugely popular albums such as The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band did not contain any singles, so there was clearly a need for a radio format that would explore beyond the Top 40. This in turn led to rock artists placing greater emphasis on long or experimental album tracks, knowing they could still receive radio airplay.
The progressive rock radio format should not be confused with the progressive rock music genre. While progressive rock music was certainly played on progressive rock stations, other varieties of rock music were also played. Generally everything from early Beatles and early Dylan on forward was fair game. Progressive rock radio was generally the only outlet for fringe rock genres such as space rock and quiet, acoustic-based folk rock and country rock (often played on weekend mornings). Progressive stations were also known for having "turntable hits", songs by obscure artists that did not sell much and were not hits by any conventional measure, but which listeners kept calling up and requesting;4 Sweet Thursday's "Gilbert Street" was a good example on the East Coast.56
The progressive rock radio format grew out of the freeform radio format,7 and, sharing the key characteristic of disc jockeys having the freedom to play what they chose, has sometimes been referred to as "freeform rock radio" or "freeform progressive radio"8 or simply "FM rock radio".8 But as they evolved there were key differences between the freeform and progressive rock formats:
- Freeform could play any genre of music; progressive rock generally limited itself to (various kinds of) rock.
- After its early days, freeform tended towards small or "underground" stations in non-commercial or niche markets;9 progressive rock could and did handle big-signal stations in large markets.
- Progressive rock was intended to be as fully commercially viable as any other mainstream radio format;3 freeform usually shunned such ambitions.
- The progressive rock format had a large impact on the commercial rock music industry at the time;10 the freeform format generally did not.
The archetypal successful and influential progressive rock radio station was WNEW-FM in New York in the late 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s.111213 For instance, Keith Emerson credited it for breaking Emerson, Lake & Palmer into the United States market.10 Other long-running, large-market examples included WMMR in Philadelphia14 (credited with helping to break Bruce Springsteen),15 WBCN in Boston, WXRT in Chicago, WMMS in Cleveland, CJOM and WABX in Detroit/Windsor, WZMF in Milwaukee, KQRS-FM in Minneapolis, WOWI in Norfolk, WORJ-FM in Orlando, KSAN in San Francisco, and KMET in Los Angeles.16 Many of the higher-profile stations among these were owned by Metromedia.17 College progressive rock radio stations included WVBR in Ithaca, New York, WKNC in Raleigh, North Carolina,18 WBRU in Providence, Rhode Island,19 WRPI in Troy, New York, and WWUH in Hartford, Connecticut.
Over time (some much faster than others), the large-city progressive rock stations usually lost DJ freedom and adopted the more structured and confined album-oriented rock format in the 1970s or 1980s,23 and then later the nostalgic classic rock format in the 1980s or 1990s, while the smaller progressive rock stations sometimes turned to the college rock or alternative rock.24 Where once "progressive rock radio [was] the key media of ascendant rock culture", as writer Nelson George put it,25 by 1987, musician and author Robert Palmer would write, "The glory days of 'progressive' rock radio - when the disk jockey actually chose the records he played and creatively juxtaposed songs and styles - are long gone."26
While freeform stations are still around in the 2000s, such as New Jersey's WFMU,27 and while 95.7 the Ride in Charlotte, North Carolina, recalls the format's original sound,28 there may be no real examples of the specific progressive rock radio format in existence today on the FM dial. The Deep Tracks channel on Sirius XM Satellite Radio plays some of the music originally heard on progressive rock radio, but without pronounced disc jockey personalities or the full feel of the original format. Some of the spirit of progressive rock radio (albeit in a more mellow, "adult" form) can also be found in the adult album alternative format.29
- Thomas Staudter, "On the Radio With a Mix Very Distinctly His Own", The New York Times, March 24, 2002. Accessed March 23, 2008.
- Fritz E. Froehlich, Allen S. Kent, Carolyn M. Hall (eds.), "FM Commercialization in the United States", The Froehlich/Kent encyclopedia of telecommunications, CRC Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8247-2902-1. p. 179.
- Mike Olszewski, Radio Daze: Stories from the Front in Cleveland's FM Air Wars, Kent State University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-87338-773-2. p. xi.
- Bobby Borg, The Musician's Handbook: A Practical Guide to Understanding the Music Business, Watson-Guptill, 2003. ISBN 0-8230-8357-8. p. 191.
- George-Warren, Holly; Romanowski, Patricia; Pareles, Jon, eds. (2001). The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (3rd ed.). Fireside Books. p. 608. ISBN 0-7432-0120-5.
- Eder, Bruce. "Sweet Thursday: Review". Allmusic. Retrieved 4 April 2010.
- Sara Pendergast, Tom Pendergast, St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press, 2000.
- Todd Leopold, "Whatever happened to rock 'n' roll radio?", CNN.com, February 7, 2002. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- Jesse Walker, Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, NYU Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8147-9382-7. pp. 71-100.
- Keith Emerson, "Remembering Scott Muni", keithemerson.com, September 29, 2004. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- Robbie Woliver, "Disc Jockey, 55, Back In His College Booth", The New York Times, April 1, 2001. Accessed March 23, 2008.
- Glenn Collins, "WNEW-FM, Rock Pioneer, Goes to All-Talk Format", The New York Times, September 14, 1999. Accessed March 23, 2008.
- Varla Ventura, "Alison Steele: Song of the Nightbird", entry in Sheroes: Bold, Brash, and Absolutely Unabashed Superwomen from Susan B. Anthony to Xena, Conari, 1998. ISBN 1-57324-128-8. pp. 196-198.
- "David Dye, NPR Biography", NPR. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- Joe Howard, "Bill Weston’s Resurrection Of Legendary Rocker WMMR", Radio Ink, October 16, 2006. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- Paul Friedlander, Rock and Roll: A Social History, Westview Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8133-2725-3. p. 199.
- Walker, Rebels on the Air, p. 96.
- "The history of WKNC", WKNC-FM. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- "WBRU", Encyclopedia Brunoniana, Brown University. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- "Classic Vinyl and Sirius remember Scott Muni", Sirius Satellite Radio, October 1, 2004. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- "Scott Muni and Johnny Michaels", Rock Radio Scrapbook. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- "A Brief History Of 106.9 FM In San Francisco", Bay Area Radio Museum. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- William Safire, quoting Stephen Holden, "On Language: Don't Touch That Dial", The New York Times, September 7, 1986. Accessed August 23, 2007.
- Keith Moerer, "Who Killed Rock Radio?", Spin, February 1998. Accessed August 24, 2007.
- Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Pantheon Books, 1988. ISBN 0-525-48510-4.
- Robert Palmer, "Critic's Notebook: Now, Good Music Is Where You Find It", The New York Times, October 29, 1987. Accessed August 23, 2007.
- Walker, Rebels on the Air, p. 127.
- Mark Washburn, "95.7 FM Has New 'Ride' for Listeners - Progressive Hits from '60s And '70s Will Be Station's New Format", The Charlotte Observer, September 5, 2002.
- "Adult Album Alternative (AAA)" entry, New York Radio Guide. Access August 23, 2007.