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The Return Of Mainstream Rock


93.3 WMMR Philadelphia Rock Preston Steve Pierre RobertThe top-played song at Mainstream Rock WMMR Philadelphia is the Raconteurs, “Sunday Driver.” With that song having run its course, and having been followed-up with “Help Me Stranger,” WMMR is pretty much all alone in the format in supporting it. But there are Mainstream Rock reporters playing “Help Me Stranger” as well. And a significant number playing the current from Sum 41—a dividing line band between Alternative and Active Rock in the early 2000s—or Black Keys—a dividing line band as recently as a few years ago.

The most-played song at KISW Seattle is “Blow” by Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, and Chris Stapleton, who has already appeared on the Mainstream Rock chart. KISW was the first rock station to get to double-digit spins several weeks ago when the notion of Ed Sheeran on the rock chart still bore discussion. Now the format, certainly willing to support Greta Van Fleet’s Led Zeppelin homages, has made “Blow” the second fastest-growing song on the Mainstream Rock chart.

The fastest-growing song on the Mainstream Rock chart is Volbeat’s “Last Day Under The Sun.” That band has had its retro homages before—particularly the Kiss-like “Heaven Nor Hell”—but this one sounds like early ‘80s corporate rock. “Dance Macabre” by Ghost, the song that reinvigorated my interest in the Active Rock format a year ago, is by a costumed band that is essentially today’s Kiss, doing their dance/rock equivalent of “I Was Made For Loving You.” It sounds more like a pop or Alternative record than anything heard on Active Rock in recent memory, but the band’s image pigeonholed it at Mainstream Rock, where it still went No. 1.

I have enjoyed the rock chart a lot more over the last year. The difficulties in scoring a true hit without the support of other formats led a slew of bands to release covers, from Disturbed’s The Sound of Silence” to Bad Wolves’ Zombie, to Five Finger Death Punch’s “Blue On Black” that took them in a more accessible direction. The success of Greta Van Fleet steered even existing chart acts toward the Zeppelinesque. Those following the 30 year history of rock radio since the advent of Classic Rock know that “bands that sound like Zeppelin” is always the re-set button. It’s not the fix, but I’d rather hear “sounds like Zeppelin” then “sounds like Chevelle” until we find one.

In the early ‘90s, as Album Rock stations struggled to stay competitive with Classic Rock, many defaulted to “Heritage Rock” with lots of gold and a handful of currents that sounded like Zeppelin, or Bad Company. (Remember “Bad Thing” by Cry of Love?) That format essentially dissolved when the New Rock Revolution began—stations finished the transition to Classic Rock, snapped up the Alternative franchise for themselves, or followed a harder path to Active Rock (especially since so much of the music powering Alternative fit there as well).

Rock 99.9 KISW Seattle BJ Shea Migs Mens RoomFor those stations that never quite embraced Active Rock, there was the designation Mainstream Rock and a small crew of Billboard/Nielsen BDS chart reporters. Then, the two formats were eventually folded together into one Mainstream Rock chart. At the time, it was because those Mainstream stations still playing currents were playing mostly what their Active brethren were handing down. But as Active stations became more library-driven and the music changed, Mainstream Rock became a more accurate description.

Through it all, KISW and WMMR have been able to sit out the Active Rock recession, in part because of high-profile personalities: WMMR’s Preston & Steve morning show, KISW’s now-syndicated Men’s Room afternoon crew. But there’s still a championing of the format’s new music, something that could have been dangerous for KISW when new library-driven rock stations like rival KVRK began popping up with a strategy of playing essentially the same library with no recent music, clearly something that looked like a vulnerability at the time. But KISW is still flourishing and KVRK has moved on to Country.

WMMR, positioned as “Everything That Rocks” has the advantage of a PD in Bill Weston who has always been willing to play anything that rocks, long before that slogan became a euphemism for “active rock with library” elsewhere. Weston played Fall Out Boy at WHJY Providence, R.I., in the early 2000s, so he’s sincere in that statement. Over the last year, WIYY has found renewed success with many of the same currents as WMMR. WDHA Morristown, N.J.—co-owned with WMMR—has remained Mainstream Rock throughout, since the first time it was the rock radio template.

In its championing of today’s rock, WMMR has always had the help of middayer Pierre Robert, who rode out the early days of PPM, in its first currency market, during an era where hosts were no longer supposed to interview bands or talk about the concert they went to a decade or two ago. But yesterday WMMR was playing the new Collective Soul record, and Robert was talking about having written the liner notes.

Between Mainstream Rock and Alternative stations, it’s easy to put together a playlist of songs that a rock format driven by recent music could play. That station doesn’t really exist now, in part because there’s no motor to propel these songs into the broader mainstream. “Blow” arrived at rock radio with a name artist and a streaming story already. It’s easier to break than a format exclusive song, especially when power rotation is rarely more than 40x spins a week and sometimes a lot less. But as with the rebound of Alternative radio, which seemed truly endangered in the mid-‘00s, it is no longer the case that there is nothing to play and nobody to play it.

Here’s WMMR just before 11 a.m. on July 25:

  • Bush, “Machinehead”
  • Shinedown, “Devil”
  • Weezer, “Undone (The Sweater Song)”
  • Dirty Honey, “When I’m Gone” (with a new music stager)
  • Smashing Pumpkins, “Today”
  • Led Zeppelin, “Heartbreaker”/“Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)”
  • Greta Van Fleet, “When The Curtain Falls”
  • Queen, “Fat Bottomed Girls”
  • Collective Soul, “Right As Rain”
  • Rolling Stones, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash (Live)—the “Shine A Light” version but tied to their live show the night before

Here’s KISW from the same stretch, hosted by APD/MD Ryan Castle:

  • Smashing Pumpkins, “Today”
  • Queen, “Killer Queen”
  • Soundgarden, “Fell On Black Days”
  • Green Day, “Holiday”
  • Sublime, “Wrong Way”
  • Pink Floyd, “Hey You”
  • Ed Sheeran, Chris Stapleton, & Bruno Mars, “Blow” (frontsold by title only)
  • Pearl Jam, “Even Flow”
  • Presidents of the United States of America, “Lump”
  • Black Sabbath,”Iron Man”
  • Stone Temple Pilots, “Interstate Love Song”
  • Glorious Sons, “S.O.S. (Sawed Off Shotgun)”
  • Nirvana, “Dumb”
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  1. bill weston says

    Sean! I appreciate you ‘getting’ WMMR- it can be an unwieldy beast at times… but thank God we have air talent like Pierre, Preston and Steve… hell our overnighter, Brent Porche just had Bones UK* in studio for what they called one of their best interviews. Yes- it’s the talent that helps sell/relate these diverse songs and artists to the listener. It is key to what we do. Again- glad you understood this big, beautiful mainstream rock station as well as KISW. And thanks for pointing out the Raconteurs airplay- I am pretty proud of that… BW

    *WMMR played them 3 years ago on a Jeff Beck single called In the Dark
    **And mad props to WMMR APD Chuck Damico and MD Sara Parker for making our musical stew just spicy enough with the right amount of meat and potatoes:)

    1. Sean Ross says

      Thanks, Bill. I think it’s significant that there’s an APD *and* an MD. When there are three people listening to music, you find more music.

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