by Alex Cosper (12/16/12)
Classic rock is a radio format and not really considered a musical genre. It's more of a retrospective of rock's greatest hits that span from the 1960s through the last decade. Most classic rock stations use top rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Van Halen and Aerosmith as their anchor artists and rely heavily on rock hits of the seventies and eighties to fill out the library. The number of songs in a classic rock library are dictated by the radio station and can range from a tight format of 500 songs to a wide freeform format encompassing thousands of songs.
The timeline for most classic rock stations is 1964 through 1990, but this timeline varies from station to station. Some classic rock stations even reach back to the fifties for specialty shows. Chuck Berry is played on the more diverse stations, whereas he is omitted on stations that try to ride off lots of the Led Zeppelin through Boston era. If you find that the station plays a Led Zeppelin every hour, there's a good chance the station uses a small tighter library that doesn't include the music of early rock pioneers. Although the transition from "rock and roll" to "rock" clearly happened in the sixties and The Beatles were a huge influence, many classic rock stations treat Led Zeppelin as the band that started rock.
Many classic rock stations are simply a continuum of rock stations that have been around since the 1960s or 1970s. KGB in San Diego is an example of a station that has played rock for decades and now devotes their programming to classic rock. KISW in Seattle continues to have an "active rock" format, playing current music as well as classics. The Seattle station has been on the FM dial since 1950 but first started playing rock in the early seventies.
The roots of classic rock's popularity beyond the core anchor artists began with pop artists who began making experimental albums that were played on freeform stations in the late sixties. A company called MetroMedia owned several freeform stations such as KSAN in San Francisco, KMET in Los Angeles and WMMS in Cleveland, one of the first cities in America to play any kind of rock and roll music. Freeform was also called progressive rock radio. Other freeform stations owned by MetroMedia included WNEW in New York and WMMR in Philadelephia. Freeform staton with other owners included KZAP in Sacramento, WHFS in Baltimore, WBCN in Boston, WXRT in Chicago and WABX in Detroit. Freeform, heavily influenced by public and college radio, helped shape the initial core library of what became the rock format.
By the late seventies many of the main freeform stations had been taken over by a handful of rock radio consultants, who streamlined the stations into tight playlists remembling the top 40 approach to programming with slightly looser rotations and jock presentation. Coined by consultant Lee Abrams as "album-oriented rock," the format became huge in the eighties but was overshadowed in the nineties by the alternative rock format. Eventually, many AOR stations either changed format or became classic rock stations. Today the active rock format survives, but there are more classic rock stations around the country. Many rock hits heard on classic rock stations were also big pop hits, which gives the format a familiar sound to people who grew up with 60s and 70s top 40 radio.
The more diverse classic rock stations play The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Doors, Elton John, The Eagles and Crosby, Stills & Nash along with Def Leppard, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty mixes with less familiar blues-based rock. The format itself has no solid definition in the radio industry, other than popular rock songs from the past. Tightly formatted stations tend to pay close attention to audience research to determine which songs still test well. The wider open classic rock stations seem to offer a more human sounding community spirit while the the tighter stations sound like a jukebox programmed to play a short list of Led Zeppelin songs in heavy rotation.