Rock Around the World March, 1977   21

   On the AIR   

Mike Harrison

He coined the term "album-oriented rock"

and became the leading spokesman for its ideas

What we're hearing on our FMs these days is called "album-oriented rock" by people in the radio biz. It's an album-cut format that includes rock at its core and encompasses all rock-related forms of music. As such, AOR is tuned with our constantly growing cultural awareness and sophistication as listeners—it's open-ended enough to keep up with us on a day-to-day basis.

AOR is a natural evolution of the mid-tolate Sixties underground progressive movement on the (then) mostly empty FM airwaves. That movement began nobly enough as a culturally relevant alternative to Top 40. But by '71, and after making some monumental advances in social thought and technology, the movement had fallen into a '67-'69 time freeze while its listeners kept moving forward.

For a couple of years, rock on FM groped in the dark, searching for the magic trapdoor into the Seventies. The basic question was how to be progressive when they'd already been progressive? It's all been said before—everyone "knew where it was at." And the Beatles are dead. So where does it go from here?

Progressive radio had to become a more entertaining vehicle for aware people rather than one designed to educate. It didn't have to be civil rights or Vietnam or mind expansion. It could be daily living, an appreciation of good music, or somebody on the air who's not going to hype or jive or try to out-hip today's more sophisticated listeners.

A handful of young broadcasters— progressive's second generation, if you will—took those ideas with them as they grew into power positions at a few stations scattered around the country.

One of those guys was Mike Harrison, who left day-to-day radio to write about progressive's second generation. He coined the term "album-oriented rock" and became the leading spokesman for its ideas.

The people with the radio bucks likewise came to realize that many things and ideas considered avant or revolutionary during the Sixties were quite above-ground in the Seventies. They viewed AOR as a term much more acceptable than "free-form acid rock" and other Sixties descriptions. So did advertisers.

Since '73 and '74, stations have been adopting the AOR concept at the rate of two or three a week. There are hundreds all over the country now, and they span the spectrum—soft, hard, rock, jazz, country, black, all-purpose, etc.

In the last few years AOR has done a

great deal to spur the renaissance we've heard in FM programming. It's been receptive to our increased demand for live music specials and intelligent dialog with artists. Rock Around The World, with its two-pronged radio/print approach, is an important part of that renaissance.

Albums by AOR artists now sell better than singles, and many of the singles heard on AM have been edited from album cuts first heard on AOR stations. The Sixties concept of the segue— artistically connecting three or more cuts—has been evolved on AOR, so that the whole station becomes a cohesive work of art instead of a potpourri of scattered songs.

Also, our sense of audio quality has evolved with AOR. How many of us could part with our home stereo systems without going through withdrawals? The boom in sound hardware has kept pace with our demands—receivers, turntables, speakers, tapes and recorders, you name it.,We buy stereo equipment today like they bought transistor radios fifteen years ago, but quality is more important to us than cheap profitability.

On the automotive end of audio hardware, the government is close to requiring that all car radios sold in the States be equipped

with FM. The development of quality in tape players and speakers has made it possible for us to get recording studio sound in a Volkswagen. The AOR boom has had a large part in all that.

Like all generations, we've learned from what's gone before. More than any generation of listeners, we have a greater understanding of rock and the diverse family of music it's part of. We're a lot less concerned with "boundaries" somebody chalked up years ago. And few of us are in the same mood all the time—few of us could be satisfied with a steady diet of anything.

So we've become a generation of compulsive dial switchers, punching in whatever suits us at that given moment. The idea of loyalty to a favorite station, except in the few corners of America with only one or two AOR stations in operation is irrelevant. Our loyalty is to good music before anything else.

It is a rare—nay, non-existent—radio station that is all things to everybody, even if it's the only decent station on the band. Therefore, as more AOR stations hit the airwaves, programmers are finding it wise to specialize.

In Los Angeles, for example, there are no fewer than eight or nine AOR stations, and most are specializing in either soft or hard,

pop or progressive, and so forth. There are even three or four AM stations programming album cuts (and we'll be seeing more of that).

With a very heterogenous population of ten to twelve million within earshot of L.A. stations, there's no way those stations could survive with an all- purpose format. Because the AOR concept is so open-ended, it has kept pace with the different things we want to hear at different times. The concept almost by definition precludes falling into the same type of time/space trap that killed top 40 and first-generation progressive.

Just as we relate now to 'my radio' rather than 'my station', FM stations in major markets like L.A. and New York are beginning to realize they share a common dial. Because they're specializing, they're less often competing for each other's audiences. And they're not trying to deny each other's, existence as much as they have. There are plenty of listeners to go around these days.

Commercials are an integral part of AOR, and not solely as a means to pay the bills (although an AOR station is not cheap to operate, whether they rely on reams of listener research or let the jock flow with his mood). Aside from entertainment, we look to radio as a source of cultural information, and radio hips us to our cultural marketplace—where to find records and tapes, stereo equipment, who's playing where, what films are in town, and so on. As much as we gag on commercials, they're necessary, and not totally useless, evils. And if you think that FM stations have a lot of commercials, when was the last time you checked out the AM dial? FM still has half as many.

The concept of "my radio" is still pretty new, and we're not totally used to the idea. Listeners sometimes call a particular station to complain that the station is playing the

same things over and over again. Actually, we tend to forget what station we're listening to because we're punching back and forth so much. Stations may play a tune in heavy rotation—every four hours, for instance. If we switch from X to Y, and hear the same tune, it appears that it's being played to death. Station Y may not have played that cut for a month. It just goes to show, as Jimi astutely commented on "EXP" from "Axis: Bold As Love": ". . .you can't believe everything you see and hear, now can you?"

And if you'll excuse me, I must be on my way.

Stephen Peeples