Classic rock is a radio format which developed from the album-oriented rock (AOR) format in the early 1980s. In the United States, the classic rock format features music ranging generally from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, primarily focusing on commercially successful hard rock popularized in the 1970s. The radio format became increasingly popular with the baby boomer demographic by the end of the 1990s.
Although classic rock has mostly appealed to adult listeners, music associated with this format received more exposure with younger generations of listeners with the presence of the Internet and digital downloading. Some classic rock stations also play a limited number of current releases which are stylistically consistent with the station's sound, or by heritage acts that are still active and producing new music.
The classic rock format evolved from AOR radio stations that were attempting to appeal to an older audience by including familiar songs of the past with current hits. In 1980, AOR radio station M105 in Cleveland, Ohio began billing itself as "Cleveland's Classic Rock", playing a mix of rock music from the mid-1960s to the present. Similarly, WMET called itself "Chicago's Classic Rock" in 1981. In 1982, radio consultant Lee Abrams developed the "Timeless Rock" format which combined contemporary AOR with hits from the 1960s and 1970s.
KRBE (AM), Houston was another early classic rock radio station. In 1983 program director Paul Christy designed a format which played only early album rock, from the 1960s and early 1970s, without any current music or Top 40 material at all. KRBE was the first station to use the term "classic rock" on the air. Classic rock soon became the widely used descriptor for the format, and became the commonly used term for early album rock music by the general public.
In the mid-1980s, the format's widespread proliferation came on the heels of Jacobs Media's (Fred Jacobs) success at WCXR, Washington, D.C., and Edinborough Rand's (Gary Guthrie) success at WZLX, Boston. Between Guthrie and Jacobs, they converted more than 40 major market radio stations to their individual brand of classic rock over the next several years.
Billboard magazine's Kim Freeman posits that "while classic rock's origin's can be traced back earlier, 1986 is generally cited as the year of its birth". By 1986, the success of the format resulted in oldies accounting for 60–80% of the music played on album rock stations. Although it began as a niche format spun off from AOR, by 2001 classic rock had surpassed album rock in market share nationally.
During the mid-1980s, the classic rock format was mainly tailored to the adult male demographic ages 25–34, which remained its largest demographic through the mid-1990s. As the format's audience aged, its demographics skewed toward older age groups. By 2006, the 35–44 age group was the format's largest audience and by 2014 the 45–54 year-old demographic was the largest.
Typically, classic rock stations play rock songs from the mid-1960s through the 1980s. Some of the songs overlap with those played on oldies stations, but classic rock also focuses on hard rock and heavy metal bands and artists that are less radio friendly and therefore are usually not played on oldies stations. Classic rock stations have historically been hesitant to add 1990s rock such as alternative rock and grunge to their playlists, due in part to the drastic difference in style, but (mirroring a similar trend in classic country, where a similar 1990-era divide also exists) a small number of classic rock stations began adding 1990s music in the early 2010s. Unlike AOR radio stations, which played all tracks from albums, classic rock plays a much more limited playlist of charting singles and popular album tracks from artists and bands.
- List of classic rock songs
- List of music radio formats
- Music radio
- Active rock
- Mainstream rock
- Adult album alternative
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- "Timeless Rock FM Format Is Taking Shape", Billboard November 6, 1982: 1
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- "Overview 1986" Billboard December 27, 1986: Y4
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- Jason Heller (November 17, 2011). "Why are '90s bands played on classic-rock radio?". The A.V. Club. Retrieved January 15, 2013.