Mike Allen is accustomed to unforeseen changes. As a veteran radio guy, he has navigated a winding road lined with weird obstacles and sudden swerves. To him, it's simply part of life as a DJ and operations manager. During his recent years manning the helm at 98 Rock, he rolls with the changes with optimistic ease. With every adjustment, Allen calibrates his sensitivity for what young listeners want to hear and which artists, old and new, the station should champion.
One of two local stations in the Lexington, Ky.-based LM Communications family, 98 Rock changed its name from 98X last October, after changing the nickname from Rock to X in 2004. Last fall, Allen vowed that the mix of heavy rock and alternative would remain the same.
"After 98X was created, there were many people who continued to call it 98 Rock, and did so for years," says Allen. "That was on our minds when we decided to start over. 98X was created to take on 96 Wave — as the other side of Wave. It was a very efficient weapon, but it was time to build a new weapon."
Matthew Potter, the program director and afternoon jock at 98 Rock, has been on Allen's team for years. They worked in close collaboration during the switch.
98 Rock is officially categorized as an "Active Rock" station. The format refers to stations that generally play heavy rock and metal, including songs by "classic" artists, as opposed to modern rock stations that don't touch the older stuff. More than 60 Active Rock radio stations are electronically monitored by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems.
"98 Rock was [initially] a classic rock station," Potter says. "The new 98X was supposed to be bold, edgy, and in-your-face. But when 96 Wave went away, it started making sense to go back to 98 Rock. We shrunk it down to our core artists and their big hits so people could recognize the songs."
As music director, Potter didn't totally clean the slate; he simply made minor adjustments within the playlists that worked best for the station. As a branding consideration, he preferred to have the word "rock" back in the name. The letter "X" implied something a bit more "extreme" or "extra," but it was less specific than "rock."
"With the name 98 Rock, it's obvious what it is: We are Charleston's rock station," says Potter.
As an Active Rock station, 98 Rock has a little more flexibility with playlists than other more narrowly defined rock stations. They can include popular songs by "classic" or "heritage" artists — including a range of groups from the late '60s and '70s like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath — to various '90s bands like Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, or Metallica. The vintage material from these familiar artists blends alongside hard-and-heavy new tunes by current rock artists like Shinedown, Kid Rock, Cage the Elephant, or Rise Against.
"Musically and texture-wise, I don't think it's all that dramatically different," says Allen of the station's current mix. "It's been slimmed down a little bit. Some was purged, and some was rearranged."
It's tempting to define 98 Rock by the metal, hard-rock, and alternative hits in their sets, but bits of vintage classic rock sneak in and balance things in an odd way. A typical afternoon set on 98 Rock might segue Buckcherry's "Crazy Bitch" with Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" before veering back to a modern-day buzz band. Within the mix, Allen and Potter try to break new music from up-and-coming artists.
With such a well-defined, narrowed-down playlist, things can be pretty tight and tricky, though. Keeping an eye on online sales and tracking airplay from week to week is one thing, but the old methods of measuring what's immediately popular with a station's target demographic seem outdated and inaccurate.
"You can miss a band or two over the course of a year and not really affect the radio station," says Allen. "You might pick them up on the second single."
He adds, "There is direction from the home office in Lexington. You fight what you want to fight, and you don't fight what you don't want to fight, and at the end of the day, you win some and you lose some."
The struggle to feature what the main company heads want and what the station's local listeners want is a never-ending balancing act for Allen. "The listening public right now is ahead of where commercial radio is ever going to be," he says. "The reality of it is that my 13-year-old can name three Avenged Sevenfold songs that I've never heard."
With this year's 98 Rock Fest, previously Live X Day, Allen and Potter have once again booked a mix of veterans and relative newcomers.
"We talked about what's out there and what the feel is," says Allen. "Part of this grouping is part of the Avalanche Tour."
The concert will feature Iowa rockers Stone Sour, Canada's Theory of a Deadman, Pennsylvania's Halestorm, Memphis-based Christian rock band Skillet, Canada's Art of Dying, and local rock quartet Madam Adam (previously known as Red Handed, see story on p. 69).
98 Rock partnered with the Lowcountry Food Bank for Rock Fest. They encourage attendees to bring canned food and monetary donations to the concert in exchange for raffle tickets, which will be drawn throughout the event for signed merchandise and prizes.
The Avalanche Tour kicked off in the Midwest on March 24. Powered by the singles "Say You'll Haunt Me" and "Hesitate," co-headliner Stone Sour's 2010 album Audio Secrecy is one of the year's big smash hit albums.
"Cory Taylor, the lead singer of Stone Sour, is best known as the guy from Slipknot, but he's earned some success and gained a big following," says Potter. "He's kind of considered one of the new hard rock/metal gods. A lot of bands want to work with him in the studio."
Theory of a Deadman is touring in support of Scars & Souvenirs. Halestorm scored a hit debut on SoundScan's Hard Music chart with a self-titled disc in 2009.
Skillet's studio effort is a blockbuster debut titled Awake.
"Skillet really approached rock radio about three years ago as a band who has beliefs, but they really want to rock for the masses," says Allen. "They're a rock band first, and they happen to be a Christian rock band, too."
Hard-hitting quintet Art of Dying recently signed to Reprise/Intoxication and completed recording their forthcoming worldwide debut.
"Art of Dying is probably going to be one of the heaviest ones," says Potter. "They were a harder metal band, but they actually had to lighten up just a bit to get on Active Rock radio. Just like with a lot of the bands out there, the record company said, 'If you want to make the big time, you're going to have to lighten up a little bit and aim for center mass.'"
With five new bands of slightly different styles on the bill, Rock Fest pretty much reflects much of the personality of the station. Maybe Allen can convince one of the bands to attempt a rendition of a Hendrix, Zeppelin, or Sabbath classic for good measure.