Being a certain kind of listener—white, nerdy, reared on the R.E.M.-Nirvana continuum—I gave up on New York radio almost as soon as I arrived in the city in 1998. It didn’t help that I had come from Detroit, a terrific place for rock radio if not much else. For the next decade, through the proliferation of the iPod, iTunes, Last.fm, Pandora, and Sirius, I wouldn’t have a station to call my own and didn’t exactly need one. Then, skipping through the usual FM morass one day in 2008, I was greeted, on an unfamiliar frequency, by the muffled thump of “Radio Free Europe.”
I’d found my way to WRXP, which had embarked on a noble experiment that would eventually make it the only commercial broadcaster in the city that could credibly call itself a modern-rock station.
It was good radio while it lasted: On July 15, WRXP flipped the switch to adult contemporary, with an eye toward possibly eventually going to talk and news programming. And with its old format goes the last pretense of rock’s cultural hegemony. Rock radio was born in New York in 1966 with WOR-FM, but in the aughts the city twice lost K-Rock (first to talk, then, after an abortive return to rock from 2007 to 2009, to Top 40). When a market of about 15 million people can’t support a single station devoted to current rock music, every heir to icons past—be it the Beatles or Joy Division—now belongs to a niche genre.
Like all worthwhile stations, WRXP knew exactly whom it pandered to: the grown-up children of the nineties. The dead giveaway was the hiring, as its signature D.J., of Matt Pinfield, the living, heavy-breathing proof that MTV did, in fact, hire dudes who look like Frank Black to play music that sounded like the Pixies. The programming was sprinkled with the era’s curios (I think I heard Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” three times in a week once). But the station’s real masterstroke was realizing that as rock’s cultural footprint had shrunk and the stakes gotten lower—when what you listened to was no longer a declaration of identity—Gen X had outgrown the high-school parochialism that divided the music into “our” rock and “their” rock, Nine Inch Nails or Tom Petty. WRXP was arguably our first station to treat all post-sixties rock as one monolithic genre. It played Joan Jett next to Beastie Boys next to Interpol. On its last day on the air, it played Nirvana’s “Polly” directly after Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine”; the prevailing wisdom used to be that doing this would tear a hole in the universe. But it worked here. All the while, what WRXP was providing was rock’s general curtain call, heroes and villains taking a collective bow.
The objective reasons for the failure of the WRXP experiment are many and obvious. For one, terrestrial radio’s target audience is people who drive to work—which is why the FM landscapes of L.A. and Detroit reflect their populations’ tastes more accurately than ours. For another, alt-rock fans make some of the likeliest Pandora/Sirius/Spotify customers in the first place: We’ve abandoned local radio faster than it could abandon us. But the main reason, I think, is the music itself. WRXP’s inability to hold the format essentially proves the point. Rock—not alt-rock, not indie rock, but, at long last, all of it—really is a niche. It’s not “dead,” of course, but in the same way jazz isn’t dead: No longer a Zeitgeist conduit or the voice of a generation, it has turned into a mere taste preference. And a rather specific one at that.