Radio stations that specialized in rock music recorded during the later 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were generally labeled Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) stations. The symbiosis between AOR stations and bands such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith has led many to refer to virtually all 1970s era hard rock bands as AOR as well. When it was first introduced in the late 1960s, the AOR format was only marginally commercial, but by the mid-1970s AOR stations were taking on many of the characteristics of top-40 stations. As the popularity of AOR stations grew, major label record companies exerted increasing influence over AOR playlists around the country, in the process squeezing out competition from independent label competitors. A by-product of this influence peddling was a creeping homogenization of rock music available on radio stations.
The AOR format was happened upon after the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) mandated a change in the way radio stations did their business in 1965. The FCC prohibited stations from offering the same programming on both AM and FM sides of the dial. This ruling opened the less popular FM side of the dial to a variety of less commercial formats, including jazz and classical. Coincidental with this change in radio programming law was the emergence of the so-called "concept album" among British art rock bands, the Beatles, and Bay Area psychedelic bands. Some of these albums featured songs substantially longer than the three minute time limit traditionally observed by radio station programmers. In areas with massive collegiate populations, especially San Francisco, a few FM stations began playing entire album sides. This approach to radio programming departed significantly from the singles-only AM pop rock format.
In the 1970s, rock album sales accounted for an increasing proportion of record company profits, but the AOR format remained somewhat experimental until technological improvements brought stereophonic capabilities to FM radio. This change attracted top 40 formats to FM and made it far more competitive. As FM rock radio matured, its audience widened and it became apparent to record labels that AOR stations, especially those in large market cities, were effective if not critical marketing media for their products. The growing importance of AOR radio, both to station owners and record companies, worked to narrow the weekly playlists. Station owners, hoping to maintain ratings, copied many top-40 programming strategies and curtailed the number of songs in heavy rotation, keeping many of the obscure bands and esoteric album cuts from ever getting air time.
Record companies sought to boost album sales by manipulating AOR stations' playlist. In order to avoid the recurrence of a 1950s style "payola" scandal, record companies subcontracted the promotion of their records to radio stations via "independent promoters." Through independent promotion, record companies could maintain a facade of legality, even though the means independent promoters employed to secure air time for the labels was clearly outside the bounds of fair access to public airwaves. Not only were station programmers frequently bribed with drugs and money, they were occasionally threatened with bodily harm if they did not comply with the demands of the independent promoters. According to Frederick Dannen, author of Hit Men, the secrecy, illegality, and lucrative nature of independent promotion eventually invited the involvement of organized crime syndicates, and the development of a cartel among the leading independent promoters.
In the 1980s, record companies hard hit by the disco crash lost all control over independent promoters. Not only had the costs of independent promotion become an overwhelming burden on the record companies' budgets, they had developed into an inextricable trap. Record companies who refused to pay the exorbitant fees required by members of the promotion cartel were subject to a crippling boycott of their product by stations under the influence of powerful independent promoters.
The effect of independent promotion on AOR formats and the rock music scene in general was a steady narrowing of FM rock fare. Bands on smaller record labels or those with experimental sounds had little chance of ever getting heard on commercial radio. Without some measure of public exposure, rock acts struggled to build audiences. Millions of dollars spent on independent promotion could not ensure increased album sales. There are dozens of examples of records that received heavy air play on FM radio, but failed to sell well at retail, a distinction that earns such records the title of "turntable hit." In the mid-1980s record companies banded together and took steps to reduce their debilitating reliance upon independent promotion.
For better or worse, the AOR format did allow musicians to expand well beyond the strict confines imposed by AM radio. Several important rock anthems of the 1970s, such as Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird," may have had far less success without AOR stations. The influence of AOR programming was not as absolute as it is frequently presupposed. Cynics often fail to recall that several bands, such as the Grateful Dead, Kiss, and later Metallica, managed to build massive audiences and enduring careers without the help of FM radio or independent promotion. The perception that rock music was hopelessly contaminated by crass commercialism drove many fans and musicians to spurn FM rock. This rejection invigorated punk rock and its various offspring, and also encouraged the development of alternative rock programming, especially college radio, which in turn helped propel the careers of bands like R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, and Soundgarden.
Chapple, Steve, and Reebee Garofalo. Rock and Roll Is Here to Pay. Chicago, Nelson Hall, 1977.
Dannen, Fredric. Hit Men. New York, Times Books, 1990.
Sklar, Rick. Rocking America: An Insider's Story: How the All-Hit Radio Stations Took Over. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987.