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Triple A Through the Years: Adult Alternative Program Directors Discuss the History and Evolution of the Radio Format

Billboard logo Billboard 2/18/2021 Andrew Unterberger

This week, we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay chart, which started in 1996 to recognize the rise in prominence of the adult album alternative (or Triple A) radio format.

Over the past 25 years, much has changed in Triple A — both for commercial and non-comm stations — in terms of the music, the technology, and the audience. To get a sense of that evolution, we asked program directors and music directors from some of the country’s leading Triple A stations to answer some questions about their memories of the early days of the format, as well as how it’s transformed in the last quarter century, and where they see it going from here. Check out their responses below.

1. What memories do you have, if any, of what Triple A radio was like 25 years ago? 

Jim McGuinn (89.3 KCMP “The Current,” Minneapolis): 25 years ago I was working in the thick of the alternative/modern rock explosion, observing AAA as a listener. At that time, AAA seemed to be carrying on the traditions of the progressive FMs of the late ‘60s, building an audience of (mostly) baby boomers, who wanted more musically than they could find anywhere else on the dial – classic rock was too predictable (though they loved that music), alternative too inconsistent, top 40 too repetitive, and AC too sleepy. They wanted rock, but they also wanted stories, artists, and a mix of familiar artists and new discoveries. 

The core artists and songs often came from a mix of classic rock (but maybe deeper cuts) and classic alternative artists, along with newer discoveries like Counting Crows, Dave Matthews, Natalie Merchant, Sheryl Crow, alongside Petty, R.E.M., Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, John Hiatt. And Bob Dylan. Always Bob Dylan. Hosts were friendly, laid back, musical. 

Brad Savage (91.3 WAPS, Akron/Canton)I grew up in the Twin Cities listening to and learning my musical taste from KTCZ “Cities 97.” They were one of the first large-market commercial Triple A stations and I learned a great deal about the format, and radio in general, by listening to this station. By 1999, I worked there as a part-timer for almost five years. 

My recollection is the format was a modern offshoot of the eclectic AOR/album rock and even free form formats. You’d get album tracks by classic artists like Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell or The Rolling Stones, alongside new artists like Counting Crows, Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd, Natalie Merchant, BoDeans and John Hiatt. The audience was smart, sophisticated, musically challenging, wanting to hear new sounds and expand their boundaries. Community-minded, independent-thinkers, do-gooders and active in making the world a better place. It was definitely upper demo. It was those who grew up with rock and AOR in the ‘60s/’70s, and wanted to have their tastes challenged and broadened by the best of what radio can be, musically speaking. 

Bruce Warren (88.5 WXPN, Philadelphia): 1996 was a rich year in music for Triple A. You had core artists that crossed over to other formats like Beck, Sheryl Crow, Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, The Wallflowers, Sarah McLachlan, and you had this whole singer-songwriter thing exploding on public radio with artists like Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Wilco, Iris Dement, Shawn Colvin, and stuff like DJ Shadow, Pulp, Meshell Ndegeocello.

One of the exciting things that happened in the format that year was Los Angeles got a commercial AAA station. Mike Morrison from WXPN left the station to go be the PD at KSCA, and the buzz in the format was huge for that station. Unfortunately, the challenges of commercial radio got real, and they didn’t last long. 1996 in AAA was a great period of growth and excitement for both commercial and non-comm stations. 

2. What do you think the biggest fundamental change is from where Triple A is now compared to where it was back in 1995? 

Russ Borris (90.7 WFUV, New York): In the beginning, the format was concentrated on a “rootsier” sound, akin to the VH1 Crossroads model. I think we’ve seen a shift to something far broader to include more electronic, indie rock, soul, etc. The format, although still quite specific to market, is so much wider in its scope and approach now. 

Mark “Mookie” Kaczor (88.5 KCSN, Southern California)AAA stations (non-commercial stations especially) are now regarded as the taste making, trailblazing radio stations. Back in the 80s and 90s the commercial alternative formats were the ones on the cutting edge, breaking bands and taking chances. Today with corporate consolidation across the board, those alternative stations have become increasingly more cookie cutter, and being programmed like pop stations. The homogenized programming rolled out by companies like iHeartMedia and Entercom are now driving true music fans to AAA stations, if they’re lucky enough to have a AAA format in their market. 

McGuinn: Everything has changed since 1995!  That’s before the internet. Before cell phones. And when Tower Records was expanding during the CD boom! It was also before the Telecom Act and before voice tracking — when you needed a full air staff of music heads to run a station! 

I am biased, but I also think the acceptance and emergence of non-comm stations within the AAA universe has greatly altered the format in the past 15 years. When I started at The Current, it seemed like the format in general was on one side of the room, and stations like KEXP, KCRW, and us were on the other – we were far apart, and non-comm was often viewed with skepticism that accompanied our low ratings. With our success locally and KEXP and KCRW’s impact worldwide, AAA in general noticed and started to change – adding more Gen X and eventually millennial listeners to the mix, opening up sonically to more female artists and wider variety of diverse sounds, and re-inventing itself musically as a vital media home for adult music fans to learn, discover, and celebrate a variety and history of sound unmatched by any other radio format.

Remember when radio stations used to market themselves by touting the size of their library? “We play 20,000 songs” – might have sounded impressive when consumers had an average of 100 CDs in their collection, but now with access to 100 million songs on your phone, our role has changed. The world moves fast, and as consumers we look to radio to help us filter, to manage our time, to make sense of the chaos. If you value what my station does for you, we become your trusted friend, the one who has always been stopping by with a stack of great records/cassettes/8-tracks/CDs/45s/wax cylinders. 

The setting and competition has also changed. I pay much less attention to the local radio market nowadays than I do to other platforms  we’re engaged in trying to maintain and gain brain space with listeners who not only have mobile access to every song ever recorded, but also video, TV, games, and anything you can imagine doing with your phone or the latest technology of the day. So radio has to be on as many platforms as possible, to meet the audience wherever it is at or wants us to be. 

Savage: Adding a younger audience, and the aging of the audience who were too young for Triple A back then. I believe most of AAA today comes from an upbringing listening to the alternative format back then. They were a lot further apart in 1995. Not nearly as much crossover (especially in current titles) then, versus today. 

WarrenThe Internet and streaming happened. More competition for ears, more music being made and distributed, more direct interaction between musicians and fans. Musically, at least for [the non-comm world], many stations have evolved from a heavy singer-songwriter-based sound to a more indie-rock-leaning sound. 

3. Is it the same sort of audience tuning in to Triple A now that was 25 years ago? How, if at all, has the audience changed in terms of demographics (or otherwise) in the quarter-century since? 

KaczorOne thing that remains true today, as it was 25 years ago, is that the AAA format doesn’t necessarily have as many listeners (see Nielsen cume numbers) as mainstream music stations, but AAA listeners are always extremely loyal and passionate music fans. Perhaps due to the constant music discovery and knowledgeable DJs. 

McGuinnTriple AAA has always attracted music fans — people for whom music maybe means more, and that want a little more from their radio station than an average listener. That hasn’t changed. The audience has always tended to be more curious about the world — leading the way from craft beer to organic foods to electric cars to embracing artists before the mainstream. 

But the generations have changed, and with the new generations, some stations are finding success in welcoming a more diverse audience. Definitely, the audience listening to AAA is encouraging stations to help create a more equitable and inclusive world. 

Savage: I suppose at its core it’s still an upper-demo 25-54 format, but more broadly Triple A today might be more like 18-64, which is a pretty wide swath. Especially the non-comm and music discovery side of the format. I think many of those who were 40 in 1995 are still listening, and expanding their horizons still today, but today they are 66. There’s a generation gap in the format, and I still feel that Triple A is the least-consensus sound from market-to-market, based on market conditions and individual goals and philosophy for the station. Some stations lean younger/newer/indie and play hip-hop, some only play more rock-based sounds — it is all custom-tailored to the market it represents. 

Warren: Well, for most AAA stations we know that the audiences tend to be mostly white, highly educated, and highly curious (still) about new music. Both commercial and non-comm audiences share a lot of listening with public radio news stations in the markets they are in. Ages differ from market to market. 

Our audience at XPN is definitely older than The Current’s. A lot of that is due to the fact that The Current has only been on the air since 2004. XPN as a AAA “format” started 31 years ago. So, when listeners discovered us as a new station in their 30s, they are now in their 60s. It’s not that we don’t have younger listeners. My bet would be that the longer stations have been doing AAA, the older the average ages of their audiences are. 

4. In what ways has Triple A had to evolve as a format over the past quarter century? 

KaczorThe format has evolved from the AOR days of the past. No two AAA stations sound the same. Whereas commercial alternative stations seem to walk in lockstep with each other, AAA stations vary from market to market. For instance, Radio Milwaukee seems to lean a little more R&B, The Colorado Sound has a foundation based in roots and Americana, The Current in Minneapolis may lean a little more indie-hipster

One thing that 88.5 FM (KCSN) has recently adopted is something right out to the old AOR format playbook. We go deep on albums, playing album cuts from artists like David Bowie and Curtis Mayfield, but also going deep on new releases. 88.5 FM is currently playing 3 songs in rotation from the new Paul McCartney record, the new Arlo Parks record and the new Bahamas record. 

SavageIn 1995, it would have been rare to hear The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” or New Order on Triple A. Today, those seem like core styles and eras to be part of the mix. But, in 1995 they were core gold to alternative [radio], and most alt stations have moved their focus eras forward. But, it is interesting to think that some/many (perhaps not “most”) Triple A stations might go from The Kinks and Bob Seger to The Clash and The Jam, all in the same classic gold category. 

Warren: For the commercial stations the challenges are the same now as they’ve always been – maintaining enough audience, growing that audience, and having the numbers to sell. Commercial radio isn’t about music – it’s about real estate. With some rare exceptions — where the really great commercial stations have been, like KBCO (Denver/Boulder) and WXRT (Chicago), Triple A flourished — but over the years, it’s the public stations that were really breaking new artists, and not commercial radio. 

I would say for non-comms, the musical evolution is now towards more indie-rock bands. While the singer-songwriters of the past get some play, they’re not as visible as they were 20/25 years ago. For commercial stations, their playlists have evolved more towards AC- and pop-leaning artists and songs. A few of my colleagues and I refer to commercial Triple A as “Triple AC.” There is a sweet spot of overlap though between some more pop-leaning artists that commercial stations play and what non-comm stations play. I think it all comes down to the market and the existing audiences each of our stations are serving, and new audiences we’re trying to get to listen to our stations.   

5. Is there a period you think of within the past 25 years as being a sort of golden age for Triple A? Either for your personal station or for the radio format in general? 

McGuinnI was a PD in alternative from 1990-2005, and while we might have had the most success at the end of the ‘90s, it was the time right after Nirvana that was the best — because it was the moment we realized this thing was really happening. We had felt like we were at the kids’ table, and suddenly we were in the center of music culture. 

When I got to AAA, there was a similar moment when the format realized its potential to be a home to the most important new music being created — maybe it started in the early ’10s, when the format began to reach more post-Baby Boomer audiences and launch new artists. I think about Adele, Mumford & Sons, Lorde, Lumineers, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire. But we continue in this role today — whether it’s being their first with developing artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Brittany Howard, Black Pumas, Maggie Rogers, or helping longtime favorites foster their careers to later success and acclaim, like Brandi Carlile or Jason Isbell. Even Bruce Springsteen stays vital in cultural conversations with his new music because of the support of AAA. 

SavageI think to me, studying the Triple A great stations from the early ’90s (1995) to 2005, [that] is a golden era… the era right before I became a Triple A PD myself. But each group of 4-5 years is awesome when you zoom out and look back at what music has been featured over that time period. 

WarrenI think 25 years ago was the start of the golden age, but the period of 2000-05 I think was when it really took off. It took music industry folks on the label side a while to take the format seriously; mostly because very few stations delivered big-enough numbers. But the smart label and promotion folks knew that the loyalty of the audiences at AAA stations was often more important than the numbers they delivered. Listeners at AAA stations spend a lot more time listening to AAA stations than at other formats, and this is important.

I remember Joe Henry – who unfortunately didn’t get much commercial AAA play, and who is phenomenally talented as a songwriter and producer — once jokingly said during an interview that he was big in Philly and Belgium. I think his point was that new artists, in particular, when they got support from various markets, could build very visible and highly sustainable careers. 

6. Is there a song that’s proven particularly enduring at Triple A over the past quarter-century that folks might not expect– maybe that folks who aren’t regular listeners to the format might not even really have on their radar?  

McGuinn: Here’s a maybe surprising artist success stories:  One of The Current’s most played artists in its history is Lizzo. She had her first radio play anywhere on The Current when she lived in Minnesota, and had our No. 1 song two years in a row, years before she had national cultural breakout. It was through The Current that she connected to Prince and sang on one of his last albums, and a lot of AAA stations had played her prior to her worldwide success. 

SavageBig Head Todd & The Monsters “Bittersweet,” from 1993. This song always gets feedback and “What song was that?” remarks, to this day! It is rock, it is special, it encourages passion and discovery, and it is a brilliant piece of art that is also accessible and consumable, and always seems to draw attention. This song is the epitome of how this radio format can elevate artists and art, and is much more than just a “format” or a scientific research study to fill time between commercial breaks. There is passion and creativity in Triple A. 

Warren: This is a tough one. My lens is informed by being [at WXPN] for 30 years. I can’t speak for other stations. On the more recent side of time, I think “Impossible Germany” by Wilco or “The Joke” by Brandi Carlile might fit this bill for XPN. But I also know if you asked each of our regular mix DJs they’d pick something different. One older song? I’ll go with “Please Forgive Me” by David Gray. Or any song from Counting Crows’ August and Everything After

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7. What do you think makes Triple A special as a radio format? What about it keeps listeners loyal — either to your station or to the format in general?

Borris: It’s the unpredictability of the golds mixed with the strongest music discovery quotient of any format. There’s something special about how fresh and alive a great Triple A radio station sounds. 

McGuinn: We’ve learned more than ever over this past pandemic year what a role a radio station can play in the lives of listeners. You don’t get the kind of “driveway moments” from scrolling through Spotify that you do when a great host is speaking to an artist or about a song, or about an experience and how music made it possible. The connections and social experience gained by listening has been magnified for the better. 

These stations are all unique. Unlike other formats where you can hear the same music, imaging — and too often, the same DJs – across the country, these are local stations, living and breathing the same air as our audiences, and working together with listeners to create that musical hub that becomes a community.

SavageThe sense of art, music and community is what makes Triple A special. It resonates with people who care about music, and their hometowns. Many of the stations are independent, and in the spirit of AOR/free form years before them. In Triple A today many are non-comm and listener-supported.

When I was programming WCNR/Charlottesville (106.1 The Corner) in its early launch phase, we worked with consultant Keith Cunningham of Jacobs Media. (Today he is PD of KLOS/Los Angeles). Keith taught me this adage: “Triple A is not a format, but rather a marketing or lifestyle strategy for stations.” He taught me that the stations focus on the emotion and heart and passion of the audience, moreso than following a rigid playlist of what bands “fit the format” and which do not. 

Warren: What keeps listeners loyal is great local radio, presented by in-person, live and lively, conversational and knowledgeable DJs, with handcrafted curation. 

8. What’s one prediction you’d have for the future of Triple A in the years to come? A necessary evolution that’s coming, an artist that’ll prove defining, etc.?

KaczorThe future is bright for AAA. The format generally champions new artists, as well as the legendary ones. Stations that play songs from Kurt Vile and Mavis Staples in the same set are attracting more disenfranchised music fans every day. Remember the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers song “The Last DJ”? That’s what AAA radio represents. We are the last DJs, who say what we want to say, and play what we want to play. 

McGuinn: We’re all trying to continue to provide connection to our audiences, which could morph and take different forms — from building out playlists, offering side streams, creating video and digital experiences, to filtering new music for them on the radio, and knowing just the right classic oh wow [song] to make your day. That role, and the value it provides remain key to our success. With changing technology, audiences are more demanding — which makes it tricky. They want us to be adventurous, but we have to keep a great batting average, because their alternative options for content are so many, varied, and ever easier to access. 

I do think we will continue to see more inclusivity on our playlists and microphones, as we move forward. But the fundamentals don’t change — this is content for the musically curious, for those that want and crave more than the mainstream, and for an audience that is leading the way to the future. 

Savage: I think the format will continue to bring in new audience, younger, and new generations for the future. But, we will still in many cases still have those 50-60+ audience demos that have grown up with us. Luckily, our music format is more inclusive and expansive, and so it isn’t unheard of to hear Allman Brothers and Avicii on the same station. It’s a little wild and weird… but that is the type of audience we attract! 

WarrenAs for the evolution, I think for XPN it’s the ability to be open to the notion that younger music fans don’t think about genres as much as the programmers do. Programmers have rigid, sometimes narrow POVs when it comes to formats. I get why this is. While our station and others like us do have a musical center, the palate is broad, and the impact of the streaming ecosystem has to be taken into consideration when making programming decisions. 

I like to tell my colleagues that they should observe how my two twenty-something kids (now young men) consume music, and what kinds of music they love. For them, a world where Arlo Parks, The War on Drugs, Clairo, Bad Bunny, Lucinda Williams, and Led Zep [all co-exist] makes a lot of sense. Great non-comms have DJs who can make sense of the eclectic nature of what I call the Apple Music/Spotify eco-system, and can create a format out of this, with real people, and music discovery at the heart of it.

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