For radio listeners in Seattle, the end of 2003 brought the Invasion of the Aging Hipster Bands.
On Dec. 18 at noon, the modern rock station KNDD-FM "the End" announced on the air that it was returning to its roots. Dumped immediately were rap rock and modern metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Puddle of Mudd. They were replaced by familiar voices from the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990's: Nirvana, R.E.M., Weezer and Beck, as well as predecessors like the Clash and Sex Pistols.
The next day, Seattle's KYPT-FM "the Point" bid farewell to Prince, Madonna and the other pop and rock acts on its 1980's playlist, switching to a similar "classic alternative'' format. The station also adopted the fresh call letters KRQI and the new nickname "K Rock."
On the same day, a similar change was occurring at Atlanta's WNNX-FM "99X." Just over a year ago, San Diego's KBZT-FM "FM 94-9" made the same move.
While the number of stations embracing the "classic alternative" format is small so far, industry executives expect a significant jump in the coming years. Both the End and 99X are considered bellwether outlets. "For them to shift in this direction is like the shot heard 'round the world,'' said Max Tolkoff, a columnist for the trade publications Radio & Records.
Like the classic rock format that started in the mid-1980's to cater to aging baby boomers, classic alternative - with new songs from retro-alternative bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes thrown into the mix on some stations - appeals to Generation X'ers who are beginning to show some gray.
That means it could be a good time to try to raise the average listening age for rock stations. Two trade associations for the alcohol industry, the Beer Institute and the Distilled Spirits Council, announced late last year that they were revising their self-imposed advertising guidelines. Now manufacturers are supposed to place broadcast ads only on stations that reach an audience that is at least 70 percent over the age of 21, instead of the previous 50 percent.
One consultant who has worked with stations moving to classic alternative rock says the changes are part of a broader reaction to growing competition. Satellite radio and TV, along with the Internet, are competing with traditional radio to be listeners' prime music outlet. A variety of stations, from classic alternative outlets to classic rock stations to NPR affiliates, are turning to listeners from Internet mailing lists rather than to general telephone polls for advice.
"The audience is laying down bread crumbs, and we need to follow them," said Fred Jacobs, the president of Jacobs Media in Detroit, a radio consultancy that has worked with KNDD and KBZT.
Alternative radio started in the early 1990's as a reaction to mainstream rock stations. The grunge pioneers Nirvana toppled the reign of glam-metal bands, and groups that had been staples of independent record labels and college radio were thrown into the mainstream limelight. Radio followed them. Alternative was also a reaction to the success of classic rock radio, which began in the mid-80's by dropping current rock acts in favor of baby boomer staples like the Beatles and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
It is only natural to introduce a classic alternative format because people are usually most excited about the music they heard as teenagers, said Don Yates, the music director at Seattle's KEXP-FM, a public station that programs a mix of rock, hip-hop, electronic, blues, country and world music. "Somewhere down the line it's decided that now it's old enough, now it's time to be a nostalgia format," he said.
Phil Manning, the program director at KNDD in Seattle, said his station's format change, on the eve of the switch by KYPT, was in part a defensive move. Last fall, Andy Savage, a KNDD morning show host, jumped ship after his contract expired; he eventually landed at the new KRQI.
"Our morning show left on Sept. 10 last year," Mr. Manning said. "I think it's prudent to say that we started thinking about changes on Sept. 10th-and-a half." Chris Williams, the program director for KRQI, did not return calls for comment.
The End is owned by Entercom, a conglomerate with 104 stations nationwide, mostly talk and non-alternative music outlets. The new K Rock is owned by the Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, a unit of Viacom. Infinity has 180 stations, including the alternative powerhouses KROQ-FM in Los Angeles, KITS-FM in San Francisco and WBCN-FM in Boston.
The latest changes have not been in place long enough to be able to gauge their effect on ratings. But after San Diego's KBZT began emphasizing vintage or "gold" alternative music in November 2002, it went from the city's 18th most popular station among 18- to 34-year-olds to its current position at No. 5, Mr. Jacobs said.
Dave Beasing, Jacobs Media's alternative specialist, said that over the last decade, radio consultants had homogenized alternative radio. His company advises clients to play more music with local connections. That means spinning more grunge like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains in Seattle, and more Southern California punk like Offspring and Bad Religion in San Diego.
He also urges stations to be more respectful toward listeners. Mr. Manning pledged on the air, for instance, that D.J.'s on the End will no longer talk over the beginnings and ends of songs, and will announce song titles and band names.
The radio stations could stand to make good money from these efforts. Working to drive a station's listener age higher ensures that under the new ad guidelines, beer dollars will not go to other stations that already have older audiences.
Mr. Tolkoff, of Radio & Records, said he worried that the new emphasis on historical tracks could be a portent of less-exciting radio. If vintage music ensures high ratings, programmers will play ever fewer new songs and be less willing to take risks, just as they did at album-oriented rock stations in the late 70's, he said.
But being a compelling station and a successful station are not always the same thing. No one will go broke playing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Mr. Tolkoff said. "There will be a generation that that will be their 'Free Bird,' that will be their 'Stairway to Heaven.' "