AOR/Classic Rock

Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) or Classic Rock has its roots in the rebellions of the mid to late 1960s. Several things came together simultaneously to create the format. AM top 40 radio stations like WABC New York, KHJ Los Angeles, CKLW Windsor/Detroit and WLS Chicago, dominated the industry. Their standard was short songs "singles" sold to teenage consumers on 45rpm records. These stations thrived on short playlists, short records and "screaming" DJs.

During this same time, the baby boom generation was coming of age. College and high school students were involved in civil rights and anti-war protests. This audience which had grown up on rock 'n' roll top 40 was developing more sophisticated tastes. They were now buying albums 33 1/3rpm and listening to artists like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. These artists were producing the protest music which served as the "anthems" for this coming-of-age generation.

Top 40 AM radio stations would not touch this music. Programmers considered the cuts "too long" and the subjects "too controversial" to fit into the format. The music soon became known as "underground" because it was not touched by radio.

During this same period the FCC took a new look at FM. In 1965, the agency mandated that license holders in cities of more than 100,000 must broadcast original programming on their co-owned FM stations at least half the time the stations were on the air. During that time most FM stations simulcast the AM signal. As a result there was no demand for FM.

Broadcasters balked and so the FCC extended the deadline for compliance from July 1, 1965 to January 1, 1967. Even then broadcasters continued to do what they could to avoid compliance.

Meanwhile, the coming-of-age generation had begun experimenting with FM radio on college campuses across the nation. In late 1964, Peter Fornatale (formerly with WNEW-FM, New York) programmed a Saturday radio show on Fordham University's WFUV called "Campus Caravan" (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 133). The program offered, "album material, thematic groupings of songs, interviews with musicians, and topical comments underscored by appropriate musical selections" (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 133).

In 1966 Tom Gamache aired a similar program on WTBS*, owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts called "Tee Time." (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 133). The station's 30 watts reached a sizeable number of the Boston area's large university population.

Gamache said he designed the show as "a travesty of commercial radio." He brought in his own records to play and did phony commercials, most of them related to marijuana. Gamache, whose on-the-air name was Uncle Tom developed a wide following and switched to Boston University's WBUR, which had a 20,000-watt signal. Eventually he joined WBCN, and ran Boston's first commercial progressive rock show (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 133).

While college students were busy reshaping radio, the FCC's call for an end to simulcasting was beginning to take effect on commercial radio.

Any habitual listener to WOR-FM must have been startled at 6:00 A.M. on July 30, 1966. Instead of the usual simulcast of WOR-AM's talk show "Rambling with Gambling," a particularly raucous rock song, "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, came blaring across the airwaves. Thus WOR-FM chose to herald the end of its simulcasting and to introduce new FM programming.

By the time the deejays went on the air on October 8, 1966 (they included "Murray the K" Kaufman, Scott Muni and Rosco [Bill Mercer]), WOR-FM was quite a visible tree in the city's media forest, heralded by The Village Voice as "the only place to hear vital new music and hear it well" (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 131).

The progressive experiment at WOR-FM would only last a year before it would succumb to politics and personalities. However, during that time, progressive rumblings were beginning to come from the West Coast. Tom Donahue who worked on the air as "Big Daddy" (he weighed nearly 400 pounds) at Philadelphia's top 40 WIBG-AM had resigned from radio in 1965 following at stint at San Francisco top 40 station KYA-FM.

Donahue had outgrown top 40 radio. In a 1967 Rolling Stone Interview he said:

The bulk of popular music radio programming in this country today is devoted to absurd jingles...babbling hysterical disc jockeys...the tempo is Go! Go! Go! The air is replete with such blather as "here comes another twin spin sound sandwich" and "here's a blast from the past, a moldy oldy that'll always last." Top 40 radio, as we know it today and have known it for the last ten years, is dead, and its rotting corpse is stinking up the airways (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 117).

The progressive sound was soon showing up on stations across the country. In addition to KMPX, Donahue also brought the format to KPPC in Pasadena which served the Los Angeles area. Following a dispute with management, Donahue moved the format from KMPX to KSAN.

AOR was originally conceived as an anti-format. The format as practiced by Donahue had no time-and-temp, talkovers, or jingles. It was also broad-based and free form, "A format that embraces the best of today's rock 'n' roll, traditional and city blues, raga, electronic music and some jazzy and classical selections (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 132).

During the early days of the format, the DJs had the ultimate in freedom. Each DJ was responsible for programming his/her own show. Stations such as WNEW-FM, New York, WBCN, Boston, WMMR, Philadelphia, WMMS, Cleveland, and KSAN, San Francisco, became tremendously popular with young audiences. An audience that was joining the professional ranks and becoming increasingly attractive to advertisers.

During the format's inception, stations had to fight for advertisers. Most were supported by local advertisers catering to the youth market. The only national advertisers were record companies and concerts promoters.

Stations also positioned themselves as "countercultural." News, and public affairs, took a left of center slant and were important elements in the format. Women also took a more prominent role on the air. Maxanne at WBCN in Boston and Allison Steele at WNEW in New York, became radio stars.

The format's success forced it to grow from a "progressive" "freeform" anti-format into a format. Consultants, most notably Burkhart/Abrahms of Atlanta (now Burkhart/Douglas & Associates) revamped the format by stripping away the diverse music elements and concentrating on rock. They also removed the controversial news and public affairs elements. Often these programmers went head to head with the major progressive station.

One of the more notable battles was between Boston's venerable WBCN and upstart, WCOZ. Clark Schmidt a programmer who had worked around Boston for years, found his opportunity at WCOZ. He changed the station's format from Beautiful Music to rock during Labor Day, 1976 with a "Concert from Fantasy Park." The imaginary concert captured the city's attention. Listeners drove around town looking for Fantasy Park, while others jammed the station's phone lines.

Schmidt's format which he called "kick ass rock 'n' roll" beat out WBCN in its first rating book as a rock station. By 1981, WCOZ was number one 12+ with a metro share of 10.2 (Duncan, 1983). WBCN eventually regained its title as Boston's rock station but it was a much changed WBCN. The "progressive" elements had been stripped away and the concentration was entirely on rock.

AOR radio is one of the formats that connects best with listeners. The format's listeners feel connected to their station and the station's announcers.

Perhaps the most bizarre incident of this sort in recent years occurred on October 6, 1975, when a young man walked into a bank in downtown Manhattan and took ten hostages. He carried a pistol--and a radio! As news leaked out and police mapped plans, an enterprising reporter Mike Eisgrau of WNEW, telephoned the bank. the young man, Ray "Cat" Olsen, answered the phone himself and recognizing the station's call letters asked that the disk jockey then on WNEW-FM, Scott Muni, play records by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Muni complied, as Olsen was able to verify on his radio. He called up to talk to Muni, and large portions of their lengthy dialogue were broadcast live. The siege lasted more than eight hours, during which time WNEW-FM continued to play Olsen's requests. Some time after hearing a tape of himself on the radio proclaiming the Grateful Dead the greatest band in the world, Olsen dozed off. Police moved in and seized him. No injuries were reported. (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, pp. xviii, xix).



AOR/Classic Rock places considerable emphasis on the mix of music. Unlike CHR which is built on hits, and will often play a ballad followed by an uptempo piece, AOR stations concentrate on music compatibility. Music is generally presented in "sets" or "sweeps" and is often thematic. AOR/Classic Rock stations tend to have extensive playlists built more upon artist appeal than hits. These stations are not rigidly concerned with the length of cuts. This is one of the major carryovers from the "progressive" days. The format's music appeals primarily to males 18 - 49.

AOR/Classic Rock has splintered into several sub formats. Classic Rock stations tend to play music of the '60s, '70s and '80s. In other formats these would be called "oldies." Rock stations refer to them as classics. Alternative stations play contemporary rock while stations calling themselves AOR will play a mix.


Announcing at early freeform and progressive stations was vastly different from other formats. The goal was to sound like an old friend entertaining friends while sitting around playing music. The announcing style was laid-back sometimes to the point where announcers sounded like they were "stoned." As the format developed the announcing style became conversational. Most announcers in this format are low-key and do not talk over the intros and outros of the music as in other formats. Morning personalities will often show more energy.


News now takes a secondary role at these stations and is heard primarily during drive times. At one time these stations were a source for alternative news and view points. This disappeared as the format became more mainstream.


Features play a big part in this format. They range from short vignettes, to special blocks of music played during specific times of the day, for example: "The Work Force Block," "The Lunchtime Song of the Day," or the "Perfect Album Side." This format also provides, live concerts, artist spotlights, rock news updates and retro shows. Comedy often plays a role in this format with many stations using short drop ins or continuing sagas (see WNEW-FM's features page as an example).


Spots on these stations are often heavily produced to fit the station's sound. At one time in the format's history the bulk of commercial were read live by the on-air announcer. This format was conceived as an "anti-format." Commercials were considered clutter and therefor stripped down so that they would be unobtrusive. As the format grew, commercials were seen as less of an annoyance.

AOR/Classic Rock was one of the first sweeps formats. Commercials are generally clustered in stop sets.


NOPE! not here. Jingles are just about nonexistent in this format. You're more likely to hear a voicer (generally a macho male voice) identifying the station than a jingle.

Contest and Promotions

Contests have become an integral part of this format. They include: cash, trips, tickets and other lifestyle prizes.

AOR/Classic Rock stations promote themselves in a variety of ways including: Billboards, bumper stickers, transit ads, and television. Stations will also use remote broadcasts and concert tie-ins.


AOR/Classic Rock competes against all other formats in the market. Primary competition comes from another AOR/Classic Rock stations with slightly different approaches. For example one rock station may call itself AOR and may mix a variety of rock selections including alternative. Another may play classic rock from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Additional competition comes from CHR in particular the CHR/AOR hybrids that play rock hits. AOR/Classic Rock is unique in that its primary audience is male, while most other formats target females as the primary audience.


This format should be around as long as rock continues to appeal to listeners. Until recently AOR/Classic Rock stations had become stagnant. Many built their playlists on major songs from rock's heyday. It's difficult for a station to sound fresh when the bulk of its playlist is built around songs from the 1970s. Many stations have begun to reinvent themselves by mixing in "alternative" rock tunes.


Fornatale, P. Mills, J.E. (1980). Radio in the television age. Overlook Press: Woodstock, NY.

Duncan, J.H. (1983) Radio in the United States: 1976-1982 a statistical history. Duncan Media Enterprises: Kalamazoo, MI.

Keith, M. C. (1987). Radio programming: Consultancy and formatics. Focal Press: Boston.

Chapter Resource Links

  • BRS: AOR list.
  • BRS: Classic Rock list.
  • BRS: Alternative list.
  • BRS: webcasters List by format.
  • WNEW-FM, New York.
  • WBCN, Boston.
  • WMMR, Philadelphia.
  • WMMS, Cleveland.
  • KSAN, San Francisco.
    (note most of these stations have been with the format for 30 years or more.)

    *Ted Turner, who intended to distribute his TV station in Atlanta (then called WTGC) over satellite to cable operators across the US, wanted to use the call letters WTBS for his station, and contacted the MIT radio station with an offer to buy them. Since the purchase of call letters was not yet allowed by the FCC, Turner and the lawyers for both stations found a legal loophole made possible by the MIT station's recently-obtained nonprofit organization status: $25,000 would be donated to the station by Turner under the condition that WTBS-FM would apply for and receive new call letters. Turner would then apply for WTBS, and would donate an additional $25,000 if the FCC granted him the call sign. The deal became reality: WTBS-FM became WMBR (``Walker Memorial Basement Radio'') on May 24, 1979, Ted Turner got the WTBS calls, WMBR received $50,000 from Turner, and WMBR signed on its new 200-Watt signal on November 10, 1979. ( radio/wmbr.html)