It’s no secret to anyone who’s ever met me that I love Active Rock. I literally used to hang out at every Nickelback gig at the now-demolished Starfish Room on Homer Street in Vancouver, right in the front row, singing along to “Leader Of Men” and the band’s requisite cover of Soul Coughing’s “Super Bon Bon.” In fact, the entire reason I moved to Vancouver in the early nineties was to work at the iconic CFOX (at the now-demolished 1006 Richards Street studios). That gave me the opportunity to be a part of the then-budding careers of Nickelback, Matthew Good, gob, Econoline Crush, Moist, Bif Naked, Age of Electric and more.

I say all of this to give you some background on my history at the format as we’re about to delve into what it really looks like in 2012. I can assure you, and this won’t be a surprise, that it’s a lot different than it was in 1996. As the targeted Active Rock audience (generally 35-44) gets older, so do the songs that receive play. New music is still found on playlists, but just how much? That’s what we’re going to find out.

The Active Rock chart is made up of 17 stations spread throughout the country. What I, and other promo, radio and label folks find shocking, is that there are no Active Rock stations in metro Toronto or Vancouver at all. Further more, the station in Montréal is monitored, but not reporting because they don’t play enough current material. The cutoff to be a reporting station on the Active Rock chart is 10% current material, which means that there are seven stations that maintain a non-reporter status even though they are monitored.

Unlike the other radio formats, this situation leaves Active Rock in an odd position of not having a clear ‘leader,’ one that helps to drive, and define, the sound of the format. That ‘leading’ station is usually in the biggest market and has the biggest audience. Their playlist is looked on as being the roadmap that others use as a guide, and their music selection process is believed to be so-much-more-involved than just four dudes sitting in a room for an hour a week, listening to the first minute of the 20-or-so songs sitting on the desk. Think Z100, KROQ, BBC 1, HOT 97, etc.

Sure, there are heritage stations in the format. 97.7 HTZ FM in St. Catharines has long been the bastion of crunchy guitars to people who are lucky enough to pick up the signal in western Toronto. CJAY 92 in Calgary boasts the fact that — at one point — they had a 20-share, making them not only the #1 Rock station, but the #1 Music station in their market, a situation that was rare then, and now never happens at all. Top 40 or A/C usually hold that title, for the obvious mass appeal they bring to the table. But in the modern age, as some Active rockers (like CFOX) have moved to be ‘Alternative’ and others (like Q107) have moved to being strictly ‘Classic,’ those left behind must fend for themselves in terms of picking music.

For the sake of the rest of this essay, I’m going to operate only off of the published panel. This means the numbers may be able to be expanded slightly in the real world, but let’s be honest, we all still like to wave our chart numbers around. Also, the determination of what constitutes ‘current’ material is based upon the guidelines established by Mediabase.

On average, there are 16 currents played on each station. With 3 of the 17 reporters playing as little as 6 current songs, and only 7 reporters playing more than 20 current songs (the leader by far is CIFM Kamloops, with a seemingly mind boggling 30 currents). Of that average of 16 currents, 8.5 are “International” songs and 7.5 are “Con-Con” (coincidentally, CIFM is also split 15-15 Int/Can). Drilling down further shows us that the ‘spins’ favour the International category, which receives an average of 28x as opposed to Canadian tracks which are relegated to an average of 24x per week (it may not seem like much at first, but you’ll see why every spin counts in a moment).

Understanding all of the above will help me explain what we call the ‘Top Heavy’ phenomenon at Active Rock, which is simply illustrated by the fact that the #1 song at the format typically has twice the number of spins as the #10 song. The #10 song has 4x the spins of the #20 song and so on. For math geeks or statisticians, think exponential growth, as opposed to linear or cubic growth. For everybody else, simply put, once you crack the format, you can move into the Top-30 and Top-20 very quickly. However, moving up the ladder in the Top-10 is very difficult, as you need to essentially double the number of spins that got you from the same pool of supporting stations. There is no “if we add so-and-so we’ll move up to #4”. It’s quite literally a matter of slugging it out with the stations you’ve got and wrangling more spins out of them. And it also puts you in a dogfight for the stations that support the least amount of new music. Ironic, I suppose, that CJAY Calgary, Rock 102 Saskatoon and The Fox Fredericton are the stations that determine which songs make it into the Top-5. You can make it to #6 without them, but it’s almost impossible to go #5 or beyond without their backing (typically speaking). As they each only play 3 International and three Canadian currents (and generally the three stations play the same 3 of each). So on this week’s current chart, what do the Top-5 songs have in common? You guessed it, adds at least 2 of those 3 stations. In a roundabout way, getting a Top-5 single at Active Rock is akin to winning the US presidential election. You can have all the votes you want in heavily populated New York and California, but without Ohio and Florida, your house won’t be white.

I realize that this is a lot of information to digest, so here are a few key points to take away with you:

– The cutoff to be a reporting station on the Active Rock chart is 10% current material

– On average, there are 16 currents played on each station. 8.5 are “International” songs and 7.5 are “Con-Con”

– ‘Spins’ favour the International category, which receives an average of 28x while Canadian tracks receive an average of 24x per week

– At Q104 Halifax, C103 Moncton, CHOM Montreal, Q92 Sudbury, CIFM Kamloops and Q Victoria, the rotations will allow for domestic songs to spin in much the same range as internationals

– Stations that are into double-digits for the number of Cancon tracks spinning include: Q104 Halifax, The Rock Oshawa, HTZ St. Catharines, The Wolf Regina, Power 104 Kelowna & CIFM Kamloops

Here is the Active Rock Top 10 from last week:

1 SLASH “You’re A Lie” (Dik Hayd Int./Universal)
2 BLACK KEYS “Gold On The Ceiling” (Nonesuch/Warner Bros.)
3 SOUNDGARDEN “Live To Rise” (Hollywood)
4 FOO FIGHTERS “Bridge Burning” (RCA/RMG)
5 RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS “Look Around” (Warner Bros.)
6 I MOTHER EARTH “We Got The Love” (Frontside/Independent)
7 NICKELBACK “This Means War” (Universal Music Canada)
8 TRAGICALLY HIP “At Transformation” (Universal Music Canada)
9 MONSTER TRUCK “Seven Seas Blues” (Frontside/Dine Alone)
10 OFFSPRING “Days Go By” (Columbia)

For reference, the reporting Active Rock stations/markets are:
Q104 Halifax – 20 currents
The Fox Fredericton – 6 currents
106.9 The Bear Ottawa – 9 currents
K-Rock Kingston – 20 currents
The Wolf Peterborough – 14 currents
94.9 The Rock Oshawa – 22 currents
Y-108 Hamilton – 14 currents
Rock 95 Barrie – 14 currents
97.7 HTZ FM St. Catharines – 16 currents
Power 97 Winnipeg – 18 currents
The Wolf Regina – 26 currents
Rock 102 Saskatoon – 6 currents
CJAY 92 Calgary – 6 currents
The Bear Edmonton – 14 currents
Rock 106 Lethbridge – 20 currents
Power 104 Kelowna – 24 currents
98.3 CIFM Kamloops – 30 currents

Monitored, but non-reporting stations are:
C103 Moncton – 18 currents
98.9 Big John Saint John – 15 currents
FM93 Quebec City – 3 currents
CHOM Montréal – 10 currents
Q92 Sudbury – 8 currents
106.7 The Drive Red Deer – 18 currents
100.3 The Q Victoria – 12 currents

If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email or call me.

Gary McDonald
(212) 869-0835