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Album-oriented rock (commonly referred to as Adult-oriented rock), abbreviated AOR and originally called album-oriented radio, was originally an American FM radio format focusing on album tracks by rock artists. This format developed and popularised the repertoire of music currently associated with Classic Rock.
Freeform and Progressive
The roots of the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio format began with programming concepts rooted in 1960s idealism. The Freeform or Progressive formats developed the repertoire and set the tone that would dominate AOR playlists for much of its heyday.
In the mid to late 1960s, the FCC enacted a non-duplication rule prohibiting FM radio stations from merely running a Simulcast of the programming from their AM counterparts. Owners of AM/FM combo stations fought these new regulations vigorously, delaying the new rules for eighteen months. When finally enacted, station owners were pressed to come up with alternate programming options quickly.
The Freeform format in commercial radio was born out of this desperate need to program the FM airwaves, inexpensively. Programmers like Tom Donahue at KMPX developed stations where DJs had freedom to play long sets of music, often covering a variety of genres. Songs were not limited to hits or singles; indeed the DJs often played obscure or longer tracks by newer or more adventurous artists than heard on Top 40 stations of the day. This reflected the growth of albums as opposed to singles as rock's main artistic vehicle for expression in the 1960s and 1970s.
With a few exceptions commercial Freeform had a relatively brief life. With more and more listeners acquiring FM radios, the stakes became higher for stations to attract market share so that they could sell more advertising at a higher rate.
By 1970 many of the stations were moving to institute programming rules with a "clock" and system of "rotation". With this shift, Stations formats in the early 1970s were now billed as Progressive. DJs still had much input over the music they played, and the selection was deep and eclectic, ranging from folk to hard rock with other styles such as Jazz fusion occasionally thrown in.
A broad cross section of rock music that gained popularity during this time came to be called Progressive Rock, likely because the wide recognition and success of artists could be attributed to airplay on Progressive stations; much the way the College Rock label was given to bands that received air play on student run college stations during the 1980s.
Album Oriented Radio/Album Oriented Rock
Later in the decade, as program directors began to put more controls over what songs were played on air, Freeform and Progressive stations evolved to the true AOR format; Album Oriented Radio rather than single oriented radio (or Top 40). Stations still played longer songs and deep album tracks (rather than singles), but program directors and consultants took on a greater roll in song selection, generally limiting airplay to just a few “focus tracks” from a particular album.
The "Rock" in Album-oriented Rock came in the late 1970s when AOR music libraries and playlists discarded the wide range of genres embraced earlier on to primarily focus on a rock-centric sound. The occasional folk and Jazz selections became more rare and most black artists were effectively eliminated from airplay. Where earlier Soul and R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, War, Sly Stone and others had been championed by the format, AOR was no longer representing Soul, R&B, and took a stance against disco. In 1979 Steve Dahl of WLUP in Chicago destroyed disco records on his radio show, culminating in a notorious Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park. Steve Slaton of KISW in Seattle had a similar on-air bit which was included on the station’s Epic Rock record album.
What links the Freeform, Progressive, AOR and ultimately the Classic Rock format are the continuity of rock artists and songs carried through each phase. Programmers and DJs of the Freeform and Progressive phases continued to cultivate a repertoire of rock music and style of delivery that were foundations of AOR and now Classic Rock.
In the early 1980s AOR radio stations were getting bad press for the lack of black artists included in their programming (with the one glaring exception being Jimi Hendrix). Indeed many AOR stations had embraced harder rock while also cultivating a bad boy image. In 1983 Michael Jackson released his landmark Thriller album, which included an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo on the song Beat It. Facing claims of racism, AOR stations added Beat It to their playlists and the song rose to a respectable #14 on Billboard's Rock Tracks chart, which documented AOR airplay. Curiously, for such a strong showing, the song has not been widely played on AOR or Classic Rock stations since.
The relative success of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" did not open the floodgates for other black artists on Album-oriented Rock stations. However, the door was cracked and through the remainder of the 1980s Prince, Tracy Chapman, Living Color and Lenny Kravitz did managed to receive AOR airplay of varying magnitude.
The radio consultants, Ken Burkhart and Lee Abrams had a huge impact on AOR. Beginning in the mid 70s they began contracting with what would become hundreds of stations by the 1980s. Lee Abrams had developed a “Super Stars” format and had been very successful in delivering large ratings. Basically, Abrams took Top 40 principles and applied them to AOR. While his “Super Stars” format was not quite as tight as Top 40 radio, it was considerably more restricted. This company controlled playlists for a substantial segment AOR stations all over the US. This might be considered somewhat ironic, considering the format’s origins were based on a free-form approach without playlists. Lee Abrams is now Chief Programming Officer for XM Satellite Radio.
The phenomenal success of Album-oriented Rock, and the highly competitive battle for ratings likely contributed to the fomat splintering to reflect different stylistic perspectives. The 1980s saw some stations adding glam metal bands such as Warrant and Poison, with others leaned more heavily towards classic rock. Latter decade new-wave acts such as The Alarm and The Church infiltrated AOR playlists culminating with Nirvana's sudden ascent with the album Nevermind in 1991.
The aforementioned album's success, dovetailed with the fade out of Album-oriented Rock. Some AOR radio stations switched exclusively to classic rock, or segued to current-based formats with an AOR approach:
AOR as a genre of music, aka "melodic rock"
- Adult Album Alternative (known as Triple A), echoed a softer AOR without the hard rock or later day hair metal. For a time Seattle's KMTT even promoted Freeform Fridays, and the Grey Pony Tail Special to highlight the halcyon days of FM radio.
- Modern Rock/Alternative A pioneer in this format was KROQ in LA, taking the AOR programming approach to music with New Wave, Punk, College Rock and Grunge/Alternative leanings.
- Active Rock Today’s mainstream album rock, playing acts such as Stone Temple Pilots, Nickelback, and Linkin Park). The active rock format was pioneered by the formerly broadcast (now internet only) KNAC-FM out of Long Beach, California in 1986 and expanded upon by WXTB-FM out of Tampa, Florida in January 1990.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, AOR began to be associated with another concept called "melodic rock" which, most simply stated, is the sound of hard rock and heavy metal bands of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. It is seen as a throwback to those eras and a counter-reaction against the grunge, alternative, bubblegum, retro-disco, and Latin sounds of the mid-to-late 1990s. Many of these acts are bands, band members, and musicians from popular bands of the earlier eras, such as Toto, Foreigner, Van Halen, Styx and Europe, either regrouped or playing in new bands or reconfigured lineups. Several of the acts are British or European, and many albums are now recorded and produced in Europe and Japan, and are only available in the United States as imports. One of the most recent AOR releases was Place Vendome with ex-Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske joining with the members of Pink Cream 69.
In Europe the term AOR actually has nothing to do with its historic roots; it is used to describe the music of rock bands that don't sound as heavy as hard rock bands and pay more attention to melody. The definition of that sound are bands like Foreigner, Toto, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Heart, Bryan Adams etc. AOR was storming the charts through the 80's but in the early 90's the grunge movement took things over in the rock world leaving promising artists and bands like Mitch Malloy, Talisman, Tyketto, etc. in cold water. Since then AOR has never regained its power in America but in Europe there has always been an underground movement with many bands keeping the spirit alive. Although most AOR bands today hail from Europe, the most important market is Japan, where several bands like Fair Warning reached stardom while they couldn't get a decent distribution in the rest of the world. After the mid 90's AOR found some support in several new European indie record labels like Frontiers, MTM, AOR Heaven, who gave bands the chance to release their albums.