Album-oriented rock

Album-oriented rock (sometimes referred to as Adult-oriented rock or as West Coast 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 role in song selection, generally limiting airplay to just a few “focus tracks” from a particular album and concentrating on artists with a more slickly-produced, "commercial" sound than what had been featured a few years earlier.

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, jazz, and blues selections became rarer 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 these styles, 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 formats 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. Those AOR stations, which decided to stay "demographically-rooted", became classic rock stations by eschewing newer bands which their older listeners might tune out. Those that didn't fully evolve into classic rock generally attempt to hold onto their older listeners through careful dayparting -- playing large amounts of classic rock during the 9-5 workday with more adventurous, newer songs "baked into the mix" as the listener base skews younger at night.

Michael Jackson

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 1982 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 Jon Butcher, Tracy Chapman, Living Colour and Lenny Kravitz did manage to receive AOR airplay of varying magnitude.


The radio consultants, Kent Burkhart and Lee Abrams had a huge impact on AOR. Beginning in the early 70s they began contracting with what would become hundreds of stations by the 1980s. Lee Abrams had developed a “Super Stars” format, pioneering it at WQDR in Raleigh NC, 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.

Spin-off Formats

The phenomenal success of the Album-oriented Rock and the highly competitive battle for ratings likely contributed to the format splintering to reflect different stylistic perspectives. The 1980s saw some stations adding glam metal bands such as Mötley Crüe, Warrant and Poison, while others embraced New-wave acts such as The Cars, The Fixx, INXS and Gary Myrick.

The rise of Grunge, Alternative and Hip-hop accelerated the fadeout of the true Album-oriented Rock format. By the early 1990s most AOR radio stations switched exclusively to classic rock, or segued to other current formats with somewhat of an AOR approach:

  • Adult Album Alternative (known as Triple A) echoed a softer AOR without the hard rock or heavy 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, Foo Fighters, 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.

AOR Radio Stations

The radio stations, in the following list, were successful with the AOR format. In the 1970s and early 1980s some were considered progressive, with programing that evolved to what became known as AOR. Many of these stations have switched from AOR to another format - in some cases Classic rock or one of the other AOR spin-offs mentioned above.

Call Letters Market Frequency AOR Years Current Format
KZRR Albuquerque, NM 94.1 FM 1980-present Active Rock
WZZO Allentown, PA 95.1 FM 1975-present AOR
WKLS Atlanta, GA 96.1 FM 1974-2003 Active Rock
WAAF Boston, MA 107.3 FM 1969-1989 Active Rock
WBCN Boston, MA 104.1 FM 1968-1995 Active Rock
WDAI Chicago, IL 94.7 FM 1972-1978 Oldies as WZZN
WLUP Chicago, IL 97.9 FM 1977-1993 Mainstream Rock
WEBN Cincinnati, OH 102.7 FM 1967-present AOR
WMMS Cleveland, OH 100.7 FM 1968-1994 Active Rock
WLVQ Columbus, OH 96.3 FM 1977-present AOR
WTUE Dayton, OH 104.7 FM 1975-present AOR
WLLZ Detroit, MI 98.7 FM 1980-1995 Smooth Jazz as WVMV
WRIF Detroit, MI 101.1 FM 1971-c.1994 Active Rock
WNIK Indianapolis, IN Online 1960-present Rock
KYYS Kansas City, MO 102.1 FM/99.7 FM 1974-1997, 1997- Classic rock
WKQQ Lexington, KY 98.1 FM 1974-1998 Active Rock on 100.1 FM
KLOS Los Angeles, CA 95.5 FM 1969-1995 Classic rock
KMET Los Angeles, CA 94.7 FM 1968-1987 Smooth Jazz as KTWV
WMC-FM Memphis, TN 99.7 FM circa 1969-circa 1981 Hot Adult Contemporary
WRNO-FM Metairie, LA (New Orleans) 99.5 FM 1968-1997 talk radio
KQRS-FM Minneapolis, MN 92.5 FM 1968- AOR
KZOQ Missoula, MT 101.1 FM not sure Classic rock
WDHA Morristown, NJ 105.5 FM 1979-present AOR
WKDF Nashville, TN 103.3 FM 1970-1999 Country
WNEW New York, NY 102.7 FM 1967-1995 Adult Contemporary as WWFS
WPLJ New York, NY 95.5 FM 1971-1983 Hot Adult Contemporary
WVOK Oxford, AL (Birmingham) 99.5 FM 1977-1983 Classic rock as WZRR
WMMR Philadelphia, PA 93.3 FM 1968-present Active Rock
WQDR Raleigh, NC 94.7 FM 1973-1984 Country
WQBK Rensselaer, NY 103.9 FM 1972-present AOR
KISW Seattle, WA 99.9 FM 1971-1996 Active Rock/Talk
KXRX Seattle, WA 96.5 FM 1987-1994 Jack FM
KZOK Seattle, WA 102.5 FM 1974-1986 Classic rock
KOL Seattle, WA 94.1 FM 1968-1973 Country as KMPS
KEZE Spokane, WA 105.7 FM 1973-1996 Active Rock as KZBD
KWK St. Louis, MO 106.5 FM 1979-1984 Adult Hits as WARH
KSHE St. Louis, MO 94.7 FM 1967-present AOR
KWFM Tucson, AZ 92.9 FM 1970-1983 Adult Album Alternative as KWMT

Music played

Most radio formats are based on a select, tight rotation of hit singles. The best example is Top 40, though other formats Country, Smooth Jazz, and Urban, all utilize the same basic principles, with the most popular songs repeating every 2 to 6 hours, depending on their rank in rotation. Generally there is a strict order or list to be followed and the DJ does not make decisions about what selections are played.

AOR, while still based on the rotation concept, focused on the album as a whole (rather than singles). In the early 1970s many DJs had the freedom to chose what track(s) to play off a given album – as well as latitude to decide what order to play the records in.

Later in the 1970s AOR formats became tighter and song selection shifted to the Program Director or Music Director, rather than the DJ. Still, when an AOR station added an album to rotation they would often focus on numerous tracks at once, rather than playing the singles as they were individually released.

These short lists represent only a sampling of what became staples of American radio through a long history of airplay on Album-oriented rock stations. As AOR stopped playing new music and died out in the late 1980s the core repertoire of AOR became that of the Classic Rock format.

Non-single/album tracks

With the success of the AOR format, some non-single, album tracks received extensive radio airplay across the US, becoming hugely popular; most notably Led Zeppelin’s "Stairway to Heaven." Other examples of popular songs never released as a 45 RPM record include:

Longer versions

With the AOR format, the full-length album version was favored for airplay rather than the edited versions for the 45 RPM single and top forty radio.

Multiple songs played as one

AOR stations played songs in context with the album they were taken from. Songs that ran together on albums were generally played together on-air as one piece.

Core Artists

This list represents a sampling of artists who achieved their greatest success though airplay on radio stations with the AOR format. Many of these artists may have "crossed over" with airplay at Top 40 or other formats, but the bulk of their airplay was at AOR.

For example, Tom Petty had just 3 singles between 1977 and 1991 that reached the Top Ten of the pop singles chart, the basis for Top 40. Conversely, Petty logged 20 Top Ten songs between 1981 and 1991 on Billboard's Rock Tracks chart, which documented AOR airplay.

Forgotten artists of AOR

Because AOR was at one time a champion of new music, the format gave significant airplay to a wide range of artists who, for one reason or another, never crossed over to Classic rock programming. Billboard Magazine did not start tracking AOR airplay until 1981, so the level of airplay and popularity some of these artists may have achieved, is a bit of a mystery. In some cases albums by these artists see CD release only on small boutique labels.

AOR as a genre of music, aka "melodic rock"

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