Progressive rock (sometimes known as underground rock) is a radio station programming format that emerged in the late 1960s,[1] in which disc jockeys are given wide latitude in what they may play, similar to the freeform format but with the proviso that some kind of rock music is almost always played.[2] It enjoyed the height of its popularity in the late 1960s and 1970s.[1] The name for the format began being used circa 1968, when serious disc jockeys were playing "progressive 'music for the head'" and discussing social issues in between records.[3] During the late 1960s, as long-playing records began to supplant the single in popularity with rock audiences, progressive rock stations placed more emphasis on album tracks than did their AM counterparts.[4] Throughout the 1970s, as FM stations moved to more structured formats, progressive rock evolved into album-oriented rock (AOR).[5][6]


When FM broadcasting licenses were first issued by the FCC, broadcasters were slow to take advantage of the new airwaves available to them because their advertising revenues were generated primarily from existing AM broadcasting stations and because there were few FM radio receivers owned by the general public. This void created an opportunity for the disenchanted youth of the counterculture of the 1960s and their counterparts, Hippies and Flower Children, to express themselves by playing music that was largely ignored by mainstream outlets. In this sense, progressive rock radio was more of a social response than a product marketed to fill a need. Inasmuch as the format was commercial, underground sought to capitalize on the maturing of the Baby Boomers who were growing out of the top 40 radio of their youth, which was still targeting teens.[7]

This change coincided with the greater emphasis on albums as opposed to singles in the rock market. Underground stations clearly disdained Top 40 music and made it a policy to avoid playing it. A dilemma grew because many underground artists were contractually obligated to release a certain amount of singles and FCC regulations required such songs to be 3 minutes long, or less. These "single versions" were often quite different than what was on the originating albums. Underground radio could liberally play what were referred to as "the album versions" of songs, no matter how long they were. By the same token, hugely popular and successful albums such as The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant did not contain any singles. In fact, the actual song "Alice's Restaurant" is the entire Side A of its titular album, coming in at over 18 minutes, making it way over the 3-minute mandate,[8] grew to fame in part because of persistent airplay from underground radio host Bob Fass,[9][10] and later became a Thanksgiving tradition on other underground/progressive stations. Many DJs at underground stations also chose to play entire sides of albums that contained multiple tracks, which could range from 20 to 30 minutes. At that time, these actions were considered very bold, so there was clearly a need for a radio format that could not only explore beyond the Top 40, but be allowed to do so with the DJs leading the way. This in turn led to established and new rock artists placing greater emphasis on long or experimental album tracks, knowing they would receive radio airplay.


The progressive rock radio format should not be confused with the progressive rock music genre. While progressive rock music was certainly played on progressive rock radio stations, a number of other varieties of rock music were also played. Generally everything from early Beatles and early Dylan on forward was fair game. Progressive rock radio was generally the only outlet for fringe rock genres such as space rock, jazz fusion, and quiet, acoustic-based folk rock and country rock (often played on weekend mornings). Progressive stations were also known for having "turntable hits", songs by obscure artists that did not sell much and were not hits by any conventional measure, but which listeners kept calling up and requesting;[11] Sweet Thursday's "Gilbert Street" was a good example on the East Coast.[12][13]

The progressive rock radio format grew out of the freeform radio format,[14] and, sharing the key characteristic of disc jockeys having the freedom to play what they chose, has sometimes been referred to as "freeform rock radio" or "freeform progressive radio"[15] or simply "FM rock radio".[15] But as they evolved there were key differences between the freeform and progressive rock formats:

Stations and personnel

The archetypal successful and influential progressive rock radio station was WNEW-FM in New York in the late 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s.[18][19][20] For instance, Keith Emerson credited it for breaking Emerson, Lake & Palmer into the United States market.[17] Other long-running, large-market examples included WMMR in Philadelphia[21] (credited with helping to break Bruce Springsteen),[22] WBCN in Boston, WHFS in Washington, D.C., WXRT in Chicago, WMMS in Cleveland, WEBN in Cincinnati, CJOM, WWWW and WABX in Detroit/Windsor, WZMF in Milwaukee, KQRS-FM in Minneapolis, WOWI in Norfolk, WORJ-FM in Orlando, KSHE in St. Louis, KDKB in Phoenix, KMET in Los Angeles, KSAN in San Francisco, KZAP and KSFM (102.5) in Sacramento, KZEW in Dallas, and KTIM in San Rafael.[23] Many of the higher-profile stations among these were owned by Metromedia.[24] College progressive rock radio stations included WVBR in Ithaca, New York, WKNC in Raleigh, North Carolina,[25] WBRU in Providence, Rhode Island,[26] WRPI in Troy, New York, and WWUH in Hartford, Connecticut.

Pioneering progressive rock radio disc jockey and program directors included Scott Muni in New York,[27][28] Lee Arnold in Orlando, Tom Donahue in San Francisco,[29] and Jim Santella in Buffalo.[30]

Later developments

Over time (some much faster than others), the large-city progressive rock stations usually lost DJ freedom and adopted the more structured and confined album-oriented rock (AOR) format in the late 1970s and 1980s,[6] and then later the nostalgic classic rock format in the 1980s and 1990s, while the smaller stations sometimes turned to college rock or alternative rock.[31] Where once "progressive rock radio [was] the key media of ascendant rock culture", as writer Nelson George put it,[32] by 1987, musician and author Robert Palmer would write, "The glory days of 'progressive' rock radio - when the disk jockey actually chose the records he played and creatively juxtaposed songs and styles - are long gone."[33]

While freeform stations are still around in the 2000s, such as New Jersey's WFMU,[34] and for a while WXRC in Charlotte, North Carolina, recalled the format's original sound,[35] there may be no real examples of the specific progressive rock radio format in existence today on the FM dial. The closest thing to a progressive rock station may be the Deep Tracks channel on Sirius XM Satellite Radio, which plays some of the music originally heard on progressive rock radio, but without pronounced disc jockey personalities or the full feel of the original format. "Stuck in the Psychedelic Era," a syndicated program heard on some non-commercial stations, recreates the format, but rarely includes any recordings made after 1970. Some of the spirit of progressive rock radio (albeit in a more mellow, "adult" form) can also be found in the adult album alternative format.[36]


  1. ^ a b Thomas Staudter, "On the Radio With a Mix Very Distinctly His Own", The New York Times, March 24, 2002. Accessed March 23, 2008.
  2. ^ Fritz E. Froehlich, Allen S. Kent, Carolyn M. Hall (eds.), "FM Commercialization in the United States", The Froehlich/Kent Encyclopedia of Telecommunications, CRC Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8247-2902-1. p. 179.
  3. ^ a b Mike Olszewski, Radio Daze: Stories from the Front in Cleveland's FM Air Wars, Kent State University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-87338-773-2. p. xi.
  4. ^ "Progressive Rock Radio Format". Winds of Change. Retrieved June 6, 2017.
  5. ^ "Album Rock". AllMusic. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
  6. ^ a b William Safire, quoting Stephen Holden, "On Language: Don't Touch That Dial", The New York Times, September 7, 1986. Accessed August 23, 2007.
  7. ^ Schlaerth, J. Don (February 12, 1969). "Underground Music Comes to the Surface." Buffalo Evening News.
  8. ^ Doyle, Patrick (November 26, 2014). Arlo Guthrie looks back on 50 years of Alice's Restaurant. Rolling Stone. Retrieved November 22, 2018.
  9. ^ Jeff Land (1999). Active Radio: Pacifica's Brash Experiment. U of Minnesota Press. p. 116. ISBN 9780816631575. Retrieved 2015-11-26.
  10. ^ Fisher, Marc. Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation. Page 136.
  11. ^ Bobby Borg, The Musician's Handbook: A Practical Guide to Understanding the Music Business, Watson-Guptill, 2003. ISBN 0-8230-8357-8. p. 191.
  12. ^ George-Warren, Holly; Romanowski, Patricia; Pareles, Jon, eds. (2001). The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (3rd ed.). Fireside Books. p. 608. ISBN 0-7432-0120-5.
  13. ^ Eder, Bruce. "Sweet Thursday: Review". Allmusic. Retrieved 4 April 2010.
  14. ^ Sara Pendergast, Tom Pendergast, St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press, 2000.
  15. ^ a b Todd Leopold, "Whatever happened to rock 'n' roll radio?",, February 7, 2002. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  16. ^ Jesse Walker, Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, NYU Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8147-9382-7. pp. 71-100.
  17. ^ a b Keith Emerson, "Remembering Scott Muni",, September 29, 2004. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  18. ^ Robbie Woliver, "Disc Jockey, 55, Back In His College Booth", The New York Times, April 1, 2001. Accessed March 23, 2008.
  19. ^ Glenn Collins, "WNEW-FM, Rock Pioneer, Goes to All-Talk Format", The New York Times, September 14, 1999. Accessed March 23, 2008.
  20. ^ Varla Ventura, "Alison Steele: Song of the Nightbird", entry in Sheroes: Bold, Brash, and Absolutely Unabashed Superwomen from Susan B. Anthony to Xena, Conari, 1998. ISBN 1-57324-128-8. pp. 196-198.
  21. ^ "David Dye, NPR Biography", NPR. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  22. ^ Joe Howard, "Bill Weston’s Resurrection Of Legendary Rocker WMMR" Archived 2007-12-24 at the Wayback Machine, Radio Ink, October 16, 2006. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  23. ^ Paul Friedlander, Rock and Roll: A Social History, Westview Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8133-2725-3. p. 199.
  24. ^ Walker, Rebels on the Air, p. 96.
  25. ^ "The history of WKNC" Archived 2008-01-18 at the Wayback Machine, WKNC-FM. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  26. ^ "WBRU", Encyclopedia Brunoniana, Brown University. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  27. ^ "Classic Vinyl and Sirius remember Scott Muni" Archived 2008-02-19 at the Wayback Machine, Sirius Satellite Radio, October 1, 2004. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  28. ^ "Scott Muni and Johnny Michaels", Rock Radio Scrapbook. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  29. ^ "A Brief History Of 106.9 FM In San Francisco" Archived 2007-09-07 at the Wayback Machine, Bay Area Radio Museum. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  30. ^ Gambini, Bert (2024-05-16). "A Matter of Sound: Reflecting on the broadcast legacy of Jim Santella". Buffalo Rising. Retrieved 2024-06-01.
  31. ^ Keith Moerer, "Who Killed Rock Radio?" Archived 2006-08-06 at the Wayback Machine, Spin, February 1998. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  32. ^ Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Pantheon Books, 1988. ISBN 0-525-48510-4.
  33. ^ Robert Palmer, "Critic's Notebook: Now, Good Music Is Where You Find It", The New York Times, October 29, 1987. Accessed August 23, 2007.
  34. ^ Walker, Rebels on the Air, p. 127.
  35. ^ Mark Washburn, "95.7 FM Has New 'Ride' for Listeners - Progressive Hits from '60s And '70s Will Be Station's New Format", The Charlotte Observer, September 5, 2002.
  36. ^ "Adult Album Alternative (AAA)" entry Archived 2006-03-27 at the Wayback Machine, New York Radio Guide. Access August 23, 2007.