New Festival Highlights Houston's Embarrassing Lack of Rock Radio (Again)

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Houston rock fans learned the (almost) complete lineup of the Houston Open Air festival at high noon on Monday. With nearly 40 acts spread over three stages September 24 and 25 at NRG Park, HOA (as we shall now refer to it) tunes in nearly every wavelength of the hard-rock/metal spectrum: theatrical classic-metal revivalists Avenged Sevenfold; grunge survivors Alice In Chains; brooding alterna-metal veterans Deftones; Slayer and Anthrax, two of the “Big 4” thrash-metal titans of the '80s; Swedish costume-metal ghouls Ghost; post-hardcore outfits Pierce the Veil and Of Mice and Men; post-grunge B-listers Chevelle and Alter Bridge; grizzled goth-metal dudes the Cult and Ministry; Lone Star hellraisers Texas Hippie Coalition and Sons of Texas; and so on and so forth.

To make sure its thousands of fans stay well-fed and liquored up during these two punishing days of heavy metal and Houston humidity, HOA is planning to stock its food court with local vendors serving only the finest “Gourmet Man Food.” Furthermore, a “Whiskey Row” sponsored by Jack Daniel’s will help wash down all that man food, with several varieties of the preferred firewater of Lemmy, Slash and lesser rock royalty through the ages. One thing that will be missing, though, is a commercial FM station that routinely plays more than a handful of the artists featured at the festival. Most major markets have them, but Houston hasn't since KLOL switched to the “rhythmic Latin hits” of Mega 101 more than a decade ago. This void on the airwaves has been a major embarrassment to the Bayou City’s rock fans ever since, but now it’s even more perplexing given the kind of audience that appears to be here, and starving for a festival like this to go along with their Gourmet Man Food.

“Houston is one of the country’s biggest rock markets and, when combined with the impressive food scene happening here, it’s a natural location for a DWP festival,” Danny Wimmer of festival promoters Danny Wimmer Presents said in the HOA press release Monday.

Houston Open Air borrows its name from one of the world's biggest rock/metal festivals, Germany's Wacken Open Air, which routinely draws about 75,000 rabid rock fans to a farming hamlet about 50 miles northwest of Hamburg. (The festival’s precise location within NRG Park is TBD, but the “open air” seems to imply the “Yellow Lot,” site of last year’s Free Press Summer Fest and numerous Vans Warped Tours.) It’s actually the newest franchise in the DWP portfolio, which also includes Chicago Open Air; Rock On the Range in Columbus, Ohio; Aftershock in Sacramento, Calif.; Louder Than Life in Louisville, Ky.; Welcome to Rockville in Jacksonville, Fla.; Carolina Rebellion near Charlotte, N.C.; and Rock Allegiance outside Philadelphia. The latter is especially noteworthy, because it takes place one week before HOA and shares more than half of its acts, including Avenged Sevenfold and Alice in Chains in the 1-2 holes.

These festivals are big business; according to DWP’s Web site, more than 90,000 fans showed up earlier this month at the most recent, Carolina Rebellion (headliners included Five Finger Death Punch, Disturbed and the Scorpions). Last year, almost 600,000 people attended the company’s 12 festivals, with 800,000 more projected to attend this year. Among other stark realities about the music business, where festivals continue to account for an increasing percentage of overall revenue, these figures also show how expendable traditional radio has become as a promotional tool; at least that seems to be the case with HOA. Put another way, Houston’s lack of a significant FM rock station was obviously no deterrent for DWP wanting to add a 13th festival here.

Twenty years ago, local radio would have been all over HOA — trolling area malls and concerts for ticket drops, playing the acts in heavy rotation on "Two-fer Tuesday" and such, and broadcasting backstage interviews and other live remotes from the festival site. Today its media partners include Alternative Press, Metal Hammer and Revolver magazines; Playboy Radio; and Web sites like Blabbermouth, Loudwire and Metal Injection. There’s not a single local media outlet among them. Granted, it’s hard to imagine any of Houston’s TV stations taking much of an interest (let alone the Chronicle), but the lack of radio support is the most glaring because, well, it’s a music festival. Sadly, Houston just doesn't offer that kind of radio anymore — the closest thing there is at the moment is probably 94.5 The Buzz, which certainly plays its fair share of vintage grunge (if not much Alice In Chains specifically), but overall heavily favors trendy alt-pop acts like AWOLNation and Twenty One Pilots over the heavier new stuff.

Still, before we go, it’s worth noting that Houston is not a complete desert for rock fans looking to put some quality, locally sourced content in their ears. There’s KACC, which plays a wonderful variety of rock from across several decades (much more than you’ll hear on commercial FM), but the lack of announcers and relatively weak signal strength in a lot of the metro area can be very frustrating. KPFT and  KTRU also offer some excellent rock programming; you just have to find it. There are also a few decent streaming stations, most notably the reincarnated Rock 101, but blasting Avenged Sevenfold or Ministry from your computer at work just doesn’t have the same effect as doing it on a highway late at night or while heading to the beach (or perhaps a big new festival like HOA). If anything, it’s a good way to guarantee a stern lecture from your boss.

Finally, rock fans also need to acknowledge that, no matter how much they may not want to admit it, their favorite music has been pushed to the margins as the airwaves, sales and streams continue to be dominated by pop, hip-hop, EDM and country – all types of music that, especially in the last decade or so, have done a much better job developing new artists and appealing to younger listeners than rock has. Houston's two rock-oriented commercial stations, The Buzz and classic-rocker 106.9 The Eagle, only compound the problem by offering some of the least compelling programming on the entire local FM dial. What does that matter when it comes to a festival like HOA? Houston’s rock fans could well be willing to turn out by the thousands at NRG Park this September — but if they do, it will be in spite of the fact that local radio has long since tuned them out, when it once could have been one of the primary engines driving them there.

Early-bird passes to Houston Open Air are on sale now for $99.50 at houstonopenair.com. Single-day and weekend passes go on sale Friday at noon.

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