The only other concert in recent months to sell out at a Gaga-like pace has been the perennial Buzzfest, the semi-annual schlock-rock festival organized since 1995 by Houston's "new rock alternative," 94.5 The Buzz. The concert sells out almost every time - like it is Saturday, but you can probably still win tickets from the station - and this year, with headliners like the newly-reunited Limp Bizkit, Deftones and Jordan-Catalano-wants-you-to-take-him-seriously's band 30 Seconds to Mars, they're not exactly booking musicians at the peak of their game. And yet 94.5 The Buzz ranks constantly in the Top 5 for radio stations in Houston, one of the biggest markets in the country. The only question is why. To better understand what makes The Buzz so popular, Rocks Off examined Arbitron ratings from the past year while spending the better part of the last few days listening only to the station. Our conclusions are below. According to Arbitron, the leading radio audience research company in the U.S., the Houston-Galveston radio market is the sixth-largest in the nation. Only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas-Fort Worth come before us. And yet, for all of those markets, Houston is the only one with an alternative-rock station in the Top 5.
LA's legendary KROQ is the only other alternative station in the Top 10 for the markets listed above. In Dallas, the market likely closest in demographics to Houston, the Clear Channel-owned alternative station The Edge, whose Web site looks oddly like The Buzz's, ranks a paltry No. 17. It was with hesitation that Rocks Off decided to undertake the task of non-stop Buzz listening this week. We'll admit the station is programmed into our car radio, but we're more likely to stop on KUHF than any other station. Yet back when Rocks Off commuted to The Woodlands every day for work, The Rod Ryan Show was the perfect way to break up the monotony of Interstate 45. You already know we're not great fans of Creed. But that mainstream rock band seems to exemplify the style of music The Buzz is known for. Yet by early Thursday afternoon, we were actually starting to get into DJ Don Jantzen's nostalgic set. Jantzen was playing a series of truly alternative songs from the early 1990s and beyond -- Green Day's "Longview," "Today" by Smashing Pumpkins, "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" by The White Stripes, Nirvana and "Graduate" by Third Eye Blind. It turns out Jantzen does a Flashback every set.
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And now a word about radio genres. The Buzz, Dallas' The Edge and LA's KROQ are all billed as "alternative" stations, the most popular genre for men in the 18-34 age range. But the genre is more aptly called "modern rock," since the major alternative stations in the other top cities are referred to as "adult album alternative," meaning they play deeper cuts and more diverse setlists from a variety of artists. During our time listening to The Buzz over the past few days, we heard "Uprising" by Muse more than once each day, but we also heard "What's the Frequency, Kenneth," by R.E.M. When was the last time you heard R.E.M. on The Buzz? What we didn't hear was a single band fronted by a female. Hole is coming to House of Blues and has a new album out, so why not them, at least? In fact, the only bands we can think of that even had a female in them were Smashing Pumpkins and The White Stripes, both of whom don't fit the genre for The Buzz. A glance at Don Jantzen's playlist from the past week reveals he also played Garbage, which we missed, but that was also a part of his Flashback schtick and not a regular setlist. In the early years of Buzzfest, Poe (remember her?) was a headliner in 1996. Indie rock acts like Matthew Sweet and Lush and punk bands like Face to Face played the main stage, while the DJs were able to hand-pick the bands that played the side stage. Around 1998 the acts started getting heavier -- first the Foo Fighters and Creed, then by the 2000s Papa Roach, Linkin Park and Nickelback. There hasn't been a female-fronted band at Buzzfest for the last several years, a dubious streak ended this year by Temple-born Flyleaf and Canadians Metric.
The truth is, back when The Buzz played indie-rock, their ratings weren't so good. Their numbers jumped significantly in the mid-2000s when they introduced the Rod Ryan Show, and the station's sound (and identity) took a dramatic turn towards the misogynistic. One look at their website, which features listener-submitted photos of scantily-clad women, reveals their targeted market, males in the 18-34 range. And of the Top 10 stations in Houston, The Buzz is the only one that plays any kind of modern rock. When your other options are Contemporary Christian, Adult Contemporary, Mexican Regional and Pop Contemporary, what station can you turn to? But something at The Buzz seems to be changing. Why all the mid-90s nostalgia? While writing this story, Rocks Off has heard Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, and (finally!) "Skinny Little Bitch" by Hole. Since the last time we looked at the station's ratings, they've fallen from No. 3 to a tie for 5th place. Maybe the male-centric schlock isn't working anymore. We won't know for sure until we hear them play The Breeders. Then we'll be a happy listener.