Nu Metal Band Korn Has a No. 1 Song on Active Rock Radio — Is the Format Making a Comeback?

Nearly 30 years after the band’s inception, Korn’s new single, “Start the Healing,” hit No. 1 on the Active Rock radio charts in mid-February. It marked a triumphant return to the format, which made stars of the nu-metal trailblazers.

Lauren Christy, a songwriter/producer who first collaborated with Korn as part of The Matrix for the band’s 2005 album “See You on the Other Side,” shares songwriting credit on “Start the Healing.” She’s close with singer Jonathan Davis, who, for “Requiem,” requested: “I just want your melodies, Lauren, I don’t need any help with lyrics on this record.”

The emotional theme of “Start The Healing” is indeed personal for Davis, but its lyrics work on a meta level. “We’ve all been through a lot of pain in our lives,” Christy observes.” And I think it’s just that at a certain point, you’ve got to walk into the future. And I feel like for JD, that’s where he’s at. Just walking into the light, you know?”

The collaboration proved a winning formula as the song picked up spins and its video, which premiered on YouTube in November, racked up more than 3.7 million views.

Korn’s sound hasn’t changed drastically since the band’s creation. But radio has. And today, Korn — and other ’90s-bred bands including System of a Down and Linkin Park — get virtually no airplay on their hometown rock stations, where, in Los Angeles, a once dominant KROQ has slowly given way to competitor Alt 98.7, an iHeartRadio station, as both playlist their version of alternative.

Ironic since, “When KROQ played Korn’s [1994] ‘Blind,’ it was the first song that really opened up the doors for that whole genre of heavy rock,” says David Benveniste of Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group, which manages Korn. “It got crazy reaction from the fans, it exploded and opened the door for Deftones and System [of a Down] and Linkin Park and Incubus and all those bands.”

The Active Rock format, described by Gregg Steele Heppner, a former SiriusXM executive and programmer, is a “more extreme edge of rock music that skews a little younger. … It was was essentially born at Tampa’s WXTB (98 Rock) in January 1990,” he says. The station still plays format staples Three Days Grace, Seether, Linkin Park and Disturbed, along with Metallica, Ozzy and the Foo Fighters.

As nu metal dominated at the turn of the millenium, modern rock and alternative rock stations began leaning heavier, too. Certainly that was the case in New York, which housed its own K-Rock in the 1990s and into the 2000s (and syndicated Howard Stern, himself a hard rock devotee, until he left for SiriusXM). Today, it operates as Alt 92.3, an Audacy station, not to be confused with iHeart’s Alt 98.7 on the west coast.

Heppner notes that Active Rock’s halcyon days were around 1998 and 1999, “when the alternative format started to pick up some of the active rock music, so you saw bands like Korn and Disturbed getting played on the KROQ and the other mainstream alternative formats at the time.”

The issue came “when you saw Active Rock try to figure out what it was supposed to do,” he says. “Because they no longer had their exclusive hands on music. The problem with active rock has always been ‘we need to be exclusive,’ as in: ‘We do not want to be playing crossover music. We want to own our chunk of music.’ It’s always had a hard time when it’s had to share, but the thing about sharing is, that’s when you get cross cume and more fans.”

Today, Heppner adds, “There really aren’t that many active rock radio stations around the country. And not many in large markets. It’s always an accomplishment to get to No. 1 in Active Rock, but how many people is that really impacting?”

All of which made a Jan. 20 job posting at KROQ a bit peculiar when it listed, “Knowledge of Active Rock Format and audience” among its requirements. (The post has since been removed.) It was followed by a Feb. 3 album release event for Korn’s “Requiem” at Hollywood’s United Methodist Church, which was attended by KROQ staff and contest winners.

Perhaps, sensing that KROQ was losing ground in alternative — January 2022 ratings for KROQ were a 1.4 share, compared to a 2.4 for KYSR Alt 98.7 — a return to its rock roots was in store?

Audacy brand manager Mike Kaplan shoots the suggestion down, telling Variety that the rumor is, “completely false. KROQ’s success has been in the alternative lane for, like, 50 years. … when you throw back to 20 years ago, I mean, that’s part of our core audience; they have an affinity for that era. It doesn’t mean that they live in that era.”

Kaplan added KROQ to his purview in 2020, following the exit of longtime program director Kevin Weatherly, and Kaplan instituted swift changes at the station. That meant, out with the old (SoCal stalwarts like Sublime and Red Hot Chili Peppers — while diminished in rotation, they still have a presence on the station) and in with the new (TikTok hits, Machine Gun Kelly).

“My instincts tell me …  in the more urban centers in our country, the more aggressive active rock music doesn’t really have much of a lane,” Kaplan adds. Still, he doesn’t see it as counter-intuitive to offer listeners tickets to a band that KROQ isn’t playing — like Korn. The contest was meant to “reflect the pop culture status of that moment,” Kaplan explains. “When you talk about the DNA of KROQ, Korn was part of that DNA. KROQ, the name itself implies we rock a little bit.”

Korn manager Benveniste views that as short-sighted. “System just sold out two stadium shows, 25,000 tickets each, with System and Korn,” he says. “These bands are still so prolific and big — quite arguably, two of the most important bands in rock over the past 25 years — whereas KROQ, much to my chagrin, is playing bands that can’t sell a ticket and it’s just a quick fix, a quick flavor of the moment.”

Korn will push at least two, maybe three songs to radio off “Requiem,” says Benveniste, acknowledging that it’s still “so hard …  When we were all coming up in the ‘90s, getting an add on KROQ was the be-all, end-all. Now with the emergence of so many other ways of information dissemination and communication… Yeah, it would be great to be getting 50 spins a week on KROQ, but it’s been quite a different path that the band is taking — with or without alternative radio.”

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