Alternative Radio Tunes In And Turns On To U2, R.E.M.

New singles from '80s superstar acts are getting airplay and attention from modern-rock broadcasters.

If you turned on the radio during the past two weeks, you may have felt like you were experiencing a mid-'80s flashback.

Between the release of the U2 track "Sweetest Thing" -- a previously unfinished B-side originally intended for the Irish band's 15 million-selling album The Joshua Tree (1987) -- and the new R.E.M. single, "Daysleeper," which some radio programmers have pegged as a classic from the Athens, Ga., superstars, it's sounding like the '80s all over again.

With modern-rock radio fractured into various niche formats -- some catering to the harder, more aggressive styles of today's bigger bands such as shock-rockers Marilyn Manson and Days of the New, and others going more mainstream -- the question becomes, "Is there still room for the likes of R.E.M. and U2 on alternative radio?"

A sampling of radio programmers said the answer is a resounding "yes," despite the fact that both bands are coming off albums that were among the slowest-selling of their careers. (R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi [1996] and U2's Pop [1997] sold 950,000 and 1.4 million copies in the U.S. respectively, according to SoundScan.)

"Both these bands are at a point in their career where we don't receive an overabundance of phone calls as soon as their new songs hit the radio," said Jim McGuinn, program director of Philadelphia's Y100 (WPLY-FM). "Their fanbase is a little older, but they expect that if a new R.E.M. or U2 song is out, they will hear it on the radio."

McGuinn said there was no question that he would play both songs on his station, which sits in the #5 U.S. alternative-radio market among stations reporting to industry trade-magazine Radio and Records. Despite the profusion of edgier, harder bands that he programs, both U2 and R.E.M. are vital, important groups, McGuinn added.

That sentiment was echoed by longtime radio-personality Oedipus, vice president/program director of Boston's WBCN (104.1 FM). "I always listen to the song first," Oedipus said. "But we have a long history with these bands from when they were just starting out and, based on that relationship, I'll give my friends a shot. They deserve to be heard."

Oedipus, who preferred to use only his radio name, said each band is getting a fairly healthy 25-28 spins a week on his station. "The way the business is going," Oedipus said, "music is so disposable. Bands are lucky to have a second album played on modern-rock radio, and these two have been around for 20 years. For the most part, it's 'here today, gone later today.' "

The warm reception to the songs is surprising given their release at transitional periods in both bands' careers. "Sweetest Thing," an unfinished B-side U2 recently re-cut with Joshua Tree producer Steve Lillywhite, has nearly nothing in common with the more electronic sounds that the politically minded Irish-rockers have explored on their past three studio albums.

Similarly, R.E.M.'s swaying, acoustic single, "Daysleeper" (RealAudio excerpt), the first from their soon-to-be-released album, Up (Oct. 27), has tinges of some of the band's warmer, folk-rock sound. The ballad is somewhat of an anomaly on the new album, the first from the group since founding drummer Bill Berry's departure the past fall. Much of Up flirts with a variety of unusual percussion-instruments and studio-manipulated vocals and effects, giving it a sparse, ambient sound.

One radio personality who said he was not sold on either song was Jed "The Fish," afternoon drive-time DJ for tastemaking Los Angeles alternative-station KROQ (106.7 FM).

"I heard a piece of ['Daysleeper'], and I passed on it," said Jed, who also preferred to use only his radio name. He cautioned that, while he was "not surprised a bit" by either song, he hadn't closely listened to either yet.

"It sounded like the same old thing, and I don't think anyone cares," Jed proclaimed. "At least U2 make an attempt to be current, where R.E.M. have been rehashing the same thing for the past 10 years."

In the coming weeks, both groups will likely get the benefit of the doubt at most modern-rock radio-stations, according to Jim Kerr, who reports on alternative radio for Radio and Records. With U2 and R.E.M. long established as part of the bedrock of non-top-40 radio, alongside such bands as Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, Kerr said that many programmers have a soft spot in their hearts for the career acts.

University of Georgia college-station 90.5 WUOG-FM, in R.E.M.'s hometown of Athens -- which bills itself as one of the first places to play R.E.M. in the early '80s -- may not touch the band anymore because they "don't play anything that's top-40 music," station DJ Todd Blumenthal said. But R.E.M. will get plenty of support from Atlanta's mainstream alternative-station 99X (WWNX-FM), according to that station's program director.

Both bands have been generating healthy calls for the station, WWNX program director Leslie Fram said, largely because the two songs quench a thirst for the classic sound that longtime fans remember.

"We've always felt that if there's one band that helps define this station, it's R.E.M.," Fram said.