Granted, Nada Surf's 1996 fluke hit ''Popular,'' with its shouted exhortation to ''keep your hair spotless and clean,'' will never actually be popular enough to usurp, say, ''Free Bird'' in America's classic-rock psyche. But songs like ''Popular'' -- along with such flannel-era relics as Pearl Jam's ''Alive'' and Bush's ''Glycerine'' -- are at the heart of a new radio format that may well be aging Gen-Xers' answer to getting the Led out. ''If you like being brought back to the summer of '96, then right on,'' says Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws. ''I'm sure that was a good summer for a lot of people.''
The retro format -- called classic alternative, neo-alternative, or even alternative gold -- began in November 2002 at San Diego's KBZT, and has since spread the musty scent of '90s-era teen spirit to stations from Boston to Los Angeles. Offering ''oldies'' from the Pixies and Nirvana, along with some Bizkit-free newer tunes, the format is helping modern-rock stations pull in older, more lucrative listeners (especially coveted as new rules pull beer ads from youth-targeted stations). ''People between the ages of 25 and 34 have gone from frat boy to husband boy,'' says KBZT general manager Darrel Goodin. ''But they're still young, and they do want to be plugged in to new music.''
At its best, neo-alternative is transcending nostalgia, lighting a brighter path for oft dreary rock radio. Many of the stations fill their new-music slots -- usually about 30 to 40 percent of their playlists -- not with ''mallternative'' fodder, but with the smart, indie-leaning music that radio tends to ignore. ''I'm hearing Bright Eyes and Coheed and Cambria on these stations, and that's awesome,'' says Columbia A&R exec and former MTV personality Matt Pinfield, who began his career as an alt-rock DJ. Adds Dave Beasing, the Jacobs Media consultant who helped design the new format: ''Nickelback doesn't fit. Linkin Park doesn't fit. The whole package is about alternative being alternative again.''
One such station, L.A.'s Indie 103.1, has grabbed attention by mixing left-field classics (think the Talking Heads' ''Girlfriend Is Better'') with such uncompromising recent picks as Mars Volta and, well, current Nada Surf. ''I don't mind hearing an R.E.M. record if there's a Sleepy Jackson song on next,'' says Conor Deasy, singer for the Thrills, another new band bolstered by the format. Though critics have suggested the ''indie'' moniker is wildly misleading given that 103.1's ads are sold by radio behemoth Clear Channel, the station's playlist is undeniably anticorporate: Proudly abrasive electro singer Peaches' raucous duet with Iggy Pop, ''Kick It,'' was No. 1 in late February. ''That must be a damn cool radio station,'' marvels Peaches. ''Watch it shut down in a month.''
Some have the same worries about the format as a whole, especially since neo-alternative stations like Seattle's KRQI have ditched new music entirely. There is the question of whether neo-alternative can thrive without people younger than 25. ''There aren't many 16-year-olds who are gonna [embrace] a station playing old Pearl Jam,'' frets KBZT's Goodin. ''Will the medium lose them altogether?'' Perhaps. At least until the rise of ''rap-rock gold.''