Last week, we published the first installment of an article by hip-hop writer Eric K. Arnold about the effects of media consolidation on the urban radio format. Click here for a refresher.
The piece gives a brief history of urban radio, and describes the loss of localism and diversity on the hip-hop dial due to radio ownership consolidation. Here’s part two:
Back in the Day
Fifteen years ago, the emergence of the “Hot Urban” format revolutionized what had formerly been called black radio. Historically, black-owned stations (many of which had ties to the religious community, especially in the South and Midwest) tended to be very conservative with their programming. With very few exceptions (like the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper‘s Delight”) black radio shied away from rap and hip-hop, which was edgier and skewed younger than their target audiences. As a result, when hip-hop became a national phenomenon in the 1980s, it was still largely considered “underground,” despite its obvious relevance and appeal to young people in urban communities. Early supporters of hip-hop radio tended to be devoted fans at college and community stations, who played records that commercial radio often wouldn‘t touch with a ten-foot dookie stick. Though small in wattage, these stations’ dedicated hip-hop specialty shows developed loyal followings who would tune in to hear “their” music.
In the mid-80s, as the hip-hop generation came into maturity, music trends began to shift. Hip-hop and electronic dance music became more popular among young urban listeners, and new sounds began to creep onto the playlists of urban stations via late night weekend mixshows, typically featuring DJs with club backgrounds. Yet hip-hop was rarely, if ever, heard during daytime hours. This lack of support didn‘t escape the attention of outspoken rap artists like Public Enemy‘s Chuck D, who famously declared “radio — suckers never play me” on 1987’s “Rebel Without a Pause.”
With the rise in hip-hop’s national popularity came a rise in the amount of local hip-hop which was being made in regional markets across the country. At the dawn of the 1990s, it became clear that the demand for fresh urban music was not being satisfied by commercial stations. Long before NYC‘s Hot 97 adopted the phrase “Where Hip-Hop Lives,” the genre thrived on college radio, which had few restrictions on the type of music that could be played.
In New York, college mixshows became important outlets for unsigned artists hoping to land a record deal. [Noted DJ] Bobbito Garcia proudly notes that “The Stretch Armstrong Show” was the first to play artists like Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun, and the Wu-Tang Clan before they had record deals. Eventually, all of them became platinum-selling, major-label acts.
In Los Angeles, KDAY — the first commercial station to adopt a 24-hour hip-hop and R&B format — was instrumental in introducing locally-bred artists like Eazy-E, N.W.A., Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube to the world. Although influential, KDAY’s impact was somewhat limited by the fact it was an AM station.
Likewise, in the Bay Area, stations like KPOO, KALX, and KZSU were instrumental in breaking local artists like Too $hort, Timex Social Club, Hammer, Digital Underground and Paris, all of whom went on to national prominence and commercial success.
At first, FM stations played rap on mixshows, a type of specialty programming which features an on-air mixer. But “as the popularity increased, radio started programming past mixshows,” says Garcia.
In 1991, “The Wake Up Show” made its debut on KMEL. The free-form show, which featured live on-air mixing, interviews, and freestyle battles, pushed the envelope of commercial radio by playing hip-hop music that was considered underground. “The Wake Up Show” quickly became a local institution and later became the first hip-hop program to be syndicated nationally.
Buoyed by the show‘s success, in 1993 KMEL became the first commercial FM outlet to program what later became known as the “Hot Urban” format. During this golden age, KMEL earned a reputation for often being the first commercial station to break new rap records, including many by local artists. Its commitment to localism was certified by its inclusion of area talent in its annual “Summer Jam” and by its motto, “The People’s Station.” As Davey-D relates, “no other station in a major market had that kind of freedom.”
In 1994, the Hot Urban format was adopted by KMEL‘s sister station, KKBT in Los Angeles. This template soon became a blueprint for other commercial stations, including LA‘s Power 106 and New York’s Hot 97, whose formats were in turn copied by urban stations in every market in the country. With the advent of Hot Urban, for the first time, hip-hop was no longer limited to late-night and weekend programming, and could be heard during morning drive-time hours as well. But the adoption of a national, standardized format had another, perhaps unintentional, effect: to limit local access to the airwaves and to push urban culture in a commercialized, mainstream direction.
“It’s really disappointing,” says Garcia, who estimates that these days, there are maybe five good rap songs on the radio in any given year. “It‘s gotten to the point where I don’t even listen to urban radio — it‘s been softened and [is now] unsophisticated.”
It’s difficult for members of the community to demand accountability for what‘s being aired in New York, he says, “if the decisions are being made in St. Louis.”
What Has Consolidation Done to My Community?
Studies have shown that to a large degree, localism has been one of the greatest casualties of the post-consolidation era. Not only have playlists become standardized, with the same, say, 100 songs by major-label artists in rotation in every major market, but access to stations by community groups has decreased, as has the number of community-affairs programs. In some cases, corporations have cut the number of public affairs department heads per market to just one for as many as eight stations.
With the decrease in community accessibility has come a lack of community accountability. Despite widespread discontent, commercial stations have only responded to the needs of local communities when significant pressure has been put on them to do so — and then only sometimes.
In 2002, a group of concerned community activists calling itself the Community Coalition for Media Accountability (CCMA) studied KMEL’s playlist and its relation to the social, economic, and political issues facing young people living in the urban areas the station reached. The report concluded that not only was KMEL not supporting local music, but that the music they were playing was detrimental to youth in the community. According to the CCMA, young people were “more likely to be depicted in the context of crime and violence than through issues such as health, education, family and community life, and KMEL is consistent with this trend.”
Yet KMEL isn‘t the only urban station in a major market to come under fire by community groups. In 2005, New York’s Hot 97 aired the now-infamous “Tsunami” song, a “We Are the World” parody which was widely criticized as being racially insensitive. Despite firing a producer and donating $1 million to tsunami relief efforts, however, the station made few if any structural changes and soon returned to its old ways. According to a press release by Rosa Clemente of R.E.A.C.(Representing Education, Activism and Community) coalition, one year after the incident, Hot 97 continued to air “racially offensive remarks against Asians, African-Americans and Caribbean members of our community, which happen to make up the majority of their listenership.”
Joined by members of the New York City Council, R.E.A.C. demanded “corporate accountability and responsibility” from Hot 97 and its parent company, Emmis Communications. Yet no real commitment to community-responsible programming resulted. Instead, in recent years, a disturbing number of highly-publicized violent incidents have been linked directly to Hot 97, including several shootouts between rival rap crews.
Likewise, follow-up meetings with the CCMA and Clear Channel executives also resulted in no clear commitment by KMEL to address community concerns, although it did ultimately result in a smattering of more airplay for local artists — for a brief time. Playing more hometown acts was a way for KMEL to “legitimize themselves in a community that was restless over the lack of local music,” says Davey-D.
Stay tuned for the final installment of this article.
About the Author:
Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-1990s, when he was the Managing Editor of now-defunct 4080 Magazine. Since then, he‘s been a columnist for such publications as The Source, XXL, Murder Dog, Africana.com, and the East Bay Express; his work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Wax Poetics, SF Weekly, XLR8R, the Village Voice and Jamrock, as well as the academic anthologies Total Chaos and The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Eric began his journalistic career while DJing on college radio station KZSC, and remembers well the early days of hip-hop radio, before consolidation, and commercialization set in. Urban radio remains a subject near and dear to his heart; his recent SF Weekly cover story, “The Demise of Hyphy,” touched off an impassioned debate about the role of commercial stations in local communities which continued in the streets and online for months after the article‘s publication. He currently lives in Oakland, California.