Let’s cut to the chase: urban radio sucks. You know it, artists know it, and programmers know it too. It offers little room for creative programming, tends to favor established artists at the expense of new voices, and kills any halfway-decent song that does manage to land in rotation by playing it as much as three times an hour. Most of all, urban radio sucks because it rarely meets the needs of the local community from which its listeners are drawn. Commercial stations and their advertisers are more than happy to have passive listeners who don’t complain about programming decisions. But the truth of the matter is that people have a right to demand greater accountability from their neighborhood stations. Since all broadcasters use the public airwaves, they need to honor their responsibility to serve the public interest. Urban radio is no different, yet its lack of localism is even more appalling since stations often market themselves as being informed by street-derived culture.
Generally speaking, urban radio is defined as programming whose primary demographic targets people of color living in urban areas. This listenership is often broken down into three somewhat overlapping market segments based on age: “Hot Urban” (12-24); “Rhythmic AC” (18-34); and “Urban AC” (25-49). Hot Urban stations tend to spin current rap and contemporary R&B, while Urban AC stations rarely play much rap, preferring a mix of vintage soul and R&B with more recent neo-soul and R&B. Rhythmic AC stations fall somewhere in the middle: typical stations in this category program for both younger and older listeners, so playlists include contemporary artists as well as older, “heritage” acts.
Urban Radio is a multibillion-dollar industry controlled by a handful of large media conglomerates which program the majority of the genre’s stations across the country.
To a large extent, the industry’s current state is the result of media consolidation. Over the last twelve years, independently-owned commercial stations have become a rarity, while corporate radio has become the norm.
Where once innovative program directors broke new music by emerging artists and DJs sought out hot local talent, today’s urban radio has become standardized and formulaic. National playlists and a reliance on market research have made DJs little more than button-pushers with limited say in what records get aired. Pressure to attract and maintain the widest possible market share has resulted in Music and Program Directors choosing commercially-established, major label artists over idiosyncratic or developing acts. In this ratings-driven climate, radio that actively meets the needs of the community — whether it be public-affairs shows or programming featuring local artists — has fallen by the wayside. The net result is that the average listener has fewer choices, especially when it comes to hearing local music.
“There is a need and a desire on behalf of listeners for local music on local radio stations,” says Davey-D, an air personality on community station KPFA and Internet station Breakdown FM. Davey spent a decade at San Francisco Bay Area commercial radio at KMEL — the #1 urban station in the nation’s #4 market. Despite demand for diverse and local content, “radio stations around the country have no desire to play local artists unless local artists are connected to major labels or major independents,” Davey says.
Who Jacked the Playlist?
The passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 irrevocably altered the landscape of commercial radio. Supporters of this legislation claimed it would invigorate radio, but it actually had the opposite effect. The bill eased FCC-mandated restrictions on ownership, meaning that several stations in the same market could now be owned and operated by the same company. It also continued a trend away from community-oriented broadcasting, which began during Reagan administration. (In 1981, officials did away with the “ascertainment” process, jettisoning requirements that required commercial stations to determine and meet the needs of local communities.)
In the five years following the 1996 Telecom Act, a frenzy of consolidation essentially eliminated independent black radio. Locally-owned and African-American-operated stations were bought out by the dozens and reprogrammed as “urban” stations by national conglomerates. Previously, DJs, Program Directors and Music Directors were able to play music of their own choosing. Since ‘96, market researchers and consultants have determined playlists, eradicating a once-proud tradition of supporting neighborhood talent. As Davey-D notes, “This was a rude awakening with respect to local music.”
In 1997, following KMEL’s purchase by Chancellor Media, Program Director Michelle Santosuosso wrote an open letter to PDs in other markets detailing how the station went from a “mom and pop” operation to being owned by a “massive media company” which also owned 100 other stations, including KMEL’s main competitor. In this industry climate, she noted, “balancing the commitment to musical integrity with the pressures of big business ratings demands is increasingly difficult.”
A decade later, her statement seems truer than ever. KMEL’s current parent company, Clear Channel Communications, owns not 100 stations, but well over 1,000. Yet Clear Channel is only one of a handful of companies which own the majority of radio stations in America and are thus in a position to dictate or restrict content as they see fit.
Urban radio programming has become stagnant, alienating many hip-hop heads who once listened religiously to mix shows. According to Bobbito Garcia — former co-host of “The Stretch Armstrong Show,” a New York college radio program known for featuring unsigned hip-hop artists — “It’s become national radio, not urban radio.” The effect of consolidation, he says, is that “artists started making music not for the audience, but for the radio.”
In today’s urban radio market, the sound has become increasingly formulaic. “Real hip-hop sounds weird,” says Julio G., who pioneered West Coast hip-hop radio at KDAY 20 years ago. Julio, who’s credited with breaking Eazy E., says that disc jockeys themselves no longer have the opportunity to champion new music. “I started with a passion to find the best record,” he says. “Why do I gotta be just another guy playing [chart-topping MC] Plies?”
Matt Sonzala, the author of the Houston So Real blog and the hip-hop booker for Austin’s annual SXSW conference, remembers the early days of Texas hip-hop radio well. He recalls hearing local artists like the Geto Boys and UGK on The Box 97.9, who “blew up because they had support in their own city.” Sonzala claims that, despite Houston’s storied history as a breeding ground for rap music, the only local artists getting any sort of commercial radio action these days are those already signed to major labels.
Like Houston, Atlanta’s urban radio stations were also once known for supporting homegrown artists, whether unsigned, indie or major. Recently, however, a PD who had heavily supported local rappers was let go, and “the scene changed,” says Wendy Day, the founder of artist advocacy group Rap Coalition. Day has firsthand experience building acts through neighborhood word-of-mouth. Before moving to the ATL, she lived in Chicago and New York, where, a decade ago, she worked records for Twista and Do or Die out of Chi-town. Back then, she says, radio was loathe to take on “hard” rap: “we could not get our records played on radio.” Instead, she notes, “we blew it up on the street.”
Street culture is by definition different than corporate culture. Radio, she points out, “is definitely a business. It doesn’t play music to reach people or move a culture… its job is to sell ads.”
From a corporate perspective, it’s easier to streamline playlists from media market to media market than to develop entirely separate charts for each station playing a particular format. Yet a playlist for a commercial urban station can contain as few as 300 songs – a tenth of what the average listener has on his or her iPod. This approach often leaves listeners and artists alike grumbling about the exclusion of local or independent talent.
The lack of concern for the needs of the community has not gone completely unnoticed, however. In March 2008, Kansas City alt-weekly newspaper The Pitch reported that despite a wealth of local talent, the region has yet to produce a nationally recognized hip-hop act. According to reporter Nadia Plaum, “Many local artists blame KC radio, complaining that the city doesn’t have a station committed to pushing hometown music on regular rotation.”
Some in Government have commented on the negative impact of media consolidation on the public airwaves. In November 2007, during the sixth and final hearing on media ownership, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps reportedly said, “Did you even notice the FCC is always ready to run the fast break for Big Media, but it’s the four-corner stall when it comes to serving the public interest?”
The Commissioner was specifically referring to the likely granting of expanded cross-ownership agreements for TV stations and newspapers, but media is an extremely trend-focused industry, so further consolidation in any sector of mass media would likely affect all segments of the industry.
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. 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.
What the “Radio Heads” Think About Localism
According to KMEL Program Director Stacy Cunningham, the station has again backed off of spinning local music, because “we were becoming a joke around the country” – despite the fact that the station had its highest Arbitron ratings ever in 2005, when it was playing a significantly higher amount of local records than it is today.
In order to be considered for rotation, Cunningham adds, local music must justify its inclusion alongside national, major-label artists. “I know Mary J. Blige is a winner,” says Cunningham. “What’s gonna make me give up that slot?” In order for local records to compete in the current radio climate, she says, “your stuff has to be hotter.” What qualifies as “hot,” however, is not explicitly clear.
There is, however, another motivator to stick to “safe” playlists. In a corporate radio environment, Cunningham explains, “everything’s run on fear. Fear of losing money and fear of losing (your) job.” As a result, there’s “no real impetus to be innovative.”
Her comments are echoed by Sterling James, a 20-year veteran of commercial radio who’s currently the afternoon DJ at SF Urban AC station KBLX. “With all of the consolidation, the [radio] industry has become monopolized,” James says. “Has it resulted in a lack of innovation? Absolutely.”
James notes that a mainstream crossover artist like Beyonce might be in rotation on several differently formatted stations simultaneously, adding, “most PDs in SF are listening to what NY and LA are playing.” With very few exceptions, she says, “an unsigned artist can’t get on the air.” One persistent indie R&B singer was able to get spins, but only after performing at a party for one of the station’s executives, she says. The reality is that PDs and MDs “have to play the hits and be competitive.” Which means DJs have little to no voice in what gets aired. “I can’t choose the hits, let alone what I play,” James adds.
Still, there are some PDs willing to break the mold, where the possibility exists. Mark Adams, PD for Jammin 95.5 in Portland, Oregon says, “I personally struggle with the desire to support/expose local music and artists with my need to run a successful, mass-appeal, commercial radio station. The two things are often at odds.”
What’s The Solution?
It’s probably unrealistic to think that, even with a change in leadership in Washington, consolidation could be reversed overnight. Commercial radio is unlikely to change unless major changes happen first at the policy level. And with major labels cutting their A&R departments and worrying about job security, it’s equally unlikely that every single deserving local artist in every region of the country will land a lucrative major-label deal anytime soon. This means they can expect a difficult time getting on commercial radio.
Yet some influential artists are advocating less reliance on commercial radio in the first place. Legendary rappers Chuck D and KRS-One have frequently criticized radio for exploiting hip-hop culture. Recently, an email from rap pioneer Too $hort was posted on Davey-D’s website, which read in part: “I just wanna inspire the local artists & fans to be realistic & keep hip-hop in our area alive without help from the radio stations … I believe in street-level movements creating the atmosphere for national movements & radio is only one outlet to create those movements. If U know that’s not an option then U won’t waste time, energy or money trying to please radio.”
Instead, many artists are turning to user-generated content and social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace to find their fans and post their music or videos, while listeners starved for content and substance can log on to Breakdown FM or stream Hard Knock Radio online. Another buzzworthy outlet is Current TV, which is making an increased commitment to covering urban music and trends in their mini-documentary “pods.”
Still another option is low-power FM radio, which doesn’t offer the cachet (or advertising dollars) of commercial radio, but is affordable, accessible, and locally available. Recently, there have been encouraging signs that the FCC and Congress will remove caps preventing LPFM stations in urban markets, a condition originally imposed by powerful commercial broadcasters.
Finally, for those completely fed up with the state of urban radio, here’s what you can do:
- Help remind Big Media that it broadcasts on public airwaves. Community members have the legal right to examine radio stations’ public files upon request. And commercial radio licenses must be renewed every eight years. The FCC does accept comments from the public during the renewal process; any station which is found to be operating outside the public interest can be fined or have its license revoked.
- Get Involved. Becoming a part of an organized effort seeking more community accountability in commercial radio is an effective way to put pressure on stations. At the very least, undertakings like the CCMA’s campaign or R.E.A.C.’s crusade have let urban radio’s corporate bosses know that somebody’s watching them, and at best, have hit these companies where it counts – in the pocketbook.
- Become an active listener. Without community feedback, MDs and PDs can only rely on research and consultants. If a station gets enough requests for a song by a local artist, it could result in increased mixshow spins or even being added to rotation.
- Use the Internet. Usually, Web addresses for key station personnel can be found on that station’s homepage. It only takes 5 minutes to send an email to every urban station in your region!
- Inform urban stations of events they should be covering. Most of the time, a commercial station’s idea of outreach is to send their promotional street teams to clubs and concerts. If you know of an event promoting positive community values, don’t hesitate to contact the station and let them know about it.
About the author: Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-‘90s, 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 Death 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.