by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
There have always been times when Top 40 programmers suddenly become allergic to R&B or Hip-Hop and it usually had very little to do with the health of that music. During the “disco backlash” of 1980-82, Urban stations were left alone to play Rick James, the Gap Band, and “The Message” while Top 40 played Air Supply and Christopher Cross. The mid-’90s, a time when trade publication headlines declared that Alternative had usurped Hip-Hop, at least among non-ethnic audiences, was also the time of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2pac, and the Notorious B.I.G. “Hypnotize,” now reliable for any CHR that will test it, was ignored by the format when it was a current.
More of the talk about Hip-Hop cooling off and complaints about its available product is coming from within the Hip-Hop community and R&B radio side.
But this time more of the talk about Hip-Hop cooling off and complaints about its available product is coming from within the Hip-Hop community and R&B radio side. D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” in particular, still has a power to provoke far beyond any grumbling you might have heard about “C’mon And Ride It (The Train)” or “Whoomp! There It Is” a decade ago. (I’m guessing that PDs in Houston or Atlanta or San Francisco, where much of the product is coming from now, are a little happier.) And in the winter book, Top 40 WHTZ (Z100) New York and KIIS Los Angeles made hugely publicized jumps that put them ahead of any individual Hip-Hop outlets.
But whatever you think of the current product, one has to ask: has Hip-Hop has really been eclipsed, or just fragmented? In New York, the Hip-Hop audience is split three ways. In Los Angeles, there are four stations at this writing: two targeting Latinos and two that are more African-American focused. Hip-Hop is now a significant part of four different charts, each with a somewhat different body of music.
Having the coalition split four ways means fewer consensus hits, while those that do exist can receive upwards of 250 spins a week in a given market. Chamillionaire’s “Ridin'” is already at 314 spins a week in Los Angeles, with 200+ spins between KIIS and KPWR alone. And when Hip-Hop’s best records are available 300 times a week, the amount of time listeners need to leave the radio on to hear their favorite song is pretty low.
In some regards, Hip-Hop now looks like Country radio in the late ’90s. At that time, nobody in the format felt there was a lot of great product—something that became that much clearer when Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich finally came along. But there were still a number of stations that never got the memo about the format being in trouble. And many of them were in markets like Minneapolis and Seattle where the second Country station of the early ’90s had long drifted off to do something else.
The fragmentation becomes most obvious when you look at the total Hip-Hop shares in some markets where no single station looks formidable. In New York, there are 10 shares for Hip-Hop divided among WQHT, WWPR, and Hurban WCAA, with no station getting more than a 3.7 12-plus. Any station that could command even half of that 10 share would still be ahead of Z100’s 4.4-4.7 gain.
Similarly, in Los Angeles, KIIS is up 4.1-4.9 while the market’s four Hip-Hop outlets KPWR, KXOL, KDAY, and KKBT–which just acknowledged the crowded market by segueing to Urban AC–are off by a share and a half. No Hip-Hop station has more than a 3.2 share, but together they have an 8.9. In fact, there are only two markets where the combined Hip-Hop shares don’t well outstrip the combined Top 40 shares: Nassau/Suffolk, N.Y., and Minneapolis.
It’s also worth noting that both KIIS and Z100 got some help from other stations going away. In Los Angeles, KIIS’ ascent has taken place since dance KDLE became Indie 103.1 and turned its sights toward Modern Rock rival KROQ. KDLE under both incarnations has been around a 1-share, but it’s always better to have even a share of listening coming out of your competitor’s numbers. In New York, Z100 likely got some help from the departure of WXRK (K-Rock), which left the market with even fewer places to hear pop/rock of any sort.
The intent here isn’t to diminish the success of Z100 or KIIS. There are a lot of Mainstream Top 40s that have had the market to themselves for a long time without similar results. But both stations are now starting to cover multiple positions in their market, which is always better than having to split a single position four ways. If your format is even a little less hot than last year, losing that secondary listening is a lot more noticeable when it sends you from the 4s into the 3-share range.
If it’s any consolation to Hip-Hop programmers, it only took two or three stations in a given market to splinter Country’s numbers. In markets like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas there are four stations in Hip-Hop world, whether they’re younger-leaning Urban outlets, Rhythmic Top 40s, or now Hurban stations. And even in Chicago and Dallas, R&B/Hip-Hop outlets still easily lead their Top 40 competition.
Among other issues playing into the fragmentation of Hip-Hop in recent books:
- The splintering off of Latin Urban: While it’s been a long time since many Urban stations felt like they could also target Hispanics, those listeners were the epicenter of the Rhythmic Top 40 coalition. Last year’s ratings suggested that the new Hurban outlets were taking their audience almost entirely from Rhythmic stations. And the just released Winter books suggest they won’t get much help from the new Arbitron weighting that has proved so beneficial to Spanish AC.
- The success of Steve Harvey, heard mostly on Urban AC outlets: In New York, Harvey wasn’t just bringing morning listening to WBLS from Urban AC rival WRKS, the numbers also suggest he was drawing listeners from WWPR (Power 105). The latter station is the more adult-friendly of the two Hip-Hop outlets, but had the more aggressive morning show in the now-departed Star & Buc Wild.
- The three-way musical fragmentation of Hip-Hop. Sometimes, the notion that Urban and Rhythmic Top 40 are two different bodies of music still seems manufactured – a function of two promotion staffs needing two sets of records to work. But you can’t deny that these days, Mainstream Top 40 has its own set of Hip-Hop flavored music—e.g., the Black Eyed Peas, Rihannas, and Will Smith—that even Rhythmic Top 40 doesn’t fully embrace, but Hot AC sometimes will.
It’s worth pointing out here that Mainstream Top 40 isn’t exactly moving away from Hip-Hop. Last week’s No. 1 song at the format was “Temperature” by Sean Paul. This week’s No. 1, “Hips Don’t Lie,” is a song that most people would put squarely in the pop column, but it’s a reworking of a three-year-old soundtrack cut by Wyclef Jean, who co-wrote, co-produced and co-stars. The two songs with the greatest spin gains this week are Nelly Furtado & Timbaland and Chamillionaire. And Bubba Sparxx is already top 10.
What has changed at Mainstream Top 40 is that Hip-Hop and Rhythmic titles are no longer the only records that matter in the era of Kelly Clarkson, James Blunt, Fall Out Boy, and Daniel Powter. Some harder Hip-Hop hits aren’t getting quite as far at Mainstream Top 40 as they might have 12-18 months ago. And, again, Top 40 is fostering a lot of its own Rhythmic music: Fort Minor’s “Where’d You Go” is getting the slot that might have gone to, say, “I Like That” by Houston 18 months ago.
In Los Angeles, it seems fair to say that KIIS is doubling as both the Mainstream Top 40 and the mass-appeal rhythmic station for the market at this moment. Only four records in the station’s 40 most-played songs can be said to have no rhythmic element. The closest thing to pure pop in the Top10 is Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” and even that has Hip-Hop beats and production and ends with a gospel chorus.
But in most cases, a more successful Top 40 doesn’t have to mean a less successful R&B/Hip-Hop format. In the national format ratings that ran in Billboard Radio Monitor between 1989 and 2001, R&B radio actually tracked up and continued to dominate in 1998-99, the time when Top 40 was experiencing its last growth spurt. Between fall ’98 and summer ’99, R&B radio (including Urban AC)’s share of national listening was up 11.9-13.3. Top 40 stations, including Rhythmic outlets, were up 8.9-9.9.
Notwithstanding this morning’s format change at KKBT, R&B/Hip-hop outlets can’t necessarily depend on their fragmentation correcting itself in the way it did for Country. Until today, the stations that have gotten out have been smaller-market rhythmic outlets, the stations that surprised the industry by wanting to do Hip-Hop in Des Moines, Iowa in the first place. Too many of the secondary players in more traditional markets are now owned by companies that have a commitment to the format, or who need their two-share Hip-Hop outlet as a complement to bigger cluster partners.
That leaves two wild cards: The pure Rhythmic outlets, which do have a history of switching out of the format during down periods; and the Latin Urban outlets. While much of their future is thought to depend on the long-term future of reggaeton, those stations have still tapped into a younger Hispanic audience that will probably always appreciate hearing its lifestyle reflected on the radio.
You can’t always count on repatriating a competitor’s shares, either. Top 40’s early ’90s decline was accelerated by the number of markets that lost a second CHR, but didn’t see the remaining Top 40 station’s shares go up, even slightly. But if you want evidence that what is at work here is fragmentation, not share erosion, consider St. Louis where KATZ had a 2.9 before former young-end rival WFUN changed format, a 5.4 when it was alone in the format, and a 3.3 when it got new competition from WHHL.
For the time being, Hip-Hop programmers have the twin challenges of not leaving numbers on the table, but also not chasing secondary listening at the expense of the core. It’s a tall order, but some thoughts on how to proceed:
- Foster uptempo center-lane product, whether it’s Rap or R&B, because that’s what’s in shortest supply right now, but it’s what Top 40 finally has. There are real hits in Hip-Hop and R&B right now, but there’s not a “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” or a “Too Close.”
- Try to take advantage of the records that Top 40 won’t play. Pop radio never acknowledged Big & Rich or Gretchen Wilson. And during those years, Country began to grow again in a way that it didn’t when Faith Hill and Shania Twain were regularly crossing over to AC and Top 40 a few years earlier.
- Work from the center, not the corners: If you choose from all the available music – R&B and all the Hip-Hop subgenres, there’s still enough music for a great radio station. In some markets, it feels like the battle is between one station that leans toward R&B and ballads and another at the harder end of Hip-Hop with nobody in the middle.
- And to the extent that it can be done without diluting the position, it might be worth at least putting some of that CHR-only rhythmic music in callout from time to time to make sure that Hip-Hop fans don’t have to leave your station to hear them.
It has often been the case that the success of a format doesn’t have anything to do with an audience’s appetite for a genre as much as radio’s ability to deliver it. During the Urban vs. Churban battles of the late ’80s, the R&B PD’s mantra was often, “If we can’t serve our audience better than they can, shame on us.” And no matter how formidable any Top 40 station becomes, it should never become the best delivery system for Hip-Hop.