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From Frankie, Sunny Joe and Donnie to an R&B Jack/Bob Format

Entry by Edison Research | Tuesday, May 17th, 2005 | Permalink

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

Long before there was Bob, Jack, Doug, or Charlie, there was Frankie, Donnie, Sunny Joe, and Mojo.

In recent months, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the broad variety of today’s Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrids can be adapted into what All Access’ Jerry Boulding calls “Black Jack.” It’s a particularly valid question— just as the once-broad Hot AC format had been narrowed in to essentially a Modern Hits format before Jack/Bob came along, mainstream R&B outlets have become younger and more tightly defined in recent years. Yet, as with Hot AC, previous attempts to infuse some variety have not all been successful.

In recent months, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the broad variety of today’s Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrids can be adapted into what All Access’ Jerry Boulding calls “Black Jack.

Certainly, anybody who remembers the Urban Contemporary stations of the early ‘80s—in the era immediately after disco boomed and busted—remembers its wide musical variety. Frankie Crocker’s WBLS New York was the most famous for variety that stretched from pop crossovers to album cuts to imports, but you could as easily cite Sunny Joe White’s WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) Boston, Donny Simpson’s WKYS Washington, D.C., WGPR Detroit during the Electrifyin’ Mojo’s late night show, or, for a while, most Urban FMs anywhere.

In the Frankie Crocker era, WBLS played “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen, “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon, “Theme From ‘New York New York’” by Frank Sinatra and even, at least once, “Party Party,” an Elvis Costello soundtrack obscurity. WKYS played “The Stroke” by Billy Squier as a current. WGPR’s Mojo would go digging in the crates for, say, “Feel Like Making Love” by Bad Company.

In Detroit, it was Mojo who exposed early ‘80s new wave, even before MTV and well before top 40. The R&B jocks at my college station would spin obscure Ultravox cuts and you knew where they’d been hearing them. When WDRQ went Urban in 1982, even they were playing “Mesopotamia” by the B-52s (hardly one of the group’s best remembered songs) and you could thank Mojo for that.

In some ways, the wider Urban stations of the early ‘80s were a melding of the late ‘70s Disco stations that preceded them and the “Black Progressive” outlets of the early ‘70s, such as WHUR Washington, D.C., and the early WBLS. They also reflected the breadth of music spun in the clubs—as became apparent years later when not only “Walk This Way” but other rock hits suddenly showed up as hip-hop songs. And it was always true that the biggest records in any genre transcended their demographic cliches—particularly in an era when there was only one R&B station in many markets and the next choice was the big Top 40 station.

And in the early ‘80s, of course, there was no big Top 40 station in many markets, since most of those stations had morphed to either Hot AC or Rock. When the author worked for veteran R&B PD Maxx Myrick, currently of XM Satellite Radio, in 1982-83, Myrick’s WVOI Toledo, Ohio was playing “Mickey” by Toni Basil and “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson. Only the Hot AC in the market was sharing the latter, and nobody else was playing the former. Of course, if you did want to use WVOI as a Top 40, you also had to sit through one Jazz cut per hour—many early ‘80s Urbans also had the crossover jazz component that can now be heard on Smooth Jazz outlets.

When Top 40 staged a comeback in 1983-84, Urban stations lost their ability to fill-in for that format as well, but they didn’t immediately pull the pop music. I remember Cyndi Lauper on WJLB Detroit and even REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight The Feeling” on some Urban reporters. In 1985, a buddy called me from a competing station in Washington, D.C., to tell me he’d heard “Mickey” that morning on WKYS, but I didn’t understand why it was remarkable.

What finally forced pop music off most R&B stations in the late ‘80s was the arrival of the so-called “Churban” stations. While most of their formats would have been considered Urban a few years earlier, most of those stations were determined to be called “CHR,” not Urban. And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy when most Urban stations decided to drop their pop crossover music. Before the mid-‘80s, many Urbans were not only a mile wide, but much more than an inch deep. When Churban showed up, many were vulnerable not just for being too broad, but also for playing huge current lists.

Since then, R&B radio has continuously narrowed. In 1988, Urban AC showed up and most mainstream outlets went very adult, trying to head it off at the past. In 1994, WQHT (Hot 97) New York flanked from the other side, going younger and eventually forcing most stations to do the same. A decade ago, it was phenomenal when a Hip-Hop record could go to No. 1. Now it’s remarkable when there are more than a handful of legitimate R&B hits. Having Bobby Valentino, Mariah Carey, Amerie, Faith Evans, and R. Kelly in the Top 10 at the same time this week is practically a resurgence for the genre.

As for the pop music, there have been occasional attempts to work it in again, one by Crocker himself at WBLS in the mid-‘90s. The unifying appeal of teen pop helped bring Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, and Justin Timberlake to R&B radio for a while, with a little help from the Neptunes. And syndicated WWPR (Power 105) New York morning man Star has made a point of spiking in Rush, Van Halen, and Gwen Stefani’s Neptunes-produced “Hollaback Girl.”

There have also been advocates at today’s R&B/Hip-hop radio of keeping it broad. Clear Channel’s R&B outlets have made a point of representing R&B, not just Hip-hop. WWPR, in particular, has used ‘90s hip-hop as its calling card for the market. WBLK Buffalo, N.Y., PD Chris Reynolds—a longtime keeper of the flame for the black progressive radio tradition—has made a point of working in new titles from Stevie Wonder and India.Arie, even with a Churban competitor. WPGC Washington, D.C., Donnie Simpson’s current employer, has also stretched to include some acts who might be exiled to Urban AC in other markets.

The notion of a wider R&B format is certain to provoke the same sort of wistfulness that the width of Top 40 in 1975 or 1984 does—nostalgia that turned out to be more than exploitable for Jack/Bob stations. R&B radio had only been battening down the hatches for a few years when “We-Love,” the fictitious radio station in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” found the director pining for a station that would play Miles Davis and Public Enemy together. Yet, when Crocker came back to WBLS in 1996, a few years before his death, the excitement he generated was mostly among radio people. For the audience, hearing Hot 97 find a new reggae crossover had taken the place of hearing Frankie introduce an import or a pop crossover.

Then again, the ‘90s were also littered with unsuccessful pop variety formats, from the early “Rock With A Beat” version of KKBT Los Angeles to the “Mojo Radio” incarnation of WPLJ that was ultimately codified into the station we know today. Wide variety was hard to sell as recently as two years ago when Infinity’s WNEW New York tried it as Blink 102.7, which clearly didn’t keep Infinity from unveiling Jack in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle, Baltimore, or Buffalo, N.Y., lately. So who’s to say the need for variety hasn’t resurfaced—or become easier to market—on the R&B side, too?

Beyond that, R&B radio is still grappling with how to approach the 25-to-34 year old who grew up with hip-hop. Several Urban ACs have experimented with classic hip-hop titles, most recently KRNB Dallas, and have always ended up pulling back. KDAY Los Angeles is doing a yesterday-and-today Hip-Hop format. WFOX Atlanta combines R&B currents and a wide variety of gold ranging from Jay-Z’s “Excuse Me, Miss” to New Edition’s “Can You Stand The Rain.” Most recently, Citadel’s new WUHT (Hot 107.9) Birmingham, Ala., has been combining Urban AC currents with ‘90s gold that ranges from Jodeci and Brandy to Mase, 2pac, and L.L. Cool J.

So far, nobody has been able to come up with a more workable offering than WWPR’s more adult-friendly brand of mainstream Urban. But somebody will at some point. With listeners moving into the Urban AC demos whose only exposure to “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps was through “Keep Ya Head Up” by 2pac, the incentive to develop a next-generation Urban AC clearly exists. Just as Jack/Bob outlets have had an easier time playing the ‘70s and ‘80s than many existing Oldies stations, the opportunity exists for somebody making a clean start to span the generations and cross musical boundaries in a format where TSL has always been long and radio never stopped being important.

And when they do, they should call the format “Frankie,” or “Donnie,” or “Sunny Joe.”

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.


Read other articles by Sean Ross

4 Responses to “From Frankie, Sunny Joe and Donnie to an R&B Jack/Bob Format”

  1. Paul Porter says:

    Great piece. I had the pleasure to work with all three… I hope your thoughts come true in a hurry.

  2. Ange Canessa says:

    I had the privilege to work with Sunny Joe, and he always said that “variety is the spice of life”. He didn’t care if the Whispers “And The Beat Goes On” was followed up by Aerosmith’s “Dream On”, as long as what happened between the records demonstrated and re-inforced the variety brand and position. Those were the great days of music radio. Paul, I echo your sentiments! Sean, thanks for taking that great trip back.

  3. Lou Pickney says:

    The key to an Urban Variety Hits (or “Black Jack”) is that the songs all need to have been bona fide hits in their time. Where stations tend to go off-track, from what I’ve observed, is when they get away from the hits. Pick your demo (and let’s say it’s a subsect of 35-44, like Variety Hits) and go for songs that test well but cover a wide variety of Urban sub-genres, from hip-hop to Urban AC to classic soul to R&B to, dare I say, rhythmic oldies.
    Then again, I’m not sure how much rap/hip hop would fit on something like this. There might be some pop crossover hits (“Gangstas Paradise” by Coolio comes to mind), but modern hip-hop (and really from 2Pac and beyond when it started to make in-roads with pop) would need to be used carefully at best. Be wary of tune-out factor in the 25-54 crowd.
    Then again, I’m a 27 year old white man, so I might not have the answers on this. But I think it could be done, but it would need the type of in-depth, careful research that JACK-FM and Bob FM have had to succeed.
    One last thought: remember, hits=ratings.

  4. Sean,
    Thanks for an EXCELLENT article! Someone told me about it and I had to check it out (thanks for the plug!).
    The challenge here in Birmingham was to create an Urban product in a market which is served very well by an Urban AC and a Hip Hop station. We looked at the market and determined the hole that wasn’t filled was the Female 25-45 demo cell. Thus, Hot 107-7 was born. And the results are paying off. In the Spring 2005 book, the station got a 4.5 in 12+ and a 4.9 Adults 25-54. But what was really interesting was the 7.9 we got in Adults 18-34!
    The reality is this: More and more adults in this demo cell are tired of listening to “crunk” music and feel too young to listen to the slower pace of traditional Urban AC radio. They want a change. And Hot 107-7 is giving it to them. We’re featuring a LIVE AND LOCAL morning show that responds to issues such as day care for single mothers and financial issues. We feature ABC Radio’s Michael Baisden who offers compelling talk mixed with old school that targets women. We’ve featured specialty weekends ranging from Old School Hip Hop to R. Kelly vs. Marvin Gaye. This past weekend we had a Rhythm and Blue-Eyed Soul weekend, spotlighting artists that had African American appeal such as Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald and Phil Collins. The other stations in the market can’t do features like this. Our station can.
    You could call a format like this “Rhythmic JACK” or, as I like to refer to it, “The Rebirth of Urban AC”. Anyway you put it, traditional Urban AC needs a makeover. And Hot 107-7 is doing its part.
    Thanks!

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