by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
As recently as 10 months ago, even the keenest observers of Spanish-language radio didn’t seem to put much stock in reggaeton’s potential as a full-fledged format. By then, reggaeton had already flexed its muscle, as reflected by the resurgent numbers at Tropical Latin WSKQ New York last spring and the success of bilingual Hip-Hop outlet WVOZ Puerto Rico. But many still saw it as a fringe sound in the continental U.S., and one that meant more lyrically to denizens of San Juan than anybody else.
Besides, smart broadcasters had spent years looking for a way to target second- and third-generation Hispanics. Houston, in particular, had seen more than 20 years of attempts at a bilingual hits format, from the Menudo-into-Loverboy early ’80s pop format at KXYZ in 1983 to the English hits/Spanish DJs top 40 hybrid at KQQK a few years later. We’ve also seen some more contemporary sounding Spanish pop outlets, such as Entravision’s Super Estrella network or Bob Perry’s “Digital” stations. And occasionally, an exploding genre would give the format some younger appeal–Tejano in San Antonio and Houston, banda in Los Angeles–but not enough to break the perception that assimilated younger Hispanics listened to the same music as the rest of their peers. Besides, why hadn’t rock en Espanol taken off?
In less than a year’s time, reggaeton has gone from fringe music at Latin radio to the core sound of several new major-market launches every week.
Even the idea of a Latin Hip-Hop format had its false starts. Hurban, the notion of a Hispanic/Urban hybrid, was already several years old as a format descriptor when Clear Channel’s KLOL (Mega 101) Houston brought it to wider industry attention last fall. (I first heard it used to describe Mega Communications’ younger leaning tropical stations in Philadelphia and Hartford, Conn.) And two stations consulted by Michael Newman, KEBV Monterey, Calif., and XMOR San Diego, had already positioned themselves as “Hip-Hop y mas.” KEBV eventually switched formats, while XMOR became a more mainstream Rhythmic top 40 after a while.
But all it took was a little “Gasolina”–Daddy Yankee’s genre-busting reggaeton smash–and the initial success of KLOL. Suddenly, the land rush was on. Dallas, Puerto Rico, and Miami now have two stations using that music as their calling card. XMOR is playing a lot more reggaeton, while KEBV has gone to a younger Spanish contemporary format (although not to reggaeton, as reported elsewhere). Latin Hip-Hop has shown early promise in markets that were once thought too assimilated or too resistant to Tropical music. As for the inability of rock en Espanol to ignite, well, these days rock en Ingles is having its own problems.
So what changed? Maybe it’s the available product, bolstered by the newly ubiquitous reggaeton remix of seemingly every new Hip-Hop title. Then again, a lot of the Don Omar and Ivy Queen records that are showing up on the new Hurban stations, or even some Rhythmic Top 40s, are several years old. Or it may be the (relatively) sudden interest of major groups such as Infinity and Clear Channel in a genre that they were willing to leave to Spanish-language specialists not so long ago. In a market that already has its full-compliment of traditional Latin formats, not to mention traditional Hip-Hop/R&B stations, reggaeton is an entry into the Latin (and Urban) marketplaces that would not have otherwise existed.
As with any rapidly expanding format, reggaeton has those who are already willing to dismiss it as a fad, or who believe that there’s not enough variety in its music. But here are some things to consider:
1) In a world where it’s hard to put together a strong and perfectly representative mainstream Hip-Hop montage for music research because the genre’s two biggest crossover stars (50 Cent and The Game) are on each other’s records, homogeneity–perceived or otherwise–is not necessarily a stopper. In reggaeton’s English-language counterpart, dancehall reggae, it has been acceptable for multiple records to use the same rhythm for several decades, an aesthetic which eventually spread to Hip-Hop. Now, with the success of Will Smith’s “Switch” and Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay,” the same now appears to be true of Mainstream Top 40.
2) Whether it really all sounds the same is a decision for a potential listener to make. If stations aren’t asking their audience that question, they should be. But if a fan of the burgeoning Gulf Coast rap scene can tell the difference between Webbie and Mike Jones, it seems likely that reggaeton fans are indeed hearing a difference that isn’t readily discernable to outsiders. That New Orleans/Houston sound, by the way, has now endured in those markets for 13 years. More important, the Hawaiian/reggae/Hip-Hop hybrid has been a successful format in Honolulu for more than 15 years now.
3) What is most important here is that Latin radio has finally found a way to compete for younger demos. The sound of reggaeton will likely evolve and change. In 1994, the core act at WQHT (Hot 97) New York–the station that helped make Hip-Hop the dominant sound at mainstream R&B radio once and for all–was the Wu Tang Clan. That station’s core artists and sounds have changed, but the concept of a Hip-Hop lifestyle station remains potent. And there are a lot of parallels between WQHT’s positioner, “Where Hip-Hop lives” in 1995 and KLOL’s “Latino and proud” (or KZZA Dallas’ “Where Latinos Live”) a decade later. It is not impossible that we’ll look up in a decade and see that the magic was just as much in the decision to acknowledge the young-end Hispanic audience as a market as it was in the music.
4) There’s another breakthrough here that has been overlooked. Just as the rise of Bob-FM/Jack-FM and similar formats finally gave us a variant of Hot AC that was equally palatable to men, it’s no small feat to see a Hip-Hop format of any stripe where the greatest appeal is to women.
It’s also worth saluting any new format that is based in recent music, not just the deployment of a different group of Oldies. And there’s some comfort for both Hurban and Bob-FM/Jack-FM fans in the realization that their detractors have the same question, “What happens when this wave of product runs its course?” Ultimately, that’s an issue for every format–new or established.
Whatever its long-term appeal, the success of reggaeton creates issues for existing stations, particularly on the Rhythmic side. Anecdotally, every Rhythmic programmer seems to be aware of the African-American listener who has embraced reggaeton as the next hot thing. Early research we’ve seen, however, shows a pretty clear polarization–even at the young end. So the same Rhythmic programmers who would never play a Fantasia ballad because of its perceived lack of Hispanic appeal are now filling their coalition stations with songs that have the same potential to divide the audience. That doesn’t mean Rhythmic stations shouldn’t play a huge reggaeton crossover–but it does force them to be careful about balance.
Then there’s the related question of whether Rhythmic Top 40 can give any listener enough reggaeton to compete with stations that specialize. Today, it’s hard to visualize an 18-year-old Hispanic listener who likes Hip-Hop, but only when it’s in Spanish. Then again, in 1986, it was equally hard to imagine the 18-year-old Hispanic listener who wouldn’t sit through an R&B ballad or a similar Urban fan who didn’t also enjoy a certain amount of Madonna and Expose’. Some Rhythmic stations may be able to co-opt the reggaeton movement. Others might be advised to be a mile wide and an inch deep in all of Rhythmic’s sub-genres. And in some markets where there is now Hurban competition and no mainstream Urban, it might make sense for the station that bills itself as representing “Hip-Hop and R&B” to actually play Hip-Hop and R&B.
One other slightly off-the-wall question: with the long-term success of the Hawaiian reggae/rhythm format, and the spread of its Latin counterpart, is it finally time to consider an English-language reggae-based format for the Continental U.S. as something other than a satellite- or Internet radio niche? (KWVV San Francisco flirted with reggae, but it was never more than one of the flavors in its short-lived Rhythmic AC hybrid.) In the early ’90s, UB40 and Shabba Ranks seemed to have very different constituencies. Today, when Damian Marley has a roots-based Urban and Rhythmic hit that harkens back to the ’70s, a format that accommodates Bob Marley, Daddy Yankee, and Sean Paul seems a little less far-fetched.
For now, broadcasters owe it to themselves to ask the most questions possible about what’s working and why–both on behalf of new and existing stations. Those stations should set their screeners tight enough to make sure they can measure the activity among true fans, without making their stations claustrophobic. Broadcasters have never been shy about swelling the ranks of a hot format first and asking questions later. Inevitably, those broadcasters move on, leaving the rest of their colleagues to try to explain why any format, whether it’s Jammin’ Oldies or Reggaeton isn’t a fad, just something that not everybody did well.
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.