V103 Celebrates 20 Years As Urban AC Landscape Changes

WVAZ (V103) Chicago, which launched 20 years ago this week, wasn’t the first Urban AC, but it was the format’s breakthrough. Under then-co-owner Barry Mayo, now president of Radio One, and OM Tony Kidd, V103 found a formula that was, in retrospect, so simple that it was hard to believe it hadn’t been done everywhere. And soon it was. In 2008, Urban AC faces a more complicated landscape, informed, but hardly created by the advent of PPM.
You can trace Urban AC back to the early ’80s. Heritage AMs like WWRL New York, WOL Washington, D.C., and KDIA San Francisco, were already experimenting with the format, often using the same “we’ve grown up together” imagery that one-time AM Top 40s were using. (At the time of V103’s launch, WDIA Memphis was the most successful AM version.) On FM, you can trace Urban AC back to mid-’80s stations like KDLZ Dallas or ’70s progressive R&B-era holdover KACE Los Angeles.
But stations like KDLZ and KACE were essentially mainstream Urban stations without the Hip-Hop – and hip hop wasn’t as much of an issue in 1986-87 anyway. V103, positioned as “the Best Variety of Hits and Dusties,” was more overtly modeled on the gold-based pop AC stations of that era. Earlier Urban ACs had played a full complement of currents. V103 played a relative handful. It was a radical change in a format where 65-song playlists still existed at some stations – at least on paper.
Urban AC also benefited at that moment from a body of R&B oldies that had never been widely available on the radio. For years, the prevailing “wisdom” had been that Urban fans were only interested in staying current, meaning that any song that hadn’t earned a place on a general market AC or Oldies station disappeared from the radio. In reality, songs like Al Green’s “Love & Happiness” had been handed down from parents to kids, but they hadn’t been widely available on FM for years, making for remarkable passion scores.
Unlike its predecessors, V103 managed to hit at a time when Hip-Hop was exploding at Urban radio, at Top 40, and on the “Churban” stations in between. Lasering in on adults helped finally splinter what had been an all-ages format, and give the second Urban in many markets a reason to exist — instead of being the “me, too” version of a heritage Urban powerhouse.
Many aspects of V103 had a strong Chicago flavor – a heritage local airstaff, the word “dusties,” and a close association with the local “steppers” dances that gave the station scores of unlikely local hits, including Jeffree’s “Love’s Gonna Last” and Pat Metheney’s “The Girls Next Door.” But the V103 model was so potent and so quickly imitated that many Mainstream Urbans took their eye off Churban and chose to protect the upper end. For the next few years, many mainstream Urbans saved all but the biggest Hip-Hop hits for nights and weekends.
Presentationally, V103 came along at a time when the Urban format was more tightly structured than ever. It had a full-service morning show in market veteran Richard Steele (now and previously with public radio’s WBEZ), but it was still a music-intensive station overall at a time when it was hard to imagine an AC station being anything else. Tom Joyner was still on rival WGCI-FM. Steve Harvey was still several years away from stardom as the host of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo.” And it would be at least five years before stations like WGCI and WQHT (Hot 97) New York helped the “morning show in every daypart” aesthetic take hold at Urban radio.
When rapid change came to the Urban radio landscape over the next decade, most of it was good for Urban AC. As stations like Hot 97 skewed younger, they forced Mainstream Urban stations to play more and harder edged Hip-Hop. When Joyner and later Harvey’s syndicated shows exploded, they more typically found a home at Urban AC and, by dint of being the category killers, brought an audience that might have otherwise chosen Mainstream Urban. And even though many markets came to have two Urban ACs, Mainstream Urban suffered worse fragmentation in the early ’00s. By then, most of Urban AC’s Jammin’ Oldies competition had dissipated and it was not uncommon to see an Urban AC station as the R&B leader or even No.1 overall.
At the same time, Urban AC has grappled with how to serve the listeners moving into the 25-54 demo. Anybody under age 45 has grown up in the Hip-Hop era, but listeners have given no sign of actually wanting to hear even classic Hip-Hop at Urban AC. (Those stations that have experimented with it have had to retrench quickly.) Some mainstream Urban stations, particularly those who carry Harvey themselves, are relying more on R&B and less on Hip-Hop, making it harder for Urban AC to position itself as an alternative.
There’s also an increasing amount of age polarization as Urban AC PDs suddenly encounter younger listeners who think Frankie Beverly & Maze is just another old-school act. A song like Luther Vandross’ “Superstar/Until You Come Back To Me” might endure, but, as Mayo notes, the passion it generates isn’t what it was in 1988. And ESPN’s Steve Harris, a former V103 PD, notes, Urban AC is now as broad as the Urban format it sought to counterprogram 20 years ago.
And then there’s PPM, which has compelled Urban radio to program to a methodology that many programmers remain skeptical of. In Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, an Urban AC station remains the format leader, although two other Urban ACs (WBLS New York and KJLH Los Angeles) have had the most controversial diary-vs.-PPM differentials. In a world where the premium is suddenly on maximum continuity and minimal jock talk, what are stations that have hung their hat on high-profile morning and, often, afternoon shows to do? With the new strength of upper-demo formats, does the increasingly younger feel of the format still make sense?
Harris thinks it might be time for Urban AC to fragment into younger and older-skewing versions. In those markets where there are two Urban ACs, one could also make a case for the station with Joyner or Harvey in the morning and Michael Baisden in afternoons finally completing a segue to African-American targeted Talk, and the other becoming more consistently music intensive.
On its 20th anniversary, V103 finds itself with Tom Joyner in the morning and Doug Banks in the afternoons, the two anchors of late ’80s/early ’90s WGCI, as it happens. Banks, in particular, can be heard doing a PPM-friendly show, with lots of appointment setting. Musically, under current PD Derrick Brown, there are now about two ’70s songs an hour – typical of the format elsewhere. Here’s a recent monitor of V103 in middays:
Heather Hedley, “He Is”
Kirk Franklin & the Family, “Why We Sing”
Anita Baker, “You Bring Me Joy”
Alicia Keys, “If I Ain’t Got You”
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, “The Closer I Get To You”
Ann Nesby, “I Found A Place”
Tony Toni Toné, “Me And You”
Isley Brothers, “Between the Sheets”
Raheem DeVaughn, “Woman”
Minnie Ripperton, “Memory Lane”
Eric Benet, “You’re The Only One”

6 replies
  1. Chris Huff
    Chris Huff says:

    A perfect example of the split Steve Harris speaks of is occuring in Dallas/Fort Worth, where after years of head-to-head combat and having little to show for it, KRNB and KSOC are both finding their strides through different strategies.
    KRNB jettisoned its “Old School” imaging over a year ago in favor of a very current-based “New R&B”, with Steve Harvey mornings and Skip Murphy moving over from sister K104 to handle afternoons.
    Meanwhile, KSOC has Joyner in mornings and Baisden in afternoons – and when it does get into music outside of drivetime, it is almost entirely gold-based.
    Since there has been a clear differentiation of the stations, they have both enjoyed some of their highest numbers ever – they were 9th and 11th among Persons 25-54 in the Summer book – despite both stations being on rimshot signals that have liabilities in some of the more urban-leaning areas of the metro.

    Reply
  2. Tom Teuber
    Tom Teuber says:

    I grew up in Chicago, and was there when V-103 rolled out. I, too, wondered why no one had thought of this before. When I go back home, it’s the first thing I seek out on the dial…especially if Herb Kent is doing one of his Dusties shows. All that music you refer to with high passion scores! And I’m pleased to see they still program for Chicago, not some national list. My crush on Minnie Ripperton endures after all these years…..
    I got to work with Richard Steele at WBEZ. A class act. In fact everything about V-103 reeked of class. Thanks for acknowledging their anniversary!
    Tom Teuber
    Madison, WI

    Reply
  3. Joe S.
    Joe S. says:

    No mentioned of Frankie Crocker and his pioneering work at WBLS in the early 70’s is an insult to the history of Urban AC. Let us not forget it was Frankie who coined the term “urban contemporary”.

    Reply
  4. mitch faulkner
    mitch faulkner says:

    V-103 was the and stillis the best in the format. Great article Sean, but lets not forget the imaging voice for the station and the pioneer image voice for Urban AC Format. I did over 11 of those 20 years with V-103 Chigago including WGCI.
    Great work for all involved in the evolution of the station from the beginning to now!
    Mitch

    Reply
  5. Mike Eiland
    Mike Eiland says:

    I recall hearing V103 back in the day during visits to Chicago and always hearing about it from friends and family in the area. I’m glad they took the album-cut approach to the format, with non-singles like Al Green’s “Love And Happiness” (from “I’m Still In Love With You”) Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons” (“That’s The Way Of The World”) and Con Funk Shun’s “Love’s Train” (“To The Max”). Most of the other urban ACs I heard stuck to a rigid singles-only approach, leaving out these passion songs. Of course, they eventually took the hint no doubt from V103 that great songs work, whether they were hit singles or not, by “working the crowd” (listeners). Best wishes for continued success and a great turn-around in 2009!

    Reply
  6. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    No disrespect to Frankie’s memory intended whatsoever, but when WBLS was at its peak in the late ’70s/early ’80s, Frankie wasn’t the adults-only alternative to mainstream Urban, he WAS mainstream Urban and all ages listened. That’s the difference.

    Reply

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