Classic Rock and Classic Rap

By Sean Ross

It’s a problem familiar to anybody who’s changed a radio station format in the last few years. For the first few days, the audience of the old station is far more vocal, and easier to find than the new one. As the handful of devout listeners who somehow never got a meter or a diary trash the station repeatedly on social media (which, increasingly, means that it’s on your own streaming player as well), there’s not much else you can do except sit there and take it in the name of “transparency.”

Now, consider the tweets that accompanied the re-launch of Hip-Hop R&B WPHI (Hot 107.9) Philadelphia as “throwback Hip-Hop” Boom 107.9.

Boom 107.9 is Radio One’s second launch of a Classic Hip Hop station, and the response to the first one, KROI (Boom 92) Houston was similarly ecstatic. Edison helped launch the first gold-based Hip-Hop outlet, KDAY Los Angeles, a decade ago. We’ve also been involved in the launch of several “hits and throwbacks” outlets, from KHTP (Hot 103.7) Seattle to CFXJ (Flow 93.5) Toronto, which generated similar passion with a relaunch of its own lately.

The early response to Boom 107.9 has been rapturous, (and the word has been nicely spread by a very well-managed Twitter account). There have been virtually no complaints about losing the old station. That’s just one reason that the change reminds Edison’s Larry Rosin and me of the early days of Classic Rock.

Consider the mid-‘80s, when Classic Rock surfaced. Top 40 was dominant. Rock radio’s place in pop culture, seemingly unassailable a few years earlier, had been upstaged. Rock stations weren’t just grappling with whether to play Prince and Michael Jackson, but Lionel Richie and Culture Club. Rock radio owned nothing that CHR couldn’t cherrypick, including emerging stars like Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe, who were massively alienating to older rock listeners as well.

Classic Rock’s arrival picked off Rock radio’s upper demos and left it with a series of dismaying choices – double down on polarizing hair bands, dig for some more neutral currents that nobody cared about, play very few currents and go “almost Classic Rock,” or, if nobody had snapped up the franchise yet, just go Classic Rock outright.

However you feel about today’s Hip-Hop (and many do consider it to be on an upswing), it’s easy to say that it doesn’t sport the same broad coalition that it did between the mid-‘90s and mid-‘00s when it was, for many 12-to-24-year-olds, either the only music that mattered, or a surprise complement to Alternative Rock. As at the birth of Classic Rock, Top 40 is dominant and as likely to send a song to the Hip-Hop/R&B format as the other way around.

There is, in other words, at least as much excitement about 2pac, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z as about today’s Hip-Hop. Among 30-year-olds, it’s not even close, especially since many of those listeners aren’t even hearing today’s Hip-Hop, having scattered to other formats, or maybe even away from music radio.

Conditions were different a decade ago when KDAY launched, ‘90s Hip-Hop wasn’t a distant enough memory. Current Hip-Hop was still accepted in the pop culture mainstream, albeit grudgingly. The ‘80s songs popularized by the original KDAY-AM hadn’t been heard by that many people. The new KDAY didn’t seem like an immediate success, and actually evolved out of the format for a while. But in 2009, it returned to gold-based Hip-Hop, and has made a respectable showing for what had long been considered a fringe signal.

In KDAY’s decision is at least a partial answer to the inevitable questions about the staying power of any new gold-based format. Seattle has levelled off considerably after a huge debut. Even KZEP (Hot 104.5) San Antonio was up 3.1-6.9 in its first month, but off slightly in the second. Those “Jammin’ Oldies” type spikes often obscure that there’s a respectable long-term franchise for somebody afterwards. And Classic Rock was dogged by the “fad format” charges for a decade. Thirty years later, the detractors have finally switched to “well, it’s a mature format.”

It’s also significant that just as Classic Rock was completing its first decade, grunge re-energized Rock radio and there was a viable living for both classic and new rock stations. (The stations that were most left out were those that had sort-of gone Classic Rock and couldn’t credibly own either franchise.) So there doesn’t need to be a permanent vote of no-confidence in today’s Hip-Hop for one Classic Hip-Hop station in a market to find a long-term place. For now, anyway, we’re seeing fresh reminders that a broad coalition of listeners – different from the format’s current audience – grew up with this music and is excited about hearing it again.

3 replies
  1. Steve Sobczuk
    Steve Sobczuk says:

    The issue with contemporary hip hop and by extension R&B, is that it has turned its back on the mainstream’s broad coalition by rejecting the white audience. Today’s hip hop beats and tempos (65-80 beats per minute) are slower than molasses on a cold day and unimaginative and boring. It might be okay while seated in a car, but useless in moving bodies on a dancefloor or at a house party. The successful beats from back in the day were kinetic and moved people. They didn’t cause narcolepsy like most of today’s hip hop. Almost like what happend to rock music in the early to mid 70s with the rise of prog rock and its typically glacial tempos.

    Nicki Minaj’s Only may stir some mainstream press with iit’s Third Reich imagery, but it’s also musically boring and designed to alienate the broader coalition who might have liked her club bangers such as Anaconda or Starships. It is no wonder that the time is right for the classic Hip Hop format. I’d also add another another 15-20 years on to the demo appeal of this new classic hip hop format. This early 50 something grew up on early hip hop from Rappers Delight to Def Jam’s glory days and appreciates the lyrical genius of Jay Z too.

  2. Jeff G
    Jeff G says:

    Good article as always, but one sentence got me (or rather the thought process of public outcries over the loss of an older, but less workable format) about nobody missing the old station. Increasingly, it seems that owners are shuttling off less viable formats to their HD2 and/or translator stations, so the old station may never go away, it just might resurface on a lesser signal. The only drawback is that these usually come at an expense of talent and resources. The new (old) station many times does not draw advertisers like it had, or just becomes automated jukeboxes with sweepers every couple of songs. Sometimes it eventually fades away with a whimper and nobody to notice. The owner appeases the former listeners by saying “hey, we’re not going away. We’re just changing addresses.” Then when even fewer people don’t listen, they have effectively burned off everyone gradually so they can “try something else.”

  3. Tom Barnes
    Tom Barnes says:

    I think this format has mighty legs. The classic rock analogy is apt. These songs are “the music of your life” for younger Gen Xers and the oldest millienials. It fits the “mood service” criteria too. KDAY was before it’s time. As noted resisting the temptation to broaden the format will be its toughest challenge.


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