In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles was looking for a distributor for “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.” When no studio showed interest, Van Peebles opened the movie himself in limited release. When it shattered box office records at that handful of theatres, “Sweetback” was picked up by Cinerama and went on to herald the black action wave of the early ‘70s. Writing about the making of the movie, Van Peebles says he never doubted that a distributor would come around eventually: “The Man,” he wrote, “has an Achilles wallet.”
So does the National Assn. Of Broadcasters’ fall Radio Show still need a panel on hip-hop called, “Admit It: You Don’t Get It”? The description for the Oct. 1 panel, moderated by Radio One’s Mary Catherine Sneed and featuring hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Source Magazine CEO Dave Mays, declares, “The hip-hop movement is setting trends and achieving mainstream acceptance, but many of us don’t understand its overall cultural influence. Find out how hip-hop equals ratings and revenue, and why it’s not going to go away like disco.”
That’s a lesson that many broadcasters needed during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when no R&B station, even a successful one, was safe from a new owner, who could easily decide that there was more money in any other format. With the exception of Spanish-language radio, R&B was the last music format to make the transition from AM to FM in all but the most heavily African-American markets. (And in many cities, R&B went backwards before it went forward, as owners exiled the format to AM to make room for the third AC in the market.) Markets where you just knew the format would do well, including Hartford, Conn., Dayton, Ohio, and even Los Angeles went for years without a full-signal R&B FM contender, or without an R&B FM at all.
Now, whether broadcasters have come to an understanding of the format, or whether it’s merely the Achilles wallet acting up, R&B/hip-hop has become the building boom format of the last two years. In fact, by winter ’01, R&B radio in its various guises (hip-hop, urban AC and R&B oldies) had regularly overtaken AC as the No. 1 music format (behind only news/talk) in Billboard’s national Arbitron numbers. So while the old Jacor had exiled R&B KMJM St. Louis to a lesser frequency to make room for a new top 40, the new Clear Channel switched rhythmic rhythmic oldies WTJM New York to hip-hop/R&B WWPR (Power 105), citing the more saleable demos of the latter format.
Since then, Clear Channel has been launching hip-hop outlets with the dispatch once shown for new top 40s, recently blowing up Hartford’s only modern rocker for the market’s second R&B FM launch in several years, making up for the many years when Insurance City’s risk-averse broadcasters left the format to an AM daytimer. Clear Channel has also been building new urban AC outlets (in such once unlikely places as Albuquerque, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz.) and new gospel FMs.
Hartford isn’t the only “why doesn’t somebody do R&B on FM here” market that now has a battle after years of neglect: Austin, Texas, Columbus, Ohio, and Knoxville, Tenn., all just added second hip-hop stations. In Knoxville, the new station was launched by Journal’s mainstream top 40 WWST as a flanker against the Citadel rhythmic top 40 that had been flanking them. Ironically, this strategy had been used against Journal’s rhythmic top 40 in Omaha, Neb., by Waitt’s mainstream KQKQ (Sweet 98).
What hip-hop does have to guard against is being the next country.
In fact, if you’re looking for a market where there’s still a wide-open opportunity for hip-hop and R&B on FM, you have to scroll down to No. 66, Grand Rapids, Mich., for a market where the only available R&B music on FM is from the mainstream top 40. Excluding 10 shadow markets, which receive R&B/hip-hop from an adjoining city, the only remaining holes in the top 100 are now Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Allentown, Pa., Monterey, Calif., Des Moines, Iowa, and Colorado Springs.
Not every remaining market has a station that positions itself in the industry as R&B/hip-hop (more about that in a minute), but most of those markets have, at the very least, a rhythmic top 40 that effectively plays nothing else. In Tampa/St. Petersburg or San Diego, you could likely carve out a place against the rhythmic station by leaning slightly older and dedicating yourself more to the African-American community, but, musically, you’d still be second in to the format. In Harrisburg, Pa., you’d be battling both rhythmic WWKL (Hot 92) and mainstream (but very rhythmic skewing) top 40 WHKF.
But just because owners have figured out that there’s a hole for R&B and hip-hop doesn’t mean all of them respect it, and that’s where Russell Simmons and Dave Mays are still needed. Stations that position themselves on-air as “hip-hop and R&B,” but insist in the industry that they’re rhythmic top 40s still rankle. While some of those stations are motivated by the format’s longstanding sales problem, the Power Ratios aren’t going to crack a 1.0 until all hip-hop and R&B stations present a united front.
To that end, it would also be nice to have Russell and Dave at the next Radio Advertising Bureau meeting, so sales people, not just GMs and owners, can hear the good news about the format, since they’re often the ones who haven’t gotten the memo. It would also be great if stations were able to draw on either the Source or Simmons’ various empires for qualitative data—still at a relative premium in the format.
For the last decade or so, owners have shown a willingness to happily rush in and out of any hot format, whether it’s ‘70s, ‘80s, Jammin’ Oldies or top 40. A decade ago, some of those owners might have expressed concern about the long-term health of any of those formats. Now, most will cheerfully tell you that the only future is now.
But even so, hip-hop was never in danger of being the next disco. In the mid-‘90s, when some PDs had decided that R&B/hip-hop had become the only pop music that mattered, we saw markets like Phoenix and Seattle get hip-hop stations, then lose them for a minute, when some in the industry decided that alternative rock was the new hot music. It didn’t take long for both those stations to return to hip-hop. Now, they have company in such once-unlikely markets as Portland, Ore., Spokane, Wash., and Topeka, Kan.
So what hip-hop does have to guard against is being the next country. That format had some of its luster worn off at the end of its early ‘90s boom by a wave of mediocre music and saturation in some markets by stations that were not meant to win, but rather to flank. Already, there are at least a few markets where a healthy 9-10% share for hip-hop is being split into three not so healthy looking pieces. And even some of the format’s biggest fans have been complaining about mediocre music for the last few years. Country, unlike mainstream top 40, had enough listeners that it could lose a few without imploding. And so does R&B. But it shouldn’t have to happen.
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.