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Top Hip-Hop

Local hip-hop stations may share similar songs, but other factors enter the fight for rap supremacy.

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For its size, the Richmond area is strong on urban radio. By comparison, Chicago and Baltimore also boast three stations classified as urban contemporary or hip-hop, while Washington, D.C., New York City and Atlanta each has four, according to the Web site www.radiolocator.com. It’s hard to say what’s typical, says Dennis Wharton, senior vice president for communications at the National Broadcasters Association, because location is key.

Hip-hop radio has been a growing market in the last four to five years, Wharton says. He cites its ever-growing crossover appeal, from the black community to the white, and its popularity among teenagers. And the boom isn’t over: “I think it’s a market that still shows growth potential in some cities,” Wharton says.

Although bound to playing similar music in a limited geographic area, Richmond’s three hip-hop stations all are in the top 13 of this city’s 26-station market. How do they stay fresh and competitive?

First, local radio programmers say the overlap of playlists is no worry. Aaron Maxwell, program manager for Clear Channel’s 106.5 The Beat, says outright that his station is “not different from other hip-hop stations. The music’s not different. The presentation’s different.”

Bob Rich, general manager of Radio One-owned stations Power 92 and Hot 99.3, agrees with Maxwell. Although Richmond’s hip-hop stations are far from identical, he says, some similarity of playlists is unavoidable. Like all those playing contemporary music, local stations are “connected at the hip” with the music industry, Rich says. Record companies dictate what’s hot, what’s new and what to play, he asserts; and right now, hip-hop’s at the top of its game.

“This just seems to be an era right now when the urban flavor has really taken off,” Rich says. Hip-hop and R&B are hot with both white and black communities, he says. It’s what high-school kids’ stereos are pounding in parking lots. And the three local stations get respectable ratings.

According to a winter 2002 market report from research company Arbitron, 106.5 The Beat was tied for third place with talk-radio station WRVA-AM 1140, each commanding an overall 6.4 percent share of the 863,000-person Richmond market (listeners 12 years old and older, from 6 a.m. to midnight, measured in a typical quarter-hour). Power 92 ranked fifth with a 6.2 percent share. And Hot 99.3 was 13th, garnering 2.5 percent of listeners (although it received an 8.5 percent share among ages 12 to 24, Rich points out).

But if they play similar music, what makes individual stations unique? Maxwell says The Beat is defined by “a fresher, cleaner presentation of the music and the content.” He declined to elaborate — is it a trade secret?

Rich is somewhat vague, as well, attributing his stations’ success to what he calls “stationality.” Research indicates, he says, that when listeners are asked why a particular station is their favorite, “the word that comes out a lot is feel. ‘I just feel good when I listen to that.’” That feeling is dictated by that personality that grows from DJs’ styles, on-air conversation and the events a radio station chooses to promote, Rich says.

Consider Hot 99.3 and Power 92. At first, the two seem somewhat interchangeable, frequently playing the same songs. And both are part of Radio One, which also runs two other Richmond stations. The largest black-owned radio company in the world, Radio One specializes in urban music and, Wharton says, has shown its investors that hip-hop is good business.

Its two stations here assert their own personalities. Hot 99.3 is a newer station that draws a younger crowd and is classified as hip-hop/churban — a term defined as a mix of Top-40 songs, hip-hop and R&B. Its audience tends to be in the 12- to 24-year-old range, Rich says.

Power 92 leans more toward rap and hip-hop (think Jah Rule and 50 Cent, not Justin Timberlake). Rich calls it a “heritage radio station” because it has been on the air continuously for 15 years and has a loyal following. Such features as the lunchtime old-school mix with DJ Lonnie B produce the “Oh wow syndrome,” Rich says, when listeners say, “Oh wow, I remember that.”

Power 92’s listeners range in age from 18 (and younger) to mid-40s. “That’s a family reunion right there,” Rich says. “That’s a mother and daughter.”

Despite the difference between the two stations’ audiences, however, the music doesn’t vary too much. “The formatting of radio stations used to be fairly well-defined,” Rich observes. “Anymore, the lines are real blurry.” The main criterion now, for an urban station like Hot 99.3 or Power 92, is for songs to be “beat-driven,” he says — “Let’s go down and throw down sound.”

DJs are important as the voice of the station, Rich says, but he firmly believes “people do not listen … to be entertained by the on-air personalities.” One of radio listeners’ most common complaints, he says, is jocks talking too much. And when he was a DJ himself, Rich says, managers told him, “Bob, if you can’t say it in six or seven seconds, you can’t say it.” Short and sweet is the rule.

The Beat 106.5 breaks that rule every weeknight, when DJ Zxulu the Big Lip Bandit hosts nightly rap games and improvised cipher battles. Callers try to complete Zxulu’s rhymes, then the best of them compete head to head to see who’s the master. Current stars of the game include, among others, Lil Nikki, 14, VA Slim, 21, and RedRum, 19. Amateur rhymers can test their skills — and be humbled — on the DJ’s Web site, www.zxulu.com.

Maxwell attributes The Beat’s rise in the Arbitron ratings (it was in sixth place in the fall, now in third) entirely to Zxulu, a Brooklyn native hired in September. “He’s fun, he’s energetic, he’s engaging, he’s inviting, he’s provocative,” the program manager says, and the audience for the show includes blacks and whites alike.

Radio One stations, however, have shied away from the rap game/cipher trend. “We’ve been very cautious about that,” Rich says. “It seems to be a very popular trend to do stuff like that, sort of interactive radio, if you will.” Yet it’s designed for a very young audience, he says — “not that it’s not entertaining.”

There are exceptions to radio’s primary goal of entertaining, he says. When serious things happen, Rich says, his DJs are encouraged to talk. Recent events like the snipers’ rampage and the war are important to listeners, he says, and it’s the job of his station to air their concerns. Because, he says, “if the local radio doesn’t do that, then why have local radio?” S

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