A radio format that was once dismissed as being too ethnic to achieve widespread popularity is now No. 1 in Washington, D.C, Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta and is in the top five in New York, Boston, Dallas and Miami.
The radio format known as "urban contemporary," which plays primarily black artists and encompasses rhythm and blues at one end of the spectrum and rap at the other, is taking the industry by storm, marked by the proliferation of new stations and dramatic ratings success. KKBT-FM (92.3) in Los Angeles is the latest station to adopt the format; four other stations here--KDAY-AM (1580), KGFJ-AM (1230), KACE-FM (103.9) and KJLH-FM (102.3)--already employ it.
"I can't think of any of the top 10 radio markets that do not have a top-rated urban contemporary station now," said Jim Duncan, a radio industry consultant based in Indianapolis.
"I think urban radio is maybe at the point or beginning to gain the same type of foothold as 'The Cosby Show' or the 'Arsenio Hall' show," said Jimmy Smith, program director for WGCI-FM, an urban contemporary station in Chicago that is the No. 1-rated station in the city. "I think it's vibrant. I think it's a very contemporary, very trend-setting type of format."
It may be setting trends, but the format is anything but new. Certainly, R&B; and soul music have been around for decades.
"It really has evolved from your R&B; format, from the Aretha Franklins to the Marvin Gayes to Motown," Smith said. "It now encompasses Bobby Brown and Janet Jackson. But also you might get that one extra dose of new urban or black artists that you probably wouldn't ordinarily get on any other format. . . . This is where Prince started off at. This is the breeding ground."
These days, urban contemporary radio has gone from breeding ground to very fertile ground. Stations that began by targeting a black inner-city audience are currently experiencing unprecedented mainstream success.
"So-called black urban radio has changed a great deal over the years," said Walt Love, urban contemporary editor at Radio and Records, an industry publication. "It's more modern in its approach, more mainstream. There are many Hispanics, Asians and Caucasians who enjoy the music."
"Urban contemporary has tended to be most popular where the percentage of black listeners is highest," said Denver-based radio industry consultant Roger Wimmer. "Now we're finding that all of a sudden, lo and behold, program directors and general managers realize you don't have to be black to like the music. Urban contemporary tends to have a lot of dance music. Kids like that, and it doesn't make any difference whether they're white or black."
Urban contemporary spans the musical spectrum from soul artists such as Luther Vandross and Anita Baker to rap groups such as Public Enemy and De La Soul, though most stations limit their musical focus to one style or the other. Dance-oriented artists such as Janet Jackson or Bobby Brown are generally played on all urban stations, as they are on most top 40 radio stations.
The format's current popularity is explained by its fresh sound and also by the widespread cross-over success of many of the "urban" artists, who made off with most of the honors at the recent American Music Awards. That success is drawing many listeners to the stations that focus on the style rather than just play it as part of a broader spectrum.
"They're filling a void that the rock stations just don't fill," said Allen Klein, an Encino-based media consultant. "It's a different brand of music."
"It's like album-oriented rock was 10, 15 years ago; it's the format of the future," said Jim de Castro, general manager of KKBT-FM, the format's latest convert.
KKBT--formerly KFAC, Los Angeles' only commercial classical music station--changed formats last month after a five-month stint with a hard-to-categorize pop-rock playlist that bombed in the ratings.
Though a leader in other programming formats (having spawned "the Wave" and "power" contemporary hits radio), Los Angeles has lagged behind the rest of the country in jumping on the urban contemporary bandwagon. Though each of the four Southern California stations that had been playing it prior to KKBT has its cadre of loyal fans, ratings for all but one--KDAY-AM--have remained at the bottom of the heap. KACE-FM (103.9), KJLH-FM (102.3) and KGFJ-AM (1230) attribute their low ratings to weak and limited signals, which range from 1,000 to 6,000 watts. KKBT, by contrast, has 43,000 watts.
The highly respected, 15-year-old KDAY (1580), widely considered one of the most influential rap stations in the country, has a strong signal--50,000 watts--but is limited in its potential as a major ratings-getter because it is on the AM band, according to consultant Klein.
KDAY is currently up for sale and its asking price, about $10 million, is testimony to the format's increased popularity. De Castro said that "there's a very strong possibility" that KKBT's parent company, Evergreen Media Corp., will buy the AM station, in order to more completely reach the audience that listens to urban contemporary. (KKBT does not play rap music; its playlist is confined to soul and R&B; selections.)
Still, some radio industry officials question KKBT's degree of commitment to the new format. They seem to be asking whether it can serve the desired audience's non-musical needs as effectively as the existing stations in Los Angeles.
One of the major components of a successful urban contemporary format, say both industry consultants and station officials, is a strong sense of community involvement and awareness of and sensitivity to community concerns.
"You have to have a presence in the black community to become a player out there," said Ed Kerby, KDAY general manager.
"It goes beyond just playing music," said Edward Evans, general sales manager of KGFJ, which recently interrupted 20 hours of programming to discuss social concerns on the air. "We're an extension of the community. . . . KKBT comes on and says they're urban, but are they doing anything to really reach the community? You have to be sincere. You just can't walk in and say 'I play the music, I'm you.' It just doesn't work that way. . . . It's like being a politician: You have to go out there and press the flesh, so to speak."
De Castro said that he intends to be responsive to the community and will bring on additional staff members toward that goal.
"We'll have to hire a lot of black people," De Castro said. "We intend to hire a black program director, a black community affairs director and have a lot of black involvement in the station because I think that's important. . . . We're looking for the best black people in radio."
On the other hand, De Castro said, he believes station management need not necessarily be black to run an urban contemporary station and reach a largely black audience.
"Are you saying I can't program a black station because I'm not black?" De Castro asked. "A lot of people do say that and I say, 'Go jump in a lake.' Black people don't need to run a black station."
De Castro came under fire for blatantly courting minorities during KKBT's previous incarnation. Six months ago, he said he wanted his station to "identically mirror the demographic breakdown" of the city, targeting a largely Latino audience. With the new urban contemporary format, he predicts that "primarily our core is going to be black people, secondarily white women, then Hispanics."
KKBT's rivals are not so sure that the station will attract the audiences that De Castro expects.
"I think that callousness or insensitivity will probably cost them," said KJLH General Manager Karen Slade. "In the long run you want to listen to someone that cares about you. I just don't believe, even with all their money and all their wattage, that they can care more about my listeners more than I do. They may have more money, but they don't have more heart."
Notes consultant Duncan: "You can open up a real sociological can of worms if you want to with this format."
Indeed, some say the labeling of music as "urban contemporary" is an artificial, even racist, categorization of black artists. As was clearly demonstrated on the American Music Awards and in record sales, many artists heard on urban formats are among the most popular of all recording stars.
"I think for too long many people have been pigeon-holed: age, demographics, all that other kind of stuff," consultant Wimmer said. "It's the broadcasters who really segment everything."