The International Crisis Of Urban Radio
With technology evolving faster than most of us can keep up with, the media that employs the latest tech is also subject to a constant state of flux. Some heralded the arrival of Napster as the coming of the pale horse to deal a sinister and diminutive blow to the music industry. While being warned years in advance that they would succumb to the growing force that is the internet if they did not change, the music industry ignored all heeds and now, they're not the only ones suffering. Urban radio is at the mercy of corporations that have no interest in what represents its demographics and communities. An airwave monopoly is upon the ears of those tuned into radio with an aggressive determination to compete and derail internet and college radio stations.
In 2009, Pittsburgh's WAMO-FM/AM, the cities only urban station turned to dead air. The Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation sold the station for 8.9 million to St. Joseph Missions to be turned to a religious station. WAMO in the 90s was 105.9 and had the strongest broadcasting signal in Pennsylvania. Sheridan sold the signal and condensed the station 106.7. Towards the latter years of the station, locals cried that WAMO had abandoned the interests of the community that supported it for a more mainstream and top 40 audience. The placement of local music became all but absent. The events that were held by the station for the local communities were often meet with scrutiny and distaste.
Somewhat recently, in one of the most diverse cities on the planet; Toronto, Canada received their first ever urban station in 2001. Before that, residents relied on Buffalo to hear hip hop and r&b, even after the success of many hometown artists on the American charts, no radio station was insight for Toronto. When Flow 93.5 first started to broadcast, the listeners almost immediately began to complain that the station was not attending to their interests. But after lobbying for an outlet that would play black music regularly, some complaints fell by the way side and most just took it for what it was.
Now, Flow has been bought out and their most successful urban programmes that also highlight local music, The Real Frequency and OTA Live have been canned. Not only is hip hop missing from the schedule, but Toronto's huge Caribbean/West Indian population is also taking a loss with the subtraction of Sunday's Soca Therapy and now it's looking like Flow is going to go completely top 40 with some urban syndication format.
Through out cities across the nation, the loss of urban radio is becoming commonplace. Listeners by the thousands are letting their discontent be seen by turning off their dials and tuning into Satellite radio and internet radio stations alike to get their fix of desired playlists and programming. Although now, with the popularity of satellite radio, the common aliment has once again been transported as these radio stations are starting to recycle the same format and music. So what about the saving grace of the underground? The last true on air format that has loyal listeners abroad readjusting to their favourite frequencies for the underground hip hop desirables. I mean college radio.
College radio isn't going anywhere anytime soon. You can count on that, but the problem with college radio is, it really isn't generating revenue for it to really make a difference. Also, it can be so subterranean based that it bores some people who may many a little bounce in their listening sessions. Artists who may be number one, or in the top ten of the college radio charts don't really offer incentive for labels to place interest in them because of a lack of marketability. Some artists are cool with that, because they've engineered their lane to not be dependent on radio of any format. They've substituted Internet exposure and manipulated the web to work for them in ways radio never could.
What does this mean for you? Many cities across the nation have more than one hip hop station but the diversity is scarce and barely impossible to differentiate by the playlists. Local progammes that are supposed to deal directly and relate to its respective communities are being ignored and replaced by more popular nationally syndicated shows. This is rapidly rendering stations everywhere powerless to the power of corporate radio. I spoke to Professor Mike Jordan of 88.3 KABF in Arkansas who has seen a tremendous spike in listeners due to his accessibility online; I asked his opinions on this topic. When I asked if we were witnessing the end of urban radio, he had this to say: "Your local radio station used to be a place for people of the community to connect. Now with syndication becoming a big deal, several morning shows and afternoon ‘drive time’ shows are being outsourced to people who have no idea of what transpires in the local community and less of an idea what the local music scene is about. I feel the last real radio is community stations and college stations but even with the economy being what it is, even those are struggling. However, The community and college radio scene is still a viable avenue for the underground mc, but radio is not the end all be all it once was for unsigned artist exposure. Mixtapes, Internet, live local performances and connecting with your fanbase is the best route, I think. Local radio started its death in 1994 when Bill Clinton signed the Deregulation Act. It's been a slow progressive death march since then. It is unfortunate that when technology is allowing so many artists an opportunity to showcase their talents, radio and television is narrowing its scope of what it allows it's audience to hear."
But what about in Toronto? T dot is becoming one of the biggest cities in hip hop now and with the changing of the guard at Flow, it seems a hampering of urban radio is going to deal a serious blow to the community. I talked to quite a few Toronto residents to get a feel for the changes, one in particular, Roshine of the highly regarded TOFLO blog weighed in with some very poignant remarks. "Flow 93.5 never really did represent the community that supported them. After the first few years they distanced themselves from their original ideologies, and the people that supported them in the first place to even get an urban radio station in the city of Toronto. I am not completely sad about these changes. Sometimes you have to destroy something to rebuild it even stronger. I am not directly referring to the radio station, but the urban community desires a voice on the airwaves that truly represents them."
I've lived in Pittsburgh and Toronto. In Pittsburgh, everyone was complaining about how terrible of a job WAMO has been doing about meeting the needs of their demographic. So many people were happy about the station signing off that they didn't take time to think of the future and how having a city with a blossoming and promising hip hop scene will be effected by no hip hop station on the dial. In Toronto, a multitude of people are sharing the same sentiments of the new amendments at and are perhaps a bit haughty in their dismissal of the programming to come, with due cause no doubt. But will the New York of the North suffer the same as Pittsburgh and other cities who have lost control of local radio? After all they've only had an urban local radio presence in Toronto for 10 years. Will they succeed? Many in the Toronto hip hop community seem to think so. There are several huge blogs that have a first hand in breaking new talent and representing the hip hop scene there.
Perhaps radio all together is no longer viable for artists looking to make the impact they want to make. Perhaps just as peer to peer sharing played a pivotal role in music downloads, blogs and internet radio will do the same.