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Classic Hip-Hop, Urban AC, and Jack FM posted on December 1st, 2014

By Sean Ross

A lot has happened since I last wrote about the rise of the classic Hip-Hop format, which, if you’re counting, was 19 days ago.

iHeart Media’s WSOL (V101.5) Jacksonville, Fla., segued from its longtime urban AC position to “Throwback hip-hop & R&B,” although it kept the syndicated Steve Harvey Morning Show.

Sister KATZ-FM St. Louis retired a 35-year-old urban AC brand, Majic, to switch to a similar format.

Dallas got the format’s first head-to-head war, sort of, between Cumulus and Radio One. The “sort of” is because Cumulus hasn’t declared a format change. It’s positioning the change at KLIF-FM (Hot 93.3) as a “hip-hop holiday.”

Atlanta got three different classic hip-hop stations, all of them on lower-powered FM translators, courtesy of Cumulus, Radio One, and veteran PD/owner Steve Hegwood. This time, Cumulus did declare a format change.

Cox’s long-running urban AC WCFB (Star 94.5) Orlando is now “celebrating the holidays with throwback hip-hop and R&B.” Star didn’t officially declare a change until Monday, but reports that the station has dropped syndicated host Tom Joyner.

Classic hip-hop is now displaying all the hallmarks of a format boom, at least in terms of industry reaction. Several markets end up with more than one. Multiple stations flip within hours of each other, trying to claim the space. Somebody walks away from a more-than-viable franchise to get there before anybody else can. While several of the stations that changed were the second urban ACs in their market, Orlando’s Star was format-exclusive.

If you’re willing to start the clock with WBQT (Hot 96.9) Boston, the “Rhythmic Hot AC” that was built on classic hip-hop, but also plays recurrents and some rhythmic pop, the format boom began 18 months ago. So classic hip-hop has reached the format boom stage at least as quickly as the “adult hits” format that galvanized the industry a decade ago. The original Bob-FM was about 18 months old in Canada when stations began walking away from viable formats on its behalf. The U.S. format frenzy took place about three years in, when oldies WCBS-FM New York became “Jack FM” for two years before returning to the now-renamed “greatest hits” format.

The adult-hits land rush also offers some likely answers to questions about the wisdom of the classic hip-hop version. Is it a viable long-term format? You stopped reading about the adult-hits boom many years ago, but it remains a significant format, especially in the markets where it most made sense in the first place – Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, etc. Should somebody blow up a viable station to go there? Not always, especially if you’re iconic of something else, as WCBS-FM was.

New York’s Jack-FM had a particularly awkward transition, alienating those CBS-FM listeners who might actually have enjoyed the new format. By contrast, Star 94.5 is currently doing a very adult-friendly version of the format, with R&B songs that could also play on urban AC these days, and a very mainstream distillation of old-school hip-hop. V101.5 also has some precedent on its side. More than a decade ago, it declared itself “Urban Hot AC,” with fewer ballads and more Gap Band oldies.

Urban AC PDs have wanted to figure out their next move beyond that for years now. The format’s initial attempts to play rap were disastrous – even the generation that grew up with hip-hop seemed to have a different expectation and usage for existing urban AC stations. Gradually, a handful of titles – most of them from the genre’s first decade – began to play on urban AC without incident. But starting fresh is a much more attractive idea to some PDs than figuring out how to segue from Maxwell to 50 Cent, which some urban ACs have tried.

WCFB’s transition, should it be permanent, is likely to raise questions for some about the future viability of traditional urban AC. WCBS-FM may be the guide here, too. It came back two years later and leads the market today. A decade later, the “greatest hits” format has had a great second life in PPM and moved into the ‘80s (and even early ‘90s), regardless of the success of adult hits. In Cleveland, greatest-hits and adult-hits stations rule the market side by side.

The question is what urban AC becomes if there’s another adult format perched below it. Is there still a need to make the existing urban AC format younger and hotter? Or should it now double-down on its original franchise? I’m confident that somebody who grew up with Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Maze, and the Gap Band has not woken up and decided they never liked them. Those listeners grew up glued to radio, and remain its most reliable source of time spent listening today. They don’t mind a little hip-hop, but they’re not looking for a steady diet of Jay Z and SWV.

The happiest possible outcome would be if urban radio emerged with three viable tentpole formats, each spaced 15-20 years apart from each other. When PPM measurement arrived, both mainstream urban and urban AC were often crowded, with some major markets having two of each. Whatever issues PPM may have had in capturing urban radio listening, it has never been kind to any overcrowded format. Three urban formats, each with satisfied P1s who aren’t punching between two identical stations, might have a chance.

As for the long-term prospects of classic hip-hop, I can only say that 19 days later, the listener excitement about hearing these songs on the radio again is even greater. And by week’s end, the classic hip-hop boom is likely to get another boost when comedian Chris Rock’s Top 5 is released. The trailer uses recent hits, but the title stems from a discussion of the top five rappers of all-time. The movie is still five days away from release, but if loving classic hip-hop (and not the newer stuff) is portrayed as a sign of adult malaise, as the premise and the pre-release publicity suggests, oldies and classic rock only thrived after being portrayed that way in The Big Chill. Somebody will get in the car and drive home wanting to hear Eric B & Rakim.