ALEX FRENCH NYTimes.com 5/17/15
Less than a year ago, the Indianapolis radio station WRWM, then known as Indy’s i94, was the 15th-most-popular station in the Central Indiana market. It played a forgettable mix of Maroon 5, Sam Smith and other staples of what in radio lingo is called hot adult contemporary — the sort of stuff that drivers might alight on for a song or two but rarely add to their presets. For the last six months of 2014, among listeners ages 6 and older, the station’s Nielsen ratings hovered around a 2.0 share, meaning roughly 2 percent of radio listeners in the market tuned in.
I94’s corporate parent, Cumulus Media — a conglomerate that owns about 460 radio stations in 90 U.S. markets — thought it could do better. Last fall, Davey Morris, a Cumulus program director at one of the company’s branch offices in Providence, R.I., called Jay Michaels, the station program director at i94, to discuss a number of ideas for revamping the floundering station, up to and including a format change. Changing formats is something radio stations avoid as best they can: It’s expensive and, for corporate-owned stations, usually involves extensive market research. If i94 changed, it would be the station’s 10th switch in 21 years.
The 93.9 slot in Indianapolis hadn’t enjoyed any real success since it first went live in 1993. That year, it began as Ecstasy (WXTZ), an independently owned easy-listening station. It switched to a solid-gold soul format in 1996, then to smooth jazz the next year. It switched again in 1997, to country, and that year it was acquired by a conglomerate called Susquehanna Radio. Susquehanna moved its country station (104.5 the Bear, WGRL) down the dial to occupy the 93.9 frequency, before switching it to ’80s hits in 2001, and from that to contemporary Christian in 2004.
The station became syndicated talk radio in 2006, and later that year Susquehanna was acquired by Cumulus Media. Along the way, there were dalliances with stunt formats and place holders: Christmas music and TV-show themes for days on end; nothing but construction noises at one point; at another, ‘‘The Lonesome Road,’’ by Dean Elliot & His Big Band, and ‘‘Swans Splashdown,’’ by Jean-Jacques Perrey, played on a loop. Late in 2007, Cumulus switched to the somewhat gross call letters WARM, with 93 hours of commercial-free easy listening and soft-rock. In July 2009, after the station finished 21st in the local ratings, it switched to a Top 40 format and changed its name to i94. Two years later, the station became ‘‘Indy’s i94’’ and added older hits to its mix, thereby becoming hot adult contemporary. ‘‘We’d [flipped] so many times, it was really hard to build a fan base,’’ Morris said. ‘‘We were never anybody’s first choice. We were their fourth choice.’’
Morris and Michaels started talking about what Indianapolis radio needed. The market was saturated: Emmis Radio had country, news/talk, soft adult-contemporary stations and sports; iHeartMedia had classic rock, alternative and sports covered; Radio One had a gospel station, plus three contemporary hits stations; Entercom had two of those, plus sports. One of the ideas the two came up with was a variation on a new format: classic hip-hop, pioneered just a month earlier by a Radio One station in Houston called Boom 92.1. By playing hit ’90s rap records, Boom tripled its audience, and Radio One had begun to duplicate the strategy in other markets.
The two men brought the idea to Cumulus’s executive vice president of content and programming, John Dickey. Around the same time, Dickey caught word that Radio One was planning to launch a Boom clone in Indianapolis. He was determined to beat them to market. He told Morris to do a ‘‘classic hip-hop holiday weekend,’’ to test listener reaction and stake their claim to the format in Indianapolis.
Michaels dropped the needle on Naughty by Nature’s ‘‘Hip Hop Hooray’’ at 3 p.m. on Dec. 19. LL Cool J’s ‘‘Around the Way Girl’’ followed, then ‘‘Move,’’ by Ludacris. ‘‘We set up a voice-mail box for listener feedback,’’ Michaels said. ‘‘I was expecting lots of complaints. We went from playing Maroon 5 to ‘Me So Horny.’ ’’ The phone rang so much they had to clear the mailbox every day. Callers were ecstatic. The station never returned to its old format.
In three weeks, 93.9 made the improbable jump from 15th place in Central Indiana to first. Two weeks later, i94 officially became 93.9, the Beat. Ratings for January showed 93.9 with a 7.7 share. It ranked first among people ages 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54; women 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54; and men 18-49 and 25-54. ‘‘Literally nobody in the Top 50 markets in this country has ever done a format change, then in the next full month shot to No. 1,’’ Tom Taylor, the publisher of a popular radio-industry newsletter, told Indianapolis Business Journal. ‘‘Certainly no station in the last decade has done what [WRWM] has.’’ The Beat stole a huge piece of the listenership of Radio One’s top urban stations in Indianapolis, too: WTLC-FM 106.7, ‘‘Indy’s R & B Leader,’’ dropped to 4.5 in January from a 6.6 in December. WHHH-FM 96.3, Radio One’s mainstream urban station, saw its share plummet to 3.9 in January from 5.1 in December. Meanwhile, the Beat’s advertising rates grew by 150 percent.
Ever since the earliest days of rock ’n’ roll, time has corroded yesterday’s musical radicalism into today’s pabulum. Thirty years ago, young listeners of hip-hop, with its predilection for violent imagery and unprintable language, might have thought it impervious to this process. But radio conglomerates are proving them wrong. As its listeners grow up and memories of Tipper Gore grow dim, hip-hop is now taking its final step toward respectability: It now qualifies as oldies.
I sat with Jay Michaels one morning this spring while he worked on the Beat’s weekend playlist. His office is tiny, airless and cluttered with Hello Kitty lunchboxes, promotional teddy bears, novelty coffee cups and rubber duckies. On his computer, he had loaded Stratus, Cumulus’s proprietary music-scheduling software. He pressed a button, and dozens of songs populated a grid on the screen, color-coded in a pattern that Michaels refused to explain. Michaels and Morris are cagey about Stratus, which is used companywide but customized by each station. They refer to the software as their ‘‘secret sauce.’’ What I gleaned through later conversations is that Michaels has broken hip-hop down by region and into subgenres, and the Beat uses these metadata tags to keep its playlist diverse.
On Cumulus’s version of the format, you’ll never hear back-to-back-to-back Southern rap hits or a cluster of R & B songs with female vocalists; the Beat will break up a block of tunes by harder artists like Ice Cube or DMX with a Mariah Carey track. ‘‘Without flow, this format is a train wreck,’’ Michaels said as he sifted through the computer’s selections, massaging the playlist. ‘‘It’s me being overly anal. I have my own rules.’’ Among them: Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac should never be played back to back (it might call to mind their deadly feud), and a Biggie song should never be played before or after ‘‘I’ll Be Missing You,’’ the tribute song Puff Daddy recorded after Biggie was killed. Michaels also won’t play Outkast next to Ludacris — it just feels weird.
The Beat is just one of several stations experimenting with the format now, and certainly such rules differ in each city. But the basics of the formula are the same that were developed by Radio One in October. That was the month the company unplugged a failing news station in Houston, 92.1 KROI-FM, dismissed all the employees and started playing Beyoncé songs, commercial-free, 24 hours a day. Beyoncé’s fans — the BeyHive — went bonkers. News outlets from all over the country called with questions about the odd format. On the afternoon of the fifth day, the station paused for a commercial and then played ‘‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’’ by the Geto Boys, arguably Houston’s most famous contribution to rap music. Notorious B.I.G. followed, then Tupac, then Salt-N-Pepa.
The early ratings returns were astounding. The station’s audience shot to 802,000 from 245,000, and its Nielsen share went to 3.2 from 1.0. Shortly after that, Radio One started similar stations in Philadelphia and Dallas and saw a gain of 200,000 listeners in each of those cities. Soon, 15 more stations, including 93.9, made the switch.
A cynical but not inaccurate way of thinking about radio formats is as a tool to segment the population for advertisers. Ancient and unglamorous as it may be, radio remains a potent vehicle for advertisers to access consumers. According to a 2015 Nielsen Audio Today report, 91 percent of Americans age 12 or older listen to the radio each week, and the vast majority of those listeners are in the work force (which means they have money to spend). According to another Nielsen study, advertisers achieve more than $6 of incremental sales for every $1 spent on the radio. For radio-station owners, the business plan is simple: Attract the broadest possible audience to your programming and then do everything you can to keep them listening. This is why radio professionals talk about musical genres in ways normal human beings do not; no one believes she listens to rhythmic adult contemporary, but in aggregate, millions of people between the ages of 25 and 54 do.
The Beat, and stations like it, target listeners in their mid-20s to mid-40s: people who grew up during rap’s golden era. This is a subset of the population that is outgrowing contemporary hip-hop radio (which targets the 18-34 demographic) but is mostly too young to be nostalgic for ’70s and ’80s stations and too hip for adult contemporary. They are also entering the prime spending years of their lives — marriage, children, car buying and homeownership — and radio, like all forms of media, is figuring out how to catch them.
In a sense, classic hip-hop is following a radio trend that began in the early 1970s, when the first dedicated FM oldies stations started up in Phoenix, playing records by old crooners and doo-wop quartets. The format was a hit, and it quickly spread to Los Angeles and New York, and everywhere else. Oldies reached its zenith in the 1980s, just as classic rock — a new iteration of the same concept — was born. Same story: The format grew as programmers looked for new ways to keep grown-up baby boomers tuned in.
Over the years, people in the radio business have discovered that even these seemingly static formats are quite pliable. Davey Morris told me about B101, a once-venerable oldies station in Providence, R.I. ‘‘When I first started listening, they were playing hits from the ’50s and early ’60s,’’ he said. ‘‘Now they’re playing the Police.’’ The Crests, the Platters and the Chordettes are being shoved aside, saved for Saturday-night specialty shows. At the same time, the leading edge of classic-rock stations continues to slide forward, and many are adding ’90s acts to their rotation: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day and others. ‘‘If classic rock wasn’t careful, it was going to age itself out of the buying demos,’’ Jon Miller, vice president of audience insights at Nielsen, told me. ‘‘It would be left with an aging audience that isn’t appealing to Madison Avenue.’’
One person at the Beat told me that the station’s ideal listener is a woman between 35 and 44 who is a homeowner and her family’s decision maker. As of now, around 50 percent of the Beat’s audience is white, 45 percent is black and 4 percent is Hispanic (just 10 percent of Indianapolis is Hispanic). By contrast, the city’s top contemporary hip-hop station, WHHH, has an audience that is 68 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and around 25 percent white. With the Beat, Dickey said the station had achieved universal likability. ‘‘The format is multicultural,’’ he said. ‘‘Anybody — black, white or Hispanic — can claim ownership of this music.’’
Though they’re in the odd position of creating something like a canon for rap music, Morris and the other programmers I spoke with made it clear that they don’t see themselves as stewards of the genre. Their job is to play the hits. Morris, in particular, is looking forward to the summer, when he thinks the Beat’s true potential will be realized. ‘‘People are going to drive around with their windows down and this music blasting,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re going to play it at the beach and at parties. It’s going to be like popcorn and bonbons: We’re just going to keep feeding them hits.’’
Today, that’s easier than ever. Using something called a Portable People Meter, which looks like a beeper, Nielsen collects listening data from its survey participants by detecting hidden tones in a station’s audio stream. The meters can tell which station the panelists are listening to, whether they’re at home or away and how long a listener stays on a station. Independent analysts can provide even more granular data than that, allowing radio programmers to gauge which songs people respond well to and which tracks push them to change the station.
Nielsen recently analyzed four months’ worth of airplay data at 11 new classic hip-hop stations all over the country (including Boom), from Philadelphia to the San Francisco Bay Area, to determine the Top 50 songs in the format. The songs cover the 13 years from 1991 to 2004, with a pronounced feel-good bent and subtle West Coast bias. The Top 5 are: Luniz, ‘‘I Got 5 on It’’; Ice Cube, ‘‘It Was a Good Day’’; Snoop Doggy Dogg, ‘‘Gin and Juice’’; Notorious B.I.G., ‘‘One More Chance’’; and 50 Cent, ‘‘In Da Club.’’ Tupac’s ‘‘How Do U Want It,’’ ‘‘I Get Around’’ and ‘‘California Love’’ are in the Top 25; his more barbed songs, like ‘‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’’ and ‘‘2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,’’ aren’t even in the Top 50. The Wu-Tang Clan is represented only by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s crossover hit ‘‘Got Your Money.’’ Somehow, Chingy’s ‘‘Right Thurr’’ has the No. 33 spot.
There has always been a tension in hip-hop between those songs that are made for radio play and songs that were made for the real fans. But the classic hip-hop format seems to act like a sieve that catches only the most radio-friendly of the past’s radio-friendly records. Take, for example, ‘‘It Was a Good Day.’’ That song wasn’t even Ice Cube’s biggest hit in 1993, the year it came out; ‘‘Check Yo Self’’ was. But ‘‘Check Yo Self’’ is a song typical of early ’90s Ice Cube — angry and violent, with jokes about S.T.D.s, guns and prison rape — and ‘‘Good Day’’ is downright happy go lucky. In it, Ice Cube eats a halal breakfast; wins at basketball, dice and dominoes; and sees his name written in lights on the Goodyear blimp.
In May, I visited WRWM and sat in on its drive-time program. Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘‘Juicy’’ played as we approached the 3 o’clock hour. Manning the boards was Zack Babb, a.k.a. Zakk, who hosts a show, weekdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Zakk, who is 27, tall and blond, wore board shorts and canvas sneakers and spent his downtime watching the traffic on Interstate 465 out the window. He watches it stack up every day, he told me. He seemed thrilled by it.
There are just three on-air personalities at the Beat, including Zakk, who did just about everything but decide which song came next. While the music played, he recorded and edited the other elements that go into radio: sweepers, bumpers, ramps, promos. In preparation for a prescheduled spin of Mark Morrison’s ‘‘Return of the Mack,’’ Zakk recorded a ramp: ‘‘Remember hearing this one at United Skates of America? Some guys at the rink used to do a cool backward shuffle to this song. Every time I tried it, I fell on my butt.’’ (Roller-skating, he explained to me, was huge in and around Indianapolis in the 1990s.)
As hours in the studio glided by, so did the utterly irresistible blend of rap and R & B hits: Outkast’s ‘‘Hey Ya!’’ led to Wreckx-N-Effect’s ‘‘Rump Shaker.’’ Then Keith Sweat’s ‘‘Make You Sweat’’ played into Coolio’s ‘‘Fantastic Voyage.’’ When ‘‘Still Fly,’’ by Big Tymers, came on, Zakk fondly recalled blowing out his dad’s speakers as a kid. Each hour was announced by a new classic hip-hop standard. At 4 p.m., it was Tupac and Dr. Dre’s ‘‘California Love.’’ At 5, as traffic on Interstate 465 slowed, it was Jay Z and UGK’s ‘‘Big Pimpin’.’’ Snoop took us into cocktail hour with ‘‘Gin and Juice’’ at 6.
The traffic on the Interstate had halted by then, and I marveled out loud at the symmetry of the scene. We were sitting in a radio station, gazing out at people held prisoner with nothing to do but listen. I asked Zakk to look out the window and tell me the first thing that came to mind. He grinned widely and said, earnestly: ‘‘I imagine all of those people in their cars dancing.’’