Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Effects of Media Consolidation on Urban Radio — Part I

Here's the first installment of an excellent article by hip-hop writer Eric K. Arnold that examines the effects of media consolidation on the urban radio format.

Arnold is an authority on this subject; his recent cover story for SF Weekly, “The Demise of Hyphy,” looked at the role of commercial stations in local communities and the impact they have on music and culture. The article has sparked a great deal of conversation in the Bay Area and beyond. (A full author bio can be found at the end of the post).

This piece gives an overview of how urban radio came to be, and shows that the hip-hop community has not been spared the negative effects of media consolidation — including a loss of localism and diversity on the dial. We're really excited to be able to publish it here in a handful of installments. So, without further ado:

The Effects of Media Consolidation on Urban Radio — Part I
By Eric K. Arnold

Urban Radio: What It Is and Who’s Down
Let’s cut to the chase: urban radio sucks. You know it, artists know it, and programmers know it too. It offers little room for creative programming, tends to favor established artists at the expense of new voices, and kills any halfway-decent song that does manage to land in rotation by playing it as much as three times an hour. Most of all, urban radio sucks because it rarely meets the needs of the local community from which its listeners are drawn. Commercial stations and their advertisers are more than happy to have passive listeners who don’t complain about programming decisions. But the truth of the matter is that people have a right to demand greater accountability from their neighborhood stations. Since all broadcasters use the public airwaves, they need to honor their responsibility to serve the public interest. Urban radio is no different, yet its lack of localism is even more appalling since stations often market themselves as being informed by street-derived culture.

Generally speaking, urban radio is defined as programming whose primary demographic targets people of color living in urban areas. This listenership is often broken down into three somewhat overlapping market segments based on age: Hot Urban” (12-24); “Rhythmic AC” (18-34); and “Urban AC” (25-49). Hot Urban stations tend to spin current rap and contemporary R&B, while Urban AC stations rarely play much rap, preferring a mix of vintage soul and R&B with more recent neo-soul and R&B. Rhythmic AC stations fall somewhere in the middle: typical stations in this category program for both younger and older listeners, so playlists include contemporary artists as well as older, “heritage” acts.

Urban Radio is a multibillion-dollar industry controlled by a handful of large media conglomerates which program the majority of the genre’s stations across the country. To a large extent, the industry’s current state is the result of media consolidation. Over the last twelve years, independently-owned commercial stations have become a rarity, while corporate radio has become the norm.

Where once innovative program directors broke new music by emerging artists and DJs sought out hot local talent, today’s urban radio has become standardized and formulaic. National playlists and a reliance on market research have made DJs little more than button-pushers with limited say in what records get aired. Pressure to attract and maintain the widest possible market share has resulted in Music and Program Directors choosing commercially-established, major label artists over idiosyncratic or developing acts. In this ratings-driven climate, radio that actively meets the needs of the community — whether it be public-affairs shows or programming featuring local artists — has fallen by the wayside. The net result is that the average listener has fewer choices, especially when it comes to hearing local music.

“There is a need and a desire on behalf of listeners for local music on local radio stations,” says Davey-D, an air personality on community station KPFA and Internet station Breakdown FM. Davey spent a decade at San Francisco Bay Area commercial radio at KMEL — the #1 urban station in the nation’s #4 market. Despite demand for diverse and local content, “radio stations around the country have no desire to play local artists unless local artists are connected to major labels or major independents,” Davey says.

Who Jacked the Playlist?
The passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 irrevocably altered the landscape of commercial radio. Supporters of this legislation claimed it would invigorate radio, but it actually had the opposite effect. The bill eased FCC-mandated restrictions on ownership, meaning that several stations in the same market could now be owned and operated by the same company. It also continued a trend away from community-oriented broadcasting, which began during Reagan administration. (In 1981, officials did away with the “ascertainment” process, jettisoning requirements that required commercial stations to determine and meet the needs of local communities.)

In the five years following the 1996 Telecom Act, a frenzy of consolidation essentially eliminated independent black radio. Locally-owned and African-American-operated stations were bought out by the dozens and reprogrammed as “urban” stations by national conglomerates. Previously, DJs, Program Directors and Music Directors were able to play music of their own choosing. Since ’96, market researchers and consultants have determined playlists, eradicating a once-proud tradition of supporting neighborhood talent. As Davey-D notes, “This was a rude awakening with respect to local music.”

In 1997, following KMEL’s purchase by Chancellor Media, Program Director Michelle Santosuosso wrote an open letter to PDs in other markets detailing how the station went from a “mom and pop” operation to being owned by a “massive media company” which also owned 100 other stations, including KMEL’s main competitor. In this industry climate, she noted, “balancing the commitment to musical integrity with the pressures of big business ratings demands is increasingly difficult.”

A decade later, her statement seems truer than ever. KMEL’s current parent company, Clear Channel Communications, owns not 100 stations, but well over 1,000. Yet Clear Channel is only one of a handful of companies which own the majority of radio stations in America and are thus in a position to dictate or restrict content as they see fit.

Urban radio programming has become stagnant, alienating many hip-hop heads who once listened religiously to mix shows. According to Bobbito Garcia — former co-host of “The Stretch Armstrong Show,” a New York college radio program known for featuring unsigned hip-hop artists — “It’s become national radio, not urban radio.” The effect of consolidation, he says, is that “artists started making music not for the audience, but for the radio.”

In today’s urban radio market, the sound has become increasingly formulaic. “Real hip-hop sounds weird,” says Julio G., who pioneered West Coast hip-hop radio at KDAY 20 years ago. Julio, who’s credited with breaking Eazy E., says that disc jockeys themselves no longer have the opportunity to champion new music. “I started with a passion to find the best record,” he says. “Why do I gotta be just another guy playing [chart-topping MC] Plies?”

Matt Sonzala, the author of the Houston So Real blog and the hip-hop booker for Austin’s annual SXSW conference, remembers the early days of Texas hip-hop radio well. He recalls hearing local artists like the Geto Boys and UGK on The Box 97.9, who “blew up because they had support in their own city.” Sonzala claims that, despite Houston’s storied history as a breeding ground for rap music, the only local artists getting any sort of commercial radio action these days are those already signed to major labels.

Like Houston, Atlanta’s urban radio stations were also once known for supporting homegrown artists, whether unsigned, indie or major. Recently, however, a PD who had heavily supported local rappers was let go, and “the scene changed,” says Wendy Day, the founder of artist advocacy group Rap Coalition. Day has firsthand experience building acts through neighborhood word-of-mouth. Before moving to the ATL, she lived in Chicago and New York, where, a decade ago, she worked records for Twista and Do or Die out of Chi-town. Back then, she says, radio was loathe to take on “hard” rap: “we could not get our records played on radio.” Instead, she notes, “we blew it up on the street.”

Street culture is by definition different than corporate culture. Radio, she points out, “is definitely a business. It doesn’t play music to reach people or move a culture. . . its job is to sell ads.”

From a corporate perspective, it’s easier to streamline playlists from media market to media market than to develop entirely separate charts for each station playing a particular format. Yet a playlist for a commercial urban station can contain as few as 300 songs – a tenth of what the average listener has on his or her iPod. This approach often leaves listeners and artists alike grumbling about the exclusion of local or independent talent.

The lack of concern for the needs of the community has not gone completely unnoticed, however. In March 2008, Kansas City alt-weekly newspaper The Pitch reported that despite a wealth of local talent, the region has yet to produce a nationally recognized hip-hop act. According to reporter Nadia Plaum, “Many local artists blame KC radio, complaining that the city doesn't have a station committed to pushing hometown music on regular rotation.”

Some in Government have commented on the negative impact of media consolidation on the public airwaves. In November 2007, during the sixth and final hearing on media ownership, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps reportedly said, “Did you even notice the FCC is always ready to run the fast break for Big Media, but it’s the four-corner stall when it comes to serving the public interest?”

The Commissioner was specifically referring to the likely granting of expanded cross-ownership agreements for TV stations and newspapers, but media is an extremely trend-focused industry, so further consolidation in any sector of mass media would likely affect all segments of the industry.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this article.

About the Author:

Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-1990s, when he was the Managing Editor of now-defunct 4080 Magazine. Since then, he’s been a columnist for such publications as The Source, XXL, Murder Dog, Africana.com, and the East Bay Express; his work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Wax Poetics, SF Weekly, XLR8R, the Village Voice and Jamrock, as well as the academic anthologies Total Chaos and The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Eric began his journalistic career while DJing on college radio station KZSC, and remembers well the early days of hip-hop radio, before consolidation, and commercialization set in. He currently lives in Oakland, California.

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