Once upon a time, radio was pretty much like the TV show The Voice. We only knew what we heard coming through the speaker on our radio.
Those pilots of the airwaves were magical.
We may not have had a clue as to what they looked like, but we created a persona in our minds as if we did. It was never even close to the real person.
Who’s the Black Guy?
I got my best friend hooked on radio and each day at school we’d compare notes of who we listened to the night before, how far away the stations we picked up were, and where on the dial they were located.
Music Radio 77 – WABC out of New York City threw a pretty consistent signal over Western Massachusetts at night and so that got a lot of my after dark listening time. My friend listened to WABC often as well, so you can imagine our surprise the first time we saw a picture of the WABC All Americans (that’s what they called their air personalities back in the 70s). We looked at one another and said simultaneously, “Who’s the Black Guy?”
That personality was Chuck Leonard. His cool factor just went up in our eyes. Chuck Leonard was not only heard over WABC late at night but on one of our local ABC network affiliated radio stations doing the feature show “Sneak Preview.” Chuck was famous for one-liners like “The best that ever did it, and got away with it.” Yes, we heard a lot from Chuck Leonard and loved everything he did. But in our minds, we had never thought of him as being Black. Once we found out, we didn’t care.
Urban Contemporary Radio
What does that name mean to you and what does it mean to your listeners?
Has the term “urban contemporary” migrated over the last several decades as to its meaning?
The answer in two words: Most Likely.
At the beginning of June 2020, Republic Records announced it would “remove ‘urban’ from the label’s verbiage in describing departments, employee titles and music genres,” explaining that “over time the meaning and connotations of ‘urban’ have shifted and developed into a generalization of Black people in many sectors of the music industry, including employees and music by Black artists.”
A few days later, the Grammy Awards announced it would be renaming its “Best Urban Contemporary Album” — category now being — “Best Progressive R&B Album.”
Once upon a time, “kid’s music” was just called contemporary or Top40. Everything that wasn’t your parent’s music was embraced. It was the silent rebellion for many of us.
My favorite artists were The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Spinners, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Al Green, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Michael Jackson as well as many others. Berry Gordy’s Motown Records out of Detroit would craft the sound that quickly integrated America’s contemporary radio stations.
But it was DJ Alan Freed at WINS, who coined the term “rock & roll,” that would be the first to break down the color barrier and integrate the music he played over the radio. It’s almost hard to believe that people in his day considered Freed a threat to society because he was playing “race music,” also known as music by Black artists.
In 1974, legendary disc jockey and program director Frankie Crocker, coined the term “urban contemporary.” Crocker said his format on WBLS was a broad mix of R&B, hip-hop, disco, rap, and everything from James Brown to Dinah Shore.
In essence, it was the best music featuring the songs his radio station’s listeners wanted to hear most.
Black music stations, while popular with listeners, had trouble attracting advertising back then. So, the brilliance of calling WBLS “urban contemporary” enabled Crocker to evade being branded with the Black label. The urban contemporary imaging helped make white advertising executives more comfortable with placing advertising for their clients on that radio station.
Format wise, Crocker brought the concept of ‘playing the hits’ that made radio stations like WABC so loved, from AM to FM radio.
It’s hard to find any radio station nowadays that plays the wide variety of artists, styles and music that one could hear over a single radio station back in the 70s, as this 1970 Top 100 Songs from WABC demonstrates.
iHeart Phasing Out the Word ‘Urban’
Most recently, Rolling Stone magazine wrote an article about how iHeart, and the radio analytics company Media Base owned by iHeart, were working to remove the word ‘urban’ due to the word being controversial in industry-wide discussions around systemic racism.
The use of the word ‘urban’ will be removed from not just the way formats or playlists are described but from job titles too. A representative for iHeart says the term is “definitely outdated.”
Black & White
Unfortunately, this issue may not be as black & white as it might first appear. Not all organizations or individual Black executives are willing to give up the ‘urban’ descriptor, believing that it’s more of a distraction than action for change, saying the “problem lies in the infrastructure, in the system – not in the word.”
This issue is not just an American one, but a global one. The student newspaper, The Boar, from Warwick University in the United Kingdom wrote about the “Institutionalized Racism in the Music Industry.”
The article, written by Bailey Agbai, perfectly summed up the current situation:
“As more people start to actively recognize just how deeply racism infests our society, it is no surprise that it plagues the music industry too. It’s important that we continue to speak up and advocate change so that the institutions within the industry amend their ways and finally reflect the music that they unfairly exploit. The industry is a pool of wealth and it is important that those with influence use not only their words to combat racism, but also their resources to impact real change.”