Tag Archives: Rock N Roll

Radio & Urban Contemporary, Is the End Nigh?

35Once 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.”

Motown Sound

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.

WBLS

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.Frankie Crocker

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.”

Real Change

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.”

 

 

 

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History’s Technology Rhyme

Transistor Radio, Car Radio and Rock & Roll

Transistor Radio, Cars & Rock ‘n Roll

I’ve written before how history never repeats itself, but usually rhymes. So when I was reading an article in the NY Times about “Tech’s ‘Frightful 5’ Will Dominate Digital Life for Foreseeable Future” it hit me. Here was how history was rhyming when it came to communications. Fasten your seat-belt, this will get bumpy.

What this article’s author Farhad Manjoo wrote was how Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft (others include Netflix in this mix) came along at a perfect time to roll up their user base. They were in the right place, at the right time in other words.

Geoffrey G. Parker, a business professor at Tulane University has co-authored a book called “Platform Revolution” where he explains how these tech companies were able to ride the perfect wave of technology change – that being a decrease in the cost of IT, an increase in connectivity and the introduction/fast adoption of mobile phones.

And when it comes to advertising, these companies are in the right place to leverage digital marketing and enjoy most of the benefits of this growth area as well. In fact, since there is a sense that these major digital companies will receive most of the online advertising monies, traditional media – like radio & TV – could see advertising monies return to them.  Let’s hope that happens.

So, where’s the rhyme in this story? Well consider this other time in communications history when television burst onto the scene after the end of World War Two in the 1950s. Radio, a lot of people thought, would cease to exist. Radio’s stars, programs and advertisers, to a large measure, jumped into television. Radio had to find a new act.

Radio was in the right place, at the right time for the birth of three things when TV came along; the transistor radio and the car radio. Both of these technology advancements would be the savior of radio along with one other important development; rock ‘n roll.

Radio was in the perfect place to ride the baby boomer youth wave of rock music, cars and transistor radios. Television grew in large measure by scarcity, only two or three television networks and few TV stations.

When broadband came along, that scarcity factor went poof. Radio now sees its dominance in the car being challenged by a digital dashboard.

The newest radio format to have come into existence – all sports/talk – is now 29 years old. Clearly, innovation in the radio world has stalled.

The good news is radio in America has more reach than any other form of mass media. The bad news is it sees annual erosion of its TSL (time spent listening). This can be fixed. To do this, radio needs to address the very factors that are causing its TSL to erode.

The thing most often heard from consumers about what they dislike about radio are its commercials. Yet, commercials don’t have to be a tune-out factor. No one tunes out the Super Bowl when it’s a blowout because they want to see what other clever commercials might still be coming on their television.

Most radio stations long ago did away with their copywriters. These masters of the spoken word who can craft a story about businesses need to be enticed back into the radio business at every radio station.

The number of commercials in a break needs to be reassessed by the radio industry as well. You can’t kill the goose that lays your gold revenue egg and expect it to continue to lay you golden eggs.

Bring back personalities. They not only sell the music (the record companies need you!); they sell your station and through live reads, your advertisers’ products and services.

Those who remember Paul Harvey News & Commentary will tell you that page two (his first live read commercial) was always something you turned up the radio for. I remember reading Paul Harvey brought in more money for the ABC Radio Network than everything else they did. And everyone loved Paul Harvey’s commercials and bought the products he talked about.

I think retired CBS Radio President Dan Mason said it best when he said this about radio:

“Without community and companionship, we have nothing.”

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Bring Back the Radio Hackers

We never called them that back in the early days of radio’s reinvention period after the birth of television in the 1950s, but that’s what they were.

Radio from the beginning basically was a medium that killed Vaudeville. Radio enticed the performers of Vaudeville to bring their acts to this new mass medium. The sales pitch went something like this: you won’t have to travel every day of the year, sleep on trains and eat your meals on the run. When you move your act to radio, you will be able to go home every night to your family and have a “normal” life. And you’ll make more money!

Not all performers would make this transition. The downside to moving their act to radio was that no longer could they have one act that they could perform night after night. On the radio, they needed a new act every performance. That’s a BIG CHANGE.

When television came along, the successful radio acts moved to TV and radio needed a new idea.

Enter the Hackers

 Alan Freed would hack the term Rock ‘N’ Roll and become the first famous disc jockey introducing a new venue for radio.

Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon aka “the Maverick of Radio” would hack the idea of Top 40 radio introducing a tighter playlist and higher repetition of the biggest hits. After observing teenagers playing the same songs over and over in a juke box.

Better Practices

 Today’s world is infested with the concept of “Best Practices.” It can be a stifling thing when it comes to creativity.

Today’s radio was born out of hackers that were constantly thinking up “Better Practices.” Ron Jacobs and Bill Drake certainly did at Boss Radio in Los Angeles with 93 KHJ. John Rook did it in Chicago with both WLS and WCFL. Rick Sklar did it in New York at Music Radio 77 WABC. Plus there were so many others in all size markets. Radio was different everywhere you listened because it was being hacked in so many wonderful ways. It was exciting to turn on your radio and hear what was going to come out next.

Insanity

 The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We have a lot of that kind of stinking thinking today and I’m sure you’ve heard all the reasons for why this is the path some of our biggest broadcasters are taking. As the radio business grew from a mom and pop business to the behemoths of today a ritual of “Best Practices” replaced hacking.

Today’s Economy is a Hacker Economy

 We live in a world where it seems everything has been turned upside down by the World Wide Web, the Internet and mobile Apps. The power is shifting from the big to the nimble; the hackers. Learn to hack or be attacked by those that hack.

Radio is not exempt from this shift. And it doesn’t have to lose.

Radio has what everyone else would love to own, a mass audience. Radio today is delivering the largest mass audience of all the mediums.

It’s why every entity trying to play in the audio medium calls itself “radio.” Pandora Radio, Spotify Radio, TuneIn Radio, RadioTunes, Beats 1 Radio etc. What radio folks have that these folks don’t have is a broadcast signal that is ubiquitous and a listening habit that has been cultivated over many years.

However, what those pure plays have that radio is missing are hackers.

Radio needs to stimulate agility, creativity and take risks.

Stop thinking about where you want to be in 5 years and start thinking about what problems you want to solve most right now. The winners will be those most able to adapt.

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