Urban Contemporary is the format that best proves radio waves can cross boundaries. This format born from the black experience attracts substantial numbers of African American, Hispanic and white listeners. The name Urban Contemporary, coined by the late Frankie Crocker, was the first admission of what radio programmers had known since the early days of radio. Black listeners are not the only audience for "black-oriented" radio. Crocker said, "When a reporter asked me what my format was I told him, quite off the cuff, 'It's what's happening in the city' in other words 'Urban Contemporary'"(e-mail Sat, 15 November 1997). (The passing of a Legend)
Black-oriented radio, (notably WDIA, Memphis and WLAC, Nashville) influenced a young Elvis Presley (George, 1988). White teens discovered rhythm 'n' blues on black-oriented radio in the 1950s. This discovery fueled the emerging teen culture and rock 'n' roll (Fornatale and Mills, 1980).
Black-oriented radio appeared during radio's golden age.
On June 7, 1947, WDIA in Memphis became the first station in the country to adopt a black-appeal format (Newman, 1988, p. 57).
In addition to playing music popular primarily with black audiences, stations such as WWRL in New York, WDAS in Philadelphia, and KGFJ in Los Angeles were very active in their communities. Public service announcements, news and public affairs programs were an integral part of the format.
Several things came together during the 1970s that would make black-appeal radio a mass appeal format. Rhythm 'n' blues and now its offspring, disco, provided the beat that made Americans dance. In addition to playing this music, black-oriented radio began to take a more mainstream approach to its presentation.
Following stints at WUFO in Buffalo, WZUM in Pittsburgh, WWRL in New York, KGFJ in Los Angeles and WMCA in New York, Frankie Crocker was hired to program Inner City Broadcasting's flagship station. Throughout the 1960s WLIB AM was number two to WWRL in New York's black community. WLIB FM provided jazz.
While New York was the center of the urban scene, the black progressive format spread to stations around the country. WHUR in Washington, DC, owned by Howard University took a jazzier approach.
WDAS-FM in Philadelphia also moved from jazz to the black progressive format. A format that was to "soul radio" what the album-oriented rock format was to top 40. The format appeared in Chicago on WBMX-FM and in Los Angeles on KJLH-FM.
By Spring 1976, WBLS was one of the most listened-to FM stations in the country. By the fall of that same year the station was the most listened to FM station in the country. During the Fall of 1977, and Spring, 1978, WBLS was the third most listened to station in the country. WBLS had begun to challenge WABC which had been the ratings leader for more than a decade as the dominant music station in New York (Duncan, 1983).
Advertisers, listeners and other programmers took notice. Due in large part to the popularity of disco, WBLS was attracting an audience beyond the black community. Advertisers began using the station to market products to general audiences. Listeners began to hear spots for sun tan lotion and other products not ordinarily sold to black consumers. Other programmers began hatching strategies to cash in on the format's popularity.
One of them was Edward L. Crossman, who ran the nine stations owned by SJR Communications, a subsidiary of the San Juan Racing Association in Puerto Rico. In 1976 the group bought WHOM and WHOM-FM. The Spanish-language programming was retained on the AM station. WHOM-FM became WKTU* and adopted a soft rock format.
The station retained the services of Burkhart and Abrahms of Atlanta (now Burkhart/Douglas & Associates). During the spring rating period, WKTU had earned a 1.4 audience share. By the fall rating period, WKTU earned an 11.3 share (Fornatale and Mills, 1980) and had replaced WABC as the most listened to station in the nation, boasting a larger audience than the former number one. WBLS dropped off the list of most listened-to stations (Duncan, 1983).
WBLS and WKTU came in number two and three, behind WOR on the list of most listened-to stations in America during the fall 1979 rating period. In spring 1980, WBLS was the most listened to station in the country, but it was a much changed WBLS. Gone were the broad-based elements that were part of the "black progressive" format. The development of the urban format from "black progressive" is very similar to the development of AOR/Classic Rock from "freeform."
WBLS and WKTU were joined in 1981 by yet another urban station, WRKS.
WBLS, WKTU and WRKS waged battle for New York listeners during the early 1980s. WKTU was eventually sold and became WXRK. Similar skirmishes took place in city after city around the country as the urban format developed.
Anything that is currently street, or hip is likely to find its way onto the urban charts. Rap, hip hop, and but also club, rhythm 'n' blues as well as jazz, gospel/inspirational and ballads. Whatever the urban audience is responding to is fair game.
The format has splintered into two main factions. Urban AC stations often will not play rap or hip-hop. They build their playlists in much the same manner as other adult contemporary stations. These stations rely heavily on rhythm and blues oldies and recurrents.
Urban stations, targeting younger audiences, develop their playlists around whatever is popular with urban audiences. These stations take a CHR-like approach to rap, hip-hop, rhythm 'n' blues, and ballads.
Urban announcers tend to be the hippest announcers on the air and are often the conduit whereby street slang finds its way into mainstream usage. Urban AC stations use a more relaxed announcing style than their counterparts at stations programmed for younger audiences.
Once again there is a difference between Urban AC stations and those serving younger audiences. News plays a more important role on Urban AC stations. It is primarily heard during drive times. Many of these stations are direct descendants of the black-oriented format and take a community-service approach to news. Urban stations targeting teens and young adults treat news as if it is a turnoff to their audience. What news there is is heard primarily during morning drive. Much of the news heard has an entertainment focus.
Both long form and short form features are big in this format. Short form features often take the form of lunchtime mix shows, evening mix shows, most requested songs of the day, make-it or break-it and the "Quiet Storm" a mix of love songs played at night.
This format, like most others, has adopted the practice of clustering commercials and presenting music in sweeps. The format is also used to target black consumers.
Urban stations use a mix of jingles and voicers. On some stations jingles are more popular, while on others voicers are more popular. Still others will have a mix using jingles on a popular morning show and voicers at other times during the day. Unlike AOR, where the voicers are almost always a macho-male voice, urban stations use both male and female voicers.
Contest and Promotions
Contests have become an integral part of this format. They include: cash, trips, tickets and other lifestyle prizes.
Urban stations promote themselves in a variety of ways, including billboards, bumper stickers, transit ads. Television is not used as frequently as in other formats. Stations also use remote broadcasts often from a local dance club and concert tie-ins.
The primary competition for urban stations are other urban stations and CHR. Depending upon what is popular on the charts, CHR can have a very urban flavor. Some CHR stations calling themselves CHR/Rhythmic play a good deal of dance music. AC stations and "smooth jazz" stations compete with Urban AC stations.
Urban stations should continue to do well. African-Americans are the primary audience for these stations. Black America sets the trends for this country's popular culture.
Fornatale, P. Mills, J.E. (1980). Radio in the television age. Overlook Press: Woodstock, NY.
Duncan, J.H. (1983) Radio in the United States: 1976-1982 a statistical history. Duncan Media Enterprises: Kalamazoo, MI.
Keith, M. C. (1987). Radio programming: Consultancy and formatics. Focal Press: Boston.
George, N. (1988). The death of rhythm & blues. Pantheon: New York.
Newman, M. (1988). Entrepreneurs of profit and pride. Praeger: New York.
e-mail from Frankie Crocker 15 November 1997.
Chapter Resource Links
+This station has played an instrumental part in the development of three formats. As WOR it was involved with the development of AOR. As WXLO with the development of CHR and as WRKS with the development of urban contemporary. RKO no longer owns the station.