Hip-Hop Till You Drop

The new program director of WMIB-FM (103.5) hasn't slept in three weeks. In fact he hasn't even left that radio station's Miramar studio. Instead he's manned the controls there around the clock, not even pausing to eat, all part of WMIB's New Year's Day format change and a promise to broadcast "10,000 joints in a row" of commercial-free hip-hop across the South Florida airwaves. And don't even think of stopping him. Urgent entreaties to consider his health will be met only with a stony silence as he launches the newest single from Nelly or Missy Elliott out into the ether.

You can hold off on those emergency 911 phone calls, though. The current WMIB program director is a computer, programmed largely by Steve Smith in Los Angeles and Doc Wynter in Jacksonville, the wunderkind duo of WMIB's parent company, Clear Channel Communications. Those enthusiastic Miami listeners you hear on WMIB already proclaiming their new favorite station is "off the chain"? Also recorded in Los Angeles. Or perhaps in Chicago, Las Vegas, Nashville, New York, Richmond, or any of the other cities in which Smith and Wynter have launched "hip-hop/R&B" stations for Clear Channel.

To many of hip-hop's fans, still clinging to their identity as rebels championing an underground sound, it's further proof of corporate America's designs on their grassroots culture. Clear Channel, whose 1200-plus radio stations produced revenues of $3.4 billion in 2001, is nothing less than an evil empire squashing artistic diversity in its wake -- or so this thinking goes. And while Clear Channel makes for an easy target, the reality is a bit more complex.

"For Christ's sake, everybody plays hip-hop!" scoffs Kid Curry, program director at WPOW-FM (96.5), the chief Miami competition for WMIB along with the similarly hip-hop/R&B-formatted WEDR-FM (99.1) -- ranked number two and number one in ratings, respectively. Noting the private functions his on-air DJs work, Curry continues: "We have mixers who play at parties for major corporations here. The executives sitting there are all over 30, and they're all yelling, 'Play hip-hop!' Don't forget, those 30-year-olds have grown up with hip-hop. It's nothing new to them anymore. It's a homogenized world."

Back at WMIB's studios, David Ross, Clear Channel regional vice president for South Florida, practically relishes the image of his sprawling conglomerate turning ghetto fabulous. "There are some who thought the big consolidators would not experiment, and we've certainly proven them wrong," Ross chides. Sizing up his Miami competitors, he explains, "Power 96 [WPOW] is predominantly a dance station with a heavy Hispanic audience, and WEDR is really a traditional, full-service urban station. It's a voice of the black community, but in being all things to all people, from the cradle to the grave, it leaves a huge hole for a hip-hop radio station, one that will program directly to the hip-hop culture." And with one eye firmly on prospective local advertising dollars, he adds, "Hip-hop has crossed over and become a mainstream format -- just look at the hip-hop universe!"

Indeed the numbers speak for themselves. Of the 681 million CDs sold last year, 246.5 million -- more than one-third -- were either rap or R&B, according to SoundScan. And this influence extends far beyond the music industry, from fashion lines to fragrances, from multimedia advertising campaigns to film and television productions. In fact it's hard to find a corner of the pop-culture marketplace not under the genre's sway. Hip-hop hasn't just crossed over to the mainstream. In 2003 it is the mainstream. How else to explain the appearance on soccer moms of, gulp, velour track suits?

The numbers that Sean Ross tracks are just as crucial. As editor in chief of Billboard magazine's Airplay Monitor, his demographic analyses are carefully studied by radio executives nationwide. "What I'm expecting is a tight three-way race," Ross tells Kulchur. "WMIB is going to have a definite impact." But despite WMIB's stated goal of becoming number one in the ratings, he believes Clear Channel's strategy -- as it's done in other cities -- is to "create an attractive advertising package" with its other youth-oriented Miami stations: hard-rocker WZTA-FM (94.9) and top 40 WHYI-FM (100.7). Thus the actual on-air differences between WMIB and its rap competition may turn out to be slight. "This is about doing some crowd control on everybody else's 18-34 [year-old] numbers," Ross says, "so they can put together a wall of listeners that gives them [WHYI's] nonethnic women, African-American women, and the men of WZTA."

If nothing else, it should also produce some colorful incidents -- at least if Clear Channel's history in launching a similar challenge against an entrenched hip-hop outlet is any guide. In March of last year Clear Channel transformed its New York City oldies outlet WWPR-FM (105.1) into a hip-hop station, going head-to-head with arguably the nation's foremost rap tastemaker, WQHT-FM (97.1). After it lured away a few WQHT staffers, a war of words quickly heated up: Rapper Nas went on WWPR's Big Steph Lover show to bitterly accuse WQHT's Funkmaster Flex of payola. Subsequently the two ex-colleagues-turned-DJ-rivals had a late-night meeting outside WQHT's Greenwich Village studio, a rendezvous that ended with Funkmaster Flex being charged with assault after allegedly punching and choking Big Steph Lover.

Kid Curry says he's unconcerned with the threat of such an upheaval, or of Clear Channel poaching any of his on-air talent. "Nobody wants to go work for Clear Channel," he argues, citing the reported tense working environment inside that company's Miramar building. "I'm sorry to be so blunt, but that's the feeling in the industry right now." Still Curry concedes he's gearing up for a tough fight.

WEDR program director Cedric Hollywood did not return phone calls, but Curry notes: "Through the long ears of radio I've heard he's making some changes. I'm sure he's as concerned as everyone else."

A WEDR staffer confirmed to Kulchur that the possibility of a WMIB job offer was the whispered discussion topic of choice in that station's Hollywood halls -- particularly among second-string DJs hungering for the spotlight.

Of course, come February and the end of WMIB's computer-controlled autopilot, there may not actually be that many microphone vacancies. Overnight and weekend slots at most Clear Channel stations remain filled by satellite feeds that emanate largely out of Los Angeles -- carefully padded with bits of local color and faux request calls tailored for a given city. True to cost-cutting form, the overnight and weekend positions remain conspicuously absent from WMIB's current DJ want ads.

But while radio consultants endlessly parse "Average Quarter-Hour Shares" and fine-tune their playlists to appeal to just the right sets of ears, many folks are simply turning off their radios altogether.

"Kids these days don't need 10,000 songs in a row," acknowledges Kid Curry with a grim laugh. "They don't need a radio station to tell them what's a hit. They don't even need Power 96. They're smart enough to download their own favorite 10,000 songs from the Internet and onto a CD." Sounding more than a little conflicted, he concludes, "For radio stations, it's not really about the music anymore. It's what happens in between the songs."

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Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol

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