It was 25 years ago that a radio station in the nation’s No. 1 market began mixing contemporary R&B acts like Anita Baker, Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey with classics from Smokey Robinson, the O’Jays and Barry White to form the blueprint for a new style of urban radio. Despite some initial inconsistency, WBLS-FM today remains the unofficial flagship for urban adult contemporary, maintaining its strong-hold as the No. 2 6+ outlet in New York. Nationwide, 172 stations are dedicated to the 25-54-targeted format, spinning core acts that range from Mary J. Blige, Usher and Toni Braxton to Kirk Franklin, Keith Sweat and Michael Jackson.
Urban AC excels in a vast number of markets with a sizable black population. In Washington, the format is stacked at Nos. 3 and 4, via Urban One’s “Majic 102.3/92.7” WMMJ and Howard University’s WHUR (96.3), according to Nielsen’s July PPM survey. Likewise, in Atlanta, two Urban ACs rank in the top 10: Cox Media Group’s “Kiss 104.1” WALR (tied for third) and Urban One’s No. 6 “Majic 107.5/97.5” WAMJ. The format is No. 2 in Houston (Urban One’s “Majic 102.1” KMJQ); and No. 4 in Detroit (iHeartMedia’s “Mix 92.3” WMXD) and No. 1 in Memphis (iHeart’s “V101” KJMS).
And in Norfolk, Entercom’s “95.7 FM R&B” WVKL is securely locked at No. 1, boasting a 10.1 6+ share in the July 2019 PPMs. “Twenty years ago, we had a vision for a great Urban AC to fill what we thought was a giant hole in the Norfolk/Newport News/Virginia Beach market,” Don London, VP of Operations for Entercom Norfolk tells Inside Radio. “WVKL borrowed some of the best radio attributes from legendary brands across America in a multitude of formats. Our unaided recall is unbelievable. That vision and a phenomenal team have produced one of the highest-rated urban ACs in the United States. It feels good and we’re proud of it.”
Tony Gray, founder of consultancy Gray Communications and an expert in all things urban, notes, “The beauty of markets like Norfolk, Atlanta and Memphis is that they don’t have a problem in terms of the African American population,” making them an ideal base for enduring urban AC success. “Where you see the format struggling is a market like Dallas, with a much smaller African American population, where urban stations cancel each other out.”
Even so, it takes more than a predominance of black listeners and a stable of gold-based R&B acts for urban AC to excel. The format’s persona has as much to do with black culture, according to programmers: “It’s all in the sauce. Urban AC is best branded to its audience by playing the most passionate songs that fit the core values of African American women 25-54. But its soul is super-serving the African American community as a trusted source for news, information and entertainment. These elements have and always will be the cornerstone of UAC,” notes veteran programmer John Candelaria, Beasley Media Group urban format captain and PD of classic hip-hop “105.1 The Bounce” WMGC Detroit—who previously commandeered UAC “Jammin’ 105.7” KOAS Las Vegas.
On-Air ‘Hometown Heroes’
While many current-based radio formats lean on high-profile syndicated talent, particularly in morning drive, Urban AC is also harvesting its own stable of personalities. Along with the top-rated Premiere Networks-syndicated Steve Harvey, retiring Tom Joyner and Reach Media successor Rickey Smiley, in January, Westwood One launched the urban AC-targeted morning show “Rick and Sasha,” on 15 stations, including outlets in Kansas City, New Orleans, Mobile, AL, Pensacola, FL and Columbia, SC, featuring Rick Party, formerly of Cox urban AC “Hot 105” WHQT Miami, and Sasha the Diva from WALR-FM.
“High-profile talents like Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey have millions of listeners between them and are a force to reckon with in terms of their appeal to the target audience,” says Kenny Smoov, Cumulus Media VP/Urban Formats & PD of UAC “92Q” WQQK Nashville, who also serves as a corporate programming resource for the company’s 37 urban-formatted stations in 25 markets. “Add in names like DL Hughley and Keith Sweat, as well as countless local talents in markets around the country, and it’s easy to see how personalities glue together the overall presentation of the urban AC format.”
Indeed, those local on-air “hometown heroes” offer a novel asset for Urban ACs, according to WALR-FM PD Terri Avery. “Excluding syndication, the talent are generally personalities that have been in the market. Many of them have come from the hip-hop station in town and now play the music they played on contemporary urban radio years ago,” he says. For instance, Ryan Cameron used to be on a pair of Atlanta urban contemporary outlets and now mans the mic at WAMJ Atlanta. JD The Diva has segued from urban “Power 98” WPEG Charlotte to crosstown gold-based “V101.9” WBAV.
Adds Avery, “These aren’t celebrity personalities, but they are familiar and successful in their hometowns. Listeners know and trust them. It’s so much better than a celebrity personality who knows nothing about your city. They also bring their own brand that has been built up to the station.”
Likewise, in Norfolk, London says that WVKL is presented by “very well known, local personalities and always has been.” Mornings are anchored by Steve Harvey, followed by a lineup of “talented market veterans, all of whom have been with us since our launch” 18 years ago. Dale Murray, Theressa Brown, Charles Black, Bob Thomas and Tori Starr were either born and bred in the market or considered natives at this point. “Our air personalities are entrenched in the community with strong public service. They are the demographic we’re going for. We don’t find ourselves having to ‘sell’ the station to its core audience or casual cumers. There’s so much passion for WVKL and adult R&B music, the personalities, the promotions and the community involvement.”—Chuck Taylor
Tomorrow, in Part II of Inside Radio’s Format Profile of Urban AC, read about the challenges of a moving demographic target—and the importance of indulging the audience with events.