Urban AC

Part II of II The Urban AC radio format holds an enviable ratings position in markets of all sizes—from Washington, Atlanta and Houston to Detroit, Memphis and Norfolk, with 172 stations dedicated to the 25-54-targeted format. But like any gold-intensive genre, chief among its challenges is keeping the bulls-eye on a constantly shifting demographic.

“The battle is aging out of 25-54 and finding ways to introduce Millennials to the format who are now entering the main ratings wheelhouse to Urban AC… 35 and up,” says Kenny Smoov, Cumulus Media VP/Urban Formats & PD of “92Q” WQQK Nashville. Adds Terri Avery, Cox Media Group PD at Urban AC “Kiss 104.1” WALR-FM Atlanta, “Our greatest challenge is to keep evolving within your market. Know when shifts change. Older listeners don’t listen as much, and younger listeners are maturing to want more from their radio station than T&A songs.”

More specifically, notes Don London, VP of Operations for Entercom Norfolk, which includes market-leading urban AC WVKL, today’s 40-year-old woman was born in 1979. “She didn’t grow up with The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Stylistics, O’Jays. We’ve seen much of the 70s fade and a good deal of the 80s. Our most-played artists have shifted from Luther Vandross (80s- based) 10 years ago to Mary J. Blige (90s-based). In 1997, urban AC was powering Kirk Franklin, Toni Braxton, Monica and Erykah Badu.”

In fact, with continually evolving music tastes, many UACs are now playing classic hip-hop tracks. “It’s not surprising to hear more melodic titles from artists such as Notorious B.I.G. and 2-Pac on UAC radio,” says John Candelaria, Beasley Media Group Urban Format Captain and PD of classic hip-hop “105.1 The Bounce” WMGC Detroit. “The women who listened to rap music from the 1990s grew up with hip-hop as part of their lifestyle; they’re in their mid-30s now. During the 2000s, many classic hip-hop songs went off the radio for quite a while—so today, passion scores from African American women on certain hip-hop songs are huge.”

Candeleria adds that in general, the format “sprinkles their playlists with songs dating back to the early 1970s from iconic artists such as Al Green and Marvin Gaye. To continue to attract listeners aged 25-54, there is less music from the 70s and 80s maintaining a place. Still, there are older songs from Michael Jackson, Prince and The Isley Brothers that have tremendous value to the core UAC listener, and 90s R&B resonates very well.

Another conundrum Urban AC outlets consistently face, according to Tony Gray, founder of consultancy Gray Communications, is the lack of marketing budgets at many stations. “My model for Urban AC was to take the same blueprint used at (AC) WLTW (New York) and (AC) WBEB (Philadelphia), with marketing where there weren’t strong on-air personalities,” he says. “But over the years with consolidation, those budgets have evaporated.”

There is also the fiscal challenge of convincing advertisers that there’s a bounty in the format’s target. Candelaria is primed with his message: “Over 35 million African American consumers tune to radio weekly. They are the most loyal and engaged and spend more time listening to radio than any other ethnic group. If an advertiser wants to reach the adult black consumer with expendable income, UAC is the best choice.”

He adds that converting that audience to revenue remains a persistent conundrum. “There are numerous UAC radio stations that rank near the top of the 25-54 key demo in just about every major market but do not rank as top billers,” Candeleria stresses. “When UAC radio stations don’t have a sister station or stations to pair, it’s definitely a difficult battle when a salesperson is competing against a company that has a full cluster with multiple products to sell against.”

One clear remedy for urban AC’s challenges is indulging its robust community connection with the extra reach of events. How essential? “Super important,” says Smoov. “Festivals, summer concerts and annual exclusive station events can push ratings higher, even in PPM markets.” Adds Avery, “Nothing changes when you think about events and contesting on urban AC. They are important. We have to be present in our communities and we have to give away prizes that make sense to the listeners.”

And says Candeleria, events are “essential elements of any great UAC station. From allowing women to come together for a day of celebration such as the Black Women Expo, Circles of Sisters, Women Empowerment Expo… to meeting Maxwell at a private Meet and Greet VIP suite. UAC will build long-lasting loyal relationships when they can connect listeners to money-can’t-buy artist or event experiences.” In Norfolk, London points to “95-7’s” Daddy Daughter Dance, Soul Music Fest, White Parties—as well as access to Entercom’s National Cash Contest, with a $300,000 cash outlay each quarter.

In any case, the responsibility still falls on UAC stations to sell themselves, London suggests. “As a format and industry, we need to do a better job demonstrating the enormous benefits of this audience and the passionate buying power they bring to all kinds of goods and services.” He adds, “The Adult R&B audience is a great value to commerce in markets across America and always will be.”—Chuck Taylor