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Making music with soul: What is urban radio?

Over the years, the term “radio” has evolved to mean different many different things.

Radio broadcasting has evolved drastically over the years. Some people tune into the radio to keep up-to-date with the latest news. Others prefer using their radio as a source of entertainment, listening to shows, competitions, and talk-based broadcasts. 

Perhaps the most popular area of radio in the world today focuses on delivering music to the masses.

There are hundreds of stations out there, all playing tunes that can form the soundtrack of your day from the moment you wake up, to when you finally drift off to sleep. However, you’ve probably noticed that not all radio stations necessarily focus on the same kind of music. 

Alongside the generic channels that attempt to play their listeners a little of everything, there are stations that dedicate themselves to specific genres, like rock, country music, or even punk. 

One of the most complex and highly debated areas in broadcasting is “urban radio.” 

Whether you prefer to call it “black radio,” or you accept the urban label, it’s difficult to deny that the history of urban music has had a huge impact on the world – and in particular, the United States.

Today, we’ll be answering the question “What is urban music?” and exploring the future of this controversial genre. 

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What is Urban music? Defining the genre

Urban music is a complicated term and something that many people struggle to define. 

Initially, American urban radio networks played a selection of hip-hop and R&B music, often leaving out rap and some other aspects typically associated with the black music genre. When urban radio broadcasting was initially introduced, it was intended as a way to bring more listeners from a range of cultures into a different scene, without “scaring” them off. 

In more recent years, urban radio formats have changed. There are classic hip-hop stations, urban oldies, and other channels that support the wide diversity of content that falls under the “urban” umbrella. 

Urban radio has always been popular in America, particularly in cities that have larger African-American populations, such as New Orleans, New York, Washington, and beyond. However, urban music has also spread around the world, transforming radio broadcasting as we know it. 

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The problem with the “urban music” term

One of the biggest controversies associated with urban radio links to the way people feel about the word “urban” being used to describe such a vast variety of music styles. When the history of urban music began, at least in the radio broadcasting space, it was designed to appeal to advertisers who felt that traditional black radio might not reach a wide enough audience.

Essentially, radio broadcasters assumed that white American listeners were too fragile to hear black music, or too afraid to listen to a station defined as “black.” 

The word “urban” comes from US sociologist Elijah Anderson. He used the term to refer to the iconic ghetto represented in stereotypical depictions of black communities. The term “urban” became an umbrella word to refer to anything that couldn’t be deemed conventionally “white,” which erases the true diversity of the black music experience. 

This blinkered approach to defining musical genres has led to a variety of issues over the years. After all, black music has played a huge role in the evolution of America and other countries over the years. In the 1960s, it was black music that encouraged people to show off at protests. Throughout America, secret codes in “urban radio” helped to alert protesters of incoming police too. 

Defining black music as urban has allowed for a bizarre gentrification of the genre. Perhaps most distressingly of all, the term “urban radio broadcasting” has created severe confusion in the way that we define music. In 2014, Ed Sheeran was somehow named the most important act in urban and black music by BBC Radio 1Xtra. 

According to some protesters in the music industry, an over-dependence on the word “urban” detracts from the valuable qualities of black music, and the sub-cultures that stemmed from that content. 

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The history of urban music in America

Debates about the term “urban music” aside, it’s worth looking into how this genre evolved. 

As mentioned above, urban radio originated largely as an American concept. The term “urban contemporary,” which launched the rise of black music on radio stations, was coined by a man called Frankie Crocker. Frankie was asked by a reporter what his preferred format of music was, and he told them that he liked music that described what was happening in the city. 

The term “urban contemporary” wasn’t originally intended to describe black music at all. Instead, it referred to the rough and raw music of the streets. Despite this, the term “urban” stuck with the black music scene. 

American urban radio networks like WDIA and WLAC in Memphis and Nashville influenced some of the biggest musical stars of the day, including Elvis Presley.

Black radio, as a concept has a history that goes back much further than most people realise. In 1947, the WDIA station in Memphis became the first station in the country to adopt a black music format. By 1958, studies suggested that there were up to 60 radio stations offering exclusively black programming. By 1966, more than 100 stations had all-black music formats, and there were over 250 channels available by 1978. 

It was in the 1970s that the term “urban radio” began to grow more cluttered and confusing. Groups were still trying to make the concept of black radio more appealing to the masses, which meant that urban channels stopped just playing R&B and hip-hop, and started exploring things like disco, soul, and rhythm music too. 

In 1983, the WBLS station of New York was the first to air their show “Rap Attack” to introduce listeners to the rising rap scene. By the early 1980s, the urban radio format had become an eclectic mix of rap, reggae, house, dance, rap, freestyle, and so much more. The concept of “urban music” was harder to define than ever. 

Whether they maintained the black radio label or embraced the concept of becoming an urban radio station, these channels offered more than just music. Many of the stations described as “urban,” also took an active interest in their local communities, providing them with public service announcements, news and public affairs programs that appealed to black listeners. 

Celebrating the American urban radio network 

Ironically, when American radio networks adopted the “urban” term, they chose it as a way to make black music more appealing to white listeners and people outside of the black community. However, it turned out that they needn’t have worried about gaining listeners. The history of urban music is littered with successful channels.

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As the years passed by and more people tuned in to hear genres that they had never encountered before from classic channels like the BBC, “urban” music became a sensation. Countless stations began to imitate the sounds prevalent on black radio stations because they were often so much more profitable than other traditional formats. 

In the early 1980s, the newly-formed WRKS-FM (which eventually became Kiss FM) emerged as one of the most successful urban stations in the US. New York became the center of the urban scene, encouraging the spread of the black progressive format to countless channels around the country. One particularly successful early outlet was WDRQ in Detroit, which switched from a top 40 channel format to urban music in 1982. 

Like many American urban radio networks of the time, WDRQ didn’t commit to one specific sub-genre of music in the urban genre. Instead, the channel featured everything from mainstream pop music, to R&B, dance music, and rap. 

By 1976, the urban radio station WBLS was leading the way as one of the most popular FM stations in America. WABC also held a significant place in the music industry, claiming the spot of the most dominant urban station in the country for more than a decade. 

No matter where you went in the US, people were taking notice of urban radio broadcasting. It was a way for consumers to listen to a huge variety of different music genres, piled together under the same umbrella term. Since this time, many people have appealed against the concept of defining the black music genre by a word as narrow as urban. However, one positive outcome is how much exposure artists managed to get from the rise of American urban radio networks.

Programmers, advertisers, and listeners all took notice of this new genre. It wasn’t just the black community that tuned into their favorite urban shows. People from all over the country were beginning to use urban radio as their go-to source to find new music. 

The rise of urban radio broadcasting

By the 1990s, the radio stations initially defined as “urban contemporary” were dishing out hits that dominated the US pop charts. Many top 40 stations converted, starting to play the tracks that used to belong exclusively to the American urban radio network. 

Despite some fluctuations in success, the history of urban music reached a peak moment in the early 2000, when it achieved commercial dominance in the radio circuit. In 2004, all of the top 12 songs in the Billboard Hot 100 came from black music artists, and they also accounted for 80% of all the number one R&B hits for the years. Urban music had become the music of the generation. 

The influence of American urban radio was so great that it crossed the seas, influencing musical charts around the world. People in the UK and Canada also began tuning into some of the biggest artists of the time, including everyone from Rihanna to Akon, and Usher. 

Today, more than 335 stations that still claim the title of “urban” broadcast to listeners around the United States. As mentioned above, these stations don’t always stick purely to sharing the latest music on the charts. Every week, they update their programmes with countless new shows, entertainment, and the latest news for the area that they serve. 

The term “urban radio” has splintered and evolved so drastically throughout the decades that it’s difficult to differentiate it from pop radio, or simply “radio.” While the music on urban radio stations also appears on various other channels around the world, one thing that remains unique is the way that many urban music stations tackle news broadcasting. 

In many parts of the US, urban radio broadcasting approaches news in a slightly different way. For instance, these stations are specifically targeting younger adults and teens with a community-driven approach. Unlike more generic radio stations, urban networks cover specific stories from their local communities, addressing some of the most crucial tales of the day. Additionally, many urban radio stations focus their news reports around the entertainment world, and what’s going on with the celebrities that younger adults and teenagers idolize. 

Crucially, this generalization won’t apply to all urban radio stations. As the genre has evolved over the years, countless new channels have emerged on the scene, and each take their own unique approach to broadcasting. Some of the most popular radio stations in the urban format focus exclusively on music. Others switch between news and music broadcasting, while some think outside of the box with featured programmes and unique forms of entertainment. 

There are even urban radio broadcasting networks that experiment with electrifying personalities through shock jocks, and spice up their music with regular contests, phone-ins, and competitions. 

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Popular American urban radio stations 

When it comes to defining the most popular urban radio stations in America, you’ll often find that the results depend on where you go. The history of urban music has evolved with the constant support and commitment of a dedicated community. More often than not, the most popular stations in any area are those that focus on the local environment and combine the latest trending music with news and relevant topics in that area. 

Perhaps one of the best-known parent-companies of urban radio broadcasting is “American urban radio networks.” Otherwise known as AURN, this huge organization came from the merger between Unity Broadcasting’s National Black Networks, and Sheridan Broadcasting Networks. The AURN group is specifically designed to target the black music community, and it’s the only radio station and digital network in the US controlled by African American executives. 

The AURN is also the largest urban radio station in the US, broadcasting 200 shows to more than 300 stations across the nation. Studies suggest that AURN reaches about 25 million listeners per week. Interestingly, of the 10 largest urban radio groups in the US, only 2 were founded by African Americans. 

Some of the most popular local urban radio stations include:

  • WQHT FM – New York:  One of the biggest urban contemporary stations in New York, WQHT plays the leading hits classified as “urban” music, it also plays a lot of pop titles too. The tagline for the station is “Hot 97, where hip-hop lives”. 
  • KBXX – Texas: Broadcast in Houston, Texas, KBXX-FM is Houston’s go-to station for R&B, hip-hop and interactive broadcasting. It’s owned by the Urban One family of urban radio stations. 
  • WHTA-FM – Georgia: Another commercial radio station owned by Urban One, WHTA is best known as Hot 107.9, and it usually plays a combination of rap and hip-hop. 
  • KYLD-FM – California: Broadcasting throughout the San Francisco area in California, KYLD is defined as the number one hit music station in the Bay. Aside from urban music, the network also broadcasts various news bulletins throughout the day. 
  • WKYS-FM – Washington DC: The WKYS FM radio station is also owned by the Urban One company – one of the largest African American owned broadcasting networks in the US. The WKYS station provides a selection of urban music, including top hits, rap, and hip-hop. 
  • WJMH-FM – North Carolina: Broadcasting to Greensboro in North Carolina, WJMH identifies as the ultimate hip-hop station for the region, providing a wide variety of urban music genres. 
  • KMEL-FM – California: Owned by the iHeartMedia Inc parent company, KMEL radio positions itself as the home for R&B and hip-hop in San Francisco. 

Interestingly, Urban One, one of the biggest broadcasting radio stations in the US, focusing exclusively on urban music, went public in 1999. It’s currently responsible for many of the most popular urban radio broadcasting stations in the US. What’s more, Cathy Hughes, the owner of the business, was the first black woman in history to lead a public company. 

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What’s next for urban radio?

Also known as urban contemporary, the term “urban radio” is becoming an increasingly outdated concept in the broadcasting environment. Although it’s easy to continue using the lazy term of urban music to refer to a range of different genres, this concept also removes some of the rich diversity that’s so evident in black music. 

Now that communities are beginning to talk more seriously about race and culture around the world, it’s time for many companies to reassess the way that they use the word “urban”. Recent reports throughout America and the UK suggest that some broadcasters want to see the term removed from broadcasting language completely. Other organizations don’t seem to mind the word – suggesting that it’s little more than a harmless umbrella term. 

For those who are against the concept of “urban” as a word used to describe music genres, the problem comes from the connotations associated with the word. For many, the phrase refers to the stereotypical ghetto streets, which means that it downgrades the value of music from soul, hip-hop, R&B, and countless other genres. 

Today, we all know how valuable black music has been to the growth of the industry overall, and the way that cultures communicate through art. As more black executives take control of radio stations throughout the world, we may find that urban radio as a concept becomes extinct. Instead, we’ll have radio stations that focus on sharing the beauty of black music with the world, as well as countless networks that celebrate the sub genres of black music. 

While it would be simple to keep using the term urban to refer to anything we’d associate with “street” music, the industry is too diverse now to rely on umbrella terms. In a music scene that’s so heavily saturated with new forms of music, it’s important to start giving credit to genres that are unique and special.

Stay tuned to the latest radio industry insights with Radio Fidelity.

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