Music format highlighting hip-hop, other genres seeks home on public radio

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Vocalo hosts Jesse Menendez and Jill Hopkins interview Run The Jewels duo El-P and rapper Killer Mike at Lollapalooza in Chicago. Vocalo's programming is in part the basis of the new Urban Alternative format backed by CPB.

Hip-hop and R&B could become staples on public radio, or at least more widespread, if a new CPB-backed format catches on among stations looking to change up their programming.

Under development for more than a year, the format is now poised for wider adoption. CPB is looking for a consultant and up to three stations to collaborate on creating and testing the format over a two-year period starting no later than October. Dance, hip-hop, R&B and indie rock will be the musical mainstays of what CPB is calling Urban Alternative, “an innovative approach to attracting younger, multicultural audiences to public media.”

Some noncommercial stations already air hip-hop, dance and R&B. But few have based their entire sound, audience and identity on those genres. More often, listeners may come across a hip-hop show wedged in among an eclectic mix of other styles on a college or community station.

One exception is Chicago Public Radio’s Vocalo, which has gone all-in on a format that is serving as a template for the new Urban Alternative. Its audience can hear lesser-known local acts alongside a bevy of big names like Beyonce, The Roots and Janet Jackson.


Some shows on noncommercial stations are “emblematic of what this format would be — an underground hip-hop or mix show,” said Silvia Rivera, Vocalo’s managing director. “But there’s never been an effort to make it an entire format.”

Last year, CPB gave Vocalo and Chicago Public Radio $450,000 to further develop the Urban Alternative format with insights from market research and focus groups with listeners. Two stations licensed to historically black colleges, Baltimore’s WEAA and WNSB in Norfolk, Va., also participated in the research. WNSB already airs hip-hop and R&B, while WEAA focuses on news and jazz with some late-night rap.

The overlap of Urban Alternative’s possible playlists with commercial stations’ fare might raise the question of why public radio needs a hip-hop format. But programmers at stations airing the music say their approaches set them apart from commercial competitors, with an emphasis on positive lyrics and community engagement.

Older listeners tell WNSB that they enjoy being able to listen when their kids are in the car, said GM Edith Thorpe.

“Commercial radio is, for many of us, not something that we like to listen to, because of the language and everything about it,” she said. WNSB and the Urban Alternative format will instead focus on “positive songs that give you a sense of self-worth, responsibility and diligence,” she said.

“This is a tremendous opportunity — it is not a niche,” said Mike Henry, a consultant who has worked with CPB and stations on the research studying Urban Alternative’s potential appeal. “It has the opportunity to bring in a lot of new people, ears and eyeballs to public media.”

But Urban Alternative could face “extra challenges” in getting established within public radio, said Henry, who has also worked with the system’s Triple A stations. It will take stations willing to commit and try something new.

“Simply the challenge of getting airtime, getting whole frequencies dedicated to it — there’s a lot more opportunity in the marketplace than there is willingness to try to serve these audiences,” Henry said. “That’s gotta change.”

Pursuit of a ‘young, fresh’ sound

According to CPB’s RFPs, stations chosen to air the Urban Alternative format will program it for “a significant portion” of their schedules weekdays from 6 a.m. to midnight, as well as portions of weekends.

As they adopt the format, stations might need to hire hosts, content directors and community engagement directors. They’re also expected to have space for in-studio performances, as well as a website dedicated to music, “not a re-purposed news site content management system.”

“In order to reach younger, multicultural audiences, public media has to seek new strategies,” said Erika Pulley-Hayes, CPB’s VP of radio, in an email to Current. “The consolidation of ownership in commercial radio has diminished its connection to local communities and created an opportunity gap public radio has the potential to fill, especially as it pertains to underserved audiences. Hip-hop, one element of the format, is rooted in the African Griot tradition of storytelling, a core offering of public media.”

“Early focus groups indicated that the format has broad appeal across demographics and characterized it as ‘young, fresh, and inspired by the community,’ whereas commercial radio is inspired by commercial interests,” Pulley-Hayes said.

The format in each market will reflect local music and tastes. But stations will share similar mixes of light, medium and heavy rotation songs in Urban Alternative’s genres, as well as classics of the format. Eventually, the consultant leading the project will develop a set of best practices to help other stations implement the format and accompanying marketing, development and community engagement strategies.

Chicago’s Vocalo became part of Urban Alternative’s development as it sought to reorient its programming to appeal to younger, multicultural Chicagoans. “What CPB recognized was that, with varying degrees of success, Triple A stations were somewhat successful in reaching somewhat younger audiences,” Rivera said. “But that didn’t necessarily translate to young and diverse audiences.”

Vocalo began moving toward the music-based format in 2010 and started calling it “Urban Alternative” in 2014. As it’s adopted the format, the Vocalo team has learned how to fine-tune the mix of music.

“One of the things we learned was that we in many ways have suffered from the ills of Triple A–format stations when they first came out,” Rivera said. “We want to be everything for everyone.”

Vocalo’s listeners said that while they liked the eclectic approach, they wanted to hear more music by artists they already knew. Vocalo has been trying to add more mainstream acts while also keeping lesser-known music in the rotation, Rivera said.

The station has rebranded itself as “Chicago’s Urban Alternative,” with the tagline “This is what Chicago sounds like.” New imaging clips have a more commercial sound and were produced by a production company that works with commercial stations.

As Urban Alternative stations launch in other cities, “there can be some shared sort of values and branding in all of this,” Rivera said. “… A lot of what we’re trying to do is somewhat aspirational — trying to provide inspiration to the city and put a positive spin on things. That’s what we’re trying to position ourselves with.”

A socially conscious tilt

As it evaluates the applications for Urban Alternative’s test outlets, CPB plans to give extra weight to stations where the format is likely to succeed “based on existing competition and market conditions.”


That could give WNSB an edge. The station has been seeing growth in listeners ages 18 to 34, Thorpe said. Pursuing younger audiences “is something that everyone should be thinking about,” she said, “because public radio has evolved over the years. And a lot of the time, millennials are not listening.”

When she joined the station in January 2016, Thorpe said, she took the music mix in what she calls a “more socially conscious, old-school direction.” That’s reflected in the station’s public affairs programming as well. WNSB recently featured experts for a panel discussion about police violence, and during Black History Month this year, it profiled local children aspiring to be entrepreneurs.

Thorpe said WNSB will apply to become a pilot Urban Alternative station and could use the financial assistance to add staff. Many of its hosts are now students and volunteers.

“We are looking at programming with a very different set of eyes,” she said. “I believe that there is an audience out there that wants to participate in public radio, but we’ve got to give them what they desire.”

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