NonComm panelists describe risks and rewards of putting hip-hop artists into rotation

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PHILADELPHIA — After an evening of back-to-back concerts that wrapped up around midnight, this year’s Non-Commvention conference kicked off Wednesday with a look at a challenge facing stations of every size: how to engage a young and diverse audience.

Sitting on the stage that indie bands performed on hours earlier, panelists said they want to push their listeners beyond music they may already be familiar with, particularly by playing hip-hop artists. Some panelists said they integrate hip-hop into their rotations, mixing it in with rock and alternative music that are the foundations of the Triple A format.

Panelists noted that public media stations struggle to broaden their donor bases beyond boomers. But that’s why stations such as WXPN have a responsibility to challenge their listeners, said Bruce Warren, assistant GM for programming, who moderated the discussion.

He pointed to Childish Gambino as an example. Since May 5, when Gambino debuted “This is America” on Saturday Night Live, the song has topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But, just a week ago, Warren noticed that commercial urban music stations haven’t been playing it. WXPN put the song in regular rotation days after its SNL debut, Warren said.

The move was risky for WXPN, the station that pioneered the rock-infused contemporary music format for public radio. “It’s kind of public knowledge that most of the ‘XPN audience, while they may have grown up listening to hip hop, they don’t really like to hear it on WXPN,” Warren said. “How do I know this? I get all their emails. I get all their calls.”

Some “old school” music is “marginally passable,” Warren said, citing De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and old Beastie Boys, “but when we start getting into the modern hip-hop era, it’s challenging.” WXPN hasn’t gotten any reaction to adding Childish Gambino to the mix — yet, Warren said.

“I think it’s our mission to push the envelope as much as we have,” Warren said.

“And be entertaining too,” added Rita Houston, PD at WFUV at Fordham University in New York. “Sometimes in all of our conversations we forget that we’re in the entertainment business, even in public radio.”

Houston said WFUV needs to broaden its listenership, which she described as more male than female, with a median age of about 54. The station needs to continue cultivating these older listeners as donors because of their financial capacity, Houston said. But she acknowledged WFUV, like other stations, won’t survive if it doesn’t do more to draw younger listeners.

“Weren’t there situations like this when the first time Flaming Lips’ ‘Jelly’ came out?” asked Jordan Lee, PD of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. He was referring to the early ‘90s hit “She Don’t Use Jelly.”

“People were like, … ‘This is not the core. This does not sound like Zeppelin. You can’t play this record,’” Lee said.

Lee said he understands the risks of programming music that crosses boundaries of radio formats, “but I don’t care because I trust we have adventurous people who are ready to be challenged.”

“And then you come back with some Dave Matthews and everybody’s happy,” Warren added.

Audience member Tarik Moody, digital director at Radio Milwaukee, said the station started playing Cardi B, an acclaimed hip-hop artist who speaks candidly about her stardom and personal life. Her inclusion drew some light-hearted surprise from audience members. While the station received some angry emails, other listeners were grateful.

“Cardi B is making a statement,” Moody said. “If you go to the audience at a Cardi B show, guess what? They’re in their 30s and 40s. They’re the ones with the money and the means going to a Cardi B show. You can’t forget people age into salary brackets.”

Diversifying audiences doesn’t seem to be a problem for Radio Milwaukee. Lee said its listeners are 54 percent female, 46 percent male and about 25 percent nonwhite. Nearly three-quarters are aged 25 to 44, and 7 percent are 55 plus. However, the station had a “clean restart” in 2007, Lee said, when it dropped jazz to adopt an eclectic, alternative format.

Moody said Radio Milwaukee has a racially diverse staff, who also bring diverse ideas and concepts. “If you really want to retain and get new members, look at your diversity of staff,” Moody said. “All of our staff is engaged in the community.”

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