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B96 and demographic abandonment

Reader and occasional subject Ben Garvin sends along this note to prod some comment-section discussion:

Hi David,

I sometime listen in on B96.3 to see what they’re playing. And I noticed recently that the station has shifted it’s playlist to identical that of 101.3 KDWB. It no longer focuses exclusivly on rap and hip hop. I have a 14-year-old little brother with Big Brother Big Sisters and he lamented the fact now that B96.3 has changed, there no station playing rap anymore and there’s nothing for him and his friends to listen to except their mp3 players.

I tried to explain to my little brother that the reason is probably because advertisers don’t pay much for the ears of African American folks but love teenage white kids in the suburbs. (See comments.) I’m not suggesting it’s a racial decision, but it does leave and whole demographic group without anything on the radio and is another reason for my little brother to feel a bit devalued. I do wonder how other African American folks are reacting and if they’re as bummed as some of the people I’ve talked with.

There’s always KMOJ 89.9, but that caters to an older African American audience. (My little brother said he would never listen to that station–his mother does, though.)

A few points to steer the discussion toward the constructive. As Pioneer Press reporter Amy Gustafson noted, B96’s ratings have gone up since the format switch to Top 40. However, that also coincided with a signal upgrade.

Also, I’m sure we all know that not just African Americans listen to rap and hip hop — my son’s mp3 player bears witness to this. So it’s probably safer to assert rap and hip hop fans are left “without anything on the radio” — though clearly, Ben’s little brother and his pals may station-surf less than others and they probably feel the loss more acutely.

Anyway, reactions, opinions, assertions welcome and encouraged. Is there good rap and hip hop bouncing around the airwaves in some overlooked place? Could some other station make hay by picking up the format, which did get better ratings than many stations before the switch? Are African American ears devalued by bloodless commerce?

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ed Stych on 01/19/2010 - 10:44 am.

    I’m going to tread in a place that I don’t know a lot about …

    But isn’t one of the reasons that NPR exists is to serve underserved communities … to play music and other programming that can’t make it on “commercial” radio?

    So, why not turn over x-number of hours of public radio to rap and hip-hop if those genre’s can’t make it commercially?

    I believe there are rap and hip-hop stations on XM … but I assume we’re trying to find something “free.”

    The market always wins. Businesspeople aren’t going to invest in a genre if they’re not making money. That’s as it should be. Then the government needs to decide if it’s worthwhile supporting the cause with tax dollars. I would say “no” to supporting rap and hip-hop, but I don’t like it that our tax dollars are used to subsidize classical music on NPR, either.

  2. Submitted by Stan Daniels on 01/19/2010 - 11:45 am.

    There is always Pandora or Slacker for the under served segments.

    And I will comment of the elephant in the room. No, this is not about skin color or race. It is about ratings and what music sells. Modern rock, alternative, rap, hip hop, even most new music gets little attention from radio broadcasters. It’s all about chasing ratings and basically watering down the product.

    I actually find the letter writers “white kids in suburbs” comment offensive. Can we please stop jumping to race as the reason for all things we don’t like?

    For the record, I stopped listening to local music radio a few years ago. I went to other sources to fill what I enjoy listening to.

  3. Submitted by Adam Platt on 01/19/2010 - 12:02 pm.

    Stan is absolutely correct.

    And it’s important to note that there are all sorts of musical and talk genres whose devotees have been abandoned by commercial radio, or are toyed with in occasional forays by commercial radio that are quickly followed by format shifts.

    And it’s not about the desirability of an audience, it’s about the size, period. Go to LA or similar cities and basically every station is either Spanish language or plays a modicum of hip hop in its mix.

    I would expect hip hop/urban music or whatever it’s called, to return at some point or end up on an HD sub-channel of one of the big boys. It will be free, but you’ll need to buy a new radio.

  4. Submitted by Ben Garvin on 01/19/2010 - 12:07 pm.

    re: Stan Daniels, it’s true, the ‘white kids in suburbs’ bit didn’t have the sort of nuance that this story deserves. It’s about money and who’s ears are most valuable to advertisers. I suppose the bottom line for me is I just think it’s a bummer that my little brother doesn’t have a reason to turn the radio on right now.

  5. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 01/19/2010 - 01:19 pm.

    No format will save these radio stations. Clear Channel has destroyed the culture of radio in this country and the only hope radio has is for station prices to plummet to where ACTUAL community-based activists can buy stations and begin to again serve community needs.

    The easiest way to fix radio (and TV) would be for the FCC to automatically NOT renew licenses, and to begin aggressively looking for new partners to share the public’s airwaves with. Partners who will not have out of state DJs, cookie cutter formats, or secret political agendas.

  6. Submitted by Rachel Drewelow on 01/19/2010 - 01:56 pm.

    Attention non-B96 listeners:

    B96 is still playing the mainstream Top 100 rap and hip hop that they did before — it’s just mixed in with more pop now.

    I think that people are really mourning the loss of something that did not exist here. B96 was in no way a real, urban, hip hop station. They played mainstream, popular R & B, hip hop and rap, straight from the Billboard list. All of this music was on KDWB too, only with some other popular music mixed in.

    B96’s sole claim to non-mainstream music was the Peter Parker show, which highlighted the local rap scene. But, The Current and KMOJ also dabble in this.

    Sam Elliott, 96.3 Now program director, said the following to Kare 11:

    “If you look at the Billboard Top 100 a year ago, 35 of the songs were hip-hop,today only four of them are.”

    B96 was and remains a popular commercial music station. What’s popular is just shifting.

    We’ve got accessible community music stations in The Current and KMOJ. I know Ben’s little brother said he can’t listen to his mom’s station, KMOJ. But, it’s an opportunity to encourage the kid to get involved in local radio and push for what he wants to hear.

    Maybe that’s an idealistic thought, but it’s the only chance he’s got until hip hop fills the charts again and commercial radio flocks back to it.

  7. Submitted by JL Foler on 01/19/2010 - 02:02 pm.

    I can’t speak for other stations, but the core of KFAI’s mission is to serve diverse and underserved audiences. This is reflected in everything from the station’s multilingual public affairs programs to shows featuring every imaginable musical genre–including hip hop. KFAI is home to two notable hip hop mix shows, “The Session” and “RSE Radio.”

    “The Session” airs 2-6 AM on Saturdays and was named Best Hip-Hop Program by City Pages a few years ago. DJ Special Dark uses his generous time slot not only to spin international and national hip hop artists, but also interview independent/local acts.

    “RSE Radio” airs Saturday nights from 9-11 PM and is hosted by Rhymesayers president Siddiq. Naturally, Rhymesayers artists feature regularly and often drop in to the studio to chat, but the half dozen or so resident DJs play a variety of underground and classic hip hop tracks.

    The Session’s late time slot may prevent a lot of hip hop fans from catching it live, but both shows are archived on KFAI’s website:

  8. Submitted by Carter Anderson on 01/19/2010 - 02:46 pm.

    I obviously am reading this differently. Why B96 changed was the no brainer. Stations change formats all the time. Why Ben Garvin chose to make this a racial issue is the head scratcher. Instead of explaining to his Little Brother the essence of how business works, he instead chose to do the actual devaluing. Maybe next week Ben can tell the kid that Tiger Woods lost his golf sponsors not because of his actions but because he is black. Nice job, Ben. Stay away from my kids.

  9. Submitted by David Brauer on 01/19/2010 - 03:11 pm.

    Folks –

    Ben explicitly said this wasn’t about racism, it was about money.

    But do those of you pounding on him think blacks and whites are equal in the Twin Cities economic arena? I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think that’s a boneheaded assumption, and it means groups that make/spend less will get less of what they like.

    Again, I think his bigger point is that, for whatever reason, his little brother feels disenfranchised, and I’ll bet he’s not the only one.

    Many of you make a good point that this isn’t the first time this has happened, and it’s happened to most of us, rich or poor, with less-than-mass tastes. In that sense, Ben’s little brother deserves sympathy, at least, and Ben deserves credit for empathy.

  10. Submitted by Ben Garvin on 01/19/2010 - 03:35 pm.

    I’m feeling smaller and smaller as the day goes on. A friend (former friend?) from the Strib e-mailed me about how his elementary school in Burnsville speaks 35 languages and that his white daughters listen to rap and hip hop. I’m guilty of inarticulately mentioning race and for that I’m sorry and happy to suffer some name calling (and will certainly stay away from Carter’s kids). That said, I still think it’s a bummer that my little brother doesn’t have a radio station that reflects him and his friends as much as B96 did, even if it was commercial. And that isn’t to suggest he’s suffering some sort of injustice–as Rachel smartly noted, rap and hip hop just aren’t as popular on the Billboard Top 100 and radio stations are changing to reflect that. You can be sure though that rap and hip hop haven’t suffered any decline in popularity with my little brother and his friends. And it’s true, perhaps he can use this as a chance to affect change. I certainly think he’s up to it.

  11. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 01/19/2010 - 04:14 pm.

    ^ And this is why MinnPost comments are so much more productive than those on the Strib! Good to see everyone so civil and contemplative despite the complex and sensitive issues.

  12. Submitted by Elliot Mann on 01/20/2010 - 03:49 pm.

    This is something I once had a e-mail back and forth with Steve Woodbury several years ago. An earlier commenter also underscored the issue: corporate radio has taken over your airwaves.

    Radio is no longer a place that “breaks” new artists. Now that happens on commercials, MySpace, Pitchfork, Sirrius, etc.

    About 15 to 20 years ago, hip-hop was never on the airwaves. (Not M.C. Hammer, but Public Enemy, NWA, Run DMC, etc.) People went platinum with no radio support. A similar trend — but very different one in light of CD sales — will need to again take pace.

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