New Funding Expands Reach of Public Radio’s Hip-Hop / R&B Format


Three more public radio stations will adopt a CPB-supported music format designed to appeal to a younger and more diverse audience.

The Urban Alternative format, which focuses on hip-hop and R&B with a dose of local community engagement, will expand next year to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee; WJSU in Jackson, Mississippi; and The Current in the Twin Cities by Minnesota Public Radio, in partnership with KMOJ, a local station already serving communities of color. Each station received a two-year grant from the CPB.

These stations will join Chicago’s Vocalo, pioneer of the format, and three other stations which have taken over Urban Alternative in recent years. The newcomers will conduct market research and add staff to deploy the format across a range of platforms, including their core FM signals, digital radio channels, apps and online streams.

“The Urban Alternative format was built by and for a new generation of public radio listeners – a younger, multicultural community that creates its own public media,” said Kathy Merritt, senior vice president of radio, journalism and CPB’s CSG, in a September 14 press release. “CPB is proud to support the expansion of this format, in which stations serve the music and information needs of a young and diverse audience as trusted partners. “

Urban Alternative stations have developed their own localized versions of the format, but all aim to attract listeners between the ages of 18 and 44. The three new stations plan to roll out Urban Alternative by the middle of next year and have pledged to continue the format for at least three years after grants end.

As the newcomers to Urban Alternative gear up, stations that received funding in the first round are still finding their marks with the new format. In Denver, Rocky Mountain Public Media’s The Drop started as a web stream and on an HD radio channel in March 2019. Since debuting on a main FM signal in February, it has achieved an average rating of 0.7 on a quarter of an hour and a cumulative audience of 69,800 in August.

WNSB in Norfolk, Va., Which broadcasts Urban Alternative full-time on its main FM signal, achieved a market share of 2.0 four months after launching in December 2019. And Houston’s KTSU, which broadcasts both jazz and Urban Alternative on its main FM, reached a rating of 0.9 AQH and a cumulative 163,100 in August.

A Twin Cities partnership

“We couldn’t be more excited,” said Kevin Sucher, executive director of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. The station’s Urban Alternative music stream will embrace the “full spectrum of black music,” Sucher said, including jazz, soul, R&B, hip-hop and funk.

During parts of the day, Radio Milwaukee is already playing music that harmonizes with Urban Alternative. His Friday night show Rhythm lab radio, hosted by digital director Tarik Moody, is “kind of a snapshot of what the full lineup will look like,” said Sucher.


The station will use its $ 450,000 CPB grant to add a program director, production director, community engagement director and on-air talent. Station manager Jordan Lee will oversee the programming, which will be broadcast full time on a digital stream and during select times on Radio Milwaukee’s main FM signal. Radio Milwaukee will make way for Urban Alternative on its digital channel HD2 by moving a local music stream to HD3.

In the Twin Cities, Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current will also build on existing programming to develop its approach to the Urban Alternative format. Triple A station will use its $ 400,000 grant to relaunch its Purple Current stream, created in tribute to Prince after his death in 2016.

The stream is now “very focused on Prince and the sound of Minneapolis,” said David Safar, general manager of The Current. “There is an opportunity for this to continue, but for us to do what an artist like Prince would have wanted is to cultivate the next generation of musicians, artists and creators.”

Safar (Photo: Nate Ryan)

The resulting mix will help fill a void in Twin Cities radio formats left by the approval of Go 95.3, an R&B and hip-hop station that sold to the Educational Media Foundation last year. For the current, said Safar, Urban Alternative is “a larger initiative to think about not only how we can be another streaming source for music fans, but also, how can we be involved in the community. in a way …. where people can come together and come together as music fans around music that does not necessarily have a place in the public media and does not necessarily have a place at this stage in the commercial media of that market .

“We have a diverse mix of people listening to us and supporting us financially… but it could be more diverse,” said MPR President Duchesne Drew. “It could be deeper in some communities, and we can have more people starting their day after interacting with us. But it forces us to do more on the programming front to deserve their time and energy. “

By adopting Urban Alternative, The Current seeks not only to expand its own audience, but also to raise the profile of KMOJ. The Minneapolis community radio station took an interest in Urban Alternative when CPB announced the first round of funding, but was “grossly underfunded” and was unable to participate, said chief executive Freddie Bell. This time, MPR approached KMOJ about a partnership that would make the format usable for both stations.

“It seemed like an ideal solution not only to serve our community, but also to expand our audience at the same time,” said Bell, a longtime friend of MPR’s Drew.

KMOJ’s Urban Alternative format will center on The Ice, now a hip-hop stream on its HD2 digital channel. The stream’s audience is slowly growing and Bell is hopeful that KMOJ can accelerate this growth and solidify the station’s long-term sustainability through its collaboration with The Current.

“Find where they are and go to them”

In Jackson, Mississippi, CPB’s $ 450,000 grant will help WJSU reach a whole new audience. “The number one question I get from students is ‘When are you going to play music that I can relate to?’ Said General Manager Anthony Dean.

Graduated from Jackson State University, a historically black school, WJSU now broadcasts information about jazz and NPR. Dean heard about Vocalo and the Vibe, KTSU’s urban alternative programming, through colleagues on a CPB community service grant panel.

WJSU staff: DeShun Nance, production assistant; Dale Morris, station engineer; Cynthia Milton, news producer; Anthony Dean, Managing Director; and seated, Meredith Hairston, Music Director.

Jackson is home to several other colleges and universities, “so I said, ‘This is a great opportunity to make public radio appealing to young audiences,” Dean said. “And then we looked at the demographics they want to reach with Urban Alternative, and I said, ‘That’s great. “”

Dean has stated that WJSU will devote “a significant amount of time” to Urban Alternative on its main FM signal: 10 am to 6 pm on weekdays, as well as the weekend hours where it will mingle with the currently airing smooth jazz. It will also be available 24/7 on the station’s HD2 channel.

Dean predicts the format will debut in May. “We’re going to hire our on-air community advertisers, people who have a fairly large audience,” he said. The format will be named “Thee Cool”, a reference to Jackson State’s motto, “Thee I Love”.

As existing Urban Alternative stations strive to attract audiences, they are finding that new approaches to marketing and fundraising are needed to make inroads. The station’s programmers shared their advice on September 15 at a roundtable discussion at the Virtual Public Radio Program Directors’ Conference.

At KTSU, programmers have found they need to be proactive. With younger potential listeners, “you have to make a commitment to them,” said Madd Hatta, director of content for The Vibe. “You have to know where they are and go to them. You can’t just sit back and wait like I think a lot of radio stations do, which I think is absolutely wrong… and hope that they will listen and participate in your radio station. You have to actively go to where they are and try to involve them at their level. “

The need for innovation also extends to fundraising, according to PRPD panelists. When it launched, Rocky Mountain Public Media’s The Drop ran fundraising campaigns alongside KUVO, RMPM’s jazz station. But he wasn’t getting many promises, according to Nikki Swarn, the general manager and general manager of The Drop.

Young listeners don’t want to call a phone number and share credit card information, Swarn said. “They’re like, ‘No, no thanks. I’ll drop that,” she said. “So we have to come up to them and say,’ OK, can you text? give through your Facebook? Can you give socially? In what ways can we meet you? ‘ “

The dope shirt

Swarn told Current that The Drop has collected 97% of their donations via text message and are just starting to request gifts through Facebook and Instagram. The station also promoted its “I Got $ 5 On It” campaign during live performances. “We use experiences to drive and inform about how we create our membership strategy,” Swarn said.

Vocalo in Chicago has had success with a “tip pot” presented when donors donate online to WBEZ, Vocalo’s sister station under Chicago Public Media. “We actually get quite a bit of bread,” said Ayana Contreras, host and producer of Vocalo. “It’s just an opportunity to introduce ourselves to an adjacent audience.”

Vocalo also solicited donations by designing “the most expensive t-shirt ever made by Chicago Public Media,” Contreras said.

“I made it super exclusive, not a lot of shirts,” Contreras said. “… I know my audience. They’d rather have a dope shirt, and they’ll pay for a dope shirt, which we have 500 million generic shirts to hand out, which public radio usually does. They have OK shirts. I’m like ‘What if we have really funny shirts?’ “

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect amount for the CPB grant to WJSU. The station received $ 450,000, not $ 350,000.


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