Urban contemporary  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The term urban contemporary was coined by the late New York DJ Frankie Crocker in the mid 1970s. Urban contemporary radio stations feature a playlist made up entirely of hip hop/rap, contemporary R&B, and, on occasion, Caribbean music such as reggae and reggaeton. The term "urban contemporary" has become heavily associated with African American Music, particularly contemporary R&B, and is often used as a synonym to describe the genre.

These stations focus primarily on marketing to African-Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 (some listeners are up to 49 in age), but studies have shown that about 75% of listeners are Caucasian . Their playlists are dominated by singles by top-selling hip hop and R&B performers. On occasion, an urban contemporary station will play classic soul music songs from the '70s and early '80s to satisfy the older end of the format, or will play a song by a Caucasian artist that appeals to the black population, but their playlists are otherwise focused on music by black artists released within the last five years.

Since the 1990s, urban contemporary hits have dominated the US pop charts. As the pop and R&B/hip hop charts have nearly mirrored each other, many adult contemporary stations have turned to playing some tracks popular on urban contemporary radio stations.

Today, urban contemporary refers to music that can be described as an alternative to classic R&B. The typical urban contemporary song has a dance beat and electronic sounds.

Contents

The 1970s

When Frankie Crocker was appointed as Program Director of the newly created WBLS in 1974, he created an eclectic music mix of R&B, Disco and Gospel music, redefining the R&B format as Urban Contemporary. The station was an instant success, making it the most listened-to radio station in the country.

The 1980s

During the early 1980s as newly-formed WRKS-FM (98.7 Kiss FM) became the first rap station in the United States, WBLS quickly began adding more rap records to its playlists. The urban format by this time was redefined by an eclectic mix of R&B, rap, reggae, gospel, dance, house, and freestyle. WBLS continued as the flagship station of the Urban format however Kiss FM surpassed them in the ratings.

Many radio stations imitated the urban sound since it was proven to be more profitable than other formats. Another subformat of urban contemporary is rhythmic contemporary hits which plays a great deal of dance music. WQHT-FM and KPWR were the first stations to utilize this format.

Urban Adult Contemporary

Urban AC is a subformat that is geared towards adult African-American audiences, and therefore, the artists that are played on these stations are most often African-American. The Urban AC stations are more similar to Soft AC than they are to Hot AC, and the music they play is predominantly R&B and soul music. This is reflected in many of the Urban AC radio stations' taglines, such as "Today's R&B and Classic Soul", "The Best Variety of R&B Hits and Oldies" and "(City/Region)'s R&B Leader." Some popular nicknames for Urban AC stations include "Magic" (borrowed from Soft AC), "Mix" (borrowed from Hot AC), and "Kiss" (borrowed from Top-40).

A more elaborate form of Urban AC is the Rhythmic Oldies format, which focuses primarily on "Old School" R&B/Soul hits from the 1960s to the 1990s, including Motown and disco hits. Often referred to in the past as "Jammin'" or "Groovin'" Oldies, the Rhythmic Oldies format was quite popular for a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1997, KCMG-FM "Mega 100" in Los Angeles pioneered the concept of "Jammin' Oldies," which involved creating a mass-appeal music mix that appealed to both white and black audiences. (See http://beradio.com/news/radio_kcmgfm_los_angeles/ for a profile of KCMG in its heyday.) The "Jammin'"/"Groovin'" Oldies format subsequently spread nationwide, to stations like WTJM-FM in New York City, WMOJ in Cincinnati, and WGRV-FM in Detroit (all of which have since changed format). Many of these stations played white soul or disco artists such as ABBA and The Bee Gees in addition to African-American artists. Many believe that what contributed the most to the death of the "Jammin' Oldies" stations was the fact that their playlists soon became very small and narrow, increasing listener "burnout" and dropping ratings within a few months after a promising ratings start. Rhythmic Oldies stations still exist today, but chiefly in markets with large African-American populations; the peak of the "Jammin' Oldies" approach has come and gone.

Usually embedded within the Urban Adult Contemporary is another format called Quiet Storm. This format is most played during the evening beginning at 7:00 PM or 8:00 PM hours into late night. The Quiet Storm format plays on Urban Adult Contemporary format. The music that is played are strictly ballads and slow jams, mostly but not limited to Black and Latino artists. Popular artists played on the Quiet Storm format are Babyface, Teena Marie, Angela Bofill, Miki Howard, Regina Belle, Howard Hewitt, Freddie Jackson, Johnny Gill, Anita Baker, Sade, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams, Mariah Carey, Dru Hill, and En Vogue among others.

Rhythmic Contemporary

Rhythmic Contemporary, also known as Rhythmic Top 40, Rhythmic Contemporary Hit Radio and "Rhythmic Crossover" is a music radio format that includes of a mix of dance, and upbeat rhythmic pop, hip-hop, and R&B hits. While most rhythmic stations' playlists are composed of that mentioned above, there are some tend to lean very urban with current hip-hop, urban pop, and R&B hits that gain mainstream appeal.

They will not play music with a harder rock sound or songs that sound too adult for their taste, leaving those songs to the conventional Top 40 stations.

Most of its core listeners makeup a multicultural mix of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, that include a core group of teens, young adults (mostly 18-34) and young females.

The origins of Rhythmic Top 40 can be traced back 1978 when WKTU on 92.3 FM New York City (now WFNY) became a disco based station. That station was classified as urban but played a blend of disco, dance music, and pop crossovers. Back then stations playing strictly R&B materials were known as Black stations. Stations like WKTU were known as Urban. In the 1980s many Urban contemporary began to spring up. Most of these leaned R&B and away from plenty of dance music. These urban stations began sounding identical to so called Black stations and by 1985 stations that played strictly R&B product were all known as Urban stations. Still some urban outlets continued adding artists from outside the format onto their playlist. In most cases it was dance and rhythmic pop but in other cases they added a few rock songs. But it wasn't until January 11, 1986 that KPWR Los Angeles, a former struggling adult contemporary outlet and WQHT New York began to make its mark with this genre by adopting this approach. It would be known as Crossover because of the musical mix and the avoidance of most Rock at the time. As these stations pilfered listeners away from numerous mainstream stations,many urban stations reintroduced Dance music onto their playlists again. Billboard magazine took notice of this new format and on February 15, 1987, it launched the first Crossover chart. But by December 1990 Billboard eliminated the chart because more Top 40 and R&B stations were becoming identical with the rhythmic-heavy playlist that were also being played at the crossover stations at the time. Billboard would later revive the chart again in October 1992 as the Top 40 Rhythm/Crossover chart. On June 25, 1997, it was renamed the Rhythmic Top 40 chart as a way to distinguish stations that continue to play a broad based rhythmic mix from those whose mix leaned heavily toward R&B and Hip-Hop.

For years since its inception, the Rhythmic name has been a source of confusion among music trades, especially in both Billboard (which used the Rhythmic Top 40 title) and Radio & Records (which use the CHR/Rhythmic title for their official charts). In August 2006 Billboard dropped both the "Top 40" and "CHR" name from the Rhythmic title after its sister publication Billboard Radio Monitor merged with Radio & Records to become the "New" R&R as part of their realignment of format categories. The move also ended confusion among the radio stations who report to their panels, which was modified by the end of 2006 with the inclusion of non-monitored reporters that were holdovers from the "(Old) R&R" days.

Still, over the years since its inception, the genre has grown and evolved but not without criticism. Traditional R&B outlets claim that the Rhythmic format does not target or serve the African-American community properly, while traditional Top 40 stations claim that the format is too urban to be Top 40. However, those claims have been all but slienced, with both R&B and mainstream Top 40 stations taking cues from the format they criticized.

Still there contnues to be confusion of the distinction between Rhythmic CHR stations and "Churban" (or Urban Top 40) stations. In New York City WQHT Hot 97 strictly plays R & B and Hip Hop. Also in that city WWPR Power 105 plays a similar format. WQHT is classified as Top 40/Rhythm while WWPR is classified as Urban. Los Angeles is similar where KPWR and KDAY have similar formats but KPWR is considered Top 40/Rhythm while KDAY is considered Urban. Also very similar situations have occurred in Washington, D.C. with WPGC-FM and San Francisco with KMEL. One possible reason for this is precedent. When these stations began they played a great deal of dance music and were classified as CHR outlets. However, many critics say the ability to attract more mainstream advertisers as Rhythmic, rather than Urban, is the real reason, thus fueling the criticism from the African-American community in general.

However by 2005 KPWR began to re-add more Rhythmic Pop product after a seven-year gap (it had phased most of the Rhythmic and Dance product by 1997 when it had competition from KIBB and KACD/KBCD, both defunct), mostly in response to rival KIIS leaning towards a rhythmic direction. The move has resulted in KPWR and KIIS reigniting their Los Angeles Top 40 war. KPWR has also gone on the offensive to protect their hispanic demos in the wake of new Hurban rival KXOL making a dent in the ratings.

WQHT on the other hand, had moved more towards R&B/Hip-Hop as they step up their competition in the Big Apple with WWPR, which had gotten nasty with both stations blasting each other on the air and at high-profile concerts/events, as well as who claims ownership of who plays the most Hip-Hop in New York.

WPGC-FM began operating in 1987 as a Rhythmic that played R&B, hip-hop, dance, and pop music. Its playlist began to migrate to mostly Hip-Hop/R&B songs with R&B and soul slow songs on Sunday through Thursday nights since 1993, a format very similar to WKYS. This began a head-to-head battle with WKYS, but also Urban ACs, WHUR and WMMJ, due to WPGC playing old school R&B and soul songs during the morning drive, overnight hours, and on weekends.

KMEL also began in 1984 as a Mainstream Top 40, but migrated to a Rhythmic that played began hip-hop, dance, freestyle, house, and reggae music by 1987. However, in 1992, its playlist began to lean more urban to battle with competitor KYLD, which ended in 1997 when both stations became sister stations. KMEL currently has a playlist that is Hip Hop/R&B music, and plays mostly R&B slow jams at night Sundays thru Thursdays and gospel music on Sunday Mornings, while KYLD plays a balanced mix of Rhythmic Pop, Hip-Hop/R&B and some Dance product geared towards Hispanics and Asians.

On August 11, 2006, R&R had moved WQHT, WPGC-FM, KMEL, and most "Churbans" to the Urban Contemporary Airplay Panel since they seldom play any type of Rhythmic pop product and is therefore not considered part of the 'Pure' Rhythmic community. However, despite the changes, there are a few "Churbans" who remain on the Rhythmic panel that are exceptions, mostly due to the lack of minorities in several major metropolitan markets that do not have a mainstream Urban, like KTTB/Minneapolis-St. Paul and WJMN/Boston. However, on May 25, 2007, WQHT, KXHT/Memphis, WZMX/Hartford and WMBX/West Palm Beach, along with KZZA/Dallas-Ft.Worth (from the Latin Rhythm Airplay panel), were re-added to the panel, as their playlists now favors a broader Rhythmic direction, thus making them outright Rhythmics.

List of Urban Contemporary Stations across the United States




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