By Mabel Suen
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Buried within last week's feature on Nelly (who, by the by, debuted in the awe-inspiring No. 3 position on the Billboard album charts last week, just behind perennial chart-toppers Eminem and Britney Spears [!]), was an unexplored little nugget that deserves closer examination: "Unlike St. Louis rock radio, the fare on the two local hip-hop stations (100.3 FM, The Beat, and the new Q95 FM) is a goddamn hoot."
It may surprise some that there are now two local hip-hop stations when, just a few years ago, there wasn't really even one. With the arrival of Q95 (95.5 FM) and the existence of the Beat, the race for the almighty hip-hop dollar is on.
Seldom do we think about commercial radio around here, because it's usually so uniformly predictable and boring. But something magical's happening right now in the hip-hop world, and it's being reflected on the dial. As a result, the hip-hop stations are shining (if only they'd lay off the "quiet storm" R&B crap).
For a few years there, the Beat had it made. They were manning the engine of a gravy train. With no competitors save sister station Majic 105 (both are owned by the nation's largest radio-station conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications, which recently purchased SFX Corp., owner of this city's biggest music promoter, Contemporary Productions, owner of Riverport Amphitheater and the American Theatre -- you got all that?), the Beat could coast along with virtually no competition -- and did, which was fine because the station was, and still is, a decent reflection of the hip-hop and R&B marketplace. The Beat uses a combination of local and national talent, programming great mix shows that allow the mixologists freedom to go out on a limb and spin the good stuff (especially DJ Needles' phenomenal Saturday-night mix show and DJ Kut's great afternoon vibes) and play some choice music. And until a few months ago, The Beat was the only game in town.
A few years back, though, a company based in Washington, D.C., called Radio One bought 95.5 and moved its antenna to Fairmont, Ill., a choice spot from which to beam the station's signal straight into North St. Louis and North County. After a two-year process, the newly christened Q95 started broadcasting R&B and hip-hop. All of a sudden, there was competition.
Chuck Atkins, The Beat's program director, seems calm about the impending battle: "It's not a surprise; we anticipated that it would happen one day. It looks as if we had the market cornered, but that's not true. It's a free country. You can flip a format at any time, day or night. We have enjoyed competing with ourselves for a number of years, but it's boring doing it like that. It's like when Michael Jackson did Thriller. The only thing you can do now is beat your last project. And that's the way it's been with our ratings and numbers. We've done extremely well, but you don't know how good you are until you have somebody right in your face doing it. It makes you listen to your radio station more; it gets me in to work earlier; I stay later; it charges up the staff. For the most part, my staff's got a spark up their butts. They're ready to rock and roll."
So now there are two. Who cares? It's commercial radio, and these stations go to where the cash flows.
It is interesting, for one simple reason: Clear Channel's a monster corporation, huge and all-consuming; it owns hundreds of stations nationwide. Radio One is, relatively speaking, a tiny company, owning just 13 stations across the country. It is, however, an African-American-owned company, a fact that can't hurt the station when rap and R&B listeners are punching in presets. "Somebody else told me that that would be a huge plus for the St. Louis market," says Q95 program director Mike Fox. "I haven't figured out totally how to market it, because, of course, I don't want to alienate the white and Hispanic listeners. I had the same scenario in Philadelphia, where we had a great percentage of white and Hispanic listeners, and you wonder, if you say that, do they take offense? Some do, some don't, some don't care. It's about being very practical, figuring out ways of saying that in a practical way."
For his part, Atkins is unfazed by the ownership. "The only thing that's important is what's coming out of the speaker. That's the bottom line. The consumer is going to look at that and make an evaluation as to whether it can be their favorite station or not."
Q95 is still in its formative phase; they've yet to begin broadcasting commercials or introduce on-air personalities (and would that they'd never have to!), so it's pretty much a nonstop mix peppered with station IDs and a few teasers. The Beat is running smoothly, ignoring the competition and programming what it always has. ("We don't have a competitor," jabs Atkins, "we have a jukebox over there. We'll have a competitor when they equal the playing field by getting announcers and commercials. That's a real radio station. You can't fight a jukebox -- but even a jukebox gets old after a while, too.") At this early stage, it's nearly impossible to tell any difference between the two stations during regular programming hours; you'll still hear Nelly, Common, Aaliyah and Destiny's Child nearly every hour, on the hour, and in this sense we're hoping to see more adventure, though we're not holding our breath. All indications are that, like every damned commercial-radio station in America, like The Beat, Q95 will strictly follow a playlist dictated by national trade magazines and consultants, pound great songs into the ground by overplaying them and seldom surprise listeners. That said, a few things PD Mike Fox has said bode well for the Q95's future:
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