Merger of WBLS, KISS leaves major hole in urban radio landscape
During the most of the 1970s and early 1980s, when the late radio personality Frankie Crocker would conclude his late afternoon/early evening shift on New York City powerhouse FM outlet WBLS, he would sign off each night by using the jazzy serenade “Moody’s Mood for Love” by King Pleasure and James Moody, to bid his listeners farewell until the next show.
“May each of you live to be 100, and me, 100 minus a day, so that I’ll never know that a nice person like you passed away,” was Crocker’s nightly salutation to millions of New Yorkers.
This past weekend, WBLS and its fierce competitor for many years, WRKS (KISS-FM), once the most powerful and influential black/urban radio stations on the planet, in essence bid adieu to their audiences and to their storied legacies. Ceding to business and market realities, they merged their operations, with WRKS leasing its 98.7 FM frequency to ESPN Sports Radio.
WBLS, in particular, was borne out of the era of the civil rights struggle and black power self-determination.
Along with many other leading black stations of the past — WDAS in Philadelphia, WDIA in Memphis, KMJQ in Houston, WVON in Chicago, WERD in Atlanta, WJLB in Detroit — WBLS and black radio nationally were the nucleus of American-American culture, entertainment, and even politics during the industry’s heyday.
The late broadcaster and magazine publisher Jack “Jack The Rapper” Gibson used to tell of times when on the air at WERD; that Dr. Martin Luther King, whose Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices were in the same building as his station, would have the microphone passed from a studio window up to his office window, so he could announce the latest march or rally to the Atlanta audience.
This was a world well before BET, Twitter, Instagram, “soul” luxury liner cruises and the fame industry known as Kardashian.
WBLS was created as the radio vehicle of the Inner City Broadcasting Company, led by the late, dapper entrepreneur (and former lawyer for Malcolm X) Percy Sutton. Formerly known as WLIB-FM, the station changed its call letters to WBLS in 1974 — reflecting the “World’s Best Looking Sound,” or in sync with the cultural nationalism so dominant in urban America at the time: “The Total Black Experience In Sound.”
Frankie Crocker served as the suave maitre’d for soul served on a silver platter. Angular, smooth, and incessantly debonair, he epitomized a type of upwardly-mobile “cool” that helped set an attitude tone for black New Yorkers in the 1970s. As program director for BLS, his music mix was eclectic, yet approachable to the point where the station regularly sat atop the ratings charts as number one, in the number one radio market in the country.
Crocker and WBLS could seamlessly mix the reggae of “Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, with the calypso polemic “Wanted” by the Mighty Sparrow, along with the salsa of “What Happened?” By Bobby Rodriguez Y La Compania, right into Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” At its height, its wasn’t just unusual music selecting- it was radio programming as performance art.
In the early 1980s, WBLS continued to rule New York radio, and Inner City Broadcasting added stations in other markets across the country, but, like the champion boxer who never got knocked down until the first time he really gets socked by a hard left, the station encountered an emerging New York City sound that tested its jaw: Hip Hop.
While the majority of the deejays and emcees who created the booming beats and rhymes of hip-hop from the streets of the Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn were devotees of WBLS and its style, the station did not return the loyalty.
Crocker generally avoided the music and culture until his hand was forced.
In 1982, he hired John “Mr. Magic” Rivas from a small time-brokerage radio station, WHBI-FM, to play hip-hop on the weekends, late at night. However, down the dial, at the 98.7 FM frequency, a new player in the black/urban radio wars had emerged a year earlier; it had realized that Crocker and WBLS had a glass jaw when it came to rap music, so it went for the kill.
WRKS, better known in the market as “KISS-FM,” had changed its music format in 1981 from contemporary hits radio (CHR) to “urban contemporary” — the term of radio art purportedly devised by Crocker to make the black music format more palatable to mostly white advertising executives.
From its debut, KISS became the New York station that focused on de-emphasizing the notion of featuring “the big air personality” (like Crocker…), and put on a tight playlist of highly-researched, current Top 20 songs favored by black New Yorkers. Absent on KISS was the overall music variety offered by WBLS: the reggae, the calypso, the big band, the new wave. Present was the slick R&B of Patrice Rushen’s “Feels So Real,” “Keep On” by D-Train, and “Just Gotta Have You” by Kashif.
Though the “more music, less talk” strategy of KISS made it competitive with WBLS, it struggled to knock the market’s heritage black/urban station off of its top perch.
Then the revolution arrived.
In the Spring of 1983, Run-DMC, a rambunctious teenage rap trio from Hollis, Queens, released through the dance music label Profile Records, two tracks: “It’s Like That” and “Sucker MCs.” Both tracks featured a new, sparse, reverb and beat-heavy form of rap music that was sonically distant from previous rap releases, but closer to what young fans heard when they danced in the cavernous hip-hop clubs of early 1980s New York City.
Barry Mayo, KISS-FM’s program director and arch rival of WBLS program director Frankie Crocker, made the key decision to place “Sucker MCs,” which had become an omnipresent youth anthem on the city’s street, in his staion’s heavy music rotation. WBLS, however, ignored Run-DMC and its music. In fact, it relegated the instrumental version of “Sucker MCs” to the background score for a local Honda motorcycle dealership radio ad.
The Summer 1983 Arbitron radio ratings book after the “Sucker MCs” battle told the tale: for the first time since its debut in the New York City market, KISS beat WBLS.
From that point forward, KISS continued to beat WBLS in the ratings game for almost two decades. It once again took a big air personality for WBLS — Wendy Williams — to return it to top market positioning over KISS.
Over time, both WBLS and KISS fought pitched battles against each other, but they both didn’t see the iceberg of hip-hop radio ahead of them. Through the 1990s and the 2000s, both stations lost market share and millions of dollars of ad revenue to New York hip-hop outlets Hot 97 and Power 105.
The overall music tastes of New York and urban America changed as well. R&B music moved to the background of listener choice. As Jay Z, Kanye West, P Diddy/Puffy Combs have dominated the hip-hop airwaves and Lady GaGa, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars leading the pop side (with Nicki Minaj and Drake and the crossover champs for both formats…) — stations like WBLS and KISS saw both their ratings and profits plummet.
Also, in the past fifteen years, R&B music has lost much of its strong connection to African-American and urban listeners. Tragically, it has seen the deaths of some of its brightest and most prolific artists: Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, LeVert and Whitney Houston. The star replacement rate for R&B has slowed to a trickle. It is almost as if the R&B industry took the title of the 1989 Nelson George book The Death of Rhythm and Blues too literally.
New R&B artists have emerged, but very few with the wattage of previous generations.
Technology has also played a role in the diminished urban radio landscape. By the middle of the 2000s, the development of cell phones that streamed music, and of the mega-popular Apple’s iPod/iTouch/iPhone products, provided listeners with much of their favorite music, all on-demand. If you did appreciate the “more music, less talk,” programming stance of 80s/90s black/urban radio, then how about “even more music, no talk” on your iPod.
Satellite radio, web music services like Spotify, or watching your favorite music on YouTube and VEVO have also cut into general radio listenership. For many of the older African-American audiences of R&B and soul, CDs are still a preferred choice for music consumption.
So now, the merger of KISS and WBLS serves not as a marriage of convenience, but one of survival. Unfortunately, neither station ever became progressive enough, musically or strategically, to keep up with the times. Indeed, if you were an 18-year-old fan of Run-DMC’s “Sucker MCs” in 1983, you are now 47 years old. Yet, you were unlikely to hear the song that changed NY black radio some thirty years ago, in gold rotation on either KISS or WBLS before this past weekend.
The adult contemporary, urban stations right in the birthplace of rap, even in 2012, didn’t recognize that they lost the “anti-hip-hop radio war” about 20 years ago.
Even through the continuous waves of technological innovation for media content, terrestrial radio remains a viable form of mass communication. We still flick on our tuners for the latest in news, sports, traffic, weather, gossip, and political punditry.
The newly formed WBLS, now with parts of the KISS legacy embedded within it, will be led by a corporate partnership that includes successful serial urban investors Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Ronald Burkle. Hopefully, their vision will infuse the newly-merged radio entity with a balanced understanding of how keeping competitive while still innovating is the key to sustainability for any business.
But for now, we’ll settle for the remnants of two legendary, culturally-influential black/urban radio stations — themselves now “remixed” together for survival.