Media Scene

Hip-hop radio gets a new outlet in Charlotte

To promote its format change to hip-hop radio “The Block”, WQNC-FM played Canadian rapper Aubrey “Drake” Graham all weekend.
To promote its format change to hip-hop radio “The Block”, WQNC-FM played Canadian rapper Aubrey “Drake” Graham all weekend. AFP/Getty Images

A new radio station hatched this week in Charlotte, one energizing the long battle for the African-American audience.

Radio One, the Silver Spring, Md.-based company that had an instant hit three years ago when it launched the urban oldies station “Old School,” debuted “The Block” at WQNC-FM (92.7).

Now, with a high-energy hip-hop format preceded by a weekend of exclusive airplay of popular rapper Aubrey “Drake” Graham, the company takes aim at WPEG-FM (“Power 98” 97.9), a longtime leader in Charlotte radio.

“There’s about to be a power shortage,” the new station said in announcing its format change Monday afternoon, followed by airings of “Tha Block Is Hot” by Lil’ Wayne and “Power Trip” by J Cole.

‘Power 98’ has a powerful transmitter, hurling its signal to the edges of Greensboro and Spartanburg, while ‘The Block’ is lower powered, though audible throughout Charlotte’s urban core.

Three years ago, Radio One put on the 92.7 frequency a simulcast of its inspirational gospel station WPZS-FM (“Praise” 100.9). Only about a third of the audience listened to the signal on the 92.7 frequency, Radio One says.

Urban radio – industry shorthand for targeting African-Americans and younger white listeners drawn to the rhythmic energy of hip-hop – has long been one of Charlotte’s powerhouse formats, along with country music.

Charlotte’s radio market, which includes Mecklenburg and 12 surrounding counties (including three in South Carolina), is the nation’s 24th largest with an estimated population of 2.15 million. That includes an African-American population of 480,400 (22 percent) and Hispanic population of 179,400 (8 percent).

Radio One has been steadily gaining on the urban stations owned by rival Beasley since 2012. That’s when Radio One bought the powerful WOSF-FM (105.1) for $7.75 million and turned it from a Spanish station into an urban oldies format. It’s been in the top 10 ever since.

In 2012, Radio One controlled 6 percent of the region’s radio audience vs. 16 percent for its rival; now Radio One has 9 percent vs. 12 percent for Beasley.

For the next few weeks, “The Block” will run without commercials as it builds audience and sponsors. Its music-intensive format means it won’t have deejays.

But fighting “Power 98” and its stable of well-known personalities like Larry “No Limit Larry” Mims and Brian “Mr. Incognito” Robinson will be tough. Both “Power 98” and sister station WBAV-FM (“V” 101.9) not only have deep roots but are highly active in the community with sponsorships and personal appearances – down to showing up at schools to do the PA announcements.

Also, “Power 98” has one of the most powerful transmitters in the state, hurling its signal to the edges of Greensboro and Spartanburg, while “The Block” is lower powered, though it is audible throughout its target area, Charlotte’s urban core.

African-American radio stations in Charlotte

How Charlotte stations targeted at black listeners stack up. WPZS-FM includes number of listeners to both 92.7 and 100.9. WGIV-FM is not listed because it does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings.

Overall rank

Format

% of listeners*

Cume**

2. WPEG-FM

R&B

7.1%

422,000

8. WOSF-FM

Urban oldies

5.2%

263,000

10. WBAV-FM

Contemporary

4.3%

318,000

12. WPZS-FM

Gospel

3.4%

223,000

SOURCE: Nielsen August rankings.

*Six-month average.

**Overall audience over time.

Popular radio formats

Here are the main radio formats and the percentage of listeners vs. the overall population in the Charlotte area.

Format

% of listeners

Urban

20%

Country

15%

Pop

10%

News-talk-sports

6%

SOURCE: Nielsen August rankings.

Urban radio battles in Charlotte

So-called “urban radio” is one of Charlotte’s hottest radio formats, and its stations have battled through the years. Here are some of the recent skirmishes from the Observer archives:

Stealing Tom Joyner’s show

January 23, 2004: A shock from the radio hit thousands of listeners Thursday. Tom Joyner, whose morning radio show is No. 1 in Charlotte, is switching stations.

Joyner abandoned WBAV-FM – one of the first stations in the nation to pick up his show when it was syndicated a decade ago – and is moving to rival WCHH-FM. After learning of the switch late Wednesday, executives of WBAV pulled the plug on Joyner’s Thursday morning show, playing music instead. Listeners flooded the station with calls – between 6 and 10 a.m., newscaster Beatrice Thompson counted 232. “I don’t think we’ve had anything that got more calls than this,” she said. At 10 a.m., WBAV’s operation manager went on the air with a plain-spoken explanation.

“We’ve been pounded with calls and e-mails about the Tom Joyner show,” said Terri Avery. She told the audience WBAV had been talking to Joyner’s company, Reach Media, for months about renewing his contract and had just learned they were rebuffed. The switch comes only days after WBAV celebrated the news it was No. 1 in the Arbitron rankings for the first time, tying with its sister station WPEG.

WBAV’s rise was fueled by Joyner’s show, which hit No. 1 in morning drive-time with a 27 percent surge in the autumn ratings. For WCHH-FM, owned by Atlanta-based Radio One, snaring the Joyner show was nothing short of a coup. The station has a fraction of the transmitter reach of WBAV and runs No. 14 in the overall ratings. WCHH abandoned hip-hop music Wednesday night and switched to an adult urban contemporary .

Radio One launches ‘Praise’ FM

Nov. 13, 2004: Inspirational gospel radio makes a comeback on mainstream Charlotte radio as Radio One brings a new FM signal to the region, targeting a broad African American demographic largely unserved since WGIV-AM went off the air a year ago. WPZS-FM, formerly licensed to Albemarle, has moved to a tower in Indian Trail and will soon increase power to 6,000 watts, enough to cover Charlotte’s urban core, said Debbie Kwei-Cook, general manager of the new “Praise 100.9” and Radio One’s sister station, WQNC-FM.

WBAV strikes back with Steve Harvey

Nov. 5, 2005: Comic Steve Harvey takes over the morning show Monday on WBAV-FM. Harvey, a familiar face in Charlotte during the 2000 filming of Spike Lee’s “The Original Kings of Comedy,” launched the syndicated version of his New York-based show in October. “He’s got a huge name, a big comedian, has a lot of exposure,” said Terri Avery, program director at WBAV, who is banking on Harvey’s talents to reinvigorate the station’s drive-time profile. WBAV has had trouble in the mornings since January 2004, when rival WQNC-FM lured away the popular syndicated Tom Joyner. Within months, WBAV tumbled from No. 1 in the ratings to No. 13; WQNC surged from No. 14 to No. 3.

Harvey’s rise in ratings overpowers Joyner

August 4, 2006: In the latest Arbitron rankings of Charlotte radio, Steve Harvey’s drive-time show on WBAV-FM rose another notch since spring, now claiming fourth place among morning shows. And WBAV’s ratings in the time period have shot up 130 percent year-to-year. Harvey’s stunning surge – his show debuted only nine months ago – comes largely at the expense of longtime ratings powerhouse Tom Joyner, who tumbled from sixth in the spring to 10th place in morning drive. Joyner’s audience is down by a third, year-to-year, on WQNC-FM. WQNC enjoyed a ratings boost when it wooed Joyner from rival WBAV in 2004. WBAV program director Terri Avery likes the new dynamic. “It is what it is,” she said Thursday. “It’s radio wars.”

Steve Harvey leads WBAV to No. 1

May 24, 2007: Steve Harvey’s morning show continued to soar in Charlotte, increasing WBAV-FM’s drive-time audience more than 40 percent and pushing the station to the No. 1 spot in the latest Arbitron ratings. Harvey finished at No. 1 among all listeners in the mornings, his best local showing since he launched the New York-based syndicated show in November 2005.

Radio One takes WQNC in a new direction

Oct. 31, 2009: Music has replaced lifestyle talk on WQNC-FM. Tom Joyner’s morning show is still there, but daily commentary from Warren Ballentine and the Rev. Al Sharpton have given way to the up-tempo music of Usher, Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle.

Upstart ‘Old School’ teaches rivals a lesson

Oct. 10, 2012: A year ago, Radio One was looking to sell its underperforming Charlotte stations. It couldn’t get a good offer, so the Maryland-based broadcasting company decided to go all-in and try to make a dent against CBS Radio’s powerhouse urban duo of WBAV and WPEG. Based on the October rankings from Arbitron, Radio One hit its target with a vengeance. Radio One switched formats from Spanish to classic hits in September on WOSF. It was renamed “Old School” for its menu of black artists like the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder and Rick James. In a single month, the station’s overall audience shot up nearly 140 percent, landing in a tie at No. 11 with Clear Channel Radio’s WHQC. Radio One also began simulcasting its inspirational gospel WPZS on its other but weaker station, WQNC, which had specialized in black-oriented contemporary music. That’s resulted in a 25 percent boost in listener ratings for “Praise,” according to Arbitron, and put the station among the top 10 in Charlotte.

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