According to The New York Times, which first reported the trend, it all began in October when Radio One’s KROI FM in Houston dumped the news format for classic hip-hop, playing anthems and lesser-known gems from Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Per Nielsen figures cited by the NYT, KROI’s audience soared from 245,000 to 802,000, while its market share more than tripled from 1.0 to 3.2.
KROI’s huge success was the signal for Radio One to switch a number of its other stations to classic hip-hop as well, including WPHI-FM in Philadelphia and KSOC-FM in Dallas. In the copycat world of radio programming it’s no surprise that other big broadcast radio groups are following suit, including iHeartMedia and Cumulus Media.
The former switched KMJM-FM in St. Louis and WSOL-FM in Jacksonville to classic hip-hop, while the latter dropped the Q100 format for classic hip-hop at 97.9 in Atlanta. In fact, the Atlanta market briefly went from having no classic hip-hop stations to three carrying the format, although one later dropped it.
Some programmers attribute the popularity of the classic hip-hop format to the loyalty of the original fan base -- mostly urban African-American listeners, who drove rap’s popularity as young devotees in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, as they reach their 40s, this cohort is reasserting their taste for the classics over more recent -- and perhaps lesser -- hip-hop artists favored by younger listeners.
Whatever is driving it, the emergence (or rather reemergence) of the classic hip-hop format is good news for urban radio broadcasters that have often struggled with declining ratings and advertising revenues in some of their key markets in recent years.
Discussing the failure of previous experiments with news formats in Houston and elsewhere in November, Radio One Alfred C. Liggins III admitted: “We just couldn't get any real significant ratings traction, and that's also kind of the history of these all news FMs in New York, in Philadelphia and Chicago, Atlanta, Washington. A great idea, but in practice, it really hasn’t proven out to be a winner.”
By contrast, Liggins noted that the switch to classic hip-hop began paying immediate dividends in audience growth.