Where there is hip-hop, there are battles. Ever since DJ Kool Herc's soundsystem started blaring in the Bronx circa 1975, the genre has had a competitive edge to it. In the beginning, breakdancers, DJs and rappers alike attempted to conquer all comers and wow the crowd with awe-inspiring tricks. As the genre has evolved - or devolved, depending on whom you ask - that spirit of competition has remained, although nowadays it usually plays out in the passive-aggressive posture of the internet age. Battling has long since gone out of style, but braggadocio and lyrical subtweets persist. Occasionally someone will still breathe fire and name names like Kendrick Lamar did on last year's incendiary "Control," reminding the world in no uncertain terms that domination is the goal.
Where there is hip-hop, there are battles. Ever since DJ Kool Herc’s soundsystem started blaring in the Bronx circa 1975, the genre has had a competitive edge to it. In the beginning, breakdancers, DJs and rappers alike attempted to conquer all comers and wow the crowd with awe-inspiring tricks. As the genre has evolved — or devolved, depending on whom you ask — that spirit of competition has remained, although nowadays it usually plays out in the passive-aggressive posture of the internet age. Battling has long since gone out of style, but braggadocio and lyrical subtweets persist. Occasionally someone will still breathe fire and name names like Kendrick Lamar did on last year’s incendiary “Control,” reminding the world in no uncertain terms that domination is the goal.
Media tends to be a battleground too, and in Columbus, the latest media battle is over hip-hop itself. For almost a decade, WCKX — better known as Power 107.5 — has been the only radio station in town broadcasting hip-hop and R&B. As of last month they’ve got competition in the form of WZCB, a new urban contemporary station billing itself as 106.7 The Beat. And the new guys definitely view themselves as competition: A series of bumpers between songs on The Beat feature a man playfully yet aggressively spouting lines such as, “They’re running out of power! Must be having trouble paying the bills!”
In pure musical terms, the stations are similar. They each play a mix of current rap and R&B hits with an occasional smattering of older material. Both are overzealously spinning Schoolboy Q’s “Radio” and DJ Khaled’s “Hold You Down” right now, and you can probably catch smash hits from the past decade-plus such as 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” or Rihanna and Drake’s “What’s My Name” if you tune in at the right moment. Yet historically and philosophically, there’s a lot of distance between them. It makes for a significant contrast, one representatives from each station are eager to sharpen.
Thirty-four years ago, Cathy Hughes bought her first radio station. Hughes had spent the past decade working her way up through the business, eventually taking over as vice president and general manager at Howard University’s WHUR-FM in Washington, DC. She scored a major coup in 1976 when she helped launch Melvin Lindsey’s “Quiet Storm” format, a mix of soulful slow jams that went on to revolutionize urban radio. (If you’ve seen the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “The Ladies Man,” you’ve got the idea.) By 1980, Hughes was able to purchase a station of her own, WOL-AM, and switch the format from 24/7 music to programming that addressed culture and politics from a black perspective.
Thus began Radio One, the Silver Spring, Maryland-based company that owns Power 107.5 today. Power is one of 55 stations Radio One owns in 16 markets, numbers big enough to qualify them as the nation’s largest black-owned radio network. The company bills itself as “The Urban Media Specialist,” and its two properties in Columbus — Power 107.5 and the urban adult contemporary station Magic 106.3, both based on First Avenue in Italian Village — bear that out. Each station is targeted primarily at a black audience.
“We have a mission statement that indeed says we seek to be the most trusted source in the African-American community,” said Jeffrey Wilson, the Cleveland-based regional vice president who oversees Radio One’s Columbus properties.
The Power name brand had already existed in Columbus for nearly a decade before Radio One acquired the station in 2001. So its history in this city runs deep, something Wilson noted during a phone interview this week. Yet he was reluctant to linger too long on the past.
"I like to say don't look back, we're not going that way,” Wilson said. "We know we've got to be on the cutting edge of everything."
When listing off some of the other ways he believes Power 107.5 edges their new competition, Wilson pointed out that Power airs live, local content around the clock. For instance, whereas Power broadcasts its own morning show, the Power Morning Crew, The Beat airs The Breakfast Club, a nationally syndicated broadcast out of New York.
Wilson also emphasized that Radio One views its staff as community leaders, citing the company’s role in organizing Town Hall Meetings in conjunction with its St. Louis affiliates Hot 104.1 and Old School 95.5 during the racially charged crisis in Ferguson, Missouri last summer. He said the staff at all Radio One stations including Power 107.5 are being trained to participate in similar ventures should the unrest reignite in other cities.
“We honestly see ourselves as in positions way beyond broadcasting,” Wilson said.
He added that the staff of Power has long been involved in a number of community initiatives, and not just the many partnerships the station initiates. He highlighted longtime Power personality City News (Terrence Sigers) and his City School Tour, which takes him to several schools per week to persuade students against drugs, violence and dropping out.
“Nobody ever asked him to do that,” Wilson said. “He just devotes countless hours of his time every year to do what’s right. And that’s what most of the people do in that building.”
The braintrust of Radio One believes there’s real value in having stations specifically designed to be a voice for the black population, whose perspectives might be marginalized otherwise. Yet Wilson hopes Power’s attempts to resonate with a black audience are not at the exclusion of everyone else. In fact, in 2007 the station shifted from the urban contemporary format to something known as Rhythmic — a combination of urban and top 40 sounds — in an attempt to broaden its horizons, and in turn, its audience.
Wilson quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. to make his point about inclusivity: "We may have all come in different ships, but we're in the same boat now."
106.7 The Beat
The wall just inside the glass double doors at iHeartMedia’s West Side studio is covered in logos. Both the quantity and variety go to show just how widely the company’s reach extends in Columbus. There’s top 40 (97.9 WNCI-FM), country (92.3 WCOL-FM), news/talk (610 WTVN-AM), oldies (93.3 WODC-FM) and more, all under the banner of the San Antonio-based company formerly known as Clear Channel.
With more than 850 AM and FM stations to its name, iHeartMedia is the largest radio company in America. What began in 1972 with a single FM station in Texas became so massive by the turn of the millennium that it routinely drew criticism for its overwhelming market share and sometimes had to divest itself of properties to comply with antitrust legislation. At one point the company’s portfolio swelled to more than 1,200 stations.
In some circles, the phrase “Clear Channel” became shorthand for all that is wrong with commercial radio, the conventional wisdom being that the company was driving local stations out of business and replacing them with cookie-cutter playlists and syndicated programming. Yet the counter has always been that to become so dominant in your field, you must be doing something right.
Or as iHeartMedia on-air personality Medha Gandhi put it, “Everyone wants to play for the Yankees, right? But when you don’t play for the Yankees, everybody wants to talk bad about them.”
“Dominant” sums up iHeartMedia’s footprint in Columbus: The four stations listed above — 97.9 FM, 92.3 FM, 610 AM and 93.3 FM — were the four best-rated in town throughout October according to Nielsen Audio. But the company has never tried its hand at hip-hop and R&B until now.
The 106.7 FM frequency had most recently been home to X106.7, an alternative rock station gunning for a share of CD102.5’s market. In recent months the two stations were neck-and-neck in the ratings, but Michael McCoy, iHeartMedia’s vice president of programming for the Columbus market, saw an opportunity to gain a bigger piece of the ratings pie and increase the station’s revenue.
“I think there’s room here for another urban station in the market to serve that community, be a viable entity,” McCoy said in late October at iHeartMedia’s studios. “So we just identified that as a potential hole and did the research and made the decision to go ahead, and so far it’s been an immediate success.”
Power is still ahead of The Beat in the ratings for now, but McCoy said the new station is poised to pull even within the next month or two. He said he sees The Beat as the underdog in that battle even though iHeartMedia is a far larger company than Radio One.
“Traditionally, we have not been a big urban company,” McCoy said. “Radio One is the urban expert. That’s what they do. So I think whenever you put something that’s relatively new with people who haven’t necessarily been down that road before up against the experts in the field, we probably are the underdog at that point. We should be! If they’re doing things right, we should be the underdog.”
The Beat’s on-air staff is still small, but its pedigree is strong. The night host is Gandhi, who is also continuing her role on WNCI’s popular Morning Zoo. For drive-time, they brought on Konata Holland, aka The Big Man Konata, who spent years on the air with Power before being let go last year.
“I wish them the best,” Holland said, “but right now it’s like that ex-girlfriend you had. You don’t want to see ’em do bad, but you’re not thinking about ’em either… You’re falling in love somewhere else.”
When asked how The Beat will differ from Power, Gandhi pointed to more extensive resources and industry connections, such as Nicki Minaj giving iHeartMedia an exclusive premiere of her new single. As for differences in approach, Gandhi and Holland said they want the new station to be an escapist zone where listeners can forget their troubles and just have fun, which doesn’t sound like the stuff of Town Hall meetings. Furthermore, they’re not presenting The Beat as a primarily black station.
“Hip-hop isn’t a color,” Holland said. “It’s more of a lifestyle and a feel. And I want this station to really be, ‘Everybody’s welcome to this party.’”
The DJs touched on that point repeatedly, sometimes colorfully: “You don’t have to be afraid to come out to this party because you’re not going to get shot with us,” Gandhi said. “It’s a ratchet-free zone.”
“You can enjoy it,” Holland added, “without your pants down around your kneecaps.”
Despite The Beat’s newness in the market and the difficulty inherent in trying to be everything to everyone, Holland balked at the notion that Power’s connection to the people of Columbus runs deeper. He noted that several current Power personalities were imported from out of town in recent years, whereas he’s Columbus born-and-raised.
“I’m a part of the community,” Holland said. “I helped build their community.”
Photo by Meghan Ralston