Has urban music received the kissof death? According to Rogers Broadcasting's KISS 92.5, which has just traded in its urban content for a diverse middle-of-the-road hits playlist and a name change - JACK 92.5 - urban is past tense. So, what's FLOW playing? A very shrewd game of cat-and-mouse with its listeners. While KISS tried to out-funk FLOW, the latter concentrated on playing commercial urban hits. Now it has the terrain to itself and will no longer be accused of sounding like KISS.
KISS has dumped J.Lo for the Thompson Twins, shifting from a big booty to teased hair. The 80s are back, and the station has its lips wrapped tightly around the forgettable decade. Its new retro-chic content was first introduced on the former KISS 96.9 in Vancouver.
JACK 92.5 is convinced that radio listeners in Toronto are trending toward a more diverse selection of pop hits, and the station can't wait to serve them.
Is KISS just hearing the bad news before the rest of us? Is the urban format really on the way out? One record company's national street rep, who services DJs, FLOW's and others, doesn't think so. He reminds me that urban still scores high in North America's top media markets. The problem for KISS, he says, is that it kept playing with listener loyalty by changing. "First it was country (owned by Rawlco Communications), than pop and urban formats under Rogers's ownership. Listeners got fed up with the game of musical chairs.'
Says James Careless, a media consultant and freelance writer who penned an exposé on urban radio for Marketing magazine (also owned by Rogers) last summer, "FLOW will survive because it has street cred and genuine roots, and the lucrative 18-to-25- year-old demo (which FLOW has) is restless with top-40s stations,' he says. "The shift in listening patterns in the younger demographic is more toward edgier formats with more sex appeal.' And there's nothing sexier than urban music.
An edgier FLOW will have the prowess to satisfy the need - if, that is, the station can diversify its playlist. The Net has fostered a fusion thing out there; people are simply hearing more sounds. They want diversity, they want exotic, and urban radio listeners won't be far behind in demanding more than the usual urban fare.
FLOW's third program director came to the end of his contract last Friday (June 13). What are we to make of this development? Not much, says Nicole Jolly, FLOWs Marketing Director. It was only a short-term contract, she says. As to a more pluralistic musical offering, Jolly says, "We were never putting in the last brick. FLOW will continue to change and grow by giving listeners what they want."
Still some have referred to FLOW's brand tattoo, Toronto's "urban FM," as "urban and Frequently Mediocre" because of its concentration on lyric-light R&B hiphop: repetitive, vacuous and very Foolish Ashanti. The station started out barely keeping it real and now has lots of personality but very little soul.
Milestone Communications spent 12 years tirelessly fighting to add some colour to the T-dot FM dial. Still, FLOW is missing reggae, calypso, jazz, house, world music and acid jazz, which by all rights ought to be considered urban. A revolution is happening in radio, and no format is safe in the new world disorder. FLOW should develop an urban format that will cause an earthquake.
"FLOW has set a good niche for itself over the years. Now it has an opportunity to broaden and expand a little bit,' says Paul Jessop, VP of promotions and head of radio for Universal, Island and Def Jam. "If the urban trend continues and FLOW seizes the opportunity to grow, it will do well.'
It's fair to say that serving the soul of a city as diverse as Toronto requires programming with intuitive engineering, which is totally within FLOW's grasp but not evident at this point. The station has been very astute to recognize the different segments that make up the urban audience - 60 per cent of FLOW's listeners are non-black - but that doesn't get it off the hook. Three years ago there were big expectations. Now there are bigger disappointments. The urban format in Toronto is not dead, but it certainly could use a tune-up.
Michael Yarde is an artist brand strategist.