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Clear Channel’s R&B, Hip Hop offering may threaten sister station KDWB: Commercial radio doesn’t talk about issues affecting Black community, KMOJ’s Kelvin Quarles says

kelvin-quarles-dscf9138Is five years long enough to be feeling nostalgic?

It was just more than five years ago that the area’s only commercial radio station geared towards the urban/hip-hop audience – B96 – left the market changing formats. Since then the station has changed formats two more times; now operating as Go 96.3, a station playing a hodgepodge of music and broadcasting the Minnesota Twins games. In the meantime, fans of hip-hop and commercial R&B have been both satisfied and frustrated with the station that predated B96 and continued on following the demise of B96 – KMOJ (89.9 FM).

Now there’s a new station in the market and it seems to be music to people’s ears.

At the start of June the station on the dial at 102.5 FM launched as Hot 102.5. The iHeart Media (formerly Clear Channel) station splashed onto the scene uninterruptedly playing throwback (mostly early 2000s) hip-hop and R&B. Although there’s a small sample size, the early buzz indicates the people of the Twin Cities are excited about the emergence of the new “oldies” station. The new station is targeting listeners 33-40.

“We are trying to create a platform where we feel we’re serving the largest group of listeners. While some of our (eight) stations served the urban/hip-hop/R&B market in a small way, we decided we should have a station that appeals in that segment, as well as others,” said Gregg Swedberg, senior vice president of iHeart Media – Minneapolis.

While it’s too early to know actual rating numbers, Swedberg pointed to the 4,500 likes on Facebook and 1,600 followers on Twitter as an indication of the station’s swift popularity. That’s not bad for a station that has been basically serving as a music playlist, as there has yet to be a live voice on the air at Hot 102.5. According to Swedberg, plans are still in flux as to if and when on air talent will debut under the new format.

“We don’t know yet how popular the station will be, so we have an internal plan about when we will staff it up, and how deep we end up hiring, said Swedberg. “We sure want a full air staff, but we really need to see how well the station will be supported to make that decision.”

Although the station operated for most of the month without commercial interruption, a spattering of commercials started running early last week. After all, Hot 102.5 is a commercial radio station.

Further down to the left of the dial in noncommercial land, the station that has been in the market for 40 years, KMOJ, continues to offer its serving of urban programming. And according to KMOJ’s general manager, Kelvin Quarles, surprisingly, he too is excited to see Hot 102.5 enter the arena.

“It’s (the emergence of Hot 102.5) a good thing for the Twin Cities and it’s a good thing for KMOJ,” said Quarles. “It gives people more options and it gives us the opportunity to step up. Sometimes without competition you’re lackadaisical.”

And while some are predicting a large dent in listenership at KMOJ, Quarles said the station most affected may be one of Hot’s sister stations.

“The station that will get hurt most is iHeart’s own, KDWB (101.3 FM),” said Quarles. KDWB is iHeart’s pop music station in the region. “(Some) may turn away from KMOJ, but a lot will flip back and forth to both (Hot and KMOJ).”

Having competition isn’t anything new for KMOJ; The last time KMOJ fought for urban ears it was operating at about half the signal strength it has now. And the major complaint (one of the few complaints thus far) for Hot is its relatively weak signal – a complaint lodged by some of KMOJs listeners as well.

“We are limited by the FCC as to operating power,” confessed Swedberg. “The good thing is the signal touches 80 percent of the population with its signal. And we’re so lucky to be part of iHeartMedia because we have the best online platform for digital listening. Most car radios allow people to plug in their smart phone, and if you can do that, you have Hot 102.5 digitally, which is even better than FM.”

With no on air jocks to date, Hot 102.5 is missing a key component that has endeared KMOJ to many in the Twin Cities – its community connection.

“Commercial radio is more about entertaining,” said Quarles. “You’re not going to hear people on air there talking about the issues of the African-American community. Nobody else in the state but us is going to give these issues the proper attention they deserve.”

According to Swedberg, shifting demographics and increased African-American ears certainly played a role in the decision to enter the urban radio market. He said the shift has been occurring for years now.

“Remembering that much of this music is 20-plus years old now, we’re really thinking about this market 20 years ago,” said the iHeart executive. “Can it support this kind of station? We’re betting it can.”

Fans of the new station are hoping that’s a winning bet as well.

June 30, 2015
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