Media 101 in the 21st century tells you that the internet is the last citadel: Its masters rule the business. Monthlies become quarterlies as publications prioritize page views. Artists and music execs fuss over monetizing streams as CDs become less of a thing. Radio’s content moves from airwaves to YouTube and Twitter. Eyes hover over MacBook and smartphone screens just as personalities and program directors search for exposure and potential ad revenue. The hustle to take over the Web is new, but the reason to do so follows an old maxim. As Hot 97’s Ebro Darden puts it, “If you want to find the answers to anything, follow the money.”
The pressure is particularly heavy for New York City’s urban radio. The rappers who turn the internet into bedlam are from Toronto and Atlanta, and Metacritic’s favorite rapper is Compton’s Kendrick Lamar. New York isn’t the epicenter when it comes to mainstream output (count Fetty Wap if you must), but it is a media center. And Hot 97 is still a legacy brand, while Power 105.1 still has The Breakfast Club (featuring Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee), a powerhouse of a morning show.
In concept, the presence of the internet takes away some of radio’s real estate in that 18–34 demographic. Moments like the summer of the Flex Bomb–laden “Otis” are rarer, and music news breaks on social media and SoundCloud. However, television didn’t kill the radio personality. And radio wasn’t phased out by the internet; its personalities just had to adapt.
For all the heat Hot 97’s taken (sometimes justified, sometimes because it’s Hot 97), the station’s relevance continues thanks to its digital presence. Hot 97’s personalities — morning show co-hosts Peter Rosenberg and Laura Stylez, Nessa, and Funkmaster Flex are a few of the most notable — command a strong social-media presence. Darden banters on Twitter daily and has embraced the criticism with the #BlameEbro hashtag. Interviews are posted online soon after their recording; Tuesday’s interview with Game, where he announced that The Documentary 2 is a double album, went viral.
When it comes to radio, Hot 97’s social-media reach is matched only by BBC Radio. Under its belt, the station also has MissInfo.TV, a trusted blog from the eponymous journalist, and In Flex We Trust, which commanded 10 million page views at one point.
“We jumped out early on that stuff,” Darden says. “That was something we don’t get credit for, but when it comes to digital shit, we were there early. Apps — Flex’s app, [the] station app. All that shit. Live streaming concerts — we was doing that shit for a long time.”
The Breakfast Club’s digital reach is wide, too. Not only are Charlamagne and Yee’s podcasts (The Brilliant Idiots and Lip Service) successful in their own right, they’ve also brought increased viewership to the morning show. Charlamagne readily admits the internet is integral to the show’s success, though the trio’s strength as personalities is certainly a factor in making it the most popular hip-hop morning show.
“It’s like having a steak and not eating the steak without a steak knife and a fork,” Charlamagne says. “And if people in radio are not thinking that way, then they need to get the fuck off the radio. Just being on the radio is not enough anymore.”
But what about the music? It’s not a secret that debuts and music releases have become more widely disseminated through SoundClouds and blogs. It’s not about radio deciding which singles are popular so much as it is about those songs gaining enough steam to make it onto radio. That sort of change has brought New York’s urban radio under criticism. Radio playlist homogenization has caused some fans to sneer at Hot 97 and Power 105.1. Plus there’s the long-running question: How come New York radio doesn’t play New York hip-hop?
Darden’s response errs toward pragmatism. Fetty Wap gets the plays because he sells concert tickets and is hot in the streets. If an artist isn’t selling mid-sized venues, why take the Nielsen risk for props? Darden uses S.O.B.’s as something of a benchmark.
“All you gotta do is sell 200 tickets at $10,” he says. “If you don’t know 200 people that will buy a $10 ticket because they love you that much, why the fuck do you think you should be on Hot 97?”
Placing the onus on radio to curate comes from how the medium is still essential without that digital arm. For many, radio is still a source to discover new music, and there are many ears that will do so during the morning and evening commute — peak radio hours.
Some would argue that would be a time to push those local artists. Brian “B. Dot” Miller has been critical of New York radio’s playlists and has gotten into arguments with DJ Envy and Darden in (viral) radio interviews. B. Dot argues that repetition breeds familiarity: that a record has to be on constant rotation to resonate. To him, New York songs are played far too infrequently to stick.
“It’s like when you have a deadbeat dad and he shows up to your house on Christmas or your birthday and then he leaves,” B. Dot says. “It’s like, ‘Yo, what about the [other] 364 days?’ I need that support.”
Rob Markman — Genius’s artist relations manager and co-host of the Red Light Special podcast — is a bit more optimistic, partly because of shows like Power 105.1’s New NY: Unsigned to the Mainstream, a showcase hosted by Jovonn and DJ First Choice that airs Sundays at 10 p.m.
“Maybe it’s only an hour a week,” Markman says. “Maybe it’s only on Sunday night. But if we’re not supporting that, then why should Power dedicate any more time?”
New York City urban radio is ultimately a microcosm of an industry in flux. Times have changed, but Hot 97’s mantra still sticks — for the most part.
“When it happens in hip-hop, it happens on Hot 97,” Darden says. “Or on one of our blogs. Or on our social media.”