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Public Radio Experiments With ‘Urban Alternative’ Format to Reach Younger Listeners

Seven years ago, Jordan Lee of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee started working on a problem: Although the public-radio station played tons of music by young Black and Latino artists, it was mostly older white listeners who were tuning in. To survive, and build listenership, the station needed a younger and more diverse audience.

“The product wasn’t coming from within the Black community,” says Lee, the station director. “The DJs, we are Black Americans, but it wasn’t rooted in the culture. We started taking a hard look at ourselves.”

Inspired by Vocalo, a spin-off of longtime Chicago public-radio station WBEZ that plays hip-hop, R&B and dance, Lee built the foundation of a new channel in the urban alternative format. The process landed Radio Milwaukee a $450,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting last month, which means Lee can immediately start hiring new staff for a Juneteenth 2022 launch – the new programming will stream full-time on the station’s HD2 digital channel as well as its app and website.

“We’ve begun all the necessary ingredients for the dishes we’re going to put together,” he says. “We just need to put together the human beings and technology, and we’re ready to go.”

The latest round of CPB grants, issued Sept. 14 and totaling $1.3 million, went to public-radio stations that are, like Radio Milwaukee, building a new format known as “urban alternative” — it’s like album adult alternative, the longstanding commercial rock format that mixes new and classic tracks, only focusing on hip-hop, R&B and dance music rather than white rock artists. A station might play Drake, then 2Pac, then a new local group. The other grant recipients, Jackson State University’s WJSU in Mississippi and Minnesota Public Radio, will also launch such programming on mostly digital and streaming channels.

About 10 years ago, longtime radio strategists began talking about a hole they’d discovered on radio dials that even public-radio stations — which are known for eclectic programming — weren’t filling. “Young and diverse audiences,” says Mike Henry, CEO of Paragon Media Strategies, a Denver entertainment consulting and research company working with several stations that have received CPB grants. “It’s really been a blind spot for public radio for its entire existence.”

Stations in the urban-alternative format also emphasize local DJs, as well as community engagement, like voter-registration drives and political activism. In February, earlier grant recipient WNSB, or Blazin’ Hot 91 in Norfolk, Va., worked with PBS to host community discussions about the historical importance of Black churches. “That’s where we’re going to make an impact,” Henry says.

Radio has struggled in recent years through declining broadcast listenership among younger audiences despite booming streaming and podcast growth — the pandemic hit National Public Radio especially hard, as listeners stayed home rather than tuning in during their commutes. Digitally, NPR reported in July 2020 that its overall listenership grew 10% and NPR.org users increased by 76% compared to the previous year. Still, the overall listenership is a problem for radio, which needs revenues from sponsors, who spend money on the broadcast channels.

The urban-alternative consultants say drawing an untapped market of young, diverse listeners could help reverse these trends. The idea remains a work in progress — partly because the stations air this programming on their lesser-known digital channels, rather than their flagship broadcast channels, they rarely dent local ratings. WNSB recently placed 21st in the Norfolk market, according to Nielsen, and Denver’s The Drop hit 28th. (Both received CPB grants of hundreds of thousands in an earlier round of funding.)

“More people are becoming aware. We know this takes time,” says Jacquie Gales Webb, CPB’s vice president of radio. “And it’s also increasing the amount of diverse staff in public media. All the way around, it’s a win.”

Nikki Swarn, The Drop’s general manager and program director, says the station’s “steady growth” is more important than ratings in competition with local, corporate-owned commercial stations. The station is tied for 13th place for the 25-to-34-year-old demographic in the most recent monthly ratings, and landed 70,000 overall listeners in August — with no advertising.

The Drop, which received $350,000 in the earlier CPB round, is building a relationship with the community, “brick by brick, song by song, event by event,” she says. “It is a movement of the people. I’m having a small heart attack every day. I’ve been in radio a long time. This doesn’t happen.”

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