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July 9, 2020

Hey Frankie, Now They Want to Get Rid of “Urban Radio” Because You Called it Urban Contemporary


Imagine a conversation Frankie Crocker would have with Frankie Crocker about the word URBAN.  There is a movement among record labels and now one major radio corporation according to a recent Rolling Stone magazine article that reports “Urban” is being eliminated in major corporate audio content companies. They say it's a dated, antiquated term that needs to be done away with.

Here we reference the article, The word was was first popularized within the radio community in the Seventies, thanks in large part to Frankie Crocker, a famous DJ and one of the pioneers of black radio in New York. “Many advertising agencies still seem to know very little about the buying habits of today’s black consumer,” Bostonian program director Sunny Joe White explained in 1982. So stations call themselves urban to make themselves more attractive to those agencies.”

Imagine Frankie having a similar conversation on the radio today as he did in this aircheck.



So imagine Frankie just talking to himself on the radio.

This is a fictional account of how Frankie Crocker might view the recent efforts in the radio and music industries to remove the word urban from their corporate organizations. Any similarities to actual events is unintentional. This work of fiction is for educational and entertainment purposes only. Enjoy the aircheck. 

Good afternoon New York. I'm Frankie Crocker. You know who you are. I trust. We opened this afternoon with “New York, New York” from Frank Sinatra on WBLS. It's 12 minutes now after 4 o'clock. 76 degrees and light showers throughout the Big Apple. It's cooled off just bit from the 87 we had just about an hour ago. Our special guest this afternoon is Frankie Crocker and I just want to say welcome... As you know many people are interested in what the term urban actually means today. And uh... I guess and you heard that urban is becoming a taboo term in some circles in terms of how it relates to describing what we actually do at the radio station.

Yes I heard that. Oh by the way it's always my pleasure to be here at WBLS. You know the industry is always going through changes. Always. Have to keep it fresh. ...Well you know it's a term I created to describe the format here at WBLS in the mid 1970's. Actually I used the term urban contemporary not urban per se. We play music that appeals to an urban contemporary audience.

That's interesting because urban is a lifestyle, isn't it? Not necessarily a genre of music.

Well exactly. It's what's happening now. It's the sound of New York City. Like we started the set off today with Frank Sinatra. It's what New Yorkers want to hear now. We play the O'Jays; Earth, Wind, and Fire as well as The Police. Elton John. Whoever. We'll play David Bowie. Madonna. Prince. Michael Jackson. We call WBLS, The World's Best Looking Sound. America's Best, ...In a Class By Itself. We've used also... here at WBLS.

A well rounded sound that appeals to all New Yorkers is what you created at WBLS is what you're saying. How did advertisers respond when WBLS became the number one station in New York?

As program director who has to answer to upper management in terms of dollars, we didn't bill like the AM news stations and the AM radio music stations in the city even though we were almost three points higher than our nearest competitor.

It took some convincing to see us for more than being a Black radio station. Of course we embrace our Black listenters, but our appeal was across all ethnic groups and income levels. This is what will happen in such a diverse city as New York. So in an attempt...I guess you can say, to appeal to those companies, I came up with Urban Contemporary.

OH... Let me add this, this didn't just happen here in New York, but also other places like Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago. That of course brought competition and other Urban Contemporary stations to the market in those respective cities.

As it was back then, and now in 2020, WBLS hovers near the top of the ratings in New York, month after month, even in an electronic ratings environment.

So as you see it Urban doesn't mean Black?

Well don't mistakenly think we don't play Black music. The essence of what we do is play Black music. Be it Rhythm and Blues, Soul music, Classic Hip Hop, Gospel. We always honor the legends that came before us. But I would not use the terms interchangeably. And as program director I will always find a place to keep Aretha and Stevie in rotation.

Our guest this afternoon is Frankie Crocker on WBLS. We're talking Urban. Should the Music and Radio industries get rid of the word Urban. A word we've been using at WBLS for quite awhile. Is it dated? That's what we want to know.

It's been around for the last 40 years or so... Urban Contemporary has. But from what you created is quite different now. There's been an outgrowth. A distinction, a clear distinction you might say, between Urban and Urban Adult Contemporary. 

(Laughter) Yes... well... terms I didn't create. That's interesting because Billboard and record companies, or let's say music labels, which is a more appropriate term in this digital age, renamed the charts and began describing Hip Hop music as Urban music and the R&B side as Urban Adult Contemporary as a way of putting a label on the music and how they marketed their artists. Singles are always either impacting Urban stations or Urban Adult Contemporary stations. Rarely both at the same time.

Well that brings us back to erasing the term urban. Why do you think that's so? 

Well speaking of outgrowth, I think it's a way to address some underlying issues that exist within the music and radio industry. When we look at the current climate in our country as it relates to equality for all people in society...clearly urban music divisions and urban radio departments, in terms of commitment from management to promote personnel to executive positions, have been lacking. (What do I think...why is it so...) It's a way to atone for the mistakes of the past, in a broad brush sort of way... allows for them to more or less turn a new leaf. It doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen or go away.

Clearly when I coined the phrase Urban Contemporary, I could not have foreseen it as a way to further separate Black music and Black radio from mainstream audiences. It evolved into something it wasn't intended to reflect. "Urban" was misappropriated by the music industry. As we were saying earlier, Urban Contemporary brings out the best of New York. It's a coming together of all types of people.

Urban has become a term used to describe Hip Hop music and all ...dare I say... the rachetedness that goes along with it. We cannot play the tracks that people download on the radio on our sister Urban/Hip Hop station. We have to play the radio edited versions due to FCC regulations. No other genre of music releases (ex)plicit language songs to the public. We were in a much better place years ago.

That is a problem I see, that causes uh... many young people... not being "into" radio, given the number of choices they have. They have no idea who the jocks are. Or even care to know who they are.

You're exactly right when it comes to on-air personalities. Now of course... Hip Hop music, which is Urban radio, skews the perception advertisers have when we try to sell our product.

I remember you weren't particularly excited by Hip Hop.

Well...yes. It took awhile for us to add a Hip Hop show on WBLS. Finally I conceded with Mr. Magic's Rap Attack on the weekends. A groundbreaking show by the way... I just remember him asking me about playing RUN-DMC's Peter Piper. Up to that point rap music was pretty much clean party records...  It had a couple of cuss words, but it was a quick edit of one verse of bad words and we moved on. But I also played Hip Hop too. (both hosts shaking their heads yes) Ahhh...Biz Markie. Say He's Just a Friend. That was a great fun record! (laughter)

Where do we go from here?

Well at this point I don't think it's that big of a deal. We at WBLS, will still be an Urban Contemporary radio station that plays R&B music throughout the day, The Quiet Storm at night, a mix of Classic Hip Hop and specialty shows that feature Gospel and Caribbean music on the weekend.We will continue to air Open Line and Rev. Al Sharpton and Imhotep Gary Byrd on Sundays to serve the community from an information standpoint ...it's what we do. We will expand our social media platforms and our digital footprint. We give New York the Best Mix of R&B.

I'm glad you joined us today Frankie. It makes what we do here at WBLS special. We have a proven track record with all listeners. So when it comes to the music labels, high achievers in any department or division should be given equal opportunity to rise through the ranks? No matter if it's Adult Contemporary, Alternative, Pop, Rock, Country. That's what you're saying here.

Absolutely. Even Urban. Which by the way has never been a derogatory or offensive term. So why scrub it away.

I hear the R&B...wait..the Progressive R&B division (laughter) Now that's a 70's term if I ever heard one... or the Hip-Hop division are what they are moving towards...it's what we've been doing here all along. Playing R&B artists on 107.5 WBLS New York. But moving forward maybe what they call Urban music...

Go ahead and say it. I know what you're thinking. 

Really should be called Pop. Hip-Hop is the most Popular music and accounts for more streams than any other music.

(laughter) Frankie Crocker will be here all afternoon. If you like to call and ask Frankie a question it's 9-55-W-B-L-S. Of course stay tuned later on at 6:30 for The Evening Bath coming your way ladies. Given you a chance to relax and unwind from your hopefully not too stressful day. I'll be there... right with you. You pour the bubbles and I'll bring the music. Let's light a candle.



“May you all live to be 100, and me 100 minus a day...so I will never know that such nice people like you have passed away.”




Frankie Crocker was the PD at WBLS and is considered the number one Black radio personality. He propelled WBLS to New York's number one radio station in the 70's and 80's. His influence is still present today, as many Urban Adult Contemporary stations still program their station based on his blueprint. 


Frankie began his career at WUFO in Buffalo, New York. He arrived in NYC at Soul Music Radio station (Super 16) WWRL 1600 AM and then as one of the Good Guys at mainstream 570 AM WMCA in the mid 60's. Frankie also worked at 98.7 Kiss FM and KUTE in Los Angeles as well as briefly in Chicago and St. Louis. He appeared in five movies from the 1970's, famously arrived at Studio 54 during the height of the Disco era riding a white horse, and also hosted his own show on VH1. He passed away in 2000. 




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