Local hip-hop will return to K97.5—and why that (might) matter | Music

Local hip-hop will return to K97.5—and why that (might) matter

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This Labor Day weekend might offer the last chance for local hip-hop artists to complain that they never hear their music on mainstream radio.

Starting next weekend, Sunday, Sep. 13, WQOK-FM 97.5 FM will air its weekly “919 Radio” show in an effort to “play the best in local talent.” The show will return after a four-year hiatus and make its comeback just as two separate Triangle hip-hop festivals, the DURM Hip Hop Summit and Chapel Hill’s new Hillmatic, try to gain their footing, and two local heroes, King Mez and Rapsody, vie for national stardom.

In the past, questions about radio’s responsibility to the local scene have largely gone unanswered due to the elusiveness of some of K97.5’s management. Finally, people—in particular, new program director Derrick Baker—are willing to talk.

In all fairness, Baker, not Brian Dawson, is the program director of the Triangle’s hip-hop and R&B station, WQOK-FM 97.5. I knew that before I interviewed Dawson and the co-founders of the fourth annual DURM Hip Hop Summit, Professor Toon and The Real Laww, for the INDY's "Radio Suckas: DURM Hip Hop Summit & K97.5: Why can't local rap and radio get it together?" But the goal of that article wasn’t to question why a commercial radio station like K97.5 honors a particular playlist; its goal was to reconcile the odd coupling of a local music scene and a reluctant local radio station. Dawson's input was important: He helped plan DHHS, and there have been few opportunities for him to address the public misconception that he is the urban airwaves' gatekeeper or public enemy number one.

As much as the two sides disagree on what role they should play in one anothers' livelihoods, the bottom line is that, no matter how many Soundcloud, YouTube, Bandcamp hits an artist amasses, radio is still an important medium for hip-hop, soul and R&B. According to a Nielsen’s Audio Today report, over the past four years, the amount of urban format radio listeners has grown from 29.8 million to 31.3 million. A related report cited that North Carolina’s urban radio formats—which would include K97.5—had a 17.9 percent audience share across the state compared to the national average of just 7.7 percent. Only five other states (South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana) have higher urban audience shares.  In short, black folks are listening to the radio now more than ever. Though some local hip-hop acts may profess a fuck-the-radio credo, the Nielsen reports suggest that may make little sense. 

Though in its fourth year, this year's DHHS made a shoddy first impression on K97.5’s new program director, Derrick Baker. He attended, but unfortunately, the most of what he witnessed was a divided hip-hop family instead of a unified Triangle rap scen. In Durham Central Park, at the same time that DHHS was failing to even match Durham Farmers’ Market numbers, The Beast’s Pierce Freelon hosted a Black August party not even a mile away at Skewers Bar & Grill. Around that same time, the DURM clothing brand Runaway held its summer release party, outside at American Tobacco Campus, featuring the budding Raleigh rapper Ace Henderson as the event’s headliner.

We asked Baker how he felt about what he saw and why mainstream radio can be so problematic for local arts.

INDY: What did you think about the DURM Hip Hop Summit?
Derrick Baker: From an attendance standpoint, I was a little disappointed. I thought we’d get more people out. I’m new to the market, new to the station. I just started here in June. Part of me going out was to get a better picture of what the lay of the land was in the market. So, the hip-hop Summit was an opportunity for me to go out and see some of this talent showcased in the Triangle. In that sense, it was good. I was a little disappointed in the turnout, but I did see some folks who had great potential. It’s weird because I had heard that there was a big underground artist movement happening, but I didn’t see it. 

This year’s Summit definitely wasn’t an accurate representation of what’s going in the Triangle, but what had you heard about the scene prior to the Summit?
Part of being the new guy coming in is that you have a fresh set of eyes and you get to observe things. So, I got a lot of feedback from people who I would see in the street and from the staff. You want people to give you open and honest feedback. One of the things that I heard particularly about K97.5 was K97.5 was not really receptive to local and unsigned artists. I don’t know how we were able to get that tag, but it was a little weird because that’s never been our stance. One of the things that all of the stations at Radio One do is try to serve the community. It’s the business of radio to get as many people to listen to the station as we can, but there was never a mandate that said “Don’t play or support local artists.”

Is that bad relationship—between the radio and local artists—just a misconception? From your experience and career in radio, has there ever been a relationship?
I would say there’s been a misunderstanding between the two. I don’t care which market you’re in. Any market with this size will have some disgruntled artists who feel they don’t get played. Part of that is about communication and folks understanding how the business of radio works. If there was such a big movement, one of the things that I would have liked to have seen is for some of these folks to come out and see that we’re trying to get involved as best as we can.

This was something that we initiated this year. It was one of the first few projects that I had a chance to work on coming to the station. I thought it showed that we were committed to what was happening here, locally. From a radio station standpoint, there are many events that we can sponsor and co-promote. While we’ll be on top of J. Cole or Future or Chris Brown coming to town, for us to be a major sponsor at an event like the DURM Hip Hop Summit—which we knew was about uplifting unsigned and underground artists—that would show that we are committed to doing these kinds of events. It wasn’t something that was going to bring us a lot of notoriety or a lot of money, but it was more of a bridge, a connection to say that we acknowledge that there is a movement and that we want to be a part of it.

During the Summit, you announced plans for the return of K97.5’s “919 Radio.” What is the format of that show?
It’s not anything new. Once I sat down with the team and got some feedback from my folks, we agreed to be an outlet to the local artist and folks who want a legitimate shot to be on the radio. We’re going to set up on our website an area that’s for local artists, “919 Radio,” and folks can submit songs and projects they’re working on. We’ll consider that for airplay as well as showcase a lot of those submissions on Sundays. Initially, we were going to do it on first Sundays, but we’ve kind of expanded out. It's something that will highlight what’s happening in the Triangle and really try to give the spotlight to the artists that are putting the work in.

I will tell you that there are some local artists who do not belong on the radio. They’re just not good enough. We want to make sure we educate folks on the business of how to do this. At the end of the day, we want to tell any local artist that you have to put in the groundwork. You’re competing against these majors. You’re competing against these other artists. If you want exposure on our airwaves, you better come with something just as strong as Future, Trey Songz, Chris Brown. Again, we’re not in the business of playing an artist just because they’re from the 919 area code.  

What do you, personally, bring to the this market as both an informed music listener and a radio station professional?
I just enjoy music. It’s not even work. I do something everyday that I enjoy. I bring the experience of working in radio for over 20 years, all of it in Miami. We had a huge local artist movement as well. One of the things that I’m most proud of is bridging that gap. I dealt with some of these same issues in South Florida. But it was about being truthful, open and honest to the artist, and telling them, “Listen, this ain’t it. This is not on the level that it needs to be.” Or simply sharing with artists how to get their music to that point.

This is also where I was disappointed with the Summit. There were a lot of showcases, but there was also a point where we didn’t even get to talk about the business. A lot of these artists don’t understand the process of it: getting your music pressed and produced and edited, the process of bringing your music to the radio station. This is not the days of you trying to flip me $100 or taking me out to lunch or bringing strippers to the radio station.

If you’re trying to get on at K97.5 or any other radio station for that matter, it’s important to know how to get the music to the appropriate folks. Do your groundwork. Make sure you have quality material for broadcast. Understand the operations of the radio station. As the program director of the stations, I’m just one of the many people that’s in the loop when it comes to that. Artists need to get familiar with our music folks here at the radio station. If you’ve never been to the radio station, if you don’t know who the music people are, then how can you bad mouth the radio station and say that we don’t care? 


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