In one week last month, three new Atlanta radio stations popped up.
But here’s what’s stranger: all three shifted to the same format, dubbed “classic” hip hop.
First, veteran radio executive Steve Hegwood created Old School 99.3/AM1010 on Nov. 20. The station focuses primarily on hip-hop’s early era, from Run DMC and Salt-N-Pepa in the 1980s to Snoop Dogg and 2Pac in the 1990s through Ja Rule and 50 Cent in the early 2000s.
Then last Tuesday at noon, Atlanta-based Cumulus Broadcasting launched a similar station it dubbed OG 97.9, with OG standing for “Original Gangsta.” It replaced a pop station, Q100-20 at 97.9, an offshoot of the more popular Q100 at 99.7.
Lanham, Md.-based Radio One, which also operates hip-hop station Hot 107.9 in this market, wasn’t deterred by the competition. It debuted Boom 102.9 five hours later with its share of Notorious B.I.G. and Missy Elliott. (That signal had been simulcasting a gospel station.)
“I went to work with one, I came back with three,” exclaimed Hegwood last Tuesday. “Who’s going to outlast who? It’s crazy!”
Hegwood, who used to work at Radio One but is now on his own, felt the more traditional R&B format he had at 99.3 and 1010 was skewing too old. “This new format hits the sweet spot of 35- to 49-year-olds, which advertisers love,” he said. This demographic is the first one to grow up with hip hop when LL Cool J and Queen Latifah were known as rappers, not actors. It also complements Hegwood’s existing station Streetz 94.5, wihch is geared to Millenial rap fans.
“The emergence of classic hip hop as a format makes total sense,” said Maya Garner, a 35-year-old Atlanta regional market manager excited by the arrival of this format.“Hip hop has reached a similar state of maturity that rock had when classic rock split off as a legitimate, standalone format” in the 1980s.
This trend began a couple of months ago when Radio One created Boom 92.1 in Houston with promising early results. It soon followed with similar stations in Philadelphia and Dallas, where two classic hip-hop stations arrived on the same day last month, similar to what happened in Atlanta.
“This might just be overkill,” said Mary Catherine Sneed, who created the very first Atlanta station to play rap music on a regular basis in 1995 with Hot 97.5, which moved to the stronger 107.9 signal in 2001. She can’t see all three stations sticking around for long in a market now packed with six hip-hop stations.
Hegwood, a stand-alone operator, is facing off against two relative behemoths. Cumulus is the second-largest radio company in the country and also operates Rock 100.5, country station Kicks 101.5 and news/talk 106.7 in Atlanta, among others. Radio One is a black-owned company with formats mostly geared to black listeners including R&B station Majic 107.5/97.5 and gospel station Praise 102.5 locally.
Kevin Ross, who runs an urban radio news publication Radio Facts, expects Hegwood’s Old School 99.3/1010 to be the survivor. “I think Steve will come out on top because he knows the format best without the corporate programming restraints,” he said.
Despite the sizes of their companies, the bosses running Boom 102.9 and OG 97.9 are not planning to add local jocks to their stations anytime soon. Hegwood said his small company has no debt, unlike Cumulus and Radio One, and he plans to invest in deejays. “I want to give the station some life and personality,” he said, beyond merely being a jukebox.
Currently, Old School’s FM signal at 99.3 skews west and barely registers east of Atlanta. Hegwood said he will soon move the signal to downtown Atlanta, making it more listenable for a bigger portion of his target audience.