"I'm a hip hop child," says Barry Mayo, sincerely, and laughs. "A 42-year-old hip hop child!" Mayo--born in the south Bronx, raised in Harlem--made his mark in radio broadcasting in the late 70s and early 80s, helping turn Chicago's black-pop station WGCI into a nationally known powerhouse. From there he went to New York and did the same with WRKS, the renowned "Kiss." There, he says, he was one of the first broadcasters in the country to play rap, boosting the careers of and hanging out with people like Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, and Kurtis Blow. Now he's a one-third owner of Broadcast Partners Inc. Until recently the company was best known in Chicago for WVAZ, which proffers a softish mix of black ballads under the name V103. But BPI has been booming on the acquisition front: it now owns 11 stations, in New York, Dallas, Charlotte, and Detroit as well as Chicago. Most recently, and closest to home, the company took the two WJPCs (AM and FM) off the hands of the Johnson Publishing Company. The hip hop connection? Mayo's recipe for the moribund stations is a potent mixture of hard black pop and rap, making him the first to bring an avowed hip hop sensibility to a commercial Chicago FM outlet.
"When the FCC began allowing companies to own two FM properties in the same market," says Mayo, "I did the research to find out what the biggest hole here was that would allow us to maximize ratings without hurting V103. That's how we came up with the hip hop format."
Mayo is referring to the federal "duopoly" guidelines, a bad idea muscled through by the business-friendly Reagan-Bush FCC. Where once broadcasting companies were limited to one AM and one FM station in any market, they are now allowed two of each--and they're scrambling to find demographic matches. V103's calm format, as might be expected, skews a bit old. The newly popular "jam" mix--heavily but not exclusively hip hop--targets your teens and young 20s. In theory, BPI's three stations--for now the two WJPCs are simulcasting--allow the company to sell a complete demographic of black listeners in the third-largest media market in the country.
Mayo's plan means that WGCI, which remains utterly dominant in Chicago black radio, might have a problem on its hands. Is the station worried? "All I can say is competition makes you better," says 'GCI capo Darryll Green. "We just have to remain focused on what we're doing." Green, 36, started out as an auditor for Gannett and is now station VP and general manager; 'GCI consolidated its position under the direction of Green and president Marv Dyson, culminating in a historic coldcocking of perennial ratings leader WGN over the last two years. "It's too early to tell what effect [BPI's purchase of the WJPCs is] going to have. The first Arbitrend [monthly ratings report] we got we held our own, even grew--but that's just the first one," Green laughs.
The two 'JPCs (950 AM and 106.5 FM) have not been forces in Chicago radio. Part of the problem is the FM's weak signal--a deficiency Mayo will have to cope with as well. Another was that the company's daring experiment with 24-hour hip hop on the AM side, started almost two years ago, never got the promotion it deserved. Not that selling the station to advertisers was an easy job. "You're fighting the youth bias and the ethnic bias as well," notes Phyllis Stark, Billboard's chief radio watcher; she points out that 'JPC AM lasted longer than any other all-rap station in America. Mayo sympathizes with the company's problems, but has his own ideas as well. "Point one, it's very hard to make an AM-only radio station a success," he concedes. "Point two--that's point one and two. I don't want to slam nobody." It remains a mystery why MTV can make a lot of money playing a color-blind mix (rap, black pop, rock 'n' roll, and alternative) and radio can't. Stark says a new "Channel X" radio format presenting a mix similar to MTV's is emerging, but it hasn't made a commercial mark yet. One problem is that the sheer number of radio outlets in a given market lends itself to specialization. "With MTV, how many options do you have?" asks Green.
The staff at the 'JPCs has learned that Mayo has a lot of plans and a lot of energy. "You should hear the meetings!" raves Pink House, whose enthusiastic tenor was one of the pleasures of 'JPC AM. "He just gets you so pumped. He's got so much juice in him." Mayo has put Pink House on the new FM nightly with a 10-to-2 hip hop show he shares with DJ Tone B Nimble. Their show is a little more daring than the station's daytime doses of rap, though like the rest of America the jocks are gaga over heavy hitters like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Warren G. "Rap is teenage music," reflects Mayo, "but it's also reality-based music. Listen: going back over the years, to the 60s, to the 50s, there's always been some musical genre representative of what young people were thinking and feeling. The only difference today is that it's a little more quote-unquote real."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.