Indy hip-hop station dethrones country crooners in radio ratings

Step aside, Toby Keith—and tip your cowboy hat to Toni Braxton.

The country music format in Indianapolis was dethroned in January by hip-hop/R&B music in the form of WHHH-FM 96.3.

For the first time in memory, WHHH finished No. 1 among listeners ages 6+, with a share of 7 percent.

The No. 1 title most months has been held by country crooner WFMS-FM 95.5, which in January finished No. 2 with a share of 6.9 in Nielsen Audio ratings, according to local station managers.

The “6+” rating is the broadest snapshot of how a station stands. It’s more of a “beauty pageant” category and is often dismissed by competitors (unless, of course, they’re No. 1 in 6+). More meaningful are measures of how stations drew listeners in key demographics, such as ages 25 to 54.

“We’re cognizant it’s just one month” of ratings, said Chuck Williams, vice president and market manager in Indianapolis for Radio One, the Maryland-based broadcast chain that owns WHHH, WNOU-FM100.9, WTLC-FM 106.7 and WTLC-AM 1310.

Still, Williams takes the rating as validation of fine-tuning over the last year. Much of the change has been orchestrated by Program Director Leo Baldwin, whom WHHH hired a couple of years ago from WILD-FM 106.7 in Philadelphia.

“We made a lot of changes with our on-air personalities,” Williams said.

For example, longtime DJ “Wrekk 1” was moved out of overnights to daytime.

“Those 17-year-olds who listened [to Wrekk] 10 years ago are 27 years old now” and listen during the daytime. “We promoted him to middays, so that was huge.”

WHHH also offered more concert packages to listeners and has been contemplating adding local events, such as interview sessions with artists that lucky listeners could attend.

In addition, Williams said, the station has been getting more involved in community causes. Later this year, for instance, it will participate in an initiative aimed at curbing neighborhood violence.

Also helping, Williams theorized, is a growing popularity of hip-hop that’s crossed into the mainstream and beyond racial lines. About half of the station’s listeners today are white.

That doesn’t mean urban-oriented stations always get the advertising dollars their ratings would logically suggest they should, however.

The station has a strong brand and a diverse audience, agreed Bruce Bryant, CEO of Indianapolis advertising firm Promotus Advertising.

Curiously, though, some media buyers still overlook urban stations, reluctant to reach beyond their familiar contacts at prominent stations. Thus, they do their advertising clients a disservice, Bryant said.

He calls it the “no-urban dictate.”

Some advertisers and media buyers make assumptions such as, “Black people don’t drive Hondas,” for example. Yet black and Latino consumers often are the most brand-conscious of any demographic.

“You need to take advantage of it if you’re in business,” Bryant said. “The marketplace is unfortunately driven by media buyers who have personal perspectives that might not serve their client the best. It’s sad, but it’s human nature.”

Though WHHH took the No. 1 title for ages 6+ in January, Cumulus-owned  WFMS was a mere one-tenth of a point behind. 

Mark Hamlin, program director at WFMS, gave a nod to his rhythmic-format competitor. “It’s the younger demographic. [WHHH is] really driving it” well.

WFMS, the area’s mainstay in country music for decades, got knocked off its high horse last April, when relative newcomer country format WLHK-FM 97.1 finished at 8.6, well ahead of its 7.2.

Emmis Communications Corp.’s WLHK celebrated the slap-down. Many of its staff are WFMS alums cast off by media giant Cumulus. Some theorized Cumulus’ cost-cutting, which booted some popular local DJs for syndicated programs, didn’t help.

WLHK’s butt-whooping on WFMS didn’t last long, however, with WFMS regaining the top title a few months later.

In January, WLHK slid to No. 5.

“It’s really just consistency. We’re doing the same thing we do day in and day out,” said WFMS’ Hamlin. “It’s been a pretty good run, really, over the last year.”

It didn’t hurt that last month one of WFMS’ morning-drive personalities, Jim Denny, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was one of only two announcers to get the honor

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