With WERS cuts, urban music community loses major platform

by Jackie Tempera / Beacon Staff • October 3, 2013

The cancellation of two urban music shows, Rockers and 889@Night caused controversy among student staffers and Boston listeners.
The cancellation of two urban music shows, Rockers and 889@Night caused controversy among student staffers and Boston listeners.

After WERS staff cancelled two popular urban music shows in August, students raised concerns about a lack of diversity in the station’s programming and its listeners.

The two programs—Rockers, a reggae segment, and 889@Night, a hip-hop show— made up WERS’ Urban Department. When they were on air, these programs added variety to the station and provided an outlet for the small Boston urban music community, according to a former Urban Department on-air talent, who asked to remain anonymous for job safety. The source plans to continue working at WERS.

“We got to play little, underground ar ists,” said the source. “It was really cool, and now they completely took away our platform.”

Before the cuts, the station dedicated weekday daytime programming — the airtime between the hours of 2 a.m. and 7 p.m. — to a mix of indie rock, alternative rock, reggae, blues, and some rhythm and blues, according to Jack Casey, the station’s general manager.

At 7 p.m., Urban Department staff would take over the airwaves with reggae music from Rockers, and from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., 889@Night would play hip-hop. Both programs were on the air for 35 years. Rockers was started by Doug Herzog, an Emerson alumnus and the current president of MTV Networks. He declined the Beacon’s request for an interview on the changes. In an August Boston.com article, Herzog said the cancellation represented a sad change for the Rockers community and legacy.

Now, the daytime programming runs until 10 p.m., when Secret Spot—a show formerly scheduled for weekend nights—plays slow R&B music.

“It’s mostly love songs,” said Casey.

This change was based on information the station gained during listener focus groups in the spring. Participants said they wanted to hear what the station considered daytime music during the evening hours, according to Casey.

However, student staffers said the reason Rockers and 889@Night were cut is because their listeners did not donate enough money.

Kelshe Woodard, a junior visual and media arts major, used to be a disc jockey for 889@Night, and she said the two shows always raised less money during the station’s biannual fundraising drives. All members of the station help with the fundraiser, known as Live Music Week, she said.

She attributed the lower donation levels to what she understood to be the listeners’ demographic.

Woodard said the show mostly appealed to minorities, which was something she observed while interacting with listeners outside the station and accepting callers.

“Generally speaking, think about the people listening to reggae and hip-hop,” said Woodard. “Of course they’re not going to donate; they don’t have the means.”

Casey confirmed the urban music programming often raised less money for the station, but said this was not a factor in the cuts, and that fundraising details and listener demographics are confidential.

Demographics are catalogued through Arbitron Inc., which was recently purchased by Nielsen Audio, a marketing and media research firm, said Casey. Donation information is obtained at the time of the gift, he said.

However, in a previous interview, Casey said the changes in programming were motivated by the station’s goals of pleasing listeners and gaining higher ratings through more consistent music, which he said will lead to more underwriting opportunities and greater financial sustainability.

These adjustments came after the college urged the station — which operates with a $1 million annual budget, over half of which is provided by Emerson — to become more financially independent, according to Casey.

The anonymous source said a demographics packet identified 889@Night’s main listeners as African-American males, ages 18 to 29. The source said on-air hosts receive this breakdown during Live Music Week, so staffers know how to focus their pitches. Rockers had a similar breakdown, said the source, just a slightly larger age range.

With the cuts, WERS lost that base, said the source.

“Now we have a homogenized station that plays all white music all day long,” said the source. “Apparently we care so much about diversity at Emerson College, but that’s not what I’m seeing, and it’s not what I’m hearing.”

Casey said these student claims are inaccurate.

“While hip-hop originally comes from the African-American community and reggae from Jamaica, both genres of music now have a much broader appeal,” he said.

But this business move leaves a hole in Boston’s small hip-hop community, said former Urban Department listeners and staffers.

Tim Larew, a 22-year-old living in Boston, said he manages small artists around the city, including Michael Christmas and Cam Meekins, two up-and-coming Boston performers. He frequently met with graduate student Malcolm Gray, the shows’ assistant programming director, to help promote his artists, he said.

On Aug. 19, the day the cuts were announced, Gray took to Twitter to voice his disappointment.

“Spend two years of your life building something to shine a light on an underrepresented community. just like that. gone,” read one tweet.

Gray declined to be interviewed, citing his continuing work with the station doing programming for the Secret Spot.

Larew also felt Gray’s disappointment, and said the community is suffering without WERS.

“My experience with the Boston hip- hop scene is there is no support at venues,” he said. “What 889@Night did was give artists a good, dependent, consistent outlet and marketing platform.”

Without 889@Night, Larew said the only potential outlet for local artists is JAM’N 94.5, a Boston-based station dedicated to hip-hop hits, according to the station’s website.

But the chances of lesser-known artists getting played on 94.5 are slim, he said.

Greg Valentino Ball, a 42-year-old urban music blogger from Dorchester and long-time listener of WERS’ former shows, agreed.

“If you’re a kid from Dorchester, or Mattapan, or Jamaica Plain, and you’re just starting out, there is no way you’re getting played on JAM’N,” he said. “It’s not because JAM’N is an evil empire, it’s just designed to play more popular music.”

Brandon Matthews, a 32-year-old marketer for Showoff Marketing, a company with clients ranging from local artists to clothing brands, said that instead of the hours of potential exposure WERS gave locals, artists now have to fight for airtime on The Launch Pad, a novelty show on 94.5 that plays small artists from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m. on Saturdays.

Matthews, Valentino Ball, and Larew all agreed Boston’s minority listeners lost a significant piece of culture when 889@ Night and Rockers went off the airwaves.

“[Rockers and 889@Night] were a staple in [the Boston] area,” said Matthews. “You had people locked up, people in the streets all listening.”

But Matthews said if former listeners and artists look at the issue from a business perspective, they shouldn’t be angry.

“For years and years, [performers on the show] used and abused this system of exposure,” he said. “And they didn’t donate money. So as much as they’re annoyed, it’s kind of their fault.”

Casey said he believes the station will not lose these listeners, because hip-hop and reggae songs are still played during daily programming. The anonymous source said this is not enough.

“They’re not going to listen to showtunes or the Playground [a weekend program dedicated to children’s music] or whatever the hell they have out there to get two songs they like,” said the source.

Woodard agreed, and said she’s only heard one or two hip-hop or reggae songs during the newly-extended daytime programming block.

“WERS and 889@Night were a part of the Boston community,” she said. “It was bigger than Emerson—we were one of the few independent hip-hop outlets that actually brought in local artists. Now that’s gone.”