- Susan Norton
At noon sharp on Monday, June 15, 104.3 KISS-FM debuted an unexpected new format, rebranding as "the Champlain Valley's classic hip-hop station." It's been delivering ever since, pumping out a predominantly '90s playlist — at first, mostly on syndicated autopilot. Since then, the programming has been garnished with some awkwardly local touches, such as bumpers intoning, "Old school ... from Church Street to the Shelburne Road."
Affable program director TJ Michaels makes it clear he doesn't see the move to hip-hop as risky or strange: It's the new rock radio for a changing America, blending Jay Z and Tupac hits with traditional R&B staples. For the past year, FM stations from Houston to Los Angeles have been converting to the format and becoming so successful that their biggest problem is too many imitators.
"The conventional wisdom has always been that to reach that big demographic, you've gotta play rock," Michaels explains. "Maybe that was true in the '80s, but times have changed. If you think about it, kids who graduated from high school in 1991 are 42 years old now."
The hip-hop formula has a lot of momentum, and Michaels is excited to make it work in Burlington. The format is a novelty for Chittenden County, but it's hardly the first time hip-hop has graced the area's FM airwaves. Most prominently, 90.1 WRUV host Melo Grant has been spinning independent rap for decades on her "Cultural Bunker" show. It's been a lifeline and inspiration for generations of local MCs and DJs. You can still catch Grant on the University of Vermont student-run station on Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m.
Aside from diehard aesthetes at 91.1 WGDR in Plainfield, though, few other local stations play hip-hop. In fact, before the big change, 104.3 KISS was devoted to something very different: Christmas music. Nothing but, in fact. For more than seven months.
It turns out Michaels and his team hadn't intended to keep the joke going for so long. It was a seasonal promotion that endured due to regulatory delays.
"We already had the hip-hop format change in mind. We'd been watching a trend develop nationwide," Michaels says. "We wanted to roll this out in early 2015, but things didn't materialize quickly enough.
"It took a while getting our ducks in a row," he continues, explaining that the station had to wait for approval to move from New Hampshire to Vermont. "As you can imagine, it's costly to move an FM station to another state."
So the holiday playlist persisted into the beginning of summer. This is called "stunting," and it's a common industry practice. For instance, a gospel station in Charlotte, N.C., recently rebranded by playing nothing but Drake songs for three days straight. Now it plays the R&B-heavy urban adult contemporary, one of the few formats that still dominate airwaves nationwide.
Why? Money, of course.
Casey Rae is the CEO of the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy nonprofit. (He's also the former music editor of this paper.) One of the coalition's most successful projects is the 2006 report "False Premises, False Promises," which traces the effects of the 1996 Telecommunications Act on the radio industry.
"Entire genres became invisible," says Rae. "DJs lost all their autonomy. Many lost their jobs. Almost overnight, commercial FM radio went from a diverse universe of mom-and-pop stations to something more like a national jukebox, where a handful of programming directors working for companies like Clear Channel make decisions about what gets played across the country."
The culture may have changed completely, and Clear Channel may have changed its name to iHeartMedia, but the core business model remains the same. Aside from public, community and college stations, radio stations make money by serving advertisements to working people who make spending decisions for their families. For this reason — despite pundits proclaiming it "dead" — radio still provides a big return on ad spending.
"Commercial FM radio has become incredibly risk averse," Rae explains. "The whole purpose behind the push to consolidate station ownership to just a few massive media conglomerates wasn't about anything but selling more advertising and eliminating costs, like having live and local DJs."
KISS is owned and operated by Great Eastern Radio, an independent conglomerate of about 15 radio stations in Vermont and New Hampshire, and based in Lebanon, N.H. Michaels has witnessed the shift in FM radio firsthand, and he's grateful to see the new station reach so many Vermonters.
"Everyone is after that broad 25-to-54 demographic," he says, noting the saturated radio market. "There's a lot of competition in Burlington." Nielsen radio services' numbers back this up: Country, classic rock and alternative formats dominate the area.
Two Burlington hip-hop notables have noticed the station's local impact: DJ/rapper/entrepreneur Fattie B and VT Union cofounder Nastee. Fattie B confirms that the station is catching on, relating a recent conversation during a set break at Retronome, his long-running residency at Club Metronome.
"I was talking to some late-thirties ladies about how KISS-FM is the new 'dad rock' of radio stations," he says, laughing. "We are all getting so old that '90s hip-hop and R&B is the oldies station. It's hilarious."
That's hardly an unfair spin, considering that even the KISS-FM website proclaims, "The kids have their station ... Now you have yours!"
Perhaps we should call it "dad hop?"
Nastee agrees that hip-hop is gradually taking over the airwaves. He's a veteran recording engineer who worked his way up to the legendary Manhattan studio the Cutting Room during a peak era of NYC rap. Dead Prez? Big Pun? Mobb Deep? Nastee was in the room and on the boards for some of their classic albums, and he's got credits on dozens of singles that are in current KISS-FM rotation.
Looking back, he says he could never call a hit in advance.
"It's actually really random. I'd work on records with huge money behind them, super radio-friendly, and they'd go nowhere," says Nastee. "On the other hand, I'd mix a record that was for a mixtape, and it could turn into a huge crossover hit."
So what really shaped the catalog that makes up "classic hip-hop"? "The '90s were about video and radio, for sure," Nastee says.
Fattie B agrees.
"I think the '90s were shaped first and foremost by MTV and videos," he says. "Then radio, then mixtapes."
Burlington beatsmith Loupo, one of Vermont's finest, is willing to testify. When he's not composing intricate, jazzy instrumental albums for Los Angeles label Cold Busted, he's cooking behind the counter at Radio Deli on Pearl Street, and KISS-FM is a staple soundtrack.
"It's a great tool to find new stuff," Loupo says, adding that he's 22, so "new" is relative in his case. "I grew up listening to a lot of the older tracks, too, so the classics still sound like back in the day to me."
Back at KISS headquarters, Michaels is energized by the feedback KISS-FM has been getting since the format switch, from social media and constant calls to the station.
"It's been more than we could have anticipated," he says. "We're really, really happy with the response we've gotten." Asked what's next, he chuckles like a man with a big secret.
"We've got a lot more to announce," he says. "Big things coming really, really soon."