Corporate radio tramples the turf of hip-hop king KPRS.

One Hot Throwdown 

Corporate radio tramples the turf of hip-hop king KPRS.

KPRS 103.3 DJ Sean Tyler greets employees at the midtown Cell-U-All Wireless with chest-high handshakes and brief embraces. The afternoon-drive host at Hot 103.3 Jamz wears a New York Mets cap and a leather jacket. He swigs a white-chocolate mocha he picked up on the way to the store. "I hate coffee," he says, "but Starbucks is like crack."

Upon his arrival, Tyler receives a one-page script that outlines the day's special on a flip phone. Shortly after 2 p.m., it's his cue to speak. Using a wireless microphone that sends a signal to the Hot 103 Jamz van parked at the drugstore across the street, Tyler encourages listeners to grab a $39.99-a-month Motorola package. "No credit checks," Tyler appeals to the financially downtrodden.

Cell-U-All does a brisk business for the two hours that Tyler is present. His cue arrives every 30 minutes, leaving plenty of downtime. Between plugs, he rides Theodore Terry, a KPRS promotions assistant. Tyler's lesson today: the proper pronunciation of the word library. "There's only blueberries and strawberries," Tyler says. "No liberries."

Tyler is in his midthirties, and his musical taste has room for Burt Bacharach and Def Leppard. He doesn't like a lot of the material Hot 103 Jamz plays. He notes, incredulously, the trend of songs about being in love with a stripper. Many of today's hit makers, Tyler says, lack the staying power of a previous generation of artists. "I grew up in an era when Earth, Wind and Fire sold 75 million albums," he says.

The production assistant suggests that hip-hop began to suck only recently. "Don't try to break it down," Tyler counters. "Shit is crappy."

As Tyler traces the decline of hip-hop, pausing to advertise unbeatable deals on cell phones, Tony G, another 103.3 jock, takes a position at a wing shop across town. KPRS will conduct four live remotes on this day. The station's vehicle fleet includes two vans and a Hummer, all painted black with pink trim. One day last summer, KPRS personalities broadcast live from five locations in the same hour.

KPRS prides itself on its visibility, be it a live remote for an advertiser or a "street hit," such as a holiday turkey handout in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Countering the old saw that radio personalities are too beastly for television, most Hot 103 Jamz DJs are, well, hot. And working at 103.3 is in some ways like running for office, says KPRS program director Myron Fears. "When you're out," Fears says, "you've got to be able to shake hands and kiss babies."

That endless public campaign has fared well for KPRS. When founder Skip Carter began broadcasting on Kansas City's east side in 1950, KPRS became the first black-owned station west of the Mississippi. His grandson, Michael, took over in 1987 and, thanks in part to the mainstreaming of hip-hop, the younger Carter led KPRS from 13th place in the ratings to No. 1.

KPRS rose at a time of intense consolidation in the radio industry. Kansas City's 20 most popular stations will soon be owned by just five companies. Although corporate radio operates with less overhead and sells ad time across multiple stations, Michael Carter sees his local ownership as a benefit. "I don't have to call Cleveland to make a decision," he says. "I can make a decision today."

KPRS has also profited from the lack of a direct competitor. But in November, corporate-owned KCHZ 95.7 relaunched as "the Vibe," with a playlist that closely resembles that of KPRS. Both stations rotate current hits from Mariah Carey, Chris Brown, Three 6 Mafia and Young Jeezy. KCHZ, which is owned by radio giant Cumulus Media, hardly took a risk switching to a format of predominantly black artists. Hip-hop appeals to a large, diverse audience, one that KPRS virtually had to itself. "I'm quite surprised no one did it sooner," KPRS DJ Julee Jonez says.

Even before corporate radio's direct assault, things were looking down for KPRS. Last summer, the station slipped to No. 3 in the ratings.

Hot 103 Jamz has recovered, returning to No. 1 in ratings released this week. But that momentary dip last summer was enough to help force changes at KPRS. In December, Carter broke up the homegrown morning team of Tyler and Jonez and replaced them with comedian Steve Harvey's syndicated show. Picking up a show with no Kansas City connection is a significant move for a station that prides itself on local content.

Still, it won't be easy for Cumulus to steal the audience and ad dollars from KPRS. "What Cumulus is going to have to do is knock the king of the hill off," says former KPRS jock Sonny André, who left the station for Detroit in 2000. "It's a pretty slippery slope, man."

Hot and jammin' on the air, the KPRS studio is bland and suburban in real life.

Carter Broadcast Group, which owns KPRS and its sister AM station, gospel-playing KPRT 1590, occupies a two-story building at the end of a cul-de-sac off Longview Road in south Kansas City. The building shares the street with two-story apartment houses that were probably stylish in the 1970s.

Upstairs in his spacious office on a recent afternoon, Carter opens mail using a letter opener topped with a golf ball. Carter likes to golf. A scorecard from Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, rests on his desk. Born in 1958, he could pass for someone still in his thirties. He's 6 feet 2 inches tall, wears a neatly trimmed mustache and has a tendency to end his sentences with the phrase per se. Describing the habits of the African-American consumer, for example, he says, "We don't have time to pick up the paper, per se. We don't have time to watch television, per se. But we do turn on our radio station, and we do listen."

That's supported by the ratings done by the audit firm Arbitron. According to the the summer ratings, 176,300 people a week listen to Hot 103 Jamz. African-Americans make up the lion's share of the audience, but about a third is white or Latino.

Despite the fact that KPRS commands a large, multiethnic audience, Carter says businesses often refuse to advertise. Reluctant ad buyers tell salespeople that 103.3 listeners are not a "good fit" — a polite way, perhaps, of saying "too black" or "too poor." The station, he says, competes with negative images in the media. "We're not all killers," he says. "We're not all carjackers. We're not all pimps. We're not all prostitutes. We are some educated people that have money that will spend it if you invite us to come and spend it with you. But if you don't talk to us, how are we supposed to know that?" He emphasizes that he's not looking for pity. "I'm doing my fair share, but I feel like there are businesses that I could be doing better numbers with just because of what we do here."

At times, KPRS has resorted to unusual sales tactics. Carter tells a story about one chain with 10 local stores that had refused to buy time on KPRS. Carter met with store officials to blackmail them. He threatened to air spots suggesting that KPRS listeners should boycott the store, which he declines to name. "They didn't want to hear that," he says.

So what happened?

"Well, they bought [ads with] us. Of course they did. And now they're making money. Their stores are doing very well."

Prejudice plays a central role in the history of KPRS. The founder, Skip Carter, grew up in segregated Savannah, Georgia, where he dreamed of a radio career. After his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, he studied engineering at the RCA Institute in New York.

Frustrated by a lack of opportunity for blacks, Skip Carter wrote a letter in 1948 to the National Association of Broadcasters. After the letter was printed in Broadcasting magazine, Skip Carter's plight came to the attention of Alf Landon, the former governor of Kansas. Landon hired Carter to work at a station he owned in Leavenworth.

In 1950, with Landon's help, Skip Carter acquired the equipment of a defunct Olathe station, KPRS 1590. Carter set up a transmitter in a shack at 19th Street and Brooklyn before setting up a permanent studio at 23rd Street and Benton, near old Holy Name Church.

In the '50s, KPRS played black artists while other stations in town reached for Pat Boone's versions of "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally." For blacks, the station provided a voice, says Lee Bohannon, a community organizer with the Local Investment Commission. "Without having KPRS in the black community, for many years we would have been without a radio station at all."

In segregated Kansas City, KPRS also gave white listeners their only exposure to songs played on the east side. Chuck Haddix, host of The Fish Fry, a blues, jazz and R&B show on KCUR 89.3, remembers tuning in 1590 to hear James Brown and Eddie Harris. "KPRS gave young white guys like me the opportunity to listen to black music," he says.

Skip Carter belonged to several civic organizations, including the NAACP. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, he went on the air to appeal for understanding and equality. But he was more of a businessman than a social activist. In 1969, popular morning host John L. Frazier complained about his pay. Carter and his wife, Mildred, accused Frazier of belonging to a black militant organization and fired him. Eventually, a National Relations Labor Board examiner upheld charges of unfair labor practices brought by Frazier and two other former employees.

KPRS did not lead in the ratings, but the business turned a profit. Skip Carter purchased 35 acres in Raytown, where he and his two children owned homes. "I lived a pretty fun life for a black kid in Raytown in the '60s," Michael Carter says. "We had horses. We had a lake. We had boats. We had hunting. We went fishing." Michael Carter says the family was not rich, however. Country Club Plaza trips, he remembers, were for window-shopping only.

Skip Carter suffered kidney problems. Seeking a warmer climate for his health, he and his wife moved in 1971 to Cocoa Beach, Florida. Michael Carter and his mother, Carmen, accompanied them. By then, KPRS had switched to FM 103.3, and the AM station had been converted to gospel under the call letters KPRT. The Carters ran the business long-distance, and a special telephone piped KPRS to Cocoa Beach. Michael Carter became a controller-in-waiting, learning to handle the station's payroll and accounts payable.

He also learned to live large.

"When I was 17, down in Florida, I had the world by the proverbials," he says. "I had a car. I had a job. I had just got out of high school. I was styling and profiling. I had a credit card."

One day, Skip Carter called his grandson into his office. "You're fired," his grandfather said. "And while you're reaching for your keys, give me your credit card."

Turned out from the family business, Michael Carter got a job at McDonald's. In his spare time, he surfed. Finally, after two years, Skip Carter asked his grandson for another sit-down. He asked what he had learned.

"The value of my family's business," Michael Carter answered.

"That's good," his grandfather said. "What else?"

"Well, I think I learned the value of money."

"Perfect. If I ever see you squandering my money, you will never be back at my radio station again."

Michael Carter was back at work the following Monday.

By moving 1,300 miles from Kansas City, the Carters had put distance between themselves and the community. The station moved further away from its listeners in 1975. Always the technician, Skip Carter ordered the installation of equipment that fully automated the stations. KPRS and KPRT still employed disc jockeys, but they recorded shows before they aired. Live DJs, Skip Carter said once, were going the way of the iceman and the elevator operator.

Though it represented an advance in technology, automation prevented the jocks from interacting with listeners. It also kept the station from responding in times of crisis. The Rev. Emanuel Cleaver, the future mayor and congressman, and other black leaders criticized KPRS for its inattention during the flood of 1977, which caused $100 million in damage and claimed 25 lives. During the disaster, KPRS continued to play music.

The complaints persisted after the floodwaters receded. Gerald B. Jordan, an African-American writer at The Kansas City Star, wrote a column in 1980 that lambasted the automation, the lack of public-affairs programming and the absence of a news department. Jordan quoted a listener who complained: "The Russians could be invading Kansas City, and we'd all be jamming to Johnny Taylor."

The criticism did not sway Skip Carter. The tape recorders whirred until his grandson became president in 1987.

Michael Carter had returned to Kansas City a year earlier. Surprised to be named president, he vowed to reward his grandparents' faith in him. Speaking of his grandfather, who died in 1988, Carter says, "He could have just said, 'Hell with this kid,' and moved on. So my commitment was to make a hell of a run with this if I could."

Michael Carter set a goal to reach No. 1 in the ratings before his grandmother died. The task was large. His grandparents had built a successful business but not a great radio station. "It was a station that was just on the air, doing what it needed to do at that particular time," Michael Carter says.

In one of his first moves, Michael Carter stopped the tape machines and took the station live. Then he built up the staff. Many of his early hires remain at the station. Fears, the program director, started as an intern in 1988. Midday host Tony G, who had been spinning records in clubs, came aboard in 1989. "I'm the new guy, and I've been here forever," says J.T. Quick, a KPRS disc jockey since 1998.

DJ Sean Tyler got his start while he was still in school at Southeast High School. Tyler was working at a clothing store when KPRS host Freddie Bell recognized Tyler's quick wit and talent for voices. Tyler began appearing on Bell's show, performing characters such as Willie Graves, a fictional store owner who sold everything from motor oil to funerals. "It just happened," Tyler says of his radio career. "By default, I was good at it."

Carter made perhaps his most important hire in 1992 when he lured operations manager Sam Weaver from a New Orleans station. A radio veteran who had worked in several formats, Weaver saw the value of attracting white and Latino listeners. Weaver believed the urban format was replacing the top role once filled by Top 40 stations, and 103.3 broadened its appeal by participating in such events as the St. Patrick's Day Parade, where the station's float won a prize one year. Former KPRS host Sonny André recalls, "Sam wanted everybody at the party."

KPRS reached No. 1 for the first time in 1996. "Mike couldn't wait to tell his grandmother," Weaver says. Carter had hit his goal. (Mildred Carter died in 2003.) On a few occasions, KPRS won every key age demographic: 12 and older, 18-34 and 25-54. The increased popularity of hip-hop contributed greatly to the station's rise. In 1988, no rap records rose to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart; in 1999, seven did. "People don't want to believe it," Fears says, "but it's the Motown of this era."

Weaver left Carter Broadcast Group in 2002 for an independent radio company that owns two urban stations in Dallas. The station slipped to second place in the spring of 2003 before climbing back on top the following quarter. But last summer, KPRS took an unexplained tumble in the ratings, dropping from a 7.9 percent share of the Kansas City audience to 5.7 percent. Hot 103 Jamz fell into third place behind country station KBEQ 104.3 and news-talk KMBZ 980. "First bad book in years," DJ Tyler says.

The poor ratings disappointed but didn't demoralize station management. For one thing, Arbitron's methods — telemarketers contact radio listeners, who consent to keep dairies — are far from perfect (see Ben Paynter's "A Different Planet," November 10, 2005). Audience share can move substantially from one quarter to the next.

KPRS officials wrote off the bad book as a sampling error. "A lot of times, these guys just don't turn in their diaries," Carter explains. Sure enough, the Arbitron survey released January 23 shows that KPRS has made up much of the ground last year. The fall ratings book returns Hot 103 Jamz to first place, with a 7.1 share.

But even as the station was recovering, another challenge emerged. On November 4, the Top 40 station KCHZ 95.7 revealed its new identity. In its first few hours in the new format, KCHZ played 50 Cent, Missy Elliott and the gangsta classic "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thing."

Now known as the Vibe, corporate-owned 95.7 planted both feet on 103.3's turf.

It's after 8 p.m., which means J.T. Quick is on the air, counting down the most requested jams of the day. Quick's delivery is such that many listeners who meet him are surprised to learn that he's white. "We jumping off into that No. 5 jam, so let's find out what's really good on Hot 103. What up?"

"Hi, my name is Lisa, and I would like to give shout-outs to my family, my son Deante, my baby Big Mike, Olajuwon, Rob, my girl Sonya, Kwanzaa and Monique. The No. 5 song is DFL, 'Laffy Taffy.'"

The intros make The Hot 8 at 8 a highly entertaining segment. The callers tend to talk quickly in order to send the maximum number of shout-outs (apologies, Lisa, for any mangled names). Most sound thrilled to be on the radio. Quick, 30, says the excitement of the callers, who are often teenagers, helps him forget his adult problems. "It's really kind of endearing," he says.

Quick's show airs from 6 to 10 p.m. His hours changed slightly in December when station management shook up the schedule to make room for The Steve Harvey Show. The show marks the first time KPRS has turned over an important part of the day to a syndicate. Carter thinks Harvey will do well, suggesting that he might take listeners from Tom Joyner, the national morning host carried on KMJK 107.3. The 50-year-old Harvey had a sitcom on the WB network and appeared in the film The Original Kings of Comedy. His radio show is standard morning-show fare, a mix of music, pranks, celebrity interviews with a hint of sermonizing. "If you don't believe in God, you a fool," Harvey said on a recent show.

With Harvey the new Hot 103 Jamz headliner, Tyler and Jonez were split up. Jonez moved to late mornings and Tyler to afternoon drive. Tony G moved from afternoon drive to the noon-3 p.m. shift, and Chris King, a 37-year veteran of KPRS, went to the gospel station. King says he welcomed the chance to get away from the Hot 103 Jamz music, which he found increasingly objectionable. "I just didn't want to play another 50 Cent song, another 'Laffy Taffy,'" he says. "I just couldn't do it."

Carter says he made the recent changes to stay competitive. Ratings of the morning show hosted by Tyler and Jonez, he says, had slid. "Morning drive is where the money is. If you're not getting it in morning drive, you're not going to get it, per se."

The switch to an urban-style format by KCHZ seemed to take a page from former KPRS star Weaver's game plan of including white listeners. KCHZ spins white pop artists such as Gwen Stefani, whereas KPRS rarely does. KCHZ also plays hits more frequently than does KPRS. (A smash hit airs on Hot 103 Jamz "only" six or seven times a day.)

KCHZ owner Cumulus Media of Atlanta is the second-largest radio company in the United States and owns or is in the process of acquiring 343 stations. In Kansas City, Cumulus operates KCHZ and KMJK and plans to purchase KCMO 94.9 and three other Kansas City stations from Susquehanna Radio. Mike Payne, the general manager of Cumulus in Kansas City, says KPRS is a well-run station that benefits from the popularity of its music genre. "It's broadly appealing beyond certain ages as well as certain ethnicities." Translation: A lot of white folks like hip-hop.

With the change, Cumulus is now in a position to wound KPRS from two points. Cumulus' other station, the "urban adult contemporary" KMJK, targets an older demographic by playing many of the same artists KPRS does (Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige) with less rap and more of the likes of Gerald Levert. (The full effect of KCHZ's format switch won't be evident in the ratings for another three months.)

KPRS personality Sean Tyler says he welcomes the challenge of a new rival. "You need someone to remind you that you have to get out and earn it. Sometimes competition is a good thing." Tyler sounds confident that KPRS will prevail (he calls the Vibe "suburban hip-hop"), but not everyone at the station shares his optimism. "Some people are shitting their pants while they're walking, but I'm not," he says.

The arrival of the Vibe has caused Hot 103 Jamz jocks to tighten their deliveries, says J.T. Quick. "The days of the four-minute spiel about nothing are over," he says. Attention has also turned to the quality of commercials. KPRS is notorious for ads consuming as many as 16 minutes an hour. Quick says well-crafted spots reduce the likelihood that a listener will reach for the dashboard tuner. "That time needs to be taken care of even more than the music."

Not everybody is happy with the KPRS shake-up. At the live broadcast from Cell-U-All, Tyler described how he was forced to take a pay cut when he went off mornings. "You wouldn't believe the size," he said. Tyler noted that he and Jonez had "great chemistry." He expressed concern that Harvey would be unable to talk about Kansas City from his perch in New York and lamented radio shows beaming in from elsewhere. "There are a lot of DJs out of work because of syndication," Tyler said.

A group of young women passed the window of the phone store. One of them tapped on the glass when she spotted Tyler. "Steve Harvey sucks!" she said. Tyler was delighted.

As the clock approaches 8 a.m., a Carter Broadcast Group studio fills with teenagers. A dozen of them crowd four microphones as the adult in the room, Jim Nunnelly, offers last-minute instructions. "Typically, you're flat when you start off," Nunnelly says. "I don't want that today."

Nunnelly works for COMBAT, Jackson County's anti-drug program. He supervises the high school students who produce Generation Rap, an hourlong show airing Saturday mornings on KPRS. Today's program features an interview with Arland Bruce, an Olathe North High School graduate who played in the Canadian Football League, and a discussion of relationships. During the relationships segment, host Devyn Simone, a self-assured Notre Dame de Sion senior who competes in pageants, describes a turn-off: "If you're sophisticated and he's running around in a movie theater, that's not going to work," she says.

Charmingly unscripted, Generation Rap represents one of a dwindling number of shows that distinguish KPRS from corporate stations, which have all the originality of a fart joke. KPRS, for instance, used to feature jazz and blues shows on the weekends. Those shows are now gone. "A lot of the blues artists are one foot away from the grave, I hate to say," Fears explains.

Aside from a Sunday morning show called The Takeover, KPRS also tends to ignore local artists, infuriating those in the hip-hop scene. "You got 105 rappers coming out of one city, and you got, like, only one rapper, Tech N9ne, getting played on the radio," says Byron Robinson, owner of Much Music & More, a store at 12th Street and Brooklyn. "Believe it or not, there's other [local] rappers who have more ... sales than he do. And they're not getting no type of airplay."

At one time, KPRS began the day with a reading of the Lord's Prayer. In 1994, the station took a position against gangsta rap after Tony G refused to play the Snoop Dogg hit "Gin & Juice." Eventually, though, the station lost its piety. Hot 103 Jamz now heavily plays Young Jeezy's "Soul Survivor," a song that describes trafficking in the white and pants saggin' with my gun in my draws. Explicit sex is also widely available on KPRS. Even with the word clit edited for radio, Mississippi rapper David Banner gets across his point in the song "Play." Bend it over, lemme see it from the back, Banner raps in the "clean" version of the song. Work you thumb in it girl — I love it like that.

"There's a lot of music right now I'm not real happy about," Carter admits. "I don't like its connotation. I don't like the 'I'll throw you on top of the counter'-type thing." Carter says his grandmother, were she alive today, would "raise hell" about some of the lyrics in the songs Hot 103 Jamz plays. "This is just the way of the world right now," he says. "You can't really do anything about it. Kids are going to find it, no matter what you do. They're going to find the bootleg music and listen to it, whether you're sitting there or not."

Being owned locally means KPRS is often held to standards that its corporate competitors are free to ignore. "They're the black-owned company," says Monica Nightengale, a KPRS host in the '80s who now reads the news at KMJK. "They have the burden."

Yet Carter must weigh the burdens of the community against the burdens of maintaining his business. He says he has refused a number of opportunities to sell the stations. "The numbers are just crazy," he says. But selling to a conglomerate would surely result in the elimination of jobs. "The tenure of most of my folks is somewhere around 10 years or better," he says. He notes that Chris King taught him how to run a radio board when Carter was still in elementary school.

Regardless of the outcome of the challenge from Cumulus, the Hot 103 Jamz message remains the same.

"You want to squeeze us, come on, play the game," Carter says. "But here's the deal: You're going to have to peel my dead, cold fingers off my pistol, because I'm not going to give up."

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