In August at the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in Minneapolis, I presented research on the new Urban Alternative format for public radio.  The results from five U.S. markets show that the audience appeal of Urban Alternative is undeniably and overwhelmingly positive.  If Urban Alt were a stock, the recommendation would be to “buy now.”

To provide a public radio entry format for young and diverse audiences, Urban Alt is a new music format made possible by grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  The format is a new/old, familiar/unfamiliar mix of many music styles including Hip Hop, R&B, Urban, Soul, Rap and local music presented by local hosts who curate the music.  Just as important, these stations are active and positive change agents that make a real difference in the lives and cultures within their local communities.  There are two stations already airing the format, and both as a result of CPB funding:  Vocalo in Chicago (stream here and The Drop in Denver (stream here

CPB’s VP/Radio Erika Pulley-Hayes was on hand to provide her vision and CPB’s crucial role in supporting this new format, and The Drop’s Content Director Nikki Swarn was there to make it real from a local station perspective.  The audience reaction was as strong as the research itself.  As an aside, I’m constantly quizzed about Urban Alt from radio programmers and music execs who loooove this format.  It seems everyone loves Urban Alternative.  Now all we need are more station operators to “buy” the Urban Alt stock while the CPB is paying their way to be part of the future of public radio.

Here are some highlights from primary research conducted in Chicago, Baltimore, Houston, Norfolk and Denver:

Images typical of other public radio Music Discovery stations—

  • Have entertaining hosts/DJs
  • Have knowledgeable hosts/DJs
  • Are passionate about the music they play
  • Play music from local artists

Images unique to Urban Alt that represent a major difference from commercial Urban radio stations—

  • Positive uplifting listening experience
  • Understand cultural history behind the music
  • Play socially conscious music
  • Play music I can listen to with my family
  • Do not play sexually explicit music
  • Do not play profanity

This is not a niche format—

  • Nationally, 77% of all 18-44s said they would listen to an Urban Alternative station with no market lower than 74%.
  • The format rates an 8.2 appeal rating (out of 10) nationally with a high of 8.9 in Houston.
  • Gender appeal is down the middle and almost 75% are under the age of 34.
  • National ethnicity averages are 40% Caucasian, 33% African American, 21% Hispanic and 6% Asian and multi-ethnic. Ethnicity appeal varies greatly by city with highs of 40%+ African Americans in Baltimore and Norfolk, 30%+ Hispanics in Houston and Denver, and 40%+ Caucasians in Denver, Norfolk and Baltimore.
  • Each station is researched locally, and the music mix is built specifically to reflect local audiences and tastes.

To get a visual for the format, check out Vocalo’s compelling video “This is What Chicago Sounds Like” here:

The grooming of the new Urban Alternative format is a long game that requires patience and iterative improvements along the way.  The term “R&D” is meaningful in almost all major industries.  It’s nice to see R&D at play in the radio industry with the development of the Urban Alternative format.  The CPB and the pioneering radio operators who seek to serve new, young and diverse radio listening audiences should be applauded for doing something that commercial radio can’t do, which is to invest in the future.

Article featured in FMQB October 21, 2019
Written by: Mike Henry