V103 celebrates 25 years at the top

V103logoOn the eve of its 25th anniversary as Chicago’s pioneering urban adult-contemporary radio station, WVAZ FM 102.7 has more to celebrate than its groundbreaking format and illustrious history.

Ratings released Monday by Nielsen Audio (previously known as Arbitron) show V103 leading the market with a commanding 6.2 percent share of all listeners and a cumulative weekly audience of 1,128,600.

And that’s no fluke: The Clear Channel station has been No. 1 overall in 17 of the last 18 books.

The station’s ratings dominance is even more remarkable considering how the radio landscape has changed. While most other formats declined when Portable People Meter technology replaced the old diary measurement method five years ago, V103 flourished.

“We took the new measurement system seriously,” said Derrick Brown, director of urban programming for Clear Channel Chicago and program director of V103. “We studied a lot and took the time to understand how the new methodology could affect us as a radio station. It took quite a bit of tweaking, but it’s worked out well for us.”

Derrick Brown

Derrick Brown

The secret to the station’s success, Brown said, is listening: “We are absolutely focused on the likes and dislikes of our listening audience, and we do our level best to meet the expectations. What we’ve seen over the years in this industry when you violate expectations, it damages your brand. I think that’s why our brand is so strong — because we listen.”

It’s quite an achievement for a unique hybrid that many wrote off as a flash in the pan when V103 debuted on Oct. 18, 1988.

Urban programming mastermind Barry Mayo was only 36 when he acquired the former WBMX from Sonderling Broadcasting for $27.5 million. Although the station was doing well with its urban contemporary format, Mayo and his program director, Tony Kidd, gambled that they could do even better — if they were willing to alienate the young African-American listeners who embraced WBMX as an alternative to urban powerhouse WGCI FM 107.5. (Mayo, in fact, had once been program director of WGCI before he and Lee Simonson formed Broadcasting Partners Inc.)

In its place, V103 targeted African-American adults between 25 and 54 with a format that combined rhythm-and-blues, Motown and dusties music in a laid-back presentation more typical of adult-contemporary stations. Billed as “The Best Variety of Hits and Dusties — and No Rap,” the station banned anything resembling hip hop in those days. The inaugural air staff included Richard Steele in mornings, Maxx Myrick in middays, Leigh Hamilton in afternoons and Raymond Anthony in evenings.

To Brown, then a 20-year-old college senior, the demise of WBMX was a major disappointment. “I didn’t like it,” he recalled of his exposure to the new format. “I wanted to hear more contemporary sounds. Motown was a genre my dad listened to, and I had a respect for that type of material, but it wasn’t what I was into at the time. So I really spent little to no time with V103.”

Despite the defection of younger listeners, the new V103 was an immediate and huge success. Overnight it jumped to No. 1 among all adult listeners in the market.

“We’re ecstatic that any new radio station could have this kind of an impact on the 25-to-54 demographic so quickly,” Mayo said at the time. “I’d been telling everybody all along that we and ’GCI could exist in the market together, and these ratings prove it.” (WGCI, then owned by Gannett Co., actually increased its overall audience share when V103 debuted. Today both stations are owned by Clear Channel.)

So what’s kept the station on top? “I think the key to V103’s success then and now is that we’re in a constant state of evolution,” Brown said. “You can’t stay in place because that’s not what our audience is doing. They’re getting new musical tastes. They’re being attracted to new and different technologies. We can’t be the station that we were then. We have to shift and pivot along with our audience.”

Brown describes his station’s “musical recipe” today as a mix of everything from R&B ballads to classic and adult-oriented hip hop, instrumentals and local steppers music, along with a large serving of dusties on weekends. “We encompass everything,” he said. “I think that’s the nature of the urban adult format. That’s what makes it so rich and vibrant.”

Critics (myself included) may deride Clear Channel for resorting to syndicated programming in mornings with Steve Harvey, afternoons with Doug Banks, and overnights with Keith Sweat. That leaves middays with Connie Williams and evenings with Joe Soto and Ramonski Luv as the only locally hosted shows on V103’s weekday lineup.

But considering the two drive-time hosts’ longstanding ties to Chicago radio, listeners don’t seem to mind at all. “Steve Harvey’s history in the market and Doug Banks’ history in the market is a great advantage — as opposed to other markets that may run similar programming,” Brown said.

Soon to mark his seventh year as the station’s programming boss, the once skeptical Brown freely admits he’s become its No. 1 fan: “I think there’s no greater radio station than V103. The experience has been tremendously rewarding,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen over the next 25 years.”

To kick off its celebration, V103 will present a 25th anniversary concert, starring Charlie Wilson, Chaka Khan, Robin Thicke and Bell Biv Devoe, Saturday at Allstate Arena. This Saturday also marks the 85th birthday of Radio Hall of Famer Herb Kent, still going strong and spinning dusties every Saturday and Sunday on V103.