Urban Music in a Cowboy City

Radio has come a long way from starting as simply a radio telegraph system that carried no audio on AM frequency to millions of radio stations on the FM band world wide. These days the radio stations vary from talk radio that has taken over the AM frequency, to every and any style of music on the FM frequency. 


In Calgary, there are approximately 11 radio stations all offering something a little different than the other. We have stations offering Hard Rock, Lite Rock, Just Rock, Classic Rock, Country, Classical, Alternative, and Contemporary Christian. With so much potential, why is there so little variety and so many rock stations? There used to be two urban music stations in Calgary which were Kiss 96.9 and Vibe 98.5. Kiss was no competition to Vibe 98.5 who was offering a larger variety of urban music and interesting radio personalities, and Kiss only managed to last a few weeks on air. Now Kiss is known to Calgarians as Jack 96.9 FM “Playing What We Want” now playing just rock. Vibe on the other hand had a good run at offering only “Hip-Hop, R’n’B and Old School”, but did Calgary want a station that could only deliver such a narrow range of music? With the sudden popularity of urban music in many cities why hasn’t Calgary been able to hold such a station? Some believe that it’s just the demographics, size, new technology, and the country in general. 


When Vibe first hit the airwaves in September of 2002 there was a constant stream of urban music, it was a change that seemed to be embraced by many. One could wonder why something in so high demand couldn’t make it on the air. It’s simple. Its demographics and the ratings proved it. Most of the stations are targeted to the same age groups with slight demographic differences such as if it’s targeted towards men or women. Even with Calgary growing, it just seemed like it wasn’t the time to introduce something like that, though even with larger cities such as Toronto and Montreal it’s hard to maintain such a narrow stream of music that seems to be so big and mainstream in the States. With Calgary being a small city in comparison to Toronto and Montreal, Vibe only lasted as an urban station until 2004. The change was gradual with the introduction of more pop and rock music integrated with urban. Vibe’s big change came within 2005 when they decided to brand themselves as “Today’s Hottest Music” playing mainstream Top 40 hits targeted towards Calgarians aged 12-34, and women. To promote their change to the public Vibe put up billboards, changed their website and slogan, introducing new commercials and promotions, and by putting a survey on their website asking which types of music you’d rather listen to. 


Speaking with people about Vibe many feel that the change wasn’t necessary, and would rather not listen to the radio anymore, personally I don’t blame them as an urban music listener. If you were to market an urban station you would have to market it more to teens and young adults, but the problem with that is that that generation is so into downloading, CD’s, and personal music devices. On top of that with podcasts, campus and private stations that offer a larger variety are noticed more by the urban community. Furthermore, the introduction of satellite radio in Canada will put a damper on local radio stations when people can hear all the music they want with little repetition and no commercials for a small price. 


Having spoken with Vibe’s Mastermind, the music director and Amber Lee Trudeau they both feel that “unless Calgary were a bigger city and had the mentality to lend itself to urban music that an urban station would never be able to set roots in Calgary”. They both feel that the change was completely necessary because their station would have failed because it had nowhere to go. According to Amber Lee, “Vibe has nearly tripled its listening shares in the market within the last two years”. Vibe has been ranked as the third top radio station based on a poll done in FFWD magazine, Calgary’s entertainment magazine. Vibe is not the only urban station in Alberta that has failed, 91.7 the Bounce in Edmonton recently went through the same change as Vibe having been on the air for a certain number of years and then having listeners wake up to a sudden format change. 


The market for urban music is so small in Canada, with a lack of great Canadian urban artists and the fact that we hear content months after it’s been released in the United States is making it hard for Canadians to get into the urban vibe. On top of that the content we do hear is half of what they get in the United States for the simple fact that a radio station in Canada has to play approximately 35% Canadian content a week, and good Canadian urban content is hard to come by these days. As a result, having a specific amount of content devoted to Canadian content would lead to a lot of repetition, which is why the average radio listener dials in and out of a radio station approximately every 15 minutes. 


With 11 FM stations and counting in Calgary and the hundreds of thousands in Canada, will the market ever be able to support urban stations to the extent that the United States has been able to? For now, it looks as though that may take a few more years, but by then the face of mainstream music will have changed. With Canadian cities like Calgary growing there’s no telling what will happen with the radio industry, maybe in a few years or so the mindset of people here will be able to accept urban music but until that happens there doesn’t seem to be a future for it in Calgary.