Boston is moving to a different beat lately.
Last week, Emerson College radio station WERS-FM (88.9) announced the cancellation of two longstanding nighttime urban music shows: the hip-hop-centric “88.9@Night’’ and “Rockers,’’ a reggae-Caribbean-themed program. In a statement released last Tuesday, the college explained that “to keep WERS vibrant now and self-sustaining well into the future, the station needs to build its audience,” and argued that the termination of the shows was required “to provide a more consistent format.”
On a larger scale, the recent shakeup at WERS is just a footnote in terrestrial radio’s ongoing struggle for relevance in the digital age. But for Boston’s hip-hop community, “88.9@Night’’ ’s departure is the most significant loss yet for a scene that finds its presence increasingly marginalized on the AM-FM dial.
“It’s tougher to get on radio as a local artist in your city than it is to play pro sports,” says veteran DJ Hustle Simmons, who helped break local artists as host of “The Launchpad” on Jam’n 94.5 FM before switching to 96.9 FM this summer. “There are maybe a thousand players in the NFL or NBA, and there is maybe room for five local artists on the radio.”
Now that “88.9@Night’’ is gone, those odds have been shaved even slimmer. The nightly two-hour show had been a mainstay for area artists, DJs, and hip-hop fans for almost two decades, serving as early proving grounds for the likes of 7L & Esoteric, Akrobatik, and countless others. Its cancellation represents 10 fewer hours of local hip-hop per week on the airwaves, leaving just a handful of weekly shows to fill the void.
“I understand the show means more now than it ever has,” said DJ E-Dubble, current cohost of “The Launchpad.” “For Boston or the New England market, this show is almost like a rite of passage. When we have artists on the show, we’ll play their music, we’ll do an interview, and then a freestyle to showcase their talent.”
Aside from stations acting in the best interests of their business, there are a range of underlying issues that have also affected local hip-hop radio. Blogs and social media have provided alternative, more direct platforms for the dissemination of music and fostering of discussion, two of radio’s traditional strong points. Subsequently, the DJs’ once-critical roles in overseeing music quality control and breaking new artists has been diminished, as the Internet has handed musicians the ability to broadcast their message and promote their brand incessantly, not just when they catch the ear of an on-air personality.
“With the Internet in general, I feel like self-promotion is so important and so heavy that maybe radio is not necessary anymore,” said Miss JayDee, who regularly features local rappers and producers as host of “Beats, Rhymes & Life” on Boston-based indie Internet station UnRegular Radio. “It’s kind of just a way of highlighting an artist. It’s important in that sense but maybe not as far as elevating your career.”
Where they once helped ignite an artist’s buzz, DJs are now forced into a more reactive position: In order to keep listeners interested, they must seek out artists who have independently established some kind of presence in the scene, which shrinks considerably the pool of eligible candidates for airplay.
“You have to take into consideration who’s putting out product, who’s networking and trying to make a name for themselves,” said E-Dubble. “All of that comes full circle. We’re not doing nothing but magnifying what they are doing.”
There’s also an even simpler explanation: The lack of local hip-hop on the radio is simply a reflection of the demand for it, or lack thereof.
“To be honest, there’s not this influx of calls from people asking to hear the brand new record from a homegrown artist,” said DJ Jimizz, host of “The Choice Is Yourz” on WMBR-FM (88.1). “Years ago there was. I would feature a song from a homegrown artist and people would call in with their opinions. But now I don’t get as much submissions.”
Despite changes in the media business and technology, radio remains for some a central part of connecting artists with listeners and setting a standard of quality for the music.
“I’ve been fortunate to do well on the radio, but there are so many great artists around here that there shouldn’t be any excuse for not hearing them,” said rapper Dutch ReBelle, winner of best hip-hop artist at last year’s Boston Music Awards. “Radio should step it up, no doubt about it. People use radio to connect with people and kick-start their career and it should be an outlet for what’s going on in the city.”
“The great thing is that not everybody can be on the radio,” said Miss JayDee. “There’s something special being featured in the newspaper or on the radio, that means you’re not just another artist trying to get heard on the Internet. The host is a specialist in this field, and they are telling the audience why this is important.”
Though no one is arguing that fewer outlets for artists from the region is a positive development, there’s room for debate as to the long-term effects on the local scene. As one path to exposure narrows, alternatives have and will continue to develop over time.
“What I miss the most is getting the call the next day from a kid who just heard his song played on the radio for the first time,” said Simmons. “By playing their song, you are able to fulfill somebody’s dream, and for 95 percent of those people, that’s the peak of their career.”Martín Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_el_caballero.