R.I.P. Churban


Are we witnessing the demise of Churban radio, even as we don’t listen?

In more and more markets across the country, the format seems to be undergoing a directional change (at the very least) and a complete overhaul (in extreme). So, what’s up?

Those programming Churban radio stations are quick to say that the format is alive and well and doing better than ever. From a strictly 12+ Arbitron rating perception, in many cases this is true. But many more are finding problems with the format…both in its ability to draw audience in the salable demographics and in its ability to attract an audience that is attractive to advertisers.

The Churban format was born when Top 40 programmers wanted to separate their stations from the strictly Mainstream competition. Playing more R&B (remember that term?) and Rap was one was to set yourself apart. As radio stations became successful with this type of programming, the dichotomy became more complete. Suddenly it wasn’t just playing more R&B and Rap, it was playing only R&B and Rap. Churban, once known for establishing a bridge between Mainstream and Urban, evolved from a hybrid into a format that stood on its own.

It wasn’t a long time ago when there were two Churban stations in a lot of markets. Now, it’s sometimes hard to find one. The reasons are varied, but they break down along ethnic and economic lines.

No one understands the format (the positives and the negatives) better than i do, although a lot of people program it better than I ever did. Not to take away anything from those who are successful (particularly the guru, Jerry Clifton), but I submit that the very first Chrurban radio station in the country was KFRC. The format was born out of two necessities…ethnis and economics.

When I arrived in San Francisco in 1980, KFRC was losing to Urban KSOL in the ratings and behind about 10 other station in billing. It was evident that KFRC was (a) not satisfying the core audience and (b) not attracting ethnic listeners. Since San Francisco is such a diverse ethnic city, it was a no-brainer to move the music to an ethnic mix catering to that audience.

And it worked. Brilliantly. And that’s when the economics kicked in. National business went through the roof, but local sales lagged behind. Our increased ratings were being countered on the local sales scene with the vague whispers that KFRC’s audience was mostly ethnic and therefore the listners had less disposable income. Fortunately, our numbers were so strong that we were able to overcome that counter-sales tactic. Plus, although KFRC leaned heavily Urban, in those days, we were still able to play enough Mainstream music to more than balance it out.

Today’s market is much different. The lines are more clearly drawn.

Fast-forward to 1990. I was programming KWOD in Sacramento against KSFM. I say against, but a check of the dictionary would tell you that to be against something, you have to be close. KWOD wasn’t. KSFM was then, and is now, a tightly formatted, highly professional, extgremely competitive radio station that, quite frankly, kicked our ass. We weren’t even close.

To counter KSFM’s programming (and to disguies the face that we couldn’t beat them in a format I thought I knew better than anybody), we changed formats to a Mainstream/Alternative. It worked to perfection. Although KWOD never approached KSFM’s 12+ ratings dominance, we managed to sell out the available commercial time by focusing on the salable 18-34 demographics. KSFM’s target was 18-34-year-old Hispanic females. KWOD’s target was 18-34-year-old, upper income (read White) males and females. We never managed more than 10% of KSFM’s national billing, but locally, KWOD did extremely well.

Few owners or GMs will admit that race plays a part in deciding on a format. the reality is much different. Major market radio station that perform well in th ratings won’t have a sales problem. National advertising will take care of that. In smaller markets, because the majroity of the sales are made up of local contacts, who listens is often more importnat than how many. This is one of the problems facting the Churban format.

Another, possibly more important reason is that most Churban stations just aren’t performing as well as in times past…no matter what the ethnic breakdown. There aren’t as many programmmers who are competent in their trade…and there’s a reason for this. Chuck Field, PD of KSFM, says that the biggest problem with the Churban format is that it is regionally diverse. No other format depends on the specific market research that drives the Churban format. There are very few national automatic Churban record adds because each market is different. Because Arbitron weights Hispanics, but not Blacks, in Sacramento, KSFM’s core is Hispanic females. But in Orlando, Arbitron weights Hhispanics and Blacks and the core is different. It’s hard for one Churban station to relate to the success of stories on another because the numbers are different.

No less than consultant Jerry Clifton, the God of Churban, has been tinkering with many ofhis stations. In several cases,he has begun adding Alternative music to the mix and in some instances, he has changed the format to a more Mainstream/Alternative stance. When it is programmed correctly, the format can still be formidable. The proof can be found in New York at Hot 97 and in Los Angeles at KPWR and in Chicago at B96 and San Francisco at KMEL…just to name a few. The key is to narrow-focus on the music. Too many Churbans try to be too hip for the room and wind up playing too much new music. Most Programmers agree that more than one new song an hour can put the format in jeopardy. Also, smart programmers rely on the heritabe of the format and feature a lot of Old School (Oldies) music.

Most agree that Chruban is facing a serious identity crysis. The format began as a niche and could wind up niching itself out of existence. Good programming cures many ills, but many see the Churban format becoming less liable in the future. As it is cut from above by Mainstream stations with an Alternative edge and from below by Rap and Urban stations, Churbans are being squeezed out of the large piece of the pie.

What’s in the future? If I knew that, I would still be in radio.

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