Fighting The Power

Upstart rap station Power 92.7 had its eyes on big, bad KMEL, but didn't watch its back.

Trevor Simpson believes in hip-hop. Not the bland pop confection that KMEL trots out to sell pagers and Kragen auto parts, but the mixtapes sold from the trunk of an emcee’s car, the spoken-word staccato and interlayered beats that defy commercial radio’s bubblegum machine, the hope undaunted by life on Oakland’s hard streets.

As a former intern at Clear Channel Communications, the radio behemoth that owns KMEL and Wild 94.9, the two Bay Area stations that dominate urban music, Simpson had seen the ideals that appealed to him sullied by safe programming, an obsession with demographics, and a ruthless determination to crush the competition. He wanted something more, a genuine connection to the music that defined his young life. When he heard that a new hip-hop station was rising in Oakland, one that promised to stay true to its community roots, he eagerly signed on as its new director of marketing and promotion. On April 15, Chicago-based Three Point Media took over an underperforming dance music station and reformatted it as Power 92.7, the “Beat of the Bay.” The station debuted with 48 straight hours of Tupac Shakur and announced that from now on, Oakland would have its own hip-hop headquarters.

“We want everyone to know that we’re right here in Oakland, and we’re here for the hip-hop generation in the Bay Area,” Simpson said a few weeks ago. “People know who we are; they’re excited about the new station. They’re glad that there’s a station that’s local and giving back to the community and actually is in Oakland, rather than being in a skyrise in San Francisco.”

Simpson wasn’t the only one taking a chance on Power 92.7. Up to 25 kids signed on to work for Power’s promotions team, seduced by the chance to be part of a new experiment in authentic hip-hop. But soon, their rival struck back. Shortly after Power went on the air, KMEL and its sister station Wild 94.9 dispatched black “street team” vans, packed with young, thuggish kids on promotions detail, in a campaign of intimidation, Simpson and other colleagues claimed. Clear Channel’s shock troops allegedly sabotaged Power concerts and block parties, slapped KMEL and Wild 94.9 bumper stickers on Power street-team vans, threw fliers in the face of a Power employee, and even allegedly followed them home.

This just convinced Simpson and his colleagues they were on to something. They had no DJs, no sales staff, less than 1 percent of the audience, a weak broadcast signal, and no commercials beyond a few public service announcements, but they labored day and night to build Power 92.7 into a station that, as one employee put it, was “for Oakland, by Oakland.” After a few months, the ratings finally started to grow. Finally, real hip-hop had a place on the dial. Local artists ignored by KMEL suddenly had a place to air their music. Hip-hop’s political dimension no longer took second stage to booty girls and bling-bling. Power was primed, and its devotees were ready to take on the Man.

Last week, they found out who they were really up against.

Simpson was only too happy to challenge KMEL, which to him and many others personified the corporate commercialism which had diluted hip-hop. The number two station in the Bay Area, according to Arbitron ratings, the 50,000-watt KMEL has dominated the Bay Area hip-hop scene since the mid-’80s, when it was spinning rap while most commercial jocks were still too scared to touch it, obliterating the competition with its mix shows, Summer Jams, and original programming such as Sway and Tech’s Wake Up Show. KMEL established the template for urban music stations across the country, but somewhere along the way, hip-hop fans and local musicians claim, the station lost its heart and soul. Hip-hop activist and radio personality David “Davey D” Cook got the boot in 2002, and the station’s historic commitment to programs such as the topical urban talk show Street Soldiers began to wane. Local artists griped that KMEL, under the leadership of program director Michael Martin, had stopped playing their music in favor of a bland formula of market-tested hits. “Keak da Sneak, he got a hot single out now, and I don’t really hear KMEL fucking with that,” veteran East Bay rapper E-40 complained in a 2001 interview. “What we need to bring us back is radio support.”

Many of these changes began after the station was bought by Clear Channel Communications, the media giant everyone loves to hate. Clear Channel is a vast, impersonal bogeyman, bloodlessly dictating the content of our culture according to profit margins, or so the story goes. Since assembling more than 1,200 radio stations after the 1996 Telecommunications Act made that possible, it has become a lumbering ogre, programming the airwaves from its distant executive suites, freezing out local artists, and accelerating radio’s decline into the vast wasteland of safe, boring music. In many markets, its synergistic operations in billboards and concert promotion give the company a virtual monopoly on what kind of music gets out to the public.

Earlier this year, these complaints came to a boil on KMEL’s airwaves, as incendiary East Bay hip-hop artist Paris sat for a January 21 interview with DJ Chuy Gomez. As Gomez paid homage to his guest’s storied career, Paris hinted at how rarely music such as his gets on the station’s airwaves. “I would love to have more love here, but it seems like people only really respect what they see on TV or what they hear on the radio,” he said. “Most people’s introduction to hip-hop comes from BET, or from KMEL.”

One caller put it more bluntly, hammering KMEL for ignoring the so-called conscious rap scene. “I’ve been listening to KMEL my whole life, and I think that you-all can choose to play better music,” she declared. “You-all can choose to introduce kids to Public Enemy. And you don’t. And you say that the only way to make money is to sell gangsta rap, but if that were true, all the other types of music that’s available, jazz and all this other stuff, it wouldn’t sell. And it does.”

“Well, there’s something for everybody,” Gomez retorted. “I mean, you know, I’m not making excuses, I’m saying we do play a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about. …”

“Well, just play more of it.”

Paris sprang to the defense of Gomez: “Chuy doesn’t make all the programming decisions here. … He’s definitely doing his part.”

“No, Chuy’s my dogg …” the caller agreed.

“The point that I was making is most people don’t look for music,” Paris concluded. “You know, most people only go off of what they see on TV or hear on the radio.”

Paris said that Gomez went to another song, and KMEL’s program director promptly yanked his guest off the air. “Michael Martin came in and demanded I get the fuck off his station,” he later recalled. “All behind callers calling in, saying they were disgusted with the way KMEL was getting down. It didn’t really have anything to do with anything I specifically did. I served as a conduit to let the community speak out.”

As listener discontent grew, the investors behind Three Point Media bought the ailing dance music station Party 92.7 and reformatted it as Power 92.7, hoping to seize a chunk of KMEL’s audience. Its edge, Simpson later explained, would be authenticity. Power would style itself as the true voice of local hip-hop, the one that keeps it real. “Hip-hop is pop music now, and there’s a big need for a local station in the Bay Area, because both Wild and KMEL haven’t given any love or respect to the Bay Area for years in terms of local acts,” Simpson said. “Hip-hop is not just a music style, it’s a lifestyle. And we’re working with people trying to get it recognized as a movement.”

Power 92.7’s debut was welcome news for local artists. Suddenly, KMEL also started programming more local rap tunes, putting songs by Frontline and Ea-Ski, the Federation, Keak da Sneak, E-40, and Turf Talk in regular rotation right next to the Jay-Zs, Chingys, and Lil’ Jons of the world. “Radio stations are starting to get behind Bay Area rap,” E-40 said of KMEL a few months ago — just before debuting E-Feezy Radio, his own weekly two-hour show. “It’s all gravy,” the local rap kingpin said. “KMEL has gotten better — 75 percent better. … If you’re the ‘People’s Station,’ play people’s music. That’s what they’ve been doing. They stepped it up. I ain’t even gonna lie.”

Power station manager Skip Dillard was happy to take credit for forcing KMEL to rediscover local acts. “Many have told me that they received virtually no attention … prior to the rumors that this company was going to do an urban format,” said Dillard, who left his New York job as Top 40 and R&B editor for Billboard Monitor to build Power from scratch. “I’d been here for about four months prior to our launch, and there was local music played more and more on both Wild and KMEL. So I think the attention started before we even signed on.”

“Big Von” Johnson, KMEL’s music director, acknowledged the change in his programming priorities, but said his station started spinning more local acts simply because the music improved. “When I first got on, those records weren’t even big,” he said. “There was no big local records. … It’s a little bit better now. I seen what they’re doing, I seen what they’re working on.” As for Power’s impact on KMEL, Johnson deadpanned: “To be completely honest, I pay no attention to them.”

But Simpson said he suspected that KMEL and Wild might start paying a more sinister kind of attention to Power. After all, he said, he knew how the two stations operated from the inside. In May 2001, he was working on Wild’s promotions team when the Los Angeles-based Spanish Broadcasting System unveiled Party 92.7, a dance music station that would directly compete with Wild. As he sat in a staff meeting, he listened quietly as Wild managers instructed their street team to go head-to-head with the competition and to promote their station as aggressively as possible. A few minutes into the lecture, three employees strutted into the meeting with grins on their faces. “Some of the street team walked in and they said, ‘We sent Party a welcome message,'” he said.

Unbeknownst to his bosses, Simpson was secretly talking with Party management about a job at the new station. And when he arrived there a few days later for an interview, he was certain that he saw what his Wild colleagues had been so tickled about. Someone had snuck onto the grounds of Party’s downtown Oakland studio and spray-painted phrases like “Radio Is War,” “Suck a Dick,” and “Fuck the Party!” all over the front of the building. The tags glowed in bright pinks and yellows, the colors of Wild 94.9.

Julia Westland, who was Party’s sales manager at the time, suspects that Wild employees were responsible for the graffiti, but refused to elaborate. Spanish Broadcasting chief revenue officer Marco Radlovic refuses to guess who could have tagged his building. “It could have been anybody,” he said. “It could have been listeners. There was never anything proven.” But Simpson was convinced his own colleagues were the culprits. This, he concluded, was the way that Wild and KMEL dealt with competition.

Simpson didn’t let that stop him from taking a job at Party 92.7. He claimed that his old Wild 94.9 colleagues soon began stalking him outside his home in retaliation. “I lived a few blocks away from the station at the time,” he recalled. “They had vans sitting out in front of my house when I got home. They followed me into my garage at one point. They put stickers on the window of my apartment, the garage door of my apartment. Just basically tried to harass me as much as they could. It was nothing to me, but it was just funny that they tried.”

Michael Martin, who served then and now as program director for Wild as well as KMEL, said he has no idea what Simpson is talking about. “I couldn’t comment on that, because I have no knowledge of that,” he said. “And considering that this is coming from someone on our payroll who is interviewing for a job across town, that person does not sound like a very credible person to me.”

Party 92.7 never rose very high in the ratings, and in 2003, Spanish Broadcasting System tentatively agreed to sell the station to Three Point Media. The new company leased the station from Spanish Broadcasting while the deal closed — a process that wasn’t finally concluded until last week — and Simpson stayed on as the director of marketing and promotion for the new station.

According to Simpson, the harassment of Power started shortly after the new format debuted. “We had just purchased our brand-new Hummer H-2, and it was sitting in the parking lot,” he said. “And I looked out the front window, and outside Wild rode by with their brand-new Hummer, and the promotion director of Wild, Ray Wong, was standing in front of our building, taking pictures of our building. And there were various street-team members walking around the block, and every parking meter and every stop sign and every city sign for a couple-block radius was tagged with Wild stickers. I just thought that was interesting, that the promotion director of a station that’s billing $20 million a year had time in his day to stand out in front of our station.” Wong did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Soon, Simpson said, KMEL vans were bird-dogging Power’s street teams around the Bay Area. “The first one that I remember was we were in the Mission District,” he recalled. “Two or three KMEL vans ended up following our van.” When Power pulled into a parking lot, KMEL’s vans boxed it in place, and street-team kids jumped out and plastered it with stickers. One guy walked up to the driver’s side and pitched a “big brick” of fliers into the window, smacking the driver, Simpson said. Then they jumped in their vans and hit the road. “At that point, for safety reasons, we made amendments to have two vans out all the time, caravanning,” he said. “It’s more safe; they can’t box you in as easily.”

According to Angel “Supafly” Galindo, who ran Power’s street team, KMEL vans messed with his crew all over the Bay Area. “I had me and another van, and we basically did a van hit,” Galindo said of one incident. “I did a call-in, ‘I’m out here at the Cala Foods parking lot,’ whatnot, and people were coming up. … They’re like, ‘Whassup,’ you know? They find out where we’re at, and they come, we put a sticker on their car, we hook them up with CDs, T-shirts, whatnot. And you know, they leave happy.” But as he was pulling out, Galindo claims, he spied a KMEL van rolling in. That told him that KMEL’s street teamers were listening to Power, trying to get a fix on his location so they could swoop in to counterattack. Galindo told his crew to circle back, and claims that KMEL’s knuckleheads had hit each car in the parking lot. “They were just covering up all my stickers or taking them down, acting the fool,” he said. “Acting like they’re thugs more than they are employees. … These are guys just wilding out, thinking just ’cause they work in radio, they’re somebody important.”

One time, Galindo said, a Wild 94.9 Party Crew van even buzzed his house, speeding up and down the street and throwing stares, as a Power truck idled next to the curb. “I’m hopping in the vehicle, and you know, my mother’s across the street with my son,” he said. “And they were like, ‘Man, the van’s following us.’ And I turn around, and I see from the corner of my house, it was a Wild 94.9 truck. And then they mashed, and they mashed this way, going back and forth. … And you know, my mom’s about to cross the street with my kid, too, you know what I mean? So that kinda, you know, ticked me off.” Galindo produced a letter of complaint, which he claims his mother sent to Wild 94.9 management. “I have a day care in the Visitacion Valley district, and have parents taking and picking up their children, and here I see a vehicle racing up and down my block,” she wrote. “I would appreciate if you could please inform your drivers to behave.”

KMEL representatives strenuously denied all of these accusations. “I don’t know of anything like that happening,” said Tony “Tone Def” Ng, who runs KMEL’s street team. “There is no reason to do something like that. It’s a job. If there’s an event, we do our job and they do theirs. There’s nothing personal. … We’re an established station; we’ve been here for twenty years. There’s no reason for us to do something like that.”

Martin, who also serves as Clear Channel’s regional vice president for programming, was even more adamant. Power, he said, was just peddling lies about harassment in a frantic bid for attention. “I’ve seen it in market after market,” Martin said. “A new competitor will come in and talk about how squeaky-clean they are, how they don’t do anything wrong. And behind the scenes, they’ll try to pick and gnaw at the big station, and then they’ll come to you and complain.”

Power should take a good, long look in the mirror, Martin said: “If we want to do tit for tat, I have a video of the promotion director of that radio station sitting there with a baseball bat in his hand, talking about if he sees members of our staff on the street, he’s going to pound their heads in.” When Simpson heard Martin’s accusation about him, he laughed and said he had no clue what Martin was talking about.

Martin also claimed to have photographs of Power staff sneaking onto his parking lot and slapping stickers on KMEL vans, but refused to provide this evidence, claiming that his legal department is holding onto it in case things get serious. He reiterated one point over and over: KMEL has thumped Power 92.7 so thoroughly in the ratings that his station doesn’t have to resort to such tactics. “Power 92 means nothing to me,” he said. “Their ratings actually went down after they became a rap station. I don’t turn my two big ships to go after them.”

Still, Power station manager Skip Dillard insisted that KMEL’s stunts convinced him the big station was nervous about facing real competition for the first time in years. “If anything, they’ve made me excited, and more determined,” he said. “I’m a very laid-back person. But I’m always thinking, always thinking about the next thing that we have to do to solidify our relationships and our base. And these things have made us more determined, and it’s helped us know that there’s a job to be done.”

Dillard began collaborating with Paris, the hip-hop impresario who said he nearly came to blows with KMEL’s Martin. Together, they planned a new public-service announcement campaign focusing on voter-registration efforts. Dillard insisted this was just the tip of the iceberg as far as the new station’s community-based commitment, while Paris waxed poetic over the fact that the station manager was willing to meet with him. “The folks at Power 92 were easy to approach and were cool out the gate,” Paris said. “And they expressed an interest in community outreach and local artist support. I haven’t gotten that from KMEL since the Clear Channel takeover.”

But while hopes remained high in the hip-hop community that Power intended to focus primarily on local music, that hadn’t yet panned out. “A lot of people were saying 92.7 was going to play everything from the Bay, which is really not true,” noted Saeed Crumpler, a local rap artist who is the hip-hop buyer for Rasputin Music in Berkeley. “They still play a lot of what KMEL plays or 94.9 plays, or any other station plays,” he said recently. Even so, he added, “A lotta people wanna see what 92.7 is gonna do. Are they gonna stretch out their signal? There’s people that wanna see what kinda DJs they’re gonna have up. When are they gonna have the DJs up?”

Sure enough, Power soon made plans to move its transmitter to Sutro Tower, which would have increased its broadcast range enough to reach roughly one million more people across the southern Bay Area. But even with its existing signal, Power’s ratings were slowly climbing. Dillard spent his weekdays building market share and his weekends judging hip-hop talent shows at street fairs in cities like San Pablo. His station was gradually capturing the hearts and minds of the East Bay’s urban youth. Finally, Simpson and Dillard thought, their dream of returning authentic hip-hop to the Bay Area was coming true.

On July 17, KMEL and Power went head to head at a street party at West Oakland’s Gateway Plaza. The WOMAC Foundation hosted a street fair to celebrate the opening of the Gateway mall, and asked Tony Toni Toné frontman D’Wayne Wiggins to organize it. Wiggins put together a mix of arts and crafts displays, food booths, and a main stage sponsored by KMEL, where his band performed along with rock acts and taiko drummers. But the real party centered on a small stage to the side, where Power’s street team and DJ Danyah thrilled a crowd of hundreds. “It wasn’t the main stage as far as the live band stuff, but as far as the crowd was concerned, it was the main stage,” Wiggins recalled. “He had at least four or five hundred youngsters, all over there dancing, goin’ dumb.”

The show on Power’s stage kicked KMEL right in the ass, as Danyah spun a mix of crunk Southern rappers, top forty hits, and ’80s R&B. Rival step dancers broke out their moves under the afternoon sun. “All the kids were enjoying it, the dancers were enjoying it, and KMEL didn’t have anyone over at their booth,” said Danyah, who has no connection to Power and merely shared the stage with the station. “So they pulled up to our stage.”

Suddenly, a black KMEL van rolled up to the back of the crowd, and loudspeakers blasted a new groove as street teams from the “People’s Station” tried to remind everyone who really brings the funk in the Bay Area. But according to Danyah, the crowd just got annoyed and tried to ignore the KMEL squad, even as they pimped a chance to win free Usher tickets. “I was like, ‘Dang, they gotta do that to get people to notice them?'” he said. “It was kind of embarrassing.”

For thirty minutes, Danyah said, the crew from KMEL tried to drown out Power’s party, cranking up the volume on their van’s sound system. Finally, Danyah cut the music, grabbed the mike, and told the crowd that if they wanted KMEL to go away and let them have their fun, all they had to do was say so. Amid a chorus of boos, KMEL packed up and drove away. “Basically, they had to tuck their tails in and run,” Danyah said. “They tried for a good thirty minutes, but people wasn’t buying it. It was great for [Power], ’cause everyone was like, ‘Man, 92 kicked KMEL’s butt!’ Little kids were saying that.”

On September 27, Power’s staff assembled at the station for a meeting. Arbitron had projected that its audience share would finally break 1 percent of the market, high enough to attract advertisers, and everyone thought they were here to discuss the marketing and sales budgets. Instead, chief operating officer Tom Sly of Three Point Media announced that his company had sold the station.

Almost everyone was fired, effective immediately.

The men behind Three Point Media are Chicago investors Chris Devine and Bruce Buzil, who like to call themselves “the Fun Boys.” They’re in the radio business, but they’re really in the radio speculation business. Once the Federal Communications Commission began deregulating the broadcast industry, it became possible for investors to spot an undervalued station, buy it, improve the signal strength or location, and flip it for a profit. According to the media consulting firm BIA Financial Network, Devine and Buzil spent $3.8 million in 2002 to acquire Yuba City’s KXCL, which they sold less than a year later for $8.2 million. In October 2001, they bought two stations in Arizona for $1.1 million, waited almost two years, and sold one to Clear Channel for $2.5 million. Altogether, Devine and Buzil estimate that they’ve bought and flipped about twenty radio stations in the course of their careers.

For weeks, industry watchers and radio geeks had been posting on message boards at the industry Web site, warning that the Fun Boys were about to do the same thing to Power. After all, the station had hired just one DJ and a couple of mixers, and was rumored to be bleeding thousands of dollars every month, with no commercials or ad revenue coming in. Hip-hop, they warned, was just Three Point’s way of pretending to run the station while it finalized the sale from Spanish Broadcasting System and sold it at an enormous profit. “Here’s the deal,” wrote one poster on August 5. “Power is basically stunting until they move their antenna to Sutro tower. Irritate the big guys, improve 92.7 signal coverage, then flip the station for $45M, pocketing $15M (less interim operating expenses) for their efforts. That’s their MO. 3Pts will not own this station a year from now.”

Station manager Skip Dillard was asked about these rumors several times and cheerily assured everyone that Power was here to stay. Another Power employee claimed that the moderator of hates hip-hop and spread these rumors to undermine the station among industry watchers. Nonetheless, observers kept warning that Power’s demise was imminent. “This whole 92.7 thing smells very fishy to me,” one poster wrote. “3Pts is KNOWN for going in a market [to] snatch up underperforming radio stations and then try to improve the signal and get a spike in the ratings for a quick sell — it’s happened more than 2x recently — so any attempt for the [Power] program director to preach ‘community’ is BS.”

Last week, Dillard, Simpson, and the rest of Power’s true believers learned the brutal truth. Three Point Media had just finalized the deal with Spanish Broadcasting and immediately sold the station to Joe Bayliss, the former sales director of Infinity Radio San Francisco. Bayliss has reprogrammed the newly named Energy 92.7 with a dance format, which means Simpson’s five-month experiment with meaningful hip-hop is dead. “Everyone’s taking it pretty bad,” said one former Power employee the day after the meeting. “Skip’s goal was to really have a community-based station. Genuinely. Because he believed it could work. … I’m really sad for Oakland; I feel that this is a community that has been punched left and right. It’s not like it’s ever going to be tried again.”

Skip Dillard sacrificed a lot for Power 92.7. He packed up his life in Philadelphia, moved to the Bay Area, and enticed several people who had worked for KMEL to come work for him. Now those kids may never work again in Bay Area urban radio, and Dillard frets that he convinced them to give up a steady job for what turned out to be a colossal fraud. When asked two days after the sale if he thought Three Point’s rap format was just a big ruse while his bosses flipped the station, he said, “Yeah, I do.”

The day after this interview, Dillard was fired.

Meanwhile, Three Point owners Chris Devine and Bruce Buzil evidently made out quite well on the sale. “It was a great deal — you should have been in on it!” Devine quipped during a brief interview from his office in Chicago. When asked whether he intended to flip the station all along, he joked, “Yeah, but you want to hear some really good news? I just saved a lot of money on my car insurance from Geico!”

As the chuckles died down, Tom Gammon, who brokered the deal for the Fun Boys, spoke up and tried to put a more beneficent spin on the deal. “People in Berkeley and Oakland don’t understand when you say ‘flip,’ how they’ve benefited from the work we put into the station,” he said. Noting that Power’s signal will soon be improved as a result of their work, he concluded, “We take stations and make them serve the community, serve the people.”

Well, that’s commercial radio for you. In the end, East Bay rap fans listened to five months of false promises that here, finally, was a radio station that considered Oakland its target audience, rather than just the low-rent part of town. Skip Dillard and Trevor Simpson must have known that some portion of their “authenticity” angle was just marketing hype. But another part of them believed it, too. After all, just five brief months of competition forced KMEL to play local acts it might never otherwise have considered. But in the end, the Fun Boys played Power’s young idealists and listeners for a bunch of Grade-A chumps. The real playas had spoken. Or as one true believer put it, “I’ve worked at three radio stations, and I’ve been lied to by every person in a suit I’ve ever met.”

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