Radio Is Quietly Scrubbing the Word 'Urban,' Sources Say

Weeks after music’s Blackout Tuesday, which sparked a plethora of heated, industry-wide conversations about systemic racism, companies and executives are still debating the use of the word “urban” in job titles, awards categories, and other facets of the music business. While not all organizations are in agreement about what to do with the word, the radio community seems to be largely doing away with it.

A rep for iHeartMedia — the U.S.’s largest radio conglomerate, operating 855 stations — says that the company is in the process of removing “urban” from job titles, adding that it has “already transitioned away from it” and into “more descriptive and specific names such as hip-hop and R&B” to break from the past. iHeart will also no longer use “urban” when referencing the format or in internal communication. The term is “definitely outdated,” the rep says.

In addition, multiple major label executives and other industry sources familiar with the matter tell Rolling Stone that the iHeart-owned data analytics company Mediabase, which powers the industry’s go-to charts on radio airplay, is planning to remove “urban” from its chart names. Mediabase currently publishes two charts reflecting the top-played tunes at U.S. Urban stations and Urban Adult Contemporary (AC) stations; these charts will be renamed Hip-hop/R&B and R&B, respectively, sources say. Mediabase did not respond to request for comment on Thursday.

Republic Records announced last month that it would remove the word from departments and job titles, calling it a reference to “the outdated structures of the past,” and the Grammy Awards has renamed its “Urban Contemporary” category to “Progressive R&B.”

But other organizations and individual black executives are standing by the word. Shawn Gee, manager of the Roots, for example, told the New York Times that he believes the conversation over the word is a distraction and the “problem lies in the infrastructure, in the system — not in the word.” And iHeart’s executive vice president of programming Thea Mitchem said to Rolling Stone last month: “If you eliminate the word, does that stop the marginalization of black executives or does it exacerbate the situation?”

It’s also worth questioning how effective the removal of the word “urban” can be from awards, official formats, and job titles, if other companies in the industry still operate with it. Interscope Records just announced its new senior vice president of urban radio promotions, for example, and several other major labels also retain a robust department explicitly under the “urban radio promotion” umbrella.

The word was was first popularized within the radio community in the Seventies, thanks in large part to Frankie Crocker, a famous DJ and one of the pioneers of black radio in New York. “Many advertising agencies still seem to know very little about the buying habits of today’s black consumer,” Bostonian program director Sunny Joe White explained in 1982. “So stations call themselves urban to make themselves more attractive to those agencies… Such stereotypic thinking forces even black stations to downplay their blackness in order to compete for the advertising dollars.”

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