In October 2014, Houston's KROI (92.1 FM) underwent one of the more interesting format changes in recent memory. Earlier that month the station's owners had shuttered News 92, a big-budget and expressive way of giving people the news. It had all the right ingredients to be successful: major names who came from most of the major local networks and more. Ultimately, it lost. For a week, KROI exclusively played Beyoncé, a first-of-its-kind move on non-satellite radio. It was ballsy, but more of a pacifier for what fans were getting next.
That was Boom 92, replacing Beyoncé with one old-school rap and R&B hit after another, starting with the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks On Me." As classic hip-hop stations began replacing Dad Rock across the country, it was a ratings phenomenon. The station even earned the attention of The New York Times, and more classic hip-hop stations began appearing. Houston was a three-tiered radio market for hip-hop and rap then. Boom 92's parent company, Radio One, owned the more established KBXX 97.9 The Box, while iHeart Media had snatched up 93.7 The Beat in late 2013. It felt welcoming, even though Houston radio programmers and higher-ups decided to axe one of the more beloved classic-rock stations in town, “The Arrow."
But Houston radio ultimately is about ratings. When ratings slogged for Hot 95.7, it flipped on the last week of 2016 as Houston’s last memorable death of note. Eight years of being the Top 40 alternative to 104.1 KRBE was enough for listeners. They began partying the final day of 2016 to an adult contemporary station that played Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” as its first salvo.
Boom 92 died less than a full week later. Last Thursday, the station played “Da Rockwilder” by Method Man & Redman, before flipping to the same Top 40 format abandoned by the former Hot 95.7. Radio One rolled out all the taunting it could, similar to how The Beat began trolling The Box nonstop for almost a year. Still, a massive hole was created the moment Radio One decided to shutter Boom 92, a niche format if there ever was one. Top 40, adult contemporary, these are all mainstays in Houston. Sunny 99.1, which is as contemporary as it gets, flips to being an asteroid of unavoidable Christmas music the moment the calendar flips to the day after Thanksgiving. But with only one classic-rock station, the idea that niche radio can even survive in Houston is becoming more and more scary.
This was supposed to be an ode to Boom 92, the hip-hop station that dared play Too Short’s “Freaky Tales” at 8 a.m. That brought on a morning show to counter New York’s The Breakfast Club and our own Mad Hatta Morning Show in Ed Lover & Monie Love. That extended days, if not weeks, of radio play just by playing the perfect song at the right time. It spanned decades, from the ’80s to the early ’00s, and kept on going deep into the night. You wanted an old-school hip-hop or R&B jam? Boom 92 had you. Its jocks, men and women who worked many tireless hours in the Houston radio community, knew what the people wanted. They routinely played testimonials from Houstonians both new and afar that couldn’t help but be thankful for its existence.
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The weird thing about niche radio is that, much like its implied title, it benefits those of a select generation. Or a select few rather. There are segments of this city who clamor for a great classic-rock station, or more classic rock period. There are segments of the city who ultimately will wilt under the pressure of radio execs who believe they know better only by following the trends and norms of dated concepts. The execs will throw out buzzwords only because they believe people aren’t listening. Or don’t care. Or simply refuse to let certain things live and formulate and breathe.
Boom 92 came roaring out of the gate because it was different. It was new, it was fresh and a middle finger to the notion that hip-hop couldn’t have its halcyon Rolling Stones phase on modern radio. Once listeners got comfortable with it, it existed for a while. It had a seemingly unlimited playlist that started off with the Geto Boys and could weave between eras on a whim. There's a place for classic hip-hop on the radio. And it's unfair to kill it off after only 26 months in existence. Some things don’t last in Houston radio because people expect quick, sustained results. Yet there’s no such thing as “quick” in Houston, especially not in spaces where people clamor the loudest for change.
It’s all about the music, really. When one begins to politicize the music we even receive over sterile concepts such as ratings, we end up losing the music. Now Houston radio is left with no classic hip-hop, and very little classic rock, at either end of the FM dial. But lose a Top 40 station, regain another one almost immediately, because having three at all times is apparently a necessity in Houston.
Actually, the only thing Houston radio needs is an opportunity to let niche formats be themselves and not be held back by the old guard's rules. So the city lost its Boom in favor of a Taylor Swift-led station with “LIT” thrown into its slogan. Sounds about terrible. Sounds, sadly, about right.