It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
On a Tuesday afternoon in early March, the song "Location" rings out in the studio of WJHM 102 JAMZ in Greensboro, North Carolina. The teenage singer, Khalid, hails from El Paso, Texas, and had recently toured across the United States and Europe to promote his debut album, "American Teen". The radio station's Music Director, Big Mo, offers commentary as the song plays during his midday show. "When RCA sent me the record, I was like, 'This joint is crazy,'" said Mo. "I just fought for it, and it's been a hit ever since." After enjoying the success of a Top 40 single, Khalid may want to hop on a flight down to Greensboro to give Mo at least a handshake. "They ain't even move ["Location"] until it worked for us," says Mo with a bit of authority. "Did not move it!"
Khalid is not the first artist that 102 JAMZ has helped breakthrough on radio. Big Mo rattles off others that owe their success, in part, to the station: Dae Dae, K Camp, Kent Jones, O.T. Genasis, Que, Russ, TK N Cash. These artists span from R&B to rap, but the common thread is that they were all broken on 102 JAMZ—not Atlanta, the consensus center of rap music; not New York City, the birthplace of the genre; not even Los Angeles, the real home of most rappers big enough to make it on radio. Those cities have their own rap industries, but for an artist looking to breakthrough in the South—and hopefully the rest of the nation—the best place to start is in Greensboro, North Carolina.
102 JAMZ can be a major tastemaker because it operates differently from other stations, which typically "have more cooks in the kitchen, with more people saying what it should or shouldn't be," says Dontay Thompson, the Vice President of Radio Promotion at E1 Records. "That waters down the message [about] what you wanna do as a station." In different markets, stations often have to work with music consultants, who might push a station in directions that don't work for their audience. 102 JAMZ is able to avoid those battles. Over the phone, Thompson explains that 102 JAMZ sidesteps such issues because of its particular niche—a college town in a heavily Black market—and being a top three station in its market. "They have a really streamlined [system], from the upper management to the very bottom, and are not as corporate as these other markets would be."
DJ Lil Vegas, who started in 2012 and handles weekday mixes at 9 a.m. and noon, recalls times when the station seemed almost too ahead of the curve. "[For] a few months we didn't have any idea what to play," he says. "We were just throwing records into rotation and hoping they would catch on, 'cause that's how far ahead we were of everybody." A bit of anxiety catches Lil Vegas' breath, as being too far ahead can leave the station looking around and not seeing anyone moving at the same rate. "There have been countless times where me and Mo went to other radio stations," says Lil Vegas with a bit of disbelief, "and blatantly they'll be like, 'The same stuff y'all are playing, we follow y'all.'"
Jeff Anderson, a former 102 JAMZ Production Director who now works at Charlotte's WPEG Power 98, credited the station's success to the atmosphere it created in the early 2000s. "It was a station that was heavy in the street and a 24/7 party." That assessment still resonates today. "You might flip to another radio station and they may cut out certain lyrics," says DJ Lil Vegas, but 102 JAMZ tries its best to preserve the songs. This provides listeners with a better music experience and, combined with the station's lively hosts, it provides an energy to the station that might otherwise fall flat.
"He's one of the quiet ones," DJ Lil Vegas tells me over the phone when I ask about the 102 JAMZ Program Director, Brian Douglas. "He barely talks, barely takes pictures. He likes to stay behind the scenes." Douglas may be elusive—many interview requests went unanswered—but his vision for the station is clearly to appeal to young people, and especially young Black consumers. Commenting on the ease of working with Douglas, Mo says, "All I gotta do is tell Brian, 'There's a brand new artist and the song is great', and he'll be like, 'You think it's a hit, let's go with it.'" The station's Mixshow Coordinator, J Flex, praises Douglas for improving his own skills as a DJ. Despite his reclusion, current and former co-workers all point to Douglas for molding the station into the success it is today.
102 JAMZ got started in 1989, after petering out as a country music station. In 1990, Douglas took on the role of Program Director and led the station in a concerted push to focus on the 18-34 age demographic. By 1999, 102 JAMZ overtook WTQR (104.1), a country station, as the top station in North Carolina's Triad area, a crown that WTQR had held since the '70s. By the end of 1999, Entercom Communications bought 102 JAMZ, along with a few other stations, from Sinclair Broadcasting.
Not even within eyeshot of the Greensboro skyline, the 102 JAMZ studio is located in a sprawling corporate office park shared by other Entercom-owned stations. Technicolor paintings of various hip-hop stars line the walls. Inside, the studio is full of microphones, monitors, and a little space for DJ turntables. The morning shift is occupied by the 3 Live Crew information and entertainment show, and then Big Mo's show goes on from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Toshamakia takes over in the afternoon, Fat Jeez in the evenings, then Showdown takes the overnight shifts. Where other stations might offer syndicated programming for some of these time slots, 102 JAMZ holds down with live DJs every hour and keeps it local to the Triad community.
"The 28-up range, they're really gonna think what's hot based off of what 102 JAMZ is playing," says Tune, one of the on-air personalities. "But that younger demo [18-24] is creating what's hot and pushing necessarily what gets played." Tune started as an intern at the station in 2014 and now works part-time during the early morning shift. Even at just 23 years old, he is starting to feel his personal tastes skewing a bit older than the station's prime target demographic.
Luckily, the station's employees are always ready to hear about potential new records from younger people. Big Mo recalls first hearing about New Jersey-raised rapper Fetty Wap from a station intern in the summer of 2014. This was months before any of his singles hit radio. After making a trip up to New York City and seeing Fetty Wap's songs go over so well, Mo came back ready to push for the rapper.
Something similar transpired to get Bryson Tiller on the air early at 102 JAMZ. An intern mentioned the Kentucky-born singer and at the time Mo didn't recognize the name. But as Mo tells it now, "First time you heard 'Exchange' you know that [was] a hit."
Every Monday, the station holds weekly music meetings to look at the songs in rotation, assess how they are doing, and decide what might need replacing. The music team determines the success of songs based on phone-in requests and their own in-house surveys of listeners. They also check the rankings provided by Shazam, an app that uses a smartphone's microphone to identify songs as they are playing. If a song isn't getting Shazam'd, this might mean it isn't quite clicking with their audience. On the other hand, if many users consult the app about a particular song, it could mean that they like what they are hearing, but the artist hasn't been heavily promoted yet. This information helps 102 JAMZ get ahead of the curve. Chuckling, Big Mo recalls how a record label began pushing "Unforgettable" by French Montana and Swae Lee, but the station had already played out the song when it leaked months earlier. Peers of 102 JAMZ might have access to all the same information, but no one else acts on it with their tenacity.
"There's no reason Atlanta and Carolina can't do the same thing," says Mo, who helped break local artists like DJ Luke Nasty, Swift, and Tigo B in the last couple of years. His position enables him to push smaller artists, something he does proudly. "It's one thing if your homeboy or your homegirl is telling me that your record is hot," he says, "but it's another when someone that doesn't know you from anywhere is saying that your record is hot."
That's an ethos he's tried to instill in artists who look to radio as the end goal of success, telling them that their music needs to be in the clubs, on the Internet, and on airways beyond 102 JAMZ. He may have the power to give their careers a spark, but they need to understand how to keep the flame going.
The determination to try out new music not only keeps listeners invested in the station, but also attracts industry insiders who trust the station's collective ear. Ayelet Schiffman, Vice President of Rhythm and Dance Promotions at Columbia Records, acknowledges the station's roles as tastemaker and mentor. "They tend to play a lot of local music," she says. "They definitely give people chances." That doesn't go unnoticed by record labels who are always eyeing unsigned talent. "That's why the A&R department looks at them," says Schiffman, "because they see the reaction and an immediate reaction from fans."
The station's authoritative and leading voice can result in records being pushed on them, not from artists or their labels, but from other DJs who can't breakout a record at their own station. DJ Lil Vegas recalls how he broke "Foreplay," by Charlotte-based rapper Jalen Santoy, on the air. A DJ from another North Carolina station approached Vegas. "'If y'all can start playing this and get it in rotation, then we can start playing it down here at our station,'" Vegas said the DJ told him. Vegas took the DJ up on the request and the breezy rap song entered his mixes, then 102 JAMZ's regular circulation, and then it started receiving play around the state.
"You're competing to play the best songs first or the best songs all the time," says Anderson, the former 102 JAMZ Program Director, about how most radio stations get by. "You have to be more mindful about not being as familiar, or you have to pay more attention to what is more mainstream popular than the clubs or streets." Without that same burden of repeating what other stations are playing, 102 JAMZ is able to push forward so that other stations and labels look to for direction on what's next. "You don't have to sell me on a record," says Mo. He's talking about record labels pitching him new records, but more broadly, he's describing the station's mantra. "If I think it'll work, it'll work."