FLOW president of operations Nicole Jolly and program director Wayne Williams.
Seven years after it went on-air, Canada’s first urban music station has some listeners wondering if it has forgotten its cultural roots

When Canada’s first urban music station rebranded itself last fall, the obvious changes – bolder marketing colours, new morning team – hardly justified the addition of “new” to its moniker. It was the subtle differences, such as its positioning statement, which shifted from “Toronto’s hip hop and R&B station” to “hits that move you,” a generic advertising campaign, that confirmed the evolution of the seven-year-old station from a hip-hop based entity to a more Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) format.

“When we started out we were probably more urban, but the music has also changed,” explained vice-president of operations Nicole Jolly, pointing to less delineation between erstwhile mainstream pop acts like Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake and hip-hop/R&B stars Timbaland and Chris Brown.

“There used to be an urban chart and a Top 40 chart. Now you see a mom listening to Snoop beside her 14-year-old daughter. The music has come to the middle and we’re going along with the times. We’re playing rhythmic hits – the top of charts, excluding rock-based music.”

Three months after its 2001 debut, some listeners threatened a boycott over the station’s favouring hip hop instead of an eclectic mix of reggae, soca, jazz and R&B. With the New FLOW 93.5 playing less hip hop, some believe the station has abandoned its cultural roots in pursuit of material gains.

They aired their displeasure on anti-FLOW Facebook pages with combined memberships of more than 3,500. Such posts were typical:

“So disappointed with the changes at FLOW. It doesn’t sound any different now than 103.5 … way too much pop music. C’mon, Maroon 5, Brittany (sic) Spears?” (Faith States Linton/Nov. 21)

“I can’t even describe how disappointed I am with their new campaign. It seems as if they intend to just blend in to the huge crowd of top 40 pop station here in Toronto.” (Matt Lewis/Nov. 22)

Some took the station’s side:

“If the format they had when they first launched the station was working, they wouldn’t be redoing their station. How many of you that WANT all hip hop actually LISTENED when they HAD hip hop? A radio station has to have listeners to sell airtime, they need to sell airtime to make money, and they need money to keep the lights on.” (Shannon Jodi/Nov. 22)

FLOW has been making a profit for the last few years, said Jolly.

While the latest figures from BBM Canada, the organization that monitors listening habits across the country, show small increases in listenership among FLOW’s 18-34 target audience, including its highest ever morning show ratings, the station’s 2.6 market share has barely surpassed the 2.3 showing of its inaugural year. But experts say ratings don’t tell the whole story.

“Over time they are making some gains and making inroads with money demographics,” said marketing and radio consultant David Bray of Hennessey & Bray Communications. “They’re becoming more viable from a financial standpoint, an advertising standpoint. I suppose were they to become a little more CHR-oriented, while maintaining their urban rhythmic slant, they could probably boost their numbers.”

And further incense those who believe that Milestone Communications Inc. has reneged on its promise to people who supported its politically charged 10-year bid to win a license from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Milestone’s application promised “modern day reflection of rich musical traditions of black musicians and black-influenced music over at least the past century” as well as “a significant amount of spoken word and open-line programming” dealing with topics of particular interest to the black community, including live broadcasts of jazz and world beat concerts.

While the station carries morning news briefs, there are no talk shows. Jazz and oldies programming is gone and reggae, calypso and gospel are relegated to Sunday.

“If the mix on FLOW was better I’d tune in,” said disgruntled Pickering listener Klive Walker. “But you don’t hear Latin and African music. Their argument that to survive … they have to do what they’re doing is weak. They could broaden the programming and play a whole mix of music that reflects the city and get more listeners and advertisers would jump on board.”

Nonetheless, the station draws a respectable 425,000 weekly listeners, including Walker’s 15-year-old daughter Aisha.

“It’s kind of a battle between us,” she said of her father’s attempts to commandeer the car radio. “I like FLOW because it’s current and I can relate to the dialogue. My dad likes some songs I like, but the stuff he doesn’t like is played a lot.”

Toronto-based journalist and radio producer Norman (Otis) Richmond derides the station’s absence of serious discourse.

“The black people in Toronto are among the most literate in the world,” he said. “I hear black people talk about issues from left to right on The Fan and CFRB. We’re not just a boogie people; infantile hip hop is not going to hold us.”

Dub poet and CBC-TV reporter Clifton Joseph holds a similar view.

“They have no relevance to the black community,” he said. “A lot of violence and education issues are concentrated within FLOW’s demographic and they have ample chance to edify. We thought this station would hold the media to account through example and advocacy. At least if they were No. 1 they could justify what they’ve done.”

Milestone’s license comes up for renewal every six years, but programming conditions weren’t built in.

“We tried very hard to fulfill expectations, but certain things are not commercially viable,” Jolly explained. “Do people not think that if we could play reggae or zydeco 24 hours a day and triple our ratings we would not do it? We did start out playing these things and it hurt us. Until (critics) walk down here with a cheque to pay our staff and light bills … the best they can do is get people’s tastes to change, then they can get what they want on radio.”

Ratings are only half the issue: fact is, some advertisers were leery of associating with a hip-hop based station.

“Our buyers are feeling a little less reluctant,” explained vice-president of sales Byron Garby, noting that FLOW has landed nearly a dozen more blue-chip advertisers in the eight months since its rebranding. “The negative stigma that came with the music reflected on the audience.”

That doesn’t surprise consultant Bray.

“Hip hop and some urban rhythmic music is most certainly associated with younger people, who have lower discretionary income, and with certain cultures, like the Caribbean community, where some suggest households don’t index in the higher income brackets,” he added, “but Toronto is the most culturally diverse city in the world and to not want to address that market is a big mistake.”

On one hand, FLOW seems to be distancing itself from its urban (read black) foundation; “We don’t talk about being an ethnic station, we’re mainstream,” said Garby. But in 2006, Milestone challenged a CRTC application from the Caribbean and African Radio Network (CARN) on the basis that it “was already meeting the listening needs of the black community.”

“Do we have a black station on the dial?” asks CARN chair Fitzroy Gordon, who is currently lobbying the feds for the co-operation of CBC Radio to get 98.7 FM on the air. (The partial licence CARN garnered includes the condition that it must play 50 per cent world beat and international music.)

Milestone CEO Denham Jolly (Nicole’s father) was the first black person in Canada to receive a radio license. FLOW’s program director, Wayne Williams, is believed to be the only black person in the country in that position on commercial radio. And the station still has a strong community mandate, consistently supporting organizations like the Jamaican Canadian Association and the Black Business and Professionals Association, as well as a minority-focused scholarship at Ryerson University. Jolly takes pride in pointing out the station’s career-boosting promotion of local black artists like Jully Black, Divine Brown and Kardinal Offishall.

But Gordon raises a question that many are now asking in light of the most recent changes at FLOW. Is it decision makers, audience, on-air personalities or music – what defines a black station?

It’s where the music “emanates from historically,” posited Canadian Idol judge Farley Flex, FLOW’s first music director. “In terms of who makes it, that’s wide open.”

He does, however, decry the “inauthentic voices” of some of the station’s current on-air personalities. On Facebook, that’s discussed in black-and-white terms, with writers debating the racial origins of the new morning show team.

For Flex, it’s more visceral. “I can’t relate to them,” he said. “They should choose people who emanate a sense of authenticity with the music they play. It’s not about grammar. It’s about the timbre of their voices. It’s about sound.”