Last year, Pohlad Family Cos. purchased KNOF (95.3 FM), the former Christian radio station Praise FM, for $8 million. For months, the future of the frequency remained a mystery.
But on Monday it was revealed that Praise would become contemporary rap station Go 95.3 FM, the latest addition to the Pohlads' Go Media banner that also includes alt-rock/Twins destination Go 96.3 FM. The announcement was met with much excitement, but raises an important question: Can the rap/hip-hop format finally stick in the Twin Cities?
Count radio personality Mr. Peter Parker among the true believers.
"This is like the Ketel One of rap stations," says Parker, who serves as music director and drive-time DJ for Go 95.3. "We're more art- and culture-driven. This place needed what's happening now. I'm excited to give it to them."
Go 95.3 launched Tuesday with an uninterrupted string of 10,000 songs; Parker is the station's lone DJ, but more will be added soon.
The Twin Cities hasn't had a strictly modern rap format on the radio dial since B96, which switched to Top 40 in 2010. That left Minnesota without any full-fledged hip-hop radio stations until a pair of throwback outlets owned by corporate chains – Hot 102.5 and 105 the Vibe – emerged last year.
Go Media president Sam Elliot Gagliardi recruited Parker to help mold Go 95.3's identity, one that focuses simultaneously on a hit-driven rhythmic radio format (i.e. Drake, The Weeknd, Rihanna, Rick Ross) and an indie/local angle (national indie acts like Vince Staples, Action Bronson, and Chance the Rapper, plus Twin Cities acts like Atmosphere and Allan Kingdom).
In 2006, Parker arrived in the Twin Cities via Boston, where he had studied Rhymesayers and organized indie-rap shows in a similar DIY fashion. "I was doing the same thing they were doing in Boston, [but] I kind of branched out [to] do this terrestrial radio," he says. During his four years DJing at B96, Parker pushed Twin Cities artists into the same on-air conversation as chart-Âtopping rap hits.
Parker worked to convince upper management to allow him to showcase local artists like Slug, Muja Messiah, and St. Paul Slim on his recurring HomeGrown HeatRocks segment. That regional emphasis would become a staple of his radio career, extending from his time in Boston to stops in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland.
"That's what I really learned when I was here – I really understood how to celebrate the artist," Parker says. "I may not rap anymore, [but] I'm an artist at the core. I love picking an artist's brain – what's your process like, what are you feeling?"
Radio in the Twin Cities market has proven tumultuous in the past, and frequent format changes across the dial have made the prospect of a rap station surviving seem dicey. Hot 102.5 and 105 the Vibe were welcomed by a listener base yearning to hear rap on the radio outside of occasional blocks on KMOJ, Radio K, and the Current, but the future of the retro rap/R&B format remains uncertain. Go 95.3 hopes to stand out by tapping into what it feels fans are looking for: a blend of chart-toppers and underground artists, plus a strong representation of the diverse local scene.
"Thanks in large part to the crew over at Rhymesayers, the hip-hop scene in Minnesota is one of the best and most diverse in the country," Gagliardi says in a press release. "The only thing that is missing is a radio station that focuses on mixing the best local music with the biggest national acts and songs."
Adds CEO Joe Pohlad, "It's time to use the same modern approach and bring the modern hip-hop channel to life."
"This isn't a niche thing," Parker declares. "We're going to be competing in the marketplace."
During Parker's stints in other markets, he came to recognize Minnesota as an anomaly in terms of listenership, noting that fans of all types seem equally interested in what's going on in hip-hop, nationally and locally. Rhymesayers' annual Soundset festival influenced the approach to Go 95.3 – "40,000 kids can't be wrong, bruh," Parker points out.
It's a risky format, and past rap radio stations have opted to adhere to a playlist stacked with songs of proven popularity. Some of the artists Go 95.3 plans to keep in rotation, from Chance the Rapper to Action Bronson to Atmosphere, see very little radio play.
But listening habits have changed drastically over the past several years, and there are now numerous metrics by which to gauge an artist's popularity. Part of Parker's involvement with Go 95.3 is crafting a playlist using numbers that go beyond charts, taking into account artists' video plays, online streams, and concert draws.
"Nontraditional radio artists, they're kings to us. Vince Staples sold out the Fine Line." he notes. "Kanye and Drake have inspired this whole generation of regular-guy, artist- rappers, instead of the street characters, and you can see the reflection on guys like J. Cole and Kendrick. Everybody's kind of now copying that sound, where 10 years ago people were copying Nelly and Lil Jon. The local artists of Minnesota, whether it's P.O.S or Allan Kingdom or Muja Messiah, or any of these cats, their sound now kind of matches that. That's kind of our mantra, that's our core sound."
To hear the excitement in Parker's voice when detailing the station's concept makes it clear that it's driven by a hip-hop fan rather than an indifferent programmer. But passion for hip-hop isn't necessarily enough to sustain an audience, and ratings speak more loudly than words. While the future is unwritten for Go 95.3, the station represents the evolving relationship listeners have to music in 2016.
"There's more millennials in America than any other generation," Parker says. "So we listen to music differently, we interact with each other differently. This station and this formatting will reflect exactly what's happening today. It's gonna be a celebration, that's the best way I can say it. We're really starting a new chapter."