When Salt Lake City radio station KUUU, 92.5 FM, introduced a hip hop format in February 1999, some people didn’t think it would last.
“In a market like Salt Lake City, where it’s very LDS influenced, there was this thought at the time, ‘Yeah, it’s cool that we have a hip-hop station in SLC, but there will only be a few years,'” said Curtis Booker, who worked in three different stations at the station called U92 beginning in 2001.
As Booker, who is now a breaking news reporter and producer at ABC4Utah, put it in a tweet Earlier this month “23 years in a market where the station was only supposed to last 3 years!”
The 23-year ride of U92, Utah’s only commercial hip-hop radio station, came to an end this month. Starting Monday, August 8, the channel changed its format and branding. It’s now called “92.5 The Beat” with the slogan “Utah’s #1 for Throwbacks!”.
To mark the first day of the new format, the station arranged for a South Salt Lake gas station to sell gasoline at 92 cents a gallon for 92 minutes on Aug. 8.
The rebranded station will continue to play hip-hop, but the focus will be on throwbacks — classic tracks — in hip-hop and beyond, according to Lexa “LP” Penadillo, who has been the station’s weekend presenter for a year now.
U92 was a low-rated station – with a 1.1% market share in July, according to Nielsen Audio Ratings (as listed on trade website RadioInsight), which ranked it 23rd among stations in the Salt Lake City/Ogden/Provo market placed.
U92’s impact transcended its ratings, Booker said. “Certain radio stations are more than just radio stations,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle for people in hip-hop culture and also in pop culture. … [The station] was a way to connect Utah to what was going on in other parts of the country through music.”
According to Kevin Cruise, who worked at U92 for around 14 years as program director and producer of the channel’s Summerjam concert series, the channel has had its fair share of triumphs.
“The number one hip-hop station in the United States was right here in Salt Lake City,” Cruise said. He referred to an award given in 2010 by the now-defunct radio magazine FMQB, which declared U92 the nation’s top station in the “rhythmic” (radio slang for hip-hop) genre. Cruise credited the award to the station’s hard-working employees and dedicated fan base in the state.
U92’s fanbase, Cruise said, was made up mostly of “white kids who live on the east side of the valley.” Those were the kids who bought hip-hop CDs in the early 2000s, he said.
U92 was introduced before social media and streaming services dominated the delivery of music to listeners. Back in Utah, to find out what the hottest hip-hop songs were, people had to tune in and listen.
Booker said he loves that his “countless roles” at U92 over the years have allowed him to connect with Utah hip-hop fans and some of the biggest names in the industry like Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Dr. Dre and ice cubes.
“I grew up a huge Ice Cube fan, from movies to music,” Booker said, noting that the channel veered heavily toward West Coast hip-hop. “One day in 2006 he came to the radio station. …. In my early radio days, I was struck by the stars.”
Many songs aired on U92 before reaching the top of the national charts, Cruise said. In the days before streaming, Cruise says, it was common practice for record label marketing departments to send new music to broadcasters a month or two before its “official” release, to generate advance notice.
One song that received this treatment was Rihanna’s “Rude Boy,” Cruise said. “I listened to an illegal copy of Rihanna’s album [’Rated R’] and I listened to the song and stopped and played it again,” he said. Cruise said he ripped the track off the album and started playing it on air the next day, and listeners loved it.
“Rihanna never wanted ‘Rude Boy’ to be the next single,” Cruise said. “But because the listeners blew it up here, it started to move and became the next single off that album.”
Penadillo said she grew up listening to U92 and credits the station with one of her fondest concert memories.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, and concerts weren’t always accessible to me,” she said. “I won concert tickets when I was a teenager [from U92] and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Penadillo said she went into the building — the same Broadway Media building she works in every weekend now — saw the cool posters and picked up her prize: four tickets to Logic and a new camera (which she still owns ).
Now, she said, it’s coming full circle because she’s giving out tickets to people to see their favorite artists.
The ultimate legacy of U92, Cruise said, is that it gave hip-hop and gangsta rap fans a chance to see that the ultimate legacy of U92 is that the station broadcast hip-hop and gangsta rap -Allowed fans to experience artists reminiscent of moments fans were sent to events in Mardi Gras, Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
Even today, Cruise says, he meets people who talk about growing up and listen to him on the radio.
Penadillo said she’s looking forward to the rebrand. “For radio in general, and any music industry, at some point you have to rebrand to continue to grow, learn, and meet the needs of the people who consume your products,” she said. “I don’t think radio is dying. It just needs a new spark to get people excited.”
The “Throwbacks” format will be nostalgic for some radio listeners, she said. “They want to hear the music they grew up listening to, music they remember when they had their first child or when they got married,” she said.
Penadillo noted that some listeners can’t pay for streaming service subscriptions or afford the cables to plug their smartphones into the auxiliary jack in their cars. For a few years, she said, she was among them.
She said she believes the rebrand will remind people of the channel and inspire them to start over. “The greatest thing radio does is unite communities,” she says.
Booker said the memory of the old U92 and the way it introduced hip-hop to Utah listeners will not go away.
“The U92 brand itself is heritage in this state,” Booker said. “People will always identify this 92.5 radio clock with U92.”