Walking into iHeartMedia’s Los Angeles offices can be intimidating. From the outside, the Burbank, California office space feels about as cold as any stereotypical business park in America. There are obligatory tree-lined walkways running parallel to towering granite buildings and a Morton’s The Steakhouse downstairs ready to serve $99 ribeyes to clients of any of its Fortune 500 neighbors. On appearance, this is the belly of the beast, about as corporate as Corporate gets.
Ironically, “cold” and “corporate” are two of the least applicable descriptors for Real 92.3, Los Angeles’ newest Hip Hop radio station. Real assumed the signal after Hot 92.3 failed to remain competitive. Within six months, Real dominated the rap and R&B market. Steering the ship is Doc Wynter, iHeart’s Sr. Vice President of Urban Programming. Wynter describes Real 92.3’s first year in the City Of Angels as “amazing, considering people don’t really get a chance to understand the backstory of what we went through to get the radio station on.”
Real 92.3 Year One
There’s something calming about Doc Wynter. He’s wise yet cool, seasoned yet youthful, legendary yet humble. It’s tough to guess his age on first appearance or conversation. He could say he was 30 years old or 60 years old and few would be surprised by either.
“It was absolutely nuts,” he tells HipHopDX with a chuckle. “We were actually going to launch the radio station three days before with a different name. Some legal things got in the way and we ended up having to regroup. We ended up launching Real 92.3. I’m glad. Things happen for a reason.”
“We’re sitting here on Tuesday night before we were gonna launch and we had no name,” DJ A-OH recalls.
A-OH has worked with Wynter for years and now serves as Real’s Assistant Program Director and iHeart’s national Urban Brand Coordinator. He’s helped launch several of iHeart’s urban stations nationwide, including 103.5 The Beat in Miami, where he was based before relocating to Los Angeles. He describes Wynter as the “true definition of a mentor” and wasn’t an initial fan of the name “Real.”
“Me and Doc were on the phone with Thea Mitchem who programs Power 105.1 in New York,” he says. “She came up with Real. For me, at first I wasn’t sold because I was like, ‘What is a Real?’ [Chicago’s] WGCI is known as WGCI. Its call letters. It’s WJLB in Detroit. It’s known for that. Miami is The Beat. What is a ‘Real?’ That doesn’t work. It’s not a noun. She was like, ‘No, but it describes everything. You guys are gonna play the real music. You’re gonna have the real artists, the real interviews, the real deejays, the real events!’ Two days later we launched with Real and at that point I loved it.”
“The great thing about that name is that it completely describes what it is that we do and who it is that we are,” he continues. “We’re all real people working towards one goal of having the realest radio station and the realest product in this market.”
Los Angeles is one of America’s truest melting pots and ground zero for the music and tech industries’ Southern California boom. In 2014, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s $3.2 billion sale of Beats to Apple was billed as “the biggest thing yet to happen to Silicon Beach.” Seemingly every rap record label has shifted assets to the West Coast in recent years hoping take advantage of more favorable weather and living costs. People of every shade call LA home. But while Los Angeles is the nation’s second largest radio market just behind New York City, for a decade and a half, it’s arguably underserved the Hip Hop community.
Urban contemporary station, 92.3 The Beat shuttered after being acquired by Clear Channel in 2000, leaving Power 106 as the dominant outlet for rap and R&B aficionados. Though Power’s slogan boasts “Where Hip Hop Lives,” technically it’s classified as a rhythmic station, which means it plays both urban music as well as trending pop titles. Oddly, the city that birthed The Pharcyde, N.W.A, and ScHoolboy Q, among others rocked without a dedicated urban outlet for 15 years.
“Clearly, Los Angeles was thirsting for a true, real Hip Hop station,” Wynter says. “Not a Hip Pop station but a Hip Hop station. We satiated a need that they had and they gravitated to us pretty quickly.”
Aggressive Marketing Strategy
Real 92.3 went live on February 6, 2015. Wynter and A-OH immediately rolled-out their signature “10,000 Joints In A Row” campaign which allowed for roughly a month’s worth of commercial-free radio. No shows. No jocks. All jams. The campaign had proven successful in previous launches in New York, Houston, Tampa, and Miami. It requires an extremely open-minded sales team to allow 30 days without selling advertisements, but immediately puts pressure on all competition. When looking to make a splash, it’s best to be aggressive.
“I was the architect of the ‘10,000 Joints In A Row,’ Wynter explains. “I’ve launched about 20 or so stations in the last 10 years. I always said, ‘Man, if I really really had the checkbook that I wanted, it would be 10,000 joints in a row. Then I would graduate to 10 joints in a row or $10,000. A couple times in some markets we’ve gotten 10 joints in a row or $1,000 one time a year![Laughs] In terms of this particular project, I asked [iHeartMedia] and they agreed to it.”
A-OH adds, “for a company like iHeart that makes a decent amount of money off of these radio stations, you have to have someone who believes in the vision, and they did. This was a huge launch for this company.”
Big Boy’s New Neighborhood
On February 4, 2015, two days prior to the launch of Real 92.3, TMZ reported that Power 106 legend, Big Boy (host of Big Boy’s Neighborhood) was being sued by Emmis Communications for breach of contract. According to the publication, Emmis had a right to match any offer made by a competing station interested in the radio giant. Once Big Boy accepted iHeartMedia’s offer despite a matching pitch from Power’s parent company, Emmis broke out the lawyers.
“It was a tough decision,” Big Boy tells HipHopDX. “It was a decision that I made with my wife, with my family. There’s a lot of moving parts and I had to think about every moving part of that before I made a decision to leave a place that I was happy at, that I built my career and we built something beautiful together. But it was time for me as well.”
Emmis and iHeart reached a settlement in early 2016, but the ratings takeover was already complete. Real unleashed a massive marketing push. “Big Boy Moved!” and “Real 92.3 Home Of Big Boy” billboards were erected citywide, spreading the message that the icon had found a new neighborhood. Reinforcing the significance of its acquisition, the former Pharcyde bodyguard’s moniker was boldly placed at the front of the station’s slogan. Everytime any of the radio jocks cut to commercial, the last thing heard is “Real 92.3. Home of Big Boy, Hip Hop & R&B.” It would seem that in Los Angeles, Big Boy is bigger than the genres themselves.
“When you say it that way, it sounds crazy,” Big says with sincere humility. “Also with just being in the marketplace and having your career with a brand for so long that you had to come with ‘Home Of Big Boy.’ You had to come with ‘Big Boy Moved’ because you were so automatic with saying ‘Big Boy From [Power 106].’ It’s tattooed in your brain. So you do have to bang people in the head. I’m a year in at Real and I know that there’s still people that’ll say ‘Big Boy from Power.’ It’s gonna take some time for some.”
With a commercial-free introduction and Big Boy in tow, it only took six weeks for Real 92.3 to become Los Angeles’ leading urban radio station, usurping Power 106’s 15-year reign in less than two months. Even for Wynter, who’s guided several urban outlets to the top of the league tables, including New York’s Power 105, the rapid success came as a surprise. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ When we brought down the March ratings and saw that we had already surpassed the heritage station here, it was crazy,” he says. “We said we’re gonna remain humble, but just like in the streets when you’re playing basketball, when we’re on the court, we’re gonna talk that mess.”
And talk that mess, Real did. “I remember hearing Boyz II Men’s ‘End Of The Road’ playing, then an explosion and shit,” says J9, the lone holdover from Real’s predecessor, Hot 92.3, describing the minute Real went live. The South Central, Los Angeles native hosts Saturday and Sunday nights from 7pm to midnight. His alias is a combination of his first name, Jesse, and the fact that he has only nine fingers. “Then I remember hearing ‘Yo, WE GOT THE POWER NOW!’ Right off the bat! It went on talking and talking and talking saying ‘No more kissing up to that fake-ass station!…’ To this day, drops of your favorite rappers identifying Real as LA’s realest station in one colorful way or another still litter its signal, always throwing shade at Power 106, but never outright disrespectful. Doc Wynter elaborates:
“A lot of [artists] have homes here and had never heard their songs on a radio station here. When you come in with that kind of passion and we’re saying, ‘Hey, we want you to help us to make sure that people know that we’re here. We want you to help send that message.’ When you give them that script and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube and Chris Brown and Kendrick, they said it with vigor because they meant it. This is family. That became a part of our marketing strategy and it continues today.”
“To keep it real with you, some of the stuff was uncomfortable,” Big Boy says. “But I had a conversation with Doc and you do kind of have to set yourself on fire for people to notice. If you’re in a room you’ve gotta scream to get people’s attention. I think that’s where a lot of that came from.”
The Real Culture
The Real 92.3 story isn’t about ratings. It’s about culture. In the day and a half with Real, DX interviewed the majority of its staff, perusing its hallways, posted up in its studio booths. The energy was undeniably positive. The banter was earnest. The testimonials rained like spring in Seattle. iHeartMedia secured Big Boy and Doc Wynter concocted the strategy, both necessary for market dominance. But the lynchpin to Real’s success is the culture that surrounds its gaggle of talented players.
Nina Chantele moved from iHeart’s WGCI on two days notice to join Doc’s team and now hosts afternoon drive from 3pm to 7pm daily. It took a year for DJ Carisma to decide to take Doc’s offer to move Young California over to Real 92.3 from Power 106. “I know I made the right choice,” she says confidently. “I’m happy. The streets know I made the right choice.”
Chuck Dizzle and DJ Hed—two L.A. staples who’ve championed independent Hip Hop for over a decade through their indie network, Home Grown Radio, and were given a shot to bring the brand to the big leagues—marvel at Wynter’s management style and vision.
“History is being made [here], says DJ Hed. “The thing about Doc is that he’ll change your life and then go to lunch like it’s nothing. When they brought the brand over, they saw what we had built. There wasn’t no urban station. We were the urban station. You couldn’t go to the other station and get your records played. But you could come to Chuck Dizzle’s apartment and get busy with DJ Hed and Chuck Dizzle on a Thursday night.”
“I’ve never been in a place that has a winning attitude,” says DJ Damage, night show co-host and mixshow deejay. “It’s always been a maintaining attitude.” Damage cut his radio teeth in Philadelphia working for Radio One. He was also present for the launch of REVOLT Live, which he still hosts today. “This is an amazing experience,” he continues. “It’s life changing. Sometimes I’m just riding in the car and I’m listening to A-OH. I’m hearing Dre mix. I’m like, this is us! This is us in L.A.!”
Letty Martinez co-hosts the night show with DJ Damage along with serving the rap sheet on Big Boy In The Morning. She worked at Power 106 under the name Rikki Maa prior to joining team Real. “What I see in radio is what I see in Hip Hop, too,” she explains, eyes literally filled with tears of joy. “We’ve started to lose nurturing and embracing and building talent. Sometimes in radio they make you very microwavable. You’re there to fill a roll or void until that role is no longer needed and they can just trade you out. Here, it’s ‘OK, what are your goals? Let’s see what we can lead that towards.’ That’s why it feels so good to be here amongst likeminds. This station is saying, let’s all do it together.”
“I have a vision of a culture that I’ve always wanted,” says Doc Wynter. “I was really diligent in the people that I wanted to hire. I needed them to know that when they came into this building, they needed to be willing to put their heart and soul into not only the radio station, but to accept the fact that they were going to be a part of carving out the culture that we want. I’m the boss that’s going to be in the middle of the jokes and having a beer with you, but when my eyes change and I say, ‘Do your job,’ you have to be ready to do your job. They’ve respected it and they’ve followed our lead. They are passionate about preserving the culture too because it’s unlike what they’ve had before.”
Perhaps the Real 92.3 culture is best described through the station’s youngest eyes. DJ Young One is 13-years-old and member of Real’s Mix Mob DJs. After graduating from The Scratch Academy at age 10, she’s already performed on America’s Got Talent and was selected by President Obama to deejay the 2014 Easter Egg Roll which 30,000 people attended. Her mom had a couple of chance encounters with Big Boy and pitched the teenage phenom as a dope addition to L.A.’s newest station. When asked to provide one word that describes her Real experience, Young One chose spiritual.
“That’s a tough one because I’m still learning words,” she says with a laugh. “When I come here it’s magical. My co-workers here at the station love me and I love them. This is my second family. We get along so well.”
Real 92.3’s takeover is an entertainment industry example of market disruption, execution, and cultural excellence. Doc Wynter and DJ A-OH assembled a team consisting of talent found largely outside of Los Angeles terrestrial radio and guided them to success through a bold, creative strategy, an emphasis on family pervasive enough to dominate even off-record conversations, and an iconic anchor holding down the foundation. The best part: They did it all by embracing rap and R&B only. Hip Hop wins again.